In the lead-up to the Truth Matters conference in October, we will be focusing our attention on the sufficiency, authority, and clarity of Scripture. Of our previous blog series, none better embodies that emphasis than Frequently Abused Verses. The following entry from that series originally appeared on October 5, 2015. -ed.
Is it really “abuse” if a verse is used inaccurately to make an important point?
The short answer is, “Yes.” We should not be so careless and cavalier with Scripture, or think so highly of ourselves, that we can impose new meaning—even if it is valid—on the inerrant, sufficient Word of God. If the point is worth making, it’s worth making from the appropriate text.
Which brings us to the verse before us today: Revelation 3:20 is certainly one of the most familiar and frequently-quoted verses in the church. It’s a particular favorite for evangelists, camp preachers, and anyone else who wants to lend some urgency to the call of God on a sinner’s life
“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” (Revelation 3:20). In the hands of many preachers and evangelists, the verse paints an attractive, compelling picture of Christ’s pursuit of the sinner, and highlights the need for an immediate response.
But is that an accurate interpretation of the verse—is Christ truly at the doorstep of each sinner’s heart, pleading to come in? And if not, on whose door is the Lord knocking? Let’s tackle those issues one at a time.
Is Christ Knocking?
We use a lot of clichés as shorthand in the church, and not all of them are helpful or even accurate. For example, many Christians talk about “asking Jesus into your heart.” And while that phrase might have some vaguely biblical underpinnings, it doesn’t shed any light on what it truly means to repent and believe. If anything, it muddles the sinner’s responsibility in salvation; it dulls some of the sharp edges of the gospel.
In the same way, the common misapplication of Revelation 3:20 has done more harm than good. Yes, the mental image of Christ knocking on the door of a sinner’s heart is moving. But it’s not accurate—it’s a caricature at best, and it comes at a high theological cost.
Put simply, Christ isn’t pleading on every sinner’s spiritual doorstep. Jesus doesn’t need to beg or badger anyone into the kingdom of heaven (John 10:27-28). Salvation isn’t merely a matter of the Lord getting a foot inside the door of your heart—it’s a work of total transformation (Ezekiel 36:26). And most important of all, salvation is not triggered by an act of the sinner’s will—it is God’s intervening work that rescues us from the just penalty of our sin (Ephesians 2:4-9).
In fact, the abuse of Revelation 3:20 often goes hand-in-hand with talk of “asking Jesus into your heart” and other man-centered versions of the gospel message. One way to protect yourself and your evangelism from such skewed perspectives is to closely adhere to biblical language when you’re explaining the gospel.
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:1-9, emphasis added)
Train yourself to think about the gospel in those terms, and you’ll insulate yourself from the influence of man-centered theology, and the temptation to reinterpret God’s Word.
The door in Revelation 3:20 was not a vague spiritual metaphor—it was a specific door. And while Christ wasn’t physically knocking, His words were directed to a specific group of people, and should not be watered down or applied carelessly to just anyone.
The context of Revelation 3:20 is Christ’s letter to the church at Laodicea—also known as the lukewarm church. In Revelation 3:14-22, the Lord condemns them for their spiritual self-deception and apathy. Christ says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot” (v. 15). They did not openly reject Christ, but neither did they exhibit any spiritual zeal or authentic love for God or His Word. They professed to know Christ, but He had no place in their assembly.
And lost in their self-deception, they risked being spat out of God’s mouth altogether (v. 16). Their only hope was to truly repent (v. 19).
In the context of Revelation 3, then, Christ was standing at the door of the Laodicean church, eager to re-enter the congregation through the genuine repentance and salvation of its members. In his commentary on this passage, John MacArthur explains the imagery of verse 20:
Though this verse has been used in countless tracts and evangelistic messages to depict Christ’s knocking on the door of the sinner’s heart, it is broader than that. The door on which Christ is knocking is not the door to a single human heart, but to the Laodicean church. Christ was outside this apostate church and wanted to come in—something that could only happen if the people repented.
The invitation is, first of all, a personal one, since salvation is individual. But He is knocking on the door of the church, calling the many to saving faith, so that He may enter the church. If one person (anyone) opened the door by repentance and faith, Christ would enter that church through that individual. The picture of Christ outside the Laodicean church seeking entrance strongly implies that, unlike Sardis, there were no believers there at all.
Christ’s offer to dine with the repentant church speaks of fellowship, communion, and intimacy. Sharing a meal in ancient times symbolized the union of people in loving fellowship. Believers will dine with Christ at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9), and in the millennial kingdom (Luke 22:16, 29-30). Dine is from deipneō, which refers to the evening meal, the last meal of the day. The Lord Jesus Christ urged them to repent and have fellowship with Him before the night of judgment fell and it was too late forever.  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Revelation 1-11 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999) 140.
What does repentance look like? Far from merely opening the door of your heart to Christ, true repentance reflects the conviction of your sin and the deep desire for righteousness. Here’s how D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones defined this important doctrine:
Repentance means that you realize that you are a guilty, vile sinner in the presence of God, that you deserve the wrath and punishment of God, that you are hell-bound. It means that you begin to realize that this thing called sin is in you, that you long to get rid of it, and that you turn your back on it in every shape and form. You renounce the world whatever the cost, the world in its mind and outlook as well as its practice, and you deny yourself, and take up the cross and go after Christ.  D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) 2:248.
The Urgent Call of the Gospel
When it comes to applying and interpreting Scripture, the details matter; good intentions are not enough. We bring the authority of Scripture to bear in sinners’ lives only inasmuch as we handle it accurately. We have a responsibility to the Lord, to each other, and to the unsaved world to proclaim the excellence, inerrancy, and sufficiency of the Bible. And we can’t fulfill that responsibility if we’re assigning our own meaning to God’s immutable truth.
With that in mind, you may still want to inject some urgency into the call to repent the next time you share the gospel with friends or family. Rather than falling back on a misappropriation of Christ’s words in Revelation, why not make a biblically sound argument? Here are a couple passages that convey the sinner’s urgent spiritual needs.
Isaiah preached to the apostate nation of Israel pleading with them to return to the Lord:
Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. (Isaiah 55:6-7)
And in Acts 17 Paul ended his gospel appeal to a crowd of philosophers with these words:
Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. (Acts 17:30-31)
These and other passages (cf. Acts 2:37-40; Hebrews 4:6-7) can be rightly used to urge unbelievers or those lost in self-deception to respond to the gospel by repenting and turning to Christ. What good is our evangelistic zeal if we aren’t biblically sound?