27 March, 2016

Revelation 3:20—“Behold, I stand at the door and knock …”

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20).

Appeal is made to this text by Arminians and those who hold to the free offer/well-meant offer: the notion that the Almighty earnestly desires, wills, wishes and wants to save everybody, including the reprobate wicked.


Rev. Angus Stewart

[Source: Covenant Reformed News, Volume IX, Issues 2124 (JanApr 2004)]

A reader asks for an explanation of Revelation 3:20—“Behold, I stand at the door and knock ...”—a text often cited in support of free will and resistible grace. This is part of God’s word to the church of Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22) which we shall examine first.

Christ describes the Laodiceans as neither cold nor hot but lukewarm (vv. 15-16). At first reading, we might think that this church could have been better (“hot”) and could have been worse (“cold”). However, the Lord says, “I would thou wert cold or hot” (v. 15). Thus it is worse to be lukewarm than to be cold. How could this be if it is simply speaking of a church’s “spiritual temperature?” The church here is described not simply with regard to its temperature but with regard to its temperature as a drink. A hot cup of tea or coffee is refreshing as is a cold glass of lemonade or milk, but a swig of lukewarm tea or milk is repulsive. We spit it out. Christ said of the Laodiceans, “because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (v. 16).

But what did He find so disgusting and offensive about the Laodiceans? “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing” (v. 17). Laodicea was a market town at the confluence of two rivers and at the intersection of three important roads. It was the site of a civil court and a famous medical school, and was “noted for its banking and for its manufacture of clothing from the local black wool” (Leon Morris). Whether because of the church’s (presumed) material wealth or the flattering preaching of its minister(s) or something else, the church wrongly evaluated her spiritual condition. She thought she was “rich” and therefore had “need of nothing” (v. 17). Christ found her pride highly repulsive and threatened to spew her out of his mouth as one would a lukewarm drink.

He tells the church her real condition: “thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (v. 17). As “the wretched one” she is in need of mercy (“miserable”) for she lacks spiritual wealth (“poor”), understanding (“blind”) and clothing (“naked”). Of course, this describes all Christians according to their old sinful nature, but the Laodiceans did not see and confess this. Instead, the church said that she was “rich ... and had need of nothing” and thus she “[knew] not” her misery (v. 17).

Throughout the NT age, congregations in various lands are well characterised by the strengths and weaknesses of the seven churches in, what is now, western Turkey (Rev. 2-3). Does a church faithfully, fearlessly and consistently teach the total depravity of man including the utter wretchedness of the believer according to his old man (Rom. 7:24)? Do the members truly believe in total depravity so that they confess it in their prayers, worship and evangelism? Or do the members think that they are good people, certainly no worse than, and probably a lot better than, their neighbours? “We are very comfortable and God must be pleased with us.” But they are utter strangers to heartfelt confession of their wicked thoughts and nature. This is a lukewarm, “Laodicean” church, the sort of church Christ spews out of His mouth.

There are at least three errors in the popular misconception. (1) Christ, it is said, knocks at the door of the sinner’s heart, earnestly desiring admission—the error of the free offer, that God wants to save everybody. (2) Christ knocks on everybody’s heart yearning for admission trying all He can to get the sinner to open to him—resistible grace condemned in the third/fourth heads of the Canons of Dordt. (3) Thus the salvation of the sinner rests ultimately on his free will—that proud, old Pelagian heresy.

All this betrays a false conception of the sinner. The apostle declares, “There is none that seeketh after God” (Rom. 3:11) and “the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be” (8:7), so how can a sinner embrace Christ without almighty, sovereign grace? And how could a minister with any understanding of the Scriptures ever preach free will? Does he not know the depravity of the human heart, his own included? Christ has just been describing the fallen nature of man. He is spiritually “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17)—five adjectives, heaped up one after another, each one a hammer blow to any good in man without sovereign grace!

Along with this goes a lie about Christ Himself. He is presented as a poor beggar begging admission into the heart of the sinner. And if the sinner won’t open to Him, He walks away sad without fellowship and shelter. Thus Arminianism makes a begging bowl out of the Son of God. But verse 17 describes fallen man as the beggar (“poor”) who is “naked,” “wretched” and “miserable”—and not the glorious Son of God! He is “the Amen, the faithful and true witness” (v. 14). Christ’s witness is that fallen man is a beggar (v. 17). This is the faithful witness preachers must give. Teaching some native ability in man is an unfaithful and false witness, and God will punish for it! Christ’s witness of Himself is that He is “the beginning of the creation of God” (v. 14)—the source and author of the entire universe (John 1:1; Col. 1:15-17)—and the One seated with His Father on His throne (v. 22). He is not a beggar but the great Creator and King!

