Part A, Part B, Part C
A-1: Table of Contents and Introduction
A-2: Who Are God’s People?
A-3: The Book of Life
A-4: “Second Chance” for Unbelievers?
A-5: Death and Hell
A-6: Salvation by Works?
A-7: The Role of Grace
A-3: The Book of Life
As noted earlier, towards the end of the Book of Daniel, the angel Gabriel speaks about Earth’s final “time of trouble” and tells Daniel that “at that time your people shall be delivered.” Here at last were the words Daniel was waiting for. The Jewish people had been living as captives in the foreign lands of Babylon and Persia, and Daniel was anticipating their deliverance from worldly oppression and re-entrance into their “promised land”.
At the time Daniel’s understanding of what “deliverance” meant was confined probably to the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel – combined with the hope (premature) that their deliverer would be none other than the long-awaited Messiah. But the reality, as we understand from the New Testament (and from the Old Testament, especially the prophet Isaiah), is somewhat different.
The “promised land” is the Kingdom of God on Earth (with Israel perhaps being the location of its government headquarters) and its citizens will be the followers of Christ, drawn from nations all over the earth. And the Messiah (who came in the person of Jesus Christ) has already brought spiritual salvation to the human race – salvation from the oppression and captivity of sin, both in this life and the next.
As for the physical salvation, that is also on the agenda, not just for Israel, but for the whole of planet Earth – that glorious day when it shall be freed from the hands of evil rulers. But for the time being, we will have to wait for the (soon-coming) return of Christ in magnificent heavenly power (spoken of in many places in the Sacred Book, but especially in Revelation 19).
Daniel’s viewpoint has a parallel in modern Christianity: just as Daniel was limited in his perspective about the make-up of his people, might it not also be true for us nowadays? As explained in the previous post, maybe our perspective about who are “God’s people” is much smaller than what God knows it should be.
To clarify then what is meant by “your people”, the angel throws in the qualification that they are “everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.”
And what does it mean, this mysterious “book”? Well for one thing, the “book” is an important sign of God’s interest in human society. We human beings do not live in a void. Our actions in this life are not empty of meaning, purpose, or consequence. We may feel that way during our earthly lives when it is more difficult in this realm to perceive the reality of God’s presence. But He is there, intimately concerned with us, and He has a “book”.
Books were rare in ancient times. Amongst the Israelites they could serve as a register of the names of members of the different tribes, or in the New Testament Age as a roll of the members of various churches. Similarly, God’s “book” lists the names of those who are truly His people.
Furthermore, if God has a “book”, that should indicate to us that in some way records are being kept, and our actions in this life will not be forgotten. In fact, we get a hint of this later in Revelation 20. John the apostle observes that “the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.” (20:12)
These “books” are connected to another book, the “Book of Life”, which contains the names of those who are spared from the “second death” Judgment and from the “lake of fire”. This “Book of Life” would be the same “book” that Gabriel states has the names of the “sons of your people” who will be “delivered” at the end of Earth’s final “time of trouble”. (Daniel 12:2)
But, as John the apostle observed, there were other “books”, or records, being kept that obviously had a great bearing on who would be written in the “Book of Life”. Nowadays we have many ways of keeping records much more efficient than writing things down in books. But in those days that was all they knew, so that was the illustration God used in His revelations to Daniel and John. Yet we can imagine that in God’s domain, the keeping of records, however it is done, is incredibly more advanced and thorough than even the most up-to-date methods we use nowadays.
To have one’s name written in the “Book of Life” is a great re-assurance – to know that one is a member of God’s Kingdom. Jesus exhorted His disciples not to rejoice “that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20) Christ has lovingly extended to us the guarantee that we can never be separated from God, which we may appropriate, even during our earthly existence. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.” (John 1:12)
In place of a vague hope, we have certainty, which saves us from having to worry about death and separation from God in some dreary existence in the Afterlife – a region in the celestial realm that is often referred to as Sheol in the Old Testament and Death and Hades in the New Testament. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish [be lost/ruined] but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)
This “guarantee” of our citizenship in the Kingdom is very clear in certain statements that Jesus made: “the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.” (John 6:37) That is, it would be preposterous to think that Jesus would throw out one of His children. The original Greek text uses a double negative expression (ou me) for the sake of emphasis.
