What Revelation 3:20 Really Means (I stand at the door and knock)

Jeffery Curtis Poor
8 min readOct 29, 2019


Originally published at https://rethinknow.org on October 29, 2019.

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. Revelation 3:20

Whenever I see this verse I can’t help but think of this picture…

Besides being really cheesy and Jesus being pasty white, I don’t have a ton of problems with the picture theologically… I have plenty of other reasons to take issue with picture, but I’m not going to go there.

The issue I take is with the most common application of this verse. We often this of this picture as Jesus standing outside an unbelievers house (heart) asking to come in. In other words, it’s a passage that’s addressed to the unbeliever.

The problem is this verse isn’t addressed to the unbeliever. It’s addressed to Christians. More specifically it’s addressed to a church.

What often happens is we pull one verse out of the Bible and ignore the context of the verses surrounding it. This leads us to an inaccurate picture of what’s happening. Come to think of it, we do that in a lot of areas in our culture…

Before we can look at what “I stand at the door and knock” means we need to look at the context of this verse and who it was originally written too.

The Context

In the first few chapters of Revelation John (the author) records a message from God to seven churches. These are real churches that existed in John’s day. That’s not to say there’s no value in these passages for us today. What you will see when you read about these seven churches is that they look very similar to churches today. But to fully understand the message we must first understand the original audience.

The famous picture of Jesus standing at the door knocking (Revelation 3:20) comes in the middle of one of these addresses. Revelation 3:14–22 addresses the church of Laodicea. Alone 3:20 appears to point to Jesus knocking at the door of an unbeliever asking to come in. But in context, we see its part of a larger address to the church of Laodicea.

Since it’s part of a larger address we can see that Revelation 3:20 is not about Jesus wanting to come into the life of an unbeliever. Rather it is about how we as believers can become lukewarm (another misunderstood verse in this same passage) and feel we are self-sufficient. In doing so we push Jesus out and leave Him standing on the outside of the door. That’s the picture this verse is painting, Jesus standing outside a Christian’s heart asking to come in. More on the implications of this in a minute.

First, we need to look at the original audience.

For more on reading the Bible in context check out: No. The Bible Isn’t Written TO You

The Church Of Laodicea

The church of Laodicea was positioned in a heavily resourced area. They lived comfortable lives. As a result, they became prideful in their ability to provide for themselves. So much so that when an earthquake destroyed their city in 60 AD they refused help from the Roman Empire insisting to pay for the rebuild themselves.

This attitude of self-sufficiency spilled over into the church. They thought they were good to go, they had it all together. In a harsh, spurred from love, reminder God points out their weakness and tells them they’ve become useless. That’s what the whole lukewarm water comment is about (Revelation 3:16). Hot and cold water are good and useful, but lukewarm water is good for nothing. More I want to say about that, but that’ll have to wait for another article.

That’s the church, they are stuck in neutral and now they have a choice. Will they let go of their self-sufficient ways and admit they have a dire need for Jesus? Or will they leave him on the outside so they can maintain the status quo?

This image of Jesus standing at the door knocking is actually a really interesting picture. It’s a picture that would be familiar to anyone in the culture. It’s an image of someone wanting to come in for dinner. It would have been considered rude and inhospitable to not let them in. In other words, this image it’s kinda a punch in the gut to the Laodicean church. The church, God’s people, have left Jesus standing outside. Culturally that’s a big deal.

The question they need to wrestle with now is will they let him in?

Big Ideas in Revelation 3:20

Permission is Sacred

Have you wondered why Jesus doesn’t just force his way in? Why he doesn’t just make us do what he wants? What’s the point of just standing at the door and knocking? He was the power, and the right, to kick it in. Why does the creator of the universe choose to wait for our response?

We can’t miss this… Permission is sacred.

Jesus chooses this path because he desires intimacy with his creation. A relationship of mutual choosing. Because where there’s not permission there cannot be love. Love cannot be forced, it has to be granted permission. Permission is sacred.

We know this, don’t we? In a culture where the powerful and elite think they can take what they want, we understand the depth of permission. We understand the violation of no permission. Isn’t it refreshing that the creator of the universe, the one who could take anything he wants, rather gives his creation the power of permission?

