Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. – Revelation 3:20, ESV
Out of Context Meaning:
Probably most Christians would be familiar with this image of Jesus knocking on a door. As an image, it has inspired the artwork of several famous painters through the centuries, the most famous of these paintings being “The Light of the World” by Holman Hunt.
If the reader is also a Christian familiar with the Evangelical traditions, they would also be most familiar with the meaning given by evangelists – an invitation for an individual who is not a Christian to accept the claims of the gospel, as it has been presented by the evangelist in question, and it usually involves reciting certain renditions of the ‘Sinner’s Prayer.’ The door which Jesus is knocking on is the heart, the center of the emotions and will, of those hearing the message, and the invitation is to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.
While the risk in reading the passage this way is not necessarily in the message being said (because part of being a disciple includes that first step of acceptance), there is risk in missing what is not being said – which is what the original meaning of the verse is actually all about. As we will see below, this message was not written to individual unbelievers per say, but it was actually part of a very sobering message to a church community, those who should be considered ‘believers.’ And as you will see, it is a message that strikes very close to home for many of our churches today.
The Original Context:
This verse is found in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation – that very book of which so much misinterpretation and abuse by overly-zealous “prophecy experts” has caused many of the rest of us to keep our distance from its quite confusing and vivid imagery. And it is true that Revelation is a very confusing book, especially if what we focus on is trying to decipher what all of the individual images mean. However, as I was explaining to my church when I preached on the book of Revelation, these images are like panes in a stained glass, or like smudges on a window. I explained that we could either look at the window (which is sometimes easier when there are smudges on it – something I am learning about with small children), or we could look through the window at the messages that this very dramatic and visual document is trying to communicate. Just for an example of a few of the themes: worship is very evident throughout the book, and even several of the most powerful songs that we sing from church come from one of these worship passages.
In thinking about messages that Revelation is trying to communicate, there are also several. However, for space sake, we’ll only mention two. For one, it is an encouragement for persecuted Christians that in the end, God wins, and so we are to keep strong in our faith, no matter what Satan throws at us. But also coupled with that (which it hints at in this first section, where our verse comes from, but is also present throughout the book), there is a warning and a choice, even for Christians: we must choose which side we stand on. Do we stand for Jesus, or against him?
Part of the problem is that the genre of Revelation is one that we are not as familiar with nowadays. We commonly call the book of Revelation ‘prophecy’, which it is in a way (as it does call itself a prophecy in 1:3 and 22:18), but not necessarily in the way we think it is. That might have something to do with a general misunderstanding of what prophecy even entails. We assume that prophecy is all about foretelling the future, like what a medium or fortune teller does, but this is not entirely accurate. Prophecy does involve some foretelling elements, but the purpose of prophecy is actually to communicate the will of God to his people, and to remind them of what God has said before.
As for the prophets, if you look at how the prophets functioned in ancient Israel, they were actually more Reformers: those called by God to bring his people back to himself whenever they are at risk of forgetting the covenant, whether through idolatry and injustice, or despair at their pitiable state. While I realize my view may contradict that of others, I don’t believe this has changed much since then. God still raises up ‘prophets’ to remind the people of his Truth whenever the people of God go astray. In fact, this year is the 500th anniversary of one of the more famous ‘prophetic challenges’ in Western Christian history, when, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of his church in Wittenberg, Germany. These theses were arguments against the abuses of the church hierarchy and false beliefs being preached by the religious establishment. Of course, just as with any other prophet, Martin Luther was not received well by the very establishment he was challenging. But what he did is a good example from post-biblical church history of how biblical prophecy functioned.
But the book of Revelation is not quite ‘prophecy’ as a genre. If you read the prophets, they sound more like sermons (which they were – the verb ‘to prophesy’ meant ‘to call out’ or ‘to preach’), and while there was the occasional metaphor or vision used, these weren’t the focus of the prophetic message. The book of Revelation, on the other hand (along with other texts, like the latter half of the Book of Daniel, for instance), is one long, symbolic vision. There are other texts written around the same period of time that were also written that way, which were called ‘apocalypses’, much like Revelation. In fact, even the name ‘Revelation’ means ‘apocalypse’. It means the unveiling of something that was previously hidden. The apocalypse genre was most commonly written as visions of the hidden, spiritual world, with underlying, secret messages (hence why they were called ‘apocalypses’). I guess the closest that we have to the ‘apocalypse’ genre today would be fables (such as Orwell’s Animal Farm or Golding’s Lord of the Flies), or certain Science Fiction novels, where the main message is hidden behind a story in a world totally unlike our own.