The same expression is repeated in the Book of Revelation when Jesus explains to John that “he who overcomes shall not be hurt of the second death… and I will not blot out his name from the book of life.” (2:11, 3:5) The word “not” used in these Scriptures is the same double-negative Greek expression used in John 6:37 and could have been translated with the same emphatic “by no means” phrase.
But there does seem to be some confusion about this passage in the Revelation Book; and it is sometimes thought to mean that a person who has come to Christ could lose his or her Book-of-Life clearance and even go on to experience the Second Death and get sent to the Lake of Fire.
But Christ’s intention here was the exact opposite; He was assuring believers – those who have come to Him – that their Salvation is accomplished and can never be taken away. And of course, this view is also consistent with what Jesus said during His earthly life (as in John 6:37).
The phrase “he who overcomes” does not mean that believers must attain a certain level of perfection – sinless saints who never do anything wrong. If that were the case, no one at all would get written in the Book of Life, and Jesus might as well have said in John 6:37, “By all means the one who comes to Me will be cast out.” But He didn’t say that; He said, “The one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.”
So then, what does the Lord mean here by the “he who overcomes” phrase? The apostle John explains it this way: “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5)
Anyone who comes to Christ, “who believes that Jesus is the Son of God,” has placed the world and what it has to offer into the background; he recognizes that there is a higher realm beyond this earthly one – one that is under the authority of Christ and far more valuable than this present world. And because he has reached out for it by coming to Christ, he has “overcome the world”. And those who have made this step, Christ promises that they cannot lose that victory, that salvation; they cannot be kicked out of the Kingdom, much less sent to a “second death” in Hell or the Lake of Fire.
The following excerpt from a commentary on the Book of Revelation about the saints who must struggle through the Great Tribulation in the End of the Age seems to express nicely what is meant here by the term “overcome”.
There are many mansions in the Father’s house, many degrees in glory, and many ranks of saints as well as of angels. There is such a thing as being saved with loss, such a thing as missing our crowns even though we may get to heaven. There are also many “virgins,” real virgins, who go and buy, and come at length with deficiencies repaired, but are in readiness too late to be admitted to the place and honor of the queen.
…But still, they are approved and justified before God, which is in itself a great, high, and glorious attainment. To stand before God approved and blameless from the midst of a condemned world-a world given over to the powers of perdition by reason of its unbelief and sins-a world which has become the theater of all the consummated wickedness of the ages-a world in which it is death to wear any badge or adhere to any profession contrary to the mark of the antichrist, is an achievement of grace and faithfulness in which there may well be mighty exultation. (adapted from The Apocalypse: Lectures on the Book of Revelation by Joseph A. Seiss, originally published in three volumes, 1870-1844)
The messages to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 do make a distinction among believers. To the church in Smyrna, Christ says, “He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.” (2:11) To be worthy of not being “hurt by the second death” is, without doubt, a great reward, and it certainly meant something to these people who were facing serious persecution and facing the possibility of experiencing soon their first death. But the Lord also said to them, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (2:10) That is, to be faithful until the end of one’s life, whether it be by martyrdom or by continued obedience to the will of God, this would result in being granted a “crown of life”.
A similar exhortation was given to the church in Thyatira: “and he who overcomes, and keeps My works until the end, to him I will give power over the nations.” (2:26) To overcome by coming to the Lord is a great thing, but to keep God’s “works to the end” is even greater.
