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[The concept of "book," as mentioned in the Bible, is actually a reference to scrolls, which would consist of rolls of skin, papyrus, or similar materials. Sometimes they would be sealed, either to protect the contents, or to restrict what could be read (or to limit who could read it - compare to Revelation 5:2+). The modern concept of "book," multiple pages, normally bound together at the spine, did not come into existence until a later date.]
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Scripture tells us, in Revelation 20:12, that our eternal condition will be determined by what is written in the "books of deeds" and the Book of Life.
The books of deeds contains a record of everything we have done, or will do, in this present life. These books will determine the extent of our reward or punishment, but they will not determine which kingdom we belong to.
The Book of Life is a record of everyone who belongs to Jesus, a registry of all people who are citizens of God's eternal kingdom. This book will determine each person's eternal destiny. Those whose names are written in it will have the right to live in the New Jerusalem. Those whose names are not written in it will be cast out of God's presence for eternity; they belong to the kingdom of darkness and will have no place in the light of God's presence.
As an aid to interpreting the following information, the words used to describe the book(s) are given at the beginning of each verse entry. Pay close attention to the context - both the immediate context around the verse, as well as the general context of who the verse was written to.
A. Comments About the "Book of Life" (Revelation 20:12)
From God's eternal perspective, he knew who his people were, even before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). In contrast, people see things from a perspective that is limited to time and space. Though, from God's perspective, the Book of Life may be fixed and unchanging, from our perspective, it might seem that a name is being added, each time a person becomes a child of God. In addition, if we see someone abandon the faith, after they claimed to believe it, we would probably view it as a name being blotted out of the book. God, on the other hand, knew their hearts and was never surprised at their departure. (We may wonder if, from God's perspective, such people's names were ever in the book.)
It is possible to become filled with all kinds of speculation, regarding the specific details about how (and when) names get written into the Book of Life, or removed from it (assuming that they can get removed from it). God does not give us such information - probably because we don't need to know it! If we simply do what God tells us to do, summarized by the words "trust" and "obey," we are guaranteed that our names will be there. If we don't, we are guaranteed that, at the Day of Justice, our names won't be there. And that's all that matters!
We must be cautious, when we look at verses referring to God's "book." There are passages which do not specifically state that it is the "Book of Life," and some of these could refer to a different book. For example, God tells Moses that he would blot from his "book" the names of those who worshiped the golden calf (Exodus 32:32-33). Is this a reference to people whose names were written in the "Book of Life," or to people who agreed to the terms of the "Book of the Covenant" (Exodus 24:7), but who later broke those terms? Even when a passage appears to make reference to the "Book of Life" (as defined in Revelation 20:12), we must pay attention to the context, for different verses may refer to the book from different perspectives.
B. Historical Basis
The Bible contains many examples of lists of names. Genealogical records may list an individual's parents and offspring, as well as other important facts about the person. Other records may identify a person's position in the community, and whether or not he even is a part of the community.
Examples of such records
Specific references to names being present (or absent) in such records
C. Verses About the "Book of Life" (or a similar concept)
A general statement about the Book of Life (at the Day of Justice)
About those who's names are listed in this book
About those who's names are not listed in it
About being "blotted out" (or not "blotted out") of the Book
A reference to names being blotted out (or not blotted out) - the word "BOOK" is not specifically mentioned
A. Comments About the "Books of Deeds" (Revelation 20:12)
Many of the things mentioned concerning the Book of Life could be stated about these books. For example, nothing that we will ever do is a surprise to God. From the beginning of time, God knew what we would do. (He also knew what Jesus would do on the cross, to bring forgiveness and restoration to those who put their trust in him.) Yet from our perspective, the events in these books may be thought of as being written at the time we do them.
Some passages refer to sins being "blotted out" (or not being "blotted out"), but the word "book" is not specifically mentioned Are these verses a reference to the "book of deeds" (or a similar book)? If they are, it cannot mean that those "blotted" actions never occurred, but that they would not be counted against the person.
We do not have to "worry" about the specific details of how the events in our lives become recorded in the books. All we need to do is to trust and obey God... and he will take care of the rest!
B. Historical Basis
The Bible contains many examples of records or "chronicles," which describe various people's deeds.