There are also political interests and life situations of the interpreters that often determine their understanding of the texts, which may or may not have parallels with the original intent of the original author. One could say, though, that this obsession by some misguided “experts” has resulted in significant profits for certain publishing companies (though no actual prophets were present). For instance, the Left Behind series, which is a popular Evangelical Christian fiction series, topped even the New York Times bestseller list several times, and Hal Lindsay’s early attempt at prediction, The Late Great Planet Earth (which is what the Left Behind series is loosely based on), has shaped the theological thinking and imagination of an entire generation of popular Evangelical thinking. Perhaps part of what made Lindsay’s book so popular was his attempt at explaining what each of the symbols meant in modern terms (the locusts being helicopters, for instance, or the nations invading Israel being the USSR and Communist China).
Certain denominations, notably those who follow a ‘dispensational’ theology (meaning that God interacted with his creation in different ways at different points in history, an idea made popular by Jon Darby, along with his doctrine of the ‘Rapture’, which he developed in the 1800’s), as well as certain pseudo-Christian cult groups (most notably the Jehovah Witnesses) have become known for their date-setting, and supposedly using the Book of Revelation as a basis for their failed predictions. Of course, these were not the first to attempt date-setting. Joachim of Fiore had his own system for predicting the return of Jesus in the 12th Century, which he also based supposedly on the book of Revelation, and as we could see in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, there were also those of a similar bent even then (2 Thess. 2:1-2) – even though the book of Revelation wasn’t even written then.
Unfortunately, this has also occasionally resulted in tragedy, much like what happened to David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in 1993. Partly because of a struggle for power between two factions within the group, and their strong insistence that they were the end-time army for God (including weapons and everything), something they supposedly took from texts from the book of Revelation, the Branch Davidians, who were holed up in a commune in Waco Texas, were all killed in an armed stand-off with the American military and both federal and Texas state law enforcement agencies.
This, unfortunately, has resulted in many of the rest of us staying clear from the book of Revelation, despite the rich message that it has for the church; and it has also resulted in a lower level of trust in the wider culture toward the truth claims of Christianity. This is because often, these ‘prophecy experts’ insist that their proposed dates and schemas are explicitly found in the pages of the Bible, and when the passage of time proves their predictions wrong, doubt is then placed on the Bible by those who once trusted these predictions. And this is made even more-so as opposing voices (who deny Christianity) then ridicule for Christians for being so gullible.
The abuse of the book of Revelation by several of its commentators actually caused G.K. Chesterton to say, “St. John saw many strange things in his Revelation, but nothing as strange as his interpreters.”
But our verse, Revelation 3:20, is part of a somewhat clearer section of the book. In this early section of the book, John (the writer) has a vision of Jesus, and Jesus tells him to write letters to a series of seven actual churches (all located in what is now western Turkey). Specifically, the verse is part of the letter to the final church in the series, the church in the city Laodicea.
Here is the full letter to Laodicea:
“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.
Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.
To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” – Revelation 3:14-22, NIV
What I find sobering about this, the final letter to the churches, is that this church is the one church where Jesus does not find anything positive to say about it. While there are a lot of rather harsh words contained in this letter (I certainly wouldn’t want them written to my church), we’ll specifically be looking at how they relate to the verse in question.
