“When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:11,12).
I am convinced that this is what the apostle John sees worked out in the early chapters of Revelation. I know that other people hold different interpretations, but this connection is remarkably compelling. Please bear with me as we explore it.
The throne room
In Revelation 4, John is drawn up to heaven, to the tabernacle of heaven in fact. If you don’t recall the chapter well enough, it would be worth pausing to read it, to set the scene in your mind.
John sees the cherubim surrounding the throne. He sees the throne filled with the Glory of God. The whole atmosphere is one resplendent with mightiness and majesty. The sea of glass, like the laver of the tabernacle, is before the throne, and golden bowls and incense are in the hands of those around the throne. Praise and glory are being offered to God, both for whom He is, and for what He has done.
It is in this context that Revelation 5 picks up the narrative: “I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?’ But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside” (Rev. 5:1-4).
Later we discover that the scroll ó the book ó in God’s right hand is the Book of Life. John knows what it is, and to his horror he sees that the book is closed! Shut tight, and sealed! There is no one worthy to open the scroll, no one worthy to open the Book of Life, no one able to act as savior and judge on God’s behalf. What a terrible truth!
The blackness of despair overwhelms John, and he weeps and weeps. Centuries of grief well up in him, and he wails for lost humanity. All this glory around him, and mankind is estranged and lost! This is hopelessness! John is devastated. His grief is for himself, and for us, and for everyone who has ever lived. He experiences the wretchedness and desperation of our situation, and he is overwhelmed. Here is the Book of Life in the hand of the Almighty, and it is sealed!
But in the midst of his sorrow, one of the elders comforts him: “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals” (Rev. 5:5).
You can imagine John’s emotions at this point. Hope beyond hope! Anticipation. He turns around, looking for this mighty lion… and he sees… a lamb!
A lamb standing before the throne, looking like it has been slain.
Here is Jesus!
Here is Jesus in the most significant event in the history of heaven and earth. Here he is, presenting his blood to his Father as a mark of accomplishment, as a mark of what he has achieved in his Father’s name.
“I have overcome,” the blood whispers. “Not my will, but yours be done,” it declares. I can imagine that heaven is hushed at this moment. Hushed with awe and wonder at this man who says with simple truth, “I desire to do your will, O Lord.”
He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the 24 elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:7-10).
O the wonder of it! He is worthy to open the book! Lord Jesus Messiah!
Truly, Lord, we bow down and join the host of heaven in worshiping you!
Paying the price
Why is he worthy? The reason given here is because he was slain, because he ‘purchased’ or ‘redeemed’ (KJV) us for God. If we’re not careful, that ‘purchased’ could sound very substitutionary, even like the old Middle Ages notion that God actually paid the Devil for our salvation! We should not think of it that way at all, of course. We’ve already seen how substitution fails as a doctrine. In their Greek dictionary, Louw and Nida define the Greek word here: “to cause the release or freedom of someone by a means which proves costly to the individual causing the release.”
Think of it this way. Suppose I told you that I ran the marathon yesterday and now I’m paying the price for it. That doesn’t mean that I’m still trying to get the entrance fee together! It means that in my body I feel the consequences of the effort.
So it is with Christ. In his flesh, he bore the consequences both of drawing us to the Father, and also of the personal discipline he underwent to mold his will to God’s. It came at a huge personal cost, and it was a cost he had to bear. But he’s not buying something. You see the distinction? If we’re not careful the metaphor can run out of control, and we would find ourselves back at “substitution”. Instead, the plain fact is that our salvation cost him his life. It’s just like the parable of the good shepherd. The shepherd died in the battle with the wolf. The flock was safe, but at the cost of their shepherd’s life. And here in Revelation and elsewhere, we encounter a beautiful metaphorical twist. The shepherd himself is also a lamb.
The lamb goes forward, and takes the book from his Father’s hand. It is later called the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev. 21:27) because it is so strongly identified with the lamb. Because of the lamb, life and salvation is now possible. Finally there is a savior judge who is able ó who is worthy ó to bring about the fulfillment of all that God has been promising. The book can now be unsealed, seal by seal as history unfolds, until it will finally be open!
A Scriptural theme
This is not the first time the concept of the Book of Life occurs in Scripture. Indeed, it will come as no surprise that the Book of Life is a theme that runs through both the Old and New Testaments. In Malachi, we read: “Then those who feared the LORD talked with each other, and the LORD listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honored his name. ‘They will be mine,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not’ “ (Mal.3:16-18).
It doesn’t actually say “Book of Life” here, but it’s still pretty clear that’s what’s being described. The scroll of remembrance is going to be used to identify who belongs to God. These are the ones He will remember in that day, in the day He makes up His treasured possession.
Daniel is more explicit: “At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people ó everyone whose name is found written in the book ó will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:1,2).
The context is really clear. This is resurrection and judgment. The book is used to determine who will be delivered from the judgments God brings upon mankind.
A thousand years earlier, Moses also understood this very well. After the incident of the golden calf, Moses said to God, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin ó but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written” (Exod. 32:32).
Moses is being unfair to God. He’s trying to twist God’s arm and force God to forgive all the Israelites by putting his own salvation on the line. God’s response is firm. He says in effect, ‘Moses, I don’t play games like that.’ Here are his actual words: “The LORD replied to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin’ ” (Exod. 32:33,34).