And to the church in Sardis, Christ says that those “who have not defiled their garments… shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy.” (2:26)
To “walk” with Christ implies a degree of intimacy and usefulness that other believers are not able to partake of. There are several parables and references in the Gospels about this sort of organization in the Heavenly Realm. And the subject will be explored further in upcoming posts.
Prior to Christ’s coming, this certainty of salvation, this guarantee of being “written in the Book of life”, was not there. (Revelation 20:15) When Moses came before the Lord to intercede for the children of Israel after they had made the golden calf, he offered himself: “blot me out of Your book which You have written.” But the Lord answered, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book.” (Exodus 32:32-33)
King David made a similar observation: “Let them [those who hate me without cause] be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.” (Psalm 69:28, ESV) That was the order of the day back then: a person’s wrong decisions and lifestyle could cause him to be erased out of the Book of Life.
And the other point the Scripture in Exodus tells us is that it is not human beings (like Moses), but God, who decides who can be written in it and who can’t. And yet this is not a matter of predestination, for our being written in the Book of Life depends on us – our deeds and decisions.
And a further point: These Scriptures seem to tell us that we all start off written in the Book of Life, which has been around right “from the foundation of the world.” (Revelation 17:8, 13:8) By whatever means God births a life, creates a soul, at that moment of our conception, we are automatically written in the Book of Life.
Presumably, for babies, or those who die early in life, those who lack the moral capacity to knowingly sin against God, they cannot be blotted out from the Book of Life. But later on, depending on a person’s life decisions, his name may be kept or it may be blotted out. How or when a person crosses that threshold of sinning against God, only God knows. But probably it happens to everyone, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
But thankfully, we can be “born again”. Jesus explained in no uncertain terms,
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3)
If we, with childlike humility, choose to surrender, to step into being born again, then our names get re-written in the Book of Life. Our registration in it is guaranteed by coming to Christ.
Christ’s coming brought in a major development in our standing with the Almighty. As outlined above, by coming to Him, a person gains an iron-clad guarantee of “everlasting life”; he or she “has passed from death into life” and “will by no means [be] cast out.” (John 5:24, 6:37) We belong now to the family of God, which resembles (and far surpasses) the kind of comfort and assurance we experience in our earthly families.
And when a person comes to Christ, then a certain amount of pre-destination kicks in. At this point a person is predestined for the Kingdom, meaning their name has been written in the Book of Life.
And even in the Afterlife, there is opportunity for those souls not entered yet in the Book of Life to have their names written in it. References in Revelation 20 bring to light the fact that during the Millennium era, all those who have died and are in various holding cells in the spirit realm will have opportunity to show by their works at the Final Judgment whether or not they are worthy to have their names written in the Book of Life – at which time they are granted entrance into the realm of the New Heaven and Earth. (This is a big subject to be explored later.)
Here is a question to ponder: if one’s name is written in the Book of Life, does that mean a person can just do whatever mischievous things he or she wants to and not worry because they are guaranteed a place in Heaven? This is a question that the early apostles were faced with from time to time:
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? (Romans 6:1-2)
You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. (James 2:24)
The consequences for those who misuse the grace of God, who have “insulted the spirit of grace” can be serious, as noted in Hebrews, chapter 10:
For if we sin wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. (Hebrews 10:29,26-27)
As we shall learn further ahead, Heaven has plenty of room for correctional regimes for those who need it. And in this life too, God’s blessings and favor in our lives depend a great deal on our obedience to what He expects of us. So, yes, we can still do what we want and not let God play His role in our lives. But to play the game of life that way, is not playing it very smart.
When a person comes to Christ, a new bond of trust is forged. “No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends.” (John 15:15) Love without trust is not real love. Because “God so loved the world,” because He showed so much love by appearing in human form and sacrificing Himself for our sakes, we have every reason to trust Him. (John 3:16) That bond of trust, from God’s side, is undergirded by His guarantee of entrance into the Kingdom.
