I got locked out of my house last night. To make a long and convoluted story short, I had switched car keys with my wife earlier in the day. Prior to leaving the house for my daughter’s 1st grade orientation, I had made a giant steaming pot of my special chili with extra jalapenos, hot banana peppers and a secret blend of special spices. I was ready to dig into a steaming bowl of atomic fire goodness. When I arrived home, I realized a critical error: My wife doesn’t keep her house keys on the same key ring as her house keys. No house keys. Stuck on the other side of the door from chili so good that you need a whole bottle of Tums for dessert. All I could do was knock on the door and hope that my wife would have mercy on my growling stomach.
Do you have the same picture of Jesus? Is he the God who’s knocking on the door of your heart and desperately wants to come inside? Growing up in the church, I was often told that Jesus was a like a gentleman: He’ll knock on the door but won’t force Himself in. But is this imagery accurate? Is this picture of “the God who knocks” even true to its Biblical source material (Revelation 3:20)?
For that answer, we have to go to Jesus’ letter to the church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22). This letter is the last of seven letters that the risen and glorified Jesus commands John to write to seven churches in Asia. At the end of each of the seven letters (including this one), believers are commanded to hear and apply the words that the Holy Spirit gives to the seven churches. So let’s stop and listen to what Christ is saying to us through the letter to Laodicea:
 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: ‘The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s creation.  “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.  For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.  I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.  Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so 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 eat with him, and he with me.  The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered 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 ESV)
Before we even get to Revelation 3:20 and the whole knocking bit, there’s another common misapplication found within the letter to the church of Laodicea. Revelation 3:15-16 is often abused as a demonstration that Christians should be “on fire for Jesus!” And if you’re not as spiritually passionate as a Spartans cheerleader, then you’re spiritually cold, disgusting to God and probably need to repent before God sends your wishy-washy rear end to Hell. I once had a youth minister that made a sort of devilish Vin diagram on a white board during youth group. He then proceeded to made all of the youth group members place on “X” on the continuum of whether their faith was hot, lukewarm or cold. He then proceeded to tell us that unless we get “on fire for Jesus,” then God would puke us out of His mouth. Man, I didn’t want to get puked! I think I fudged that I was “mildly hot” … Barely out of the puke zone on the “puke-o-meter” crudely drawn on the white board.
Here’s the correct interpretation: Six miles to the north of Laodicea, the city of Hieropolis was famous for its hot springs. Ten miles to the east of Laodicea, cold spring water brought fame to the city of Colosse. Both cities had useful and valuable sources of water. In contrast, Laodicea had no adequate water supply and had to pipe in water from hot springs six miles away. The water arrived lukewarm into the city and was commonly cooled down in jars for everyday use. There is also some evidence that the water was also mineral-laden, making the water poor tasting. In short, Laodicea’s water was lukewarm, gross and useless. While hot and cold water have potent uses, there is little everyday use for lukewarm water. Case in point: Starbucks would be out of business if they only offered lukewarm coffee and tea. Similar to the city’s water supply, God has now found the Laodicean church to be gross and detestable, which is why they would be better off as either hot or cold (Revelation 3:15).
God goes on to explain why the Laodicean church was so contemptible: The church had become a Christless. The church had become so self-confident in its personal riches and accomplishments that they didn’t comprehend that they were actually “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17). The church’s enormous material wealth had blinded them to their spiritually impoverishment. The church, which was located in a city famous for medical training and healing, had become spiritually blind to its sick and wretched condition. In response, Christ calls the church to surrender its material wealth for trustworthy and refined spiritual riches and to clothe their wretchedness in free white robes of righteousness and purity. The church in Laodicea proves there is no correlation between material prosperity and spiritual condition.
And here’s where we get to the whole knocking part of the letter. Revelation 3:20 is the verse that launched a million tracts and altar calls. The verse is the final verse in just about every evangelistic tract (don’t believe me … go check out Share Jesus Without Fear or The Four Spiritual Laws). Once the gospel presentation has been given to a non-believer, the presenter usually is trained to conclude with: “OK … Jesus is knocking on the door to your heart … Are you going to let Him in? … Or are you going to leave poor Jesus out in the cold?” Essentially, God is a gentleman and He just won’t barge into your life until you’re really ready.