Leaving aside Moses’ intent, there is a vital inference we can draw from this interchange.
Ask yourself, when is the Book of Life written?
We each hope and expect that our name will be in the book in that day, but when will our names be entered in it?
Think of this. Moses said, “Blot my name out of the book.” This only makes sense if he has confidence that his name is already in the book. It couldn’t have been blotted out if it wasn’t written in already. So we conclude: the Book of Life is being written now! Our names are entered during our lives.
This is the same as in Malachi’s day. A scroll of remembrance was written then, while the people were meeting together.
We see this picture again and again and again. The Book of Life is being written now. It’s not going to be written at the resurrection ó it’s being written now.
Consider the following passage in Hebrews, which contains yet more evidence of this. The writer is drawing a contrast betweenZionand Sinai.
“You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.’ The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’ But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:18-24).
Notice that it is not, “whose names will be written in heaven”. The church of the firstborn is made up of those whose names are already written in heaven. Today, your name is (or is not) in the book of life: “He has set his foundation on the holy mountain; the LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Glorious things are said of you, O city of God: I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me ó Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush ó and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’ Indeed, of Zion it will be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her, and the Most High himself will establish her.’ The LORD will write in the register of the peoples: ‘This one was born in Zion‘ “ (Psa. 87:1-6).
Where is your birthplace? It’s written, “This one was born in Zion.” It’s in the register of the peoples, “This one, and this one and this and this… this one was born in Zion.” What a wonderful picture! In a sense I wasn’t born in the United Kingdom; you weren’t born in the United States, or Australia, or wherever. Not really. Sure, yes, you were ó physically. But when you were baptized you were declaring, ‘I’m going to be born again; I’m being born in Zion.’ Your name was written in the register of the peoples, “This one was born in Zion.” A very powerful scripture.
As a community we seem to lack courage and confidence in our salvation. ‘I’m not good enough,’ we think. ‘I have sins and faults.’ So I particularly love a glimpse we get in Philippians 4. I take it as a personal exhortation: “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life” (vv. 2,3).
Two thousand years later it’s hard to know exactly what was going on, but there seems to have been bickering in the ecclesia. Maybe even strong disagreements. Euodia and Syntyche don’t get along with each other. Not like today, right?! The situation is sufficiently tense that they need some help to sort it out, so they can be supportive of each other.
But here’s the wonderful thing. Their names are still in the Book of Life!
That, to me, is a great reassurance! The Lord knows our failings; he knows our frailty; he knows our limitations. He’s not surprised when he looks in your heart and sees sin, and sees temptation ó he knows it’s there! The Father, in his love, reaches out to us. He has designed His plan of salvation to take account of this. He trained His son to be able to strengthen us in our weakness, to help us with our limitations. And despite our failings, our names are entered into the Book of Life. The fact that it is being written now is a great reassuring principle to bear in mind. Are you in covenant with Christ? Is he truly your lord? Does he express the deepest desires of your heart? If you answer ‘Yes’ to these questions, then be confident! Your name is already written in heaven. Already you have moved from Death to Life.
In Daniel 7, Daniel has a vision of judgment: “As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened… In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (vv. 9-14).
The glory of the scene comes through loud and clear, as does the prominent role of Jesus. We see the same elements as in the Revelation 4 and 5 passages we started with. In fact, John saw an expansion of Daniel’s vision. The revelation regarding judgment continues in Revelation 20: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (vv. 11-15).
The books seem to be the records of everything that has ever happened. I don’t believe these have to be literal books. If we were writing the account nowadays we would say, ‘and the database was accessed’, or words to that effect. The important fact is that there are records of everything that has been done. And along with the records, there is another book, the Book of Life.
What’s going on here?
It seems to me that the books contain plenty of evidence to condemn us all! All the acts of love and hate, of peace and war, of generosity and selfishness are recorded here. If these books are the sole evidence, not one of us would be saved. If salvation depended on our works, on our ability always to do right and never to do wrong, then we would all be lost.
But these books are not the sole evidence, nor the sole authority! The Book of Life is present! And it is open!
If your name is in the Book of Life, the other books are irrelevant. They contain events and circumstances that have been forgiven. Your name is in the Book! You are welcomed with open arms! With the joy of thousands upon thousands of angels. And with the love and delight of your Lord who thought your life was worth everything he was ever able to give.
“He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 3:5,6).
It’s a wonderful promise to us!
Here’s a final thought. While I have confidence in the judgment, I cannot know for sure that I will be accepted. What then? What kind of confidence can I have?
Here is my confidence. I have a strong sense that when I come to the judgment seat and my judge looks me in the eye ó it’s impossible for me to write this without emotion ó if at that moment he says, ‘You never really wanted this, did you?’ I will know that he knows who I am…
I can accept his judgment… whatever it is…
We have to read John:
“Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John4:16-18).
That is my confidence. He loves me more than I love myself, more deeply and more meaningfully. May God be praised.
(With many thanks to Paul Launchbury for his help in the development of this article.)
Postscript: Many people have been kind enough to send me feedback on these articles. In due course I hope to draw the material together into book form. The final result would benefit from as much constructive criticism as possible. If you have something you think I should consider, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I may not be able to reply to individual comments, but I will certainly consider them all carefully.