From our side, by the re-orientation of our lives into a positive direction and submission to God’s rule in our lives. And through the power of the Holy Spirit and with knowledge of His mercy and forgiveness, we are given the inspiration and power to carry out this obligation, our side of the deal – to want to move away from the Darkness, not just out of duty or fear, but out of our love for God.
God trusts us to abide in Him and bring forth fruit, and we trust in Him to grant us entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. In theological terms, that deal is known as the “new covenant”. (Jeremiah 31:31, Matthew 26:28, and several others) And even if we don’t keep our side of the deal, God will still keep His. “If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself.” (2Timothy 2:13)
To conclude, perhaps we can sum it up like this: everyone is written in the Book of Life to start with. How or when a person crosses that threshold of sinning against God, we don’t know. (Probably everyone “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” – Romans 3:23) Whatever the case, we are comforted in knowing this, that by coming to Christ we have the guarantee of being written in the Book of Life, regardless of what we have done before, or even what we may do after our being “born again” into the Kingdom. (John 3:3,5)
Some further information about that often-misunderstood phrase “blot out his name from the Book of Life”:
It was a custom in ancient times to erase the names in a city’s register of those who had died, even those with criminal convictions. Or in the case of the churches, to erase the names from their registers of those who fell away, had committed crimes, got excommunicated, etc.
From His viewpoint, looking at church fellowships (such as the Sardis church of Revelation 3:1-6), God might see that some, who are enrolled as “members” and may even be esteemed as honorable members of a church, had not actually entered the Kingdom; they were not “born again” in spirit. (John 3:3,7) They joined a church for mere selfish reasons – political expediency, material gain, social advancement, or whatever it may be.
But they had not entered the Kingdom, were not “born again” in spirit, not “members” of the real Church – “the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven… the spirits of just men made perfect.” (John 3:3,7; Hebrews 12:23) As such, they would be no better, maybe even worse, than those members who had committed crimes, were excommunicated, and thus “blotted out” from the church’s registry.
These hypocritical church members “have a name” that they are “alive”, but in reality they “are dead” because they never had a spiritual re-birth. (Revelation 3:1) They were not real believers (or overcomers). For them it is just a shell game – a going-through-the-motions exercise for mere gain. As a result, even though enrolled in a church’s registry book, as far as the Book of Life is concerned, they are “blotted out”; their names were not written (or re-written) in the Book because, despite being a member of a church, they had not actually come to Christ.
And the implication here is that it might have been better if such “members” were “blotted out” right from the start, that is, not permitted to join the Church at all if their only intention was to use it for selfish gain. (Then at least they would have known they were on the wrong track; better that than the false sense of security in their pretense of membership in a church.)
This was the pattern set in the Book of Acts in the example of the apostle Peter’s sentence against Ananias and Saphira who tried to join the Early Church for the wrong reasons. Such “members” who, even though by all appearances may be registered and approved members of a church during their earthly lives, are not real members. God, who sees the hearts of His creations and does not judge by outward appearance, knows who have come to Him in truth, “registered in heaven”, and those who are just faking it.
The message to the Sardis church ends with the same “he who overcomes” phrase found in Christ’s messages to all the churches. It is a message of encouragement, and in the case of the Sardis church, much needed after the stern admonishment given to them. It promises that whoever comes to Christ won’t be “dead”. They have been “born of God” and “His seed remains” in them. (1John 3:9)
Unlike church or city registries, which sometimes erased names from their membership/citizens lists, once a name is registered in the Book of Life, it can never be blotted out. They may have “defiled their garments” and the Lord may have had to come on them “as a thief” (endure some kind of unexpected chastening probably); nevertheless, if they did come to Him at some point in their lives, they have not lost their salvation. And for those who “have not defiled their garments”, they will be given the honor, Christ says, to “walk with Me in white, for they are worthy”. Because of their faithfulness and maturity, special reward shall be given to them. (Revelation 3:3-5)