Here’s the basic problem with this interpretation of Revelation 3:20: Who is the recipient (and intended listener) of this letter? The church at Laodicea … Not non-believers! Jesus is saying to His church: “HEY! I’m outside the door knocking! Let me in!” In its spiritual blindness, the church at Laodicea had divorced Christ from His church. Jesus – particularly in Luke – describes the age to come as a banquet. The concept actually originates in Isaiah 25:6-8, speaking of a time when God will prepare a banquet for His people and wipe the tears from their eyes. Jesus frequently talked about celebrating and sharing the table with his disciples in the age to come (Matthew 25:1-13; Matthew 26:29; Luke 14:1-24; Revelation 19:9). The sharing of a common meal at a common table was a demonstration of affection for one another. Now imagine having a birthday party, awards banquet or anniversary celebration without the guest of honor. It would be pretty silly. It’s equally as silly to celebrate the Messianic banquet while locking the Messiah outside. The Laodicean church has fellowship and affection for one another but not Jesus Christ. Revelation 3:20 really is a vivid image of Jesus locked outside of His house while the church is eating fried chicken and yucking it up without Him. Jesus has been locked out a building with His name on it.
Imagine a church completely disinterested in Jesus … to the point that they were ignorant of the fact they had locked Jesus outside the front door. Imagine a church so prosperous and self-sufficient that they had gone beyond needing fellowship with Christ. Imagine a church that had forgotten Jesus’ words in John 15:5: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Some of you reading this blog are now thinking: “He’s describing my church!” And that’s the point. The modern church is supposed to hear the words of this letter and to avoid this error that God finds so gross.
So it’s incredibly ironic that Christians tend to use a verse intended as a warning to a church that makes God want to puke as a personal invitation to non-believers. Please hear me correctly on this point. While I’m not questioning that the presentation of the gospel demands a response from the hearer, Revelation 3:20 is not the verse to use to achieve that goal. In terms of evangelistic use of Revelation 3:20, I’ve heard some essentially argue that it’s OK to use a Bible verse out of context as long as the intended illustration/application is theologically accurate. Regardless of how well-intentioned and theologically correct, ripping a verse out of its context to serve a different purpose is never OK. A well-intentioned misapplication of Scripture is still a misapplication. As much as Christians complain about cults taking Bible verses out of context, we should follow the same standards in our interpretations of Scripture or we lose all credibility as well.
But – for the sake of argument – is the overall illustration being made even accurate? Is Jesus really a gentleman? Is he gently knocking on the door waiting to come in? I think this fluffy imagery takes the sharp edges off of God’s relentless pursuit of mankind’s affections. God went to the extreme to reconcile us back to Him through sending His Son to the cross. Is He no longer willing to go to extremes to save souls? Hogwash. When most adults and teens share their testimonies with me, it often begins with an account of how God turned their lives completely upside-down by allowing death, cancer, suffering, struggle, depression, sorrow or debilitating illness to come into their lives. Their struggles led them to the point whether they discovered their need for a Savior. God is willing to allow worldly ruin to come to you so that you uncover the spiritual riches in Christ. You can’t just stick the metaphorical “no soliciting” and “no trespassing” signs on the doorpost of your life and tell Jesus to go away. The entire earth is His (and everything in it … including us), and God cannot trespass on what rightfully belongs to Him. Go ask Moses, Balaam, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jonah or Paul whether God was ever-so gently knocking on the door to their heart.
There’s a reason why very few testimonies begin with people feeling sorry for poor meek and mild Jesus standing out on the cold and rapping his bruised knuckles against your door. The whole “why won’t you let Him come in?” tactic is manipulative and is not the gospel. Jesus is not some sad and lonely homeless person that just needs a good friend to share a cup of coffee with. Jesus is the exalted and risen Savior seated at the right hand of the Father in glory. Jesus desires our worship – not our pity. God is the One taking pity on us despite our wretched, unlovable and blind condition.
Let’s stick with presenting Jesus how He describes Himself in Scripture. In Luke 15:3-7, Jesus describes Himself as the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to rescue one lost sheep. When the one lost sheep is found, the shepherd picks it up on his shoulders and carries it home. The shepherd, his friends and his neighbors all rejoice that the lost sheep has been found. In Luke 15:8-10, Jesus describes Himself as the woman who lights a lamp and searches every nook and cranny and cobweb in her house for her lost coin. When the coin is found, she calls her friends and neighbors around to rejoice about the coin’s rescue. God’s heart is to actively seek out those who are in desperate need Him. God does not passively sit back and allow the lost to remain forgotten or perish. The most sturdy door that you could ever up could not keep Him from seeking you out.
I am thankful for a God that relentlessly pursues every one of His flock.