Examples of such records
A specific instance in which a person was rewarded, based on what was written in such an account - Esther 6. [The king rewarded Mordecai for exposing a plot to assassinate him.]
C. Verses about the "books of deeds" (or a similar concept)
A general statement about the books at the Day of Justice
Specific events recorded in the books before they happened (from God's perspective)
God's "books" mentioned as a source of encouragement for his people, when they found themselves in difficult circumstances
A reference to deeds being blotted out (or not blotted out) - the word "BOOK" is not specifically mentioned
Verses about these books focus on a limited range of issues. To get the full picture, we must take into consideration the rest of Scripture. (Some of the issues, which have an impact on our understanding of these books, are mentioned below.)
The Book of Life is related to grace, faith and salvation. The books of deeds are related to works. The one focuses on what God does (he saves us and changes us); the others on what we do (we live-out our lives and we show by our choices whether or not a change has taken place in us).
It is folly for us to try to work for our salvation. To do so is to confuse the purpose of the books. Works are not the focus of the Book of Life!
People whose names are written in the Book of Life are citizens of God's kingdom. They have left the kingdom of darkness and now belong to the kingdom of light (Colossians 1:12-13). Along with this change in kingdom comes a change in nature: We have become "new creations" (2 Cor. 5:17; Galatians 6:15). As we submit to the Word of God, we develop new values which influence our conduct - both the types of things we do, as well as the motivations we have for doing them. The things we do will begin to change, for we will have an increased desire to do things which express love for God and love for neighbor. What all this means is this: The presence of our names in the Book of Life will have an influence on our actions, as recorded in the books of deeds.
The Book of Life and the books of deeds will not contradict each other, since having one's name in the Book of Life is associated with having a changed nature. A person cannot have a lifestyle characterized by a disregard for God and his moral values, and still have a good reason for expecting his name to be in the Book of Life. Nor can a person live a life of love, the kind of love that comes from God, and find himself excluded from the Book of Life. (This is a love which puts the honor of God and the good of other people ahead of personal interests.) It is for good reason that Scripture tells us, "by their fruit you will recognize them" (Matthew 7:16, 20; 12:33; Luke 6:44; James 3:12). This "fruit" is determined by both what we do, and what we are not willing to do (James 4:17).
A person whose name is in the Book of Life will not be totally perfect and free from sin (James 3:2a; 1 John 1:8-10). Our spiritual life grows (1 Peter 2:2; 2 Peter 3:18; 2 Thessalonians 1:3). Though it will not occur all at once, there will be a distinct (and ongoing) shift away from the devil's values and toward what God values. (On the other hand, an unwillingness to grow spiritually is a good indicator of the absence of spiritual life. A continued lack of growth strongly suggests a lack of life - and it is most foolish to ignore this fact.)
All of this shows the importance of what we do - our works. However, we don't go around boasting about our accomplishments, for the very works we do were made (or created) for us to do, by God (Ephesians 2:10). He is the one who gave us both the ability and the desire to do them (Philippians 2:12-13). If we want to boast or rejoice in something, we should boast in what God has done - and the fact that he has written our names in heaven (Luke 10:20) - rather than in our own abilities or accomplishments.
If we are willing to trust and obey God, we have no reason to fear that our names will be blotted from the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5). On the other hand, if we are not willing to trust and obey God, we have every reason to fear that our names won't be there.
The books of deeds prove that our works are important. Even the smallest act of kindness, if done for Jesus, will be rewarded at the Day of Justice. (Compare to Matthew 25:31-46). On the other hand, what we may consider the smallest, "least significant" sin will be shown for what it is: totally evil, compared to God's righteous standard. (Compare to Matthew 12:36; 1 Timothy 5:24-25; Ecclesiastes 12:14). Everything will be exposed and shown for what it is.
The books of deeds are an encouragement for us to not give up, when circumstances become difficult for us. God will remember our trials and tears, if we are willing to endure them for his sake.
The books of deeds are a warning for the wicked, that they cannot get away with sin - and choosing to ignore this warning cannot prevent the Day of Justice from coming.
Dennis Hinks © 2002
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright (c) 1996
by Tyndale Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.