Not-So-Straightforward Scripture: Revelation 3:20

Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.” Revelation 3:20

During this past month, the students in my church’s youth group have been learning how to share their own testimonies. We have had different adult leaders each week volunteer to describe their walks with the Lord so that students can hear their story, their struggles, and Jesus’ triumph. And within our small groups, the students themselves have worked through a few different tools in order help them see how God has been working in their past in order to form them into the person they are in the present.

These types of exercises are a feature of many youth groups. If you grew up attending church as a teenager, you likely have done similar. They’re profitable. They help train young disciples in both evangelism and personal reflection. But they also contain a sort-of shared language that is unusual to outside ears: We learn how to “walk with the Lord.” We share “testimonies.” And we speak of moments in our past in which we’ve asked “Jesus into our hearts.”

But, if we were to stop and really consider the language that we use during these testimony times, we would realize something. Walking with God is a common biblical idiom that means learning to orient your life around the ways of the Lord. That phrase is found all over scripture. And the word “testimony” is used in several places in the New Testament as well as the action of sharing a testimony (2 Timothy 1:8, Revelation 12:11, John 15:27).  However, that last phrase? Not so much.

Asking “Jesus into our hearts” isn’t something the Bible ever tells us to do.

Does mean that we should purge this phrase from our vocabulary entirely? Not necessarily. Even though those words aren’t found in the Bible, the basic idea behind them isn’t altogether unbiblical. But it can be confusing if the figure of speech isn’t explained well. It can also be deceptive if things like repentance aren’t included in that explanation.  

But nevertheless, where did this phrase come from then if not the Bible?

It seems like this phrase finds its origins in two places: an evangelistic aid created in the 20th century commonly referred to as the Sinners Prayer,[1] and a misreading of Revelation 3:20.

In this post, we will focus on that second bit.

Revelation 3:20 and Asking Jesus into our Hearts

Again, if you’ve grown up in the church, you know the imagery. Jesus is outside the door to your heart. He’s knocking. He’s waiting for you to make the decision to open the door to let him into your life. Once you do, you will enjoy the benefit of Jesus’ salvation. But not letting him in is a rejection of God and, consequently, you will face judgment.  

Sermons that utilize this imagery often cite Revelation 3:20 as the basis of their presentation. But is this really what Revelation 3:20 is saying? Is this text about individual salvation at all? Let’s consider this verse within the context of John’s letter.

Here is Revelation 3:14-22:

“And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”

It is important to notice three things about this section of scripture right off the bat.

First, there is no mention of a heart anywhere. Secondly, we aren’t the ones asking Jesus to do something. Instead, it is Jesus who is at the door outside of the Laodicean’s church gathering asking to be let in. And third, Jesus is promising renewed fellowship not salvation in general.

It seems that the Laodicean church had succumbed to the false idea that material prosperity was a sign of spiritual prosperity. In fact, the author is alluding the words of Hosea in Revelation 3:17 (see Hosea 12:8) in which God’s prophet called out the people of Israel for boasting in their wealth brought about by dishonest and idolatrous practices. But Hosea reminded the nation of Israel that God found them to be “worthless” instead of rich (12:11). And likewise, the book of Revelation declares that God was currently judging the church of Laodicea as ones who were “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked,” not truly prosperous (3:17). They had bought into the scheme of their communities’ ungodly economics. Materialism had taken them captive. And their participation within this idolatrous system was tarnishing their witness, making it “lukewarm” rather than hot or cold.

Yet judgement in this context isn’t exactly negative. As verse 19 reads, God reproves and disciplines those he loves. His desire for the Laodiceans isn’t that they remain in discipline, but instead that they repent and re-welcome Jesus into their fellowship.

Reading Familiar Scripture

Those of us who have grown up in the church have a shared vocabulary. We are familiar with phrases like “my walk with God” or “I asked Jesus into my heart.” We understand what they mean.

But, and despite this, when it comes to reading scripture, we shouldn’t allow our familiarity of something to hinder our ability to read a text. Just because we’ve heard sermons or stories that sound similar to a figure of speech the Bible uses, we shouldn’t assume that the Bible is making the same point as our modern figures of speech. It’s best to read the Bible on its own terms.

This is also why it isn’t always helpful to merely memorize one passage of scripture without also familiarizing ourselves with its surrounding context. It’s always good to click that little read full chapter prompt in our YouVersion Bible app devotionals or to scan over the entire page when listening to a pastor preach on a single verse. Because, and when we do, we might realize that Matthew’s words about when “two or three are gathered” isn’t about worship but conflict mediation (Matthew 18:20). We might also come to understand that the prophet Jeremiah’s “…I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11) isn’t a blanket statement for all people everywhere. And many of the Israelites that Jeremiah spoke these words to likely never saw any sort of fruition of this promise during their earthly existence.

And, of course, we’d also learn that Revelation 3:20 isn’t about personal salvation or inviting Jesus into our hearts.

However, if we were to read it on its own terms, we’d discover that it does contain a very important lesson for church communities today: Churches need to be very aware of the dangers of materialism lest they accidently kick Jesus himself out of their fellowship.

[1] The sinner’s prayer, or that incantation-like prayer that many are trained to lead prospective Christian through so that they might attain salvation, is not found in scripture. In fact, it seems to be a very recent evangelistic tool used by Evangelical revivalists. See: “The Sinner’s Prayer: A Historical and Theological Analysis, Paul Harrison Chitwood. (Ph. D. Diss, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2001). 

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