Christ is the One possessing and exercising “the key of David ... that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth” (Rev. 3:7). He is the priest-king (Ps. 110:1, 4) who makes His people “willing in the day of [His] power” (v. 3). He is the One who opens hearts so that His elect attend to the preaching of the Word (Acts 16:14). Thus the implied calling in Revelation 3:20 to “hear” Christ’s voice and to “open the door” teaches us man’s duty and not man’s natural ability.

Having now explained the context and refuted the Arminian interpretation, we now come to the positive interpretation of Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”

One Calvinistic view of this text identifies the “door” as the church door and, hence, sees the text as a call to church reformation. The Laodicean church, so the argument goes, was well-nigh apostate. Christ is outside that church institute and He is calling His faithful to leave and form a new congregation. This interpretation is certainly in keeping with the analogy of faith (i.e. the overall biblical teaching) and does not slide into Arminianism. Also it is held by many solid Reformed men.

Two arguments, however, may be made against it. First, neither the text nor the context provide any information about forming a new, faithful congregation in Laodicea. Second, Christ was not finished with that church. Verse 16 does not state that it was His fixed and unchangeable purpose to vomit it forth, for the word “spue” (“I will spue thee out of my mouth” [v. 16]) is not a future indicative. Rather, Christ is “about to” spue the church out. Then He counsels it (v. 18) and calls it to repent (v. 19). Thus Christ delivers a serious warning and (by implication) teaches that in the way of repentance they will be spared. This conclusion is confirmed in verse 19 where Christ speaks of the sonship of the Laodiceans and His “love” for them: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.” Hebrews 12:5-8 explains that “sons” and not “bastards” are chastened. Clearly, Christ was not finished with the Laodicean church, for in it were His beloved sons.

So what then does the text mean? In verse 18, Christ addresses the church collectively, but verse 20 is a call to the members individually. Not only must the church repent of her pride—thinking that she had “need of nothing” (v. 17)—but each member is called upon to repent and believe.

Francis Turretin (1623-1687) put it very well:

When it is said that ‘Christ stands at the door and knocks’ (Rev. 3:20), it cannot be inferred that sufficient grace is granted to all. (1) He is there treating of those already called who were in the church, not of those about to be called. (2) ... standing and knocking not only designates internal notions, but is properly referred to external exhortations [v. 19] ... Therefore he knocks in different ways at the hearts of the elect and reprobate; at the former externally and internally by the word and by the Spirit so that, by knocking imperatively by the word, he may also open them operatively by the Spirit (as was the case with the heart of Lydia). At the latter, he only knocks externally by the word that they may understand their duty, the promised benefit, the heinousness of their sin and the justice of punishment if they neglect the voice of God ... He does not cease justly to admonish man of his duty and to convict the rebellious of obstinacy (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, p. 515).

Thus, in the way of repentance, God’s beloved sons (v. 19) enjoy covenant fellowship with Christ as they dine with Him as His friends (v. 20).

It only remains to tidy up some loose ends and flesh out further the positive interpretation of Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”

First, the “door” at which Christ stands and knocks is the heart and life of each of the members of the church at Laodicea. One could even extend this to include unbelievers who make no confession of faith in Christ, provided, of course, that Christ’s “knocking” is rightly understood.

Second, the “knocking” is the faithful proclamation of the Word of God. By this means, Jesus Christ Himself summonses men. God is holy and you are polluted before Him. There is a rap at your door to leave your carnal mindedness and vain delusions of righteousness (v. 17) to embrace Jesus Christ. Hell looms as a bottomless cavern that is never full. This is another loud and insistent bang on the door. The atoning death of Christ is the only way of salvation for guilty sinners. Another knock! Clearly and unmistakably, men are called and summoned by the preaching of the gospel to repentance and faith—the only way of enjoying everlasting life in Jesus Christ.