Shane Wood in his book Between Two Trees says it this way: “Even if we treat it {permission} profanely. Even if we overlook the power it possesses. The mystery it contains. The divinity it emanates. To give permission to another is a moment charged with intimacy, a gesture suffused with intensity. For permission is an invitation to closeness. Permission reroutes the boundaries of our world to include another, to welcome another, to incorporate another into what is by design our own.

Jesus stands at your door and knocks because your permission is sacred. He will not force his way in because he wants you to choose him. He wants to be in a relationship with you, not force you to follow him. He could do that, but he chooses a different route because permission is sacred.

Permission is a central theme in Revelation 3:20.

It’s An Invitation

Revelation 3:20 is also an invitation, but not the kind we are thinking. It’s not Jesus inviting us into something, although that is found in plenty of other places in the Bible. This is an invitation that we extend to God. Remember permission is sacred. God will not force his way in, we have to invite him in.

The question should arise, these are Christians, haven’t they already invited him in? We’ll deal with that in the next point. What I want to focus on now is the significance of the invitation.

Craig Keener in his commentary on Revelation says, “Lest anyone misunderstand the tone and motivation of Jesus’ rebuke, he makes clear that its purpose is love. Indeed, not only does Jesus not reject them, but he wants to have dinner with them (Revelation 3:20), a familiar image for intimacy in antiquity; inviting Jesus in for a meal was the least sort of hospitality one would expect of even an acquaintance. Can a Christian who calls Jesus Lord do anything less?”

Jesus is inviting the Laodicean Christians to realize how their own self-sufficiency has shut Him out of their lives. He’s offering them, in essence, a second chance. An opportunity to once again invite him in.

As Keener says, this is the least amount of hospitality we can show someone, even a stranger. But we aren’t talking about a stranger here. We are talking about a people that call themselves Christians that have left their Savior outside. He’s knocking to come in, but they refuse the invitation.

Let’s circle back around to that question, who wouldn’t let Jesus in?

Inviting Jesus In Changes Everything

Most of us probably look at this picture in Revelation 3:20 and think why wouldn’t someone let Jesus in? Especially a Christian, they are on the same team so why is Jesus on the outside?

The picture of inviting Jesus evoked images of hospitality to the original audience. And if that was the extent of this verse, of course, nobody would leave Jesus outside knocking. But what this verse is getting is much deeper than just sharing a meal. Inviting Jesus in is allowing him to do work in our lives. It means that we are giving him permission to transform us to be more like him.

This transformative process isn’t always easy and often is painful. And that’s why many people leave Jesus on the outside. Because this process of our transformation from death (our old life) to life (where Jesus is leading us) is painful.

For the church in Laodicea, they didn’t want to enter into this process. They liked their old ways. They didn’t want Jesus coming in and changing things. That would be painful, it would mean they would have to admit their wrongs and let Jesus transform them. So they kept the door shut.

Inviting Jesus in is giving him permission to dig around in our life and find dead parts, the bad parts, the ugly parts, and redeem them. While on one hand that sounds like good news (and it is) it’s also painful. So many avoid it.

What It Means For Us Today

The message for us today is similar to the church in Laodicea. I think we’ve bought into the same lie they did. We think we have everything we need. And when we are faced with the fact that we don’t we think if we just get more money, a better president, that law passed, or whatever then we will be alright. But the reality is we are fooling ourselves. We are hopeless on our own. We need Jesus. Desperately.

I think the picture for us is the same. Jesus is standing at our “door” knocking. He won’t bust in, he’s waiting for an invitation. Remember, permission is sacred. We have a choice. Let Jesus in and face the process transformation. Or keep him at arms length, play it safe, but never experience the life he wants for you.

Jesus wants to come in. He wants that relationship with you. And he wants to transform the dead parts of your life. It will be painful, but it’s done in love and for your good. So, what are you going to do? Will you let him in?

Originally published at https://rethinknow.org on October 29, 2019.



Jeffery Curtis Poor

Husband. Father. Pastor. Writer. Trying to be more like Jesus each day. For more articles check out: rethinknow.org