One of the most famous passages in the Bible, especially among those who support a libertarian free will, is found within Revelation:
“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” [Rev 3:20; KJV]
Much of its popularity came from a famous painting by Warner Sallman (see left), featuring Christ at a door knocking to enter. Many people have rightly noted that an outside handle is visibly missing on the door. Not a mistake by the artist, but rather an idea that Christ can only enter if we let Him in (at conversion), and hence be with Him. This motif has been repeated in other artistic depictions of this passage, so much so that perhaps many people coming across this passage simply accept it at face value as meaning such. They use this passage as a general call to everyone to allow Christ to enter. Many times I’ve noticed that this passage is cited almost entirely in isolation, without any consideration of what came before or after it.
I would like to take a moment to examine this passage. Let’s begin by looking at the entire section of this chapter in context, with verse 20 highlighted in bold:
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this:
‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me. He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.'” [Revelation 3:14-22; NASB]
Under the dictation of the Lord, the apostle John is writing Christ’s warnings and encouragements to the seven churches. Previously in the same chapter, He had spoken to the church in Sardis (v. 1-6), and then to Philadelphia (v. 7-13). This particular section is addressed to “the church in Laodicea” (v. 14). As He did with the other churches, he warns them of His omniscience regarding their sins: “I know your deeds” (v. 15). Having seen their deeds, He finds them lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, and so He will spit them out of His mouth (v. 15-16).
The nature of this lukewarm faith is illustrated in the following passages, showing that their theology is entirely man-centered. They believe themselves to have “become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” when in fact they are “wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (v. 17). This latter point is entirely spiritual in context: though materially wealthy, they are lacking in the treasures of heaven (Matt 6:19-21); though before men they are adorned in fine garments, before God they are naked with all sins exposed (Gen 3:6-8); though fully able to see around them, they are spiritually blind (John 9:39-41). Christ’s solution is entirely sourced to Him, and the spiritual remedies are as follows: He tells them to seek from Him “gold refined by fire” to be rich; “white garments” so that the shame of their nakedness may not be revealed; and “eye salve” so that they may anoint their eyes and see (v. 18).
Speaking from this same context, Christ says: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent” (v. 19). It is a command for the church to repent and return to the spiritual life. After this request, He now states the famous verse, which is an explanation of why they should repent: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me” (v. 20). Christ is coming – a common theme throughout Revelation, and partially the reason Revelation was written. Believers are expected to be ready, just as the servants had to be ready for their master’s return (Matt 24:43-44; Luke 12:37). Our Lord adds an additional promise: “He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (v. 21). Finally, the oft-repeated command found throughout the first few chapters of Revelation: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (v. 22). This again establishes that the audience being spoken to are the churches of God.
Seen in context, what do all these passage mean?
- Christ is speaking to the Christians who have yet to be judged. Unlike the popular belief that this is a general statement to everyone, this is a statement to believers and supposed believers. At least two verses illustrate specifically that this is addressed to the church (verses 14 and 22).
- The immediate concern is for those who are “lukewarm,” claiming to be for God yet clinging to the ways of man.
- He commands them to be zealous repent, for He is coming. Those who are attentive and ready will open the door when He knocks, and thus He will enter and eat with them (v. 20), and they will be glorified with Him and the Father (v. 21). Hence on the return of Christ, they will find themselves a Day of Eternal Life, as opposed to a Day of Judgment for those who do not repent and are not ready when He knocks.
To summarize: Revelation 3:20 is a warning to Christians to be ready for the arrival of Christ.