During my high school and college years, one of the favorite songs in our youth revival meetings was this 1958 hit by Ralph Carmichael:
The Savior is waiting to enter your heart,
Why don’t you let Him come in?
There’s nothing in this world to keep you apart,
What is your answer to Him?
Time after time He has waited before,
And now He is waiting again,
To see if you’re willing to open the door:
O how He wants to come in.
Like many evangelicals today, I grew up with this picture, both literally and mentally, of Jesus standing before a door and knocking, the door being symbolic of an unbeliever’s heart. Where did this idea come from? Everyone agrees it is from the Bible, from Revelation 3:20. So let us look at the text.
Chapters 2–3 of the book of Revelation consist of seven “letters” to “the seven churches that are in Asia” (Rev. 1:4). These churches were real churches in real cities with real people who were going through real difficulties, particularly false teachings and persecutions. To be sure, their situations sound similar to those of churches throughout this age. But they were not merely symbolic of churches in different epochs, since they actually existed in the first century.
Each letter follows a certain pattern: (1) the author; (2) a diagnosis of the church’s condition; (3) a word of comfort and commands stemming from the diagnosis; (4) a command to hear and obey; and (5) a promise of blessing to those who “conquer.”
“I Will Vomit You Out!”
The church in Laodicea is the recipient of one of these letters, and the letter they receive is not very complimentary—a letter of severe rebuke, in fact. Christ’s warning is about more than just being lukewarm in their commitment to him, because being cold—not only being hot—is also acceptable. As he rebuked or commended the other six churches for their witness, Jesus also wants them to be “faithful and true witnesses” to the idolatrous city, zealous to proclaim his name.
Like those today who are deceived by prosperity gospel false teachers, the Laodiceans must have assumed that their material wealth indicated God’s blessing and approval. Their complacency and dependence on their riches hearken back to Israel’s condition before the Babylonian exile: “Ephraim has said, ‘Ah, but I am rich; I have found wealth for myself; in all my labors they cannot find in me iniquity or sin’” (Hosea 12:8).
Because of this loss of fervor for his name and idolatrous worship of riches, when they were actually “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked,” they were in real danger of being vomited—not just spit—out of their Savior’s mouth.
In saying that he would spit them out if they remained lukewarm, Jesus is warning them of sure judgment if they remained unrepentant and disobedient. All of the churches in Revelation 2–3 were warned in this way. The Bible is full of warnings to believers that they must remain faithful and zealous for God and persevere in the faith, and in this way he preserves those whom he has chosen (Heb. 3:12, 10:26–31; Phil. 2:12; Heb. 6:4–6).
“Be Zealous and Repent!”
So Jesus commands them to come to him and seek his mercy by “buying” everything they need from him (Isa. 55:1–3) because they are poor and have nothing. They are to be “zealous” witnesses of Christ and “repent” of their pride and sin, because he “reproves and disciplines” the people he “loves” (Rev. 3:19; Heb. 12:6). Jesus then follows up on his command to be zealous for him, repent, and turn back to him, with an invitation to all in the Laodicean church for close communion with him.
Christ’s invitation to the church to return to him has a sense of its present urgency. The picture of the Judge “standing at the door” (Jas. 5:9), and of Jesus being “near, at the very gates” (Matt. 24:33) both have a sense of urgency and being at hand. When the master comes and knocks, the servants are to open the door immediately (Luke 12:36).
“I Will Sup with You”
Revelation 3:20 alludes to several other biblical texts. It is certain that John uses Jesus’ words as he spoke of himself as the Good Shepherd in John 10, where he said, “The sheep hear his voice . . . and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice“ (vv. 3, 4). Those among the Laodicean church, as well, who know the voice of the Great Shepherd will hurry when he comes calling them to open the door so he may enter in.
Jesus also likens faithful believers to “men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks” (Luke 12:36; see also Mark 12:34). When he finds the servants ready, the master himself will “have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them” in a feast (Luke 12:37).
G. K. Beale likens this picture of Jesus knocking at the door of the church in Laodicea to the husband knocking on the door of the bedchamber, entreating his wife to open the door to her beloved1. The parallelism to Song of Songs 5:2 is striking: “the voice of my beloved, he knocks on the door. Open to me, my beloved” (Cantique des Cantinques, by Andre Feuillet). In the same way, Christ the Bridegroom is entreating the church, his Bride, to resume her full communion with him.
This communion is signified in having supper together, with Christ serving them their food and drink while they recline at the table, reminiscent of the Last Supper. Here, John’s use of the verb deipneo (“eat,” “sup,” “dine”) alludes to the Holy Communion instituted by Christ in Luke 22:20 and quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:20, 21, and 25.
The Promise to Conquerors
In all these seven letters, those who repent, heed Christ’s warnings, and continue to hold fast to that which has been revealed in the gospel obtain Jesus’ promise that they will “conquer” or “overcome” (Rev. 3:21). The one who “conquers” (nikao) describes Jesus conquering the world of sin and death (John 16:33; Rev. 5:5, 17:14).
But it is used as well of Christians who persevere in the faith, those who overcome sin, suffering, persecution, and even death on account of their faith (1 John 2:13, 14, 4:4, 5:4, 5). The book of Revelation is mostly about encouraging Christians in the first century who were going through severe persecution. Christ promises them that after they have conquered they will be granted permission to “eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7), with their conquering Lamb serving them at the table of feasting (Rev 19:6–9).
The Call to Those Who have Ears to Hear
But are not unbelievers present even in the churches? To be sure, the church, the covenant people of God, is made up of true believers and professing believers. Jesus was addressing local churches that have largely become disobedient and apathetic. This was also how God addressed his people Israel when they were disobedient. And even when they were punished, God still called Israel his people, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hos. 4:6).
In the same way, in Revelation 3:20, he was addressing the covenant community, the church in Laodicea, who were unrepentant and disobedient, whether they were believers or not. The call to repent was made to both believers and unbelievers within the church—not to pagans outside the church—those who have “ears to hear” (Rev. 3:22).
Revelation 3:20 then is Jesus’ call to the Laodicean church to repent and renew their fellowship with him. This letter is written to their congregation to remind them that they are to renew their relationship with their Lord and Savor Jesus Christ or face judgment. This is how we, two thousand years on this side of the cross, are to heed his call to the church in Laodicea: to be zealous and repent as well.
Is Jesus the Savior waiting and waiting for us to let him in of our own accord? This picture of Jesus the King of the universe as a helpless Savior begging a sinner to let him in is a total absurdity. This is the consequence of making the human will sovereign over God’s sovereign will. On account of man’s inability and unwillingness to save himself, this poor Savior would really be waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting, since no one would open the door to let him in of their own will alone (John 8:47, 10:27; Rom. 3:11, 8:7; 1 Cor. 2:14).
Is the Savior waiting to enter your heart? No, the Bible nowhere says that a person will be saved by letting Jesus “come into my heart.” Regeneration is never described in Scripture as Jesus entering a person’s heart, but as God softening a hard heart (Ezek. 36:26) or the Lord opening the heart of a sinner (Acts 16:14). Thanks be to God for his great salvation!
1. New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Book of Revelation, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, p. 308
Rev. Malabuyo is an associate pastor of Trinity URC in Walnut Creek, CA, and serves as a missionary to the Philippines.