In thinking of the background of how the rest of the images come into play (especially as it relates to our Western church), Laodicea was a very rich and prosperous city. It had a lucrative textile industry, with its black wool being prized throughout the empire; it housed a medical school and exported ointments and special eye salve; and it had an important central bank. Likely, the Christians mirrored their culture in that they were very rich and successful (which is why Jesus, ironically, uses the strengths of their city, which they would boast in, as items they desperately need from him). They were self-sufficient, and had need for nothing. One could also assume, given both the image of the lukewarm water (which was also what Laodicea as a city was known for – disgusting, lukewarm water that they had to pipe in through aqueducts) and that of Jesus standing outside the church and knocking, that they may have even felt that they had no need of Jesus – or, at least that Jesus was being forgotten and left out for the sake of other agendas.
Jesus is writing to this church and asking them to open the door so that he could come in. What does that tell you about the Laodicean church? For me, it says at least two things, both of which are very sobering. First, it tells me that despite Jesus’ promises elsewhere that he would be with his people whenever they are gathered (such as Matthew 18:20; 28:20; Revelation 2:1), while this could have been hyperbole (a common rhetorical device used even today in the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean worlds), it seems, at least to my eyes, that Jesus is saying he is not present within the church of Laodicea. Second, because the door is closed to him, it doesn’t seem to be a matter of Jesus abandoning his church per say, but that the congregation has closed the door to Jesus, whether that means that he has been forgotten for the sake of other ‘programs’ or priorities, or because his agenda (which could be found in his teaching and miracles in the gospels, but also through the rest of Scripture) is considered too uncomfortable or too extreme for the ‘refined sensitivities of respectable society’, or might be seen as ‘too liberal’ or ‘too closed-minded’. In fact, because the door seems to be locked to him, one could even ask if the people even truly would welcome him if he did decide to show up one day. Truth be told, that is a very serious indictment for any church that bears the name ‘Christian’.
How Can We Really Apply This Verse:
In knocking at the door, Jesus was showing that he has not given up on his church, but that he wants to return to being the Lord of his church. He is calling this straying church to change its ways and return to true worship. The church of Laodicea was a church filled with nominal Christians, who might have given lip service to worship, but whose hearts were far from Jesus. They were self-satisfied, and likely their ‘faith in Jesus’ had very little effect on how they lived their lives or in their priorities as a church. And yet, Jesus knocks, seeking even one person in the church who would recognize their need for him and the need for change, who recognize that church is not just about personal comfort or going through the motions or chasing the latest fad.
Jesus doesn’t turn his back on this church. He waits and knocks. If they would repent, he would enter their midst and take his rightful place in their church – as its Lord and Master, as well as its focus. It’s quite sad how often our focus as the Church can be taken off of Him, and often for petty things. In the closing years of the first millennium, it was in the question of supremacy between the popes of Rome and Constantinople, a split that affects the church so much that, to this day, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians will not share Communion together; in the fifteenth century, it was the lavish parties in Rome and expensive building projects, along with the “fundraising projects” called indulgences that led up to the Reformation; in the years following the Reformation, it was the warfare between Christians, as each state decided which “brand” of Christianity to adopt. And even today, so many distractions abound: equating Christian faith with the loyalty to a certain political party (despite how unchristian that party happens to be), debates over music styles or dress codes, focussing on programs (or on food that must accompany said programs), a dumbing down of message content, to be more palatable to what is considered ‘sociably acceptable for respectable society’ (which often means the avoidance of the harder topics in order to draw a crowd and not to offend people by our message). Even our comforts and conveniences that we take for granted can serve as distractions from Jesus, just as the affluence of Laodicea likely served the same for the church that received this rebuke.
Alternatively, if we were to read the image of Jesus standing outside the church and knocking as a sign of their self-sufficiency (and thus, feeling that they don’t need him), this also speaks very much against our North American image of the self-made man (or woman), where we are expected to be individualistic and not rely on anybody for anything. While yes, there is a degree where we learn in our fallen world not to trust others to take care of us, and a certain degree of pride that many of us have on achieving ‘success’ in life.
