The words of Jesus in Revelation 3:20 are often employed as a call to salvation for individual unbelievers: “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.” However, many commentators have rightly pointed out that such a reading is a misinterpretation given the context of the passage (remember, never read a bible verse!). Recently, I heard a speaker highlight the way this passage has been commonly misinterpreted, but ironically, he then offered Revelation 3:20 as a biblical text having to do with prayer, teaching that this is an invitation from Jesus to open ourselves to Him in prayer. Unfortunately, this is another misinterpretation.
So let’s take a closer look at this oft-quoted passage to make sense of its meaning.
The Background of Revelation
Revelation has its own distinctive genre, combining several different genres: epistle (1:4), prophecy (1:3), and apocalyptic (1:1). An epistle is a letter, written by a particular author, to a particular audience, under particular circumstances. Knowledge of each will guide the interpretive process. As prophetic literature, it foretells literal future events but must be anchored to that which would be comprehensible to the original audience. Finally, apocalyptic literature employs much symbolism and figurative imagery. Yes, the combination of all three genres into a single genre provides an interpretive challenge.
John authored the book of Revelation (1:1,4,9; 22:8) during his exile to the island of Patmos, in approximately AD 95. His purpose in writing is to encourage the Church to overcome the trials they are facing under the reign of Domitian. He does this by informing them of the coming confrontation between God and Satan, where ultimately God triumphs, and in this truth, they are to find the strength to continue in faithfulness.
Revelation 1:19 suggests an outline for the book according to historical progression:
- Revelation 1 = “the things which you have seen” (past events)
- Revelation 2–3 = “the things which are” (present events)
- Revelation 4–22 = “the things which shall take place” (future events)
Revelation 3:14–22 falls under the section of “the things which are,” or present events, and is addressed to a very specific audience, “the church in Laodicea” (v. 14). History tells us Laodicea was a wealthy city and was widely known as a banking center, medical establishment, and textile giant. However, its major weakness was its lack of an adequate water system.
The Meaning of Revelation 3:14–22
Jesus is straightforward as He addresses the Laodicean church: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot...you are lukewarm” (v. 15–16). The appropriate response from Jesus to the church’s situation is to “spit” them out. In v. 17, Jesus moves into greater detail, acknowledging their material wealth while highlighting their spiritual poverty—“you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked”—in v. 17. His counsel in v. 18 addresses the three areas of Laodicean pride: the “gold” of their financial wealth, the “white clothes” of their textile industry, and the eye “salve” of their medical establishment.
After His harsh “rebuke” (v. 19), Jesus assures the church of His love for them and calls them to repentance. He illustrates His desire for restored fellowship with the church with an analogy: “I stand at the door and knock.” If they hear His voice and invite Him in (“open the door”), Jesus will once again fellowship with the Laodicean believers (“I will come in and eat with him, and he with me”). In short, Jesus calls the Laodicean church to repentance and into restored fellowship with Him.
Application for the Church Today
Now we’re in a position to apply these verses properly. Let me suggest just one application for today’s church. The church in America finds itself in a similar situation to the Laodicean church. We are rich, yet complacent. Indeed, many Christians testify to the absence of Christ’s presence in our churches. So what should we do? An important first step is to follow Jesus’ command to the Laodiceans: repent. Our churches need to acknowledge the pervasive spiritual poverty within the American church and then repent. In doing so, we too may experience restored fellowship with Jesus.