But does this not mean that Christ wants to save everybody? Is He not at the door of every man’s heart earnestly desiring to come in? No, the text says that He “stands” and knocks, not that He is on His knees and knocks. It is true that He does desire to come in to some men. Christ identifies them thus: “as many as I love;” not, “as many as I do not love.” They are His sons, whom He chastens (v. 19); not “bastards” (Heb. 12:8). Love is that which desires fellowship and communion. Christ does not love but hates the reprobate (Rom. 9:13). Thus He does not yearn to “sup” or dine (v. 20) with them.

While all under faithful preaching hear the external knocking, only in the elect is it accompanied by the irresistible power of the Holy Spirit. “Many are called [externally], but few are chosen” and thus few receive the internal call (Matt. 22:14), for election and (effectual) calling are inseparably joined (Rom. 8:30). Many only hear the knocking with their physical ears, while others also hear the knocking with God-given spiritual ears (Matt. 13:14-16). To the former the preaching (Christ’s knocking) is a “savour of death unto death,” but to His elect it is a “savour of life unto life” (II Cor. 2:16).

Third, Christ’s coming in to dine with men who “open” the door to Him does not mean that all men have the power to do this. Jesus declared, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44). God opens the hearts of His people (Acts 16:14) or “draws” them so that they “come” to Christ (John 6:44) willingly (Ps. 110:3). The elect are empowered by the knocking of faithful preaching to open their hearts and lives to Christ so that we consciously enjoy covenant communion with him. In the Spirit and through His Word, we sit together and dine together, fellowshipping with Him in the riches of His gospel.



Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965)


[Source: Behold, He Cometh! An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (RFPA, 2000), pp. 147–148]

There is certainly no need to change the manner and object of the address here, as if Jesus were now standing at the door of the heart of the sinner. We are undoubtedly well aware as to how this interpretation is quite popular. Jesus is presented here as standing at the door of the sinner’s heart, begging that the sinner may open the door, to let Jesus in. But this interpretation of the matter finds no support in the text.

Evidently Jesus is standing not at the door of the heart, but at the door of the church in Laodicea. That church had become unfaithful. That church had cast Him out. He was now standing outside. Within, however, there are those whom He loves and whom He would rebuke and chasten, that they may come to repentance and wake up to a new zeal. Therefore He addresses them from without. He admonishes them to wake up. And He promises them who would hear His voice and let Him in that He will sup with them. Once more, the church as a whole seems hopelessly lost. It is miserable beyond redemption. He will spue her out of His mouth. But His own beloved, the elect of God, must not perish with the rest. Hence, He calls them. And He promises them that they shall have communion with Him, the communion of the covenant. That communion they now miss. For in their present condition they cannot exercise conscious communion with their Lord. But if they repent and wake up to a new zeal, they shall again be receptive for all the blessings of His grace. And wake up the remnant according to the election of grace surely will, when the Lord applies by His powerful grace His Word of admonition to their hearts. The supper is symbol of friendly communion. When therefore the Lord promises that He will sup with His people, He assures them of that most intimate communion of friendship which is the central, the most essential idea of the covenant. He will sup with them! In Him they will sup with the Father and the Son through the Spirit. They shall be restored to that intimate communion with the Triune God which is life. From all this, however, it is quite apparent that the church as a whole is lost, and that only the individual faithful, the individual people of God within the church, shall be saved.



[Source: The Protestant Reformed Churches in America (1947), pp. 347–348]

5.   Why, then, does the Bible say that Christ stands at the door of a man’s heart and knocks? Surely, this presupposes that He is willing to come in, if man but opens the door of his heart?
I confess that I do not know of any text that speaks of Christ’s knocking at the door of man’s heart.

6.   But does not Scripture teach this in Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock”?
Let me call your attention to the fact that the text does not speak of the door of man’s heart, as if the door were locked from the inside and must be opened by man, if Christ is to come in. It must be admitted that the text does not define what door is meant. This, then, must be determined from the context if possible. Neither is this difficult, for according to the context Christ is addressing, not any individual, but the Church of Laodicea. It stands to reason, therefore, that the door of this church is meant in verse 20. Christ represents Himself as standing outside of that church, for it is a thoroughly apostate church. Christ is about to spew her out of His mouth. Yet even in that Church of Laodicea there is a remnant according to the election of grace, be it ever so small. They must come out and Christ will recognize them as the church, for He promises that He will sup with them. And thus the text must be read: Behold, I stand at the door of the church and knock!



More to come! (DV)

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