Sometimes, our churches can be just like this as well. I realize that I cannot speak for every church, but I do remember one church I attended. It was a small church that wanted to think of itself as a large church, and would enroll in every ‘church growth’ program fad that came around. The pastor once confided in me that he was beginning to feel like a failure because he wasn’t seeing the massive growth that these programs were promising, despite the several years of work that he had put into it. Being a pastor myself now, I can understand this need to feel important and successful, and in the church world, success often means that the church congregation is growing noticeably in numbers and the pastor’s name is becoming well-known as a local (or in some cases national, or even international) celebrity. But one needs to ask: where is Jesus in this quest to appear ‘successful’ (which, ironically, is a prerequisite in many pastor job ads online)? As much as I would like to say that Jesus is behind much of our celebrity worship as a culture, even in the church culture, I can’t really honestly say that. If anything, it is yet one more sign that Jesus (whose teaching often offended the crowds) has been forgotten for the sake of growing a ‘successful’ church.
And yet, even with all of this, just as we see that Jesus has not turned his back on the church in Laodicea, there is hope that he also has not turned his back on us. Instead, his actions in this image show that he wants to have a close relationship with them (and us). After all, eating together in many cultures is a picture speaking of a close relationship, which means that there is hope. I mean, if Jesus is giving this call to a church situation like that found in Laodicea, despite its sorry spiritual state, because of his love for them, and if Jesus loves each of the churches that received letters in Revelation, despite their issues and struggles, don’t you think he would also love the church of today as well? By writing this letter, it shows us that there is hope for even the church of Laodicea to recover, if they heed his call. Through these letters, even in this last one, Jesus loves his people too much to keep things as just ‘business as always’, and we need to remember that.
But what would it look like for us to open the door and let him into our midst? This is a question that I am currently struggling with. However, here are some practical thoughts. In looking at the churches in Europe, those who took an active role in sheltering and providing for refugees are now seeing revival spreading through their midst, as these refugees (many of whom became Christian because of the help they received from these churches as well as from various Christian organizations) bring a new sense of life and excitement about Jesus into their midst, while many of their neighboring churches (who chose not to reach out to the refugees) are not sharing in this revival. This is actually a scriptural principle, where care for refugees is something that God looks on with favor (Lev. 19:9-10, 33-34; Deut. 10:18-19; Isaiah 58:3-12; Ezek. 16:49; Matt. 25:25-36; Luke 10:29-37). In looking closer at the Matthew passage, Jesus even says, ‘that which you did to the least of these, you also did for me.” So by welcoming into our midst those who might be different from ourselves, it is one way that we could also be welcoming Jesus into our midst.
Second, maybe instead of focusing on our individual salvation or just the salvation of our souls (which is important too, but sadly limited if this is all that we focus on), we start asking what it would look like for all of us to live out the values of the Kingdom of God together. It might mean actually loving one another and helping one another if there is a need. It might mean re-thinking much of how we do church or what we mean when we call ourselves ‘Christian’. It might even mean cooperation between churches.
Third, which once again I can’t stress this enough: I would think that the best way to welcome him in as our focus would mean actually opening the Bible and studying it – not just the few random proof-texted verses that go along with our own thinking, but working to actually understand what it is truly saying to us in our day, which means studying it in context, and even studying both Old and New Testaments, which is basically what this series has been about. While some may claim that the Old Testament is not for today (which was actually also argued in the 2nd and 3rd centuries by a guy named Marcion, who also was one of the first to argue that salvation is only for the soul, by the way), what I’ve found is that by having an understanding of the Old Testament, it actually enriches the understanding of the New. The New Testament is, in many ways, based on the Old Testament (especially Revelation, which has the most Old Testament references of any New Testament book), and the Scriptures that the early Christians were encouraged to read and study (Acts 17:11; Rom. 15:4; 1 Tim. 4:15; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21) were the Old Testament.
Yes, to an extent, his actual presence can be a scary thing. Jesus might challenge some of our previously held beliefs and even some of what we think about when we think ‘church’ or ‘being Christian’. Our people may become offended by what he would have to say about us, especially if it is a rebuke like he gave to the church of Laodicea. Ironically, the ones who were the most offended by Jesus (and who also came in the most conflict with him) during his ministry were actually the religious. It was the religious establishment (those who were most offended by him) who actually pushed for his death. And yet, to be truly called Christian, wouldn’t that mean that we are those who want to be taught by him?
I’ll leave that with you to ponder.