REVELATION #40: THE BOOK OF LIFE

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Real Christians are both more pessimistic, and at the same time, more hopeful than other religions. Jesus sets a standard that is not only based on performance, but also on the heart, and on that score, every human being falls short. And so, he offers the alternative: Repent of your sins, repent of your pride that says you are good enough to deserve heaven. Instead, let Him live the perfect life on your behalf. Let him take the punishment that your failures deserve. Trust him to do that for you. And if you really believe it, and you really trust Him, your name is written in the other book, the book of life, and that means that your behavior is no longer the basis for your eternal future.

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Revelation #40.  Revelation 20:11-15

“Earth and heaven fled from His presence, and no place was found for them.” I read this not literally, but as a statement of the majesty of God. The universe – this unimaginably huge vacuum that is sparsely populated with stars – cannot contain God. God is infinite, and in his full presence there is no room for anything else. This immediately suggests something else to me. The New Testament calls us to be filled with the Holy Spirit. There should be no room in my life for anything else but God. Whatever competes for God’s place in our lives must flee away. Now, through Jesus, we have all things. So, as I have followed Jesus, he has blessed me with a  wife and children. There is room in my heart for my wife and my family, but I have them through Jesus.

Think of it like this. Imagine that your closest friend is a billionaire. If you are with your friend, you can have a box suite at the Superbowl, or World Cup, or World-Series – you get the idea. But if you don’t have your friend, you don’t have those tickets. Through your friend, you can stay in his wonderful house. It isn’t yours. But because you are friends, he lets you stay there. On your own, you have nothing, but through your friend, you have everything. So it is with Jesus. Jesus is all in all. In my heart, there should be only room for Jesus, and the things that I have through him. All else should be displaced by the great treasure that I have in and through him.

Next comes the scene with the books:

12 I also saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged according to their works by what was written in the books.
13 Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. (Revelation 20:12-13)

At first reading, this makes it sound as if we will all be judged based on our performance; that is, according to our good (or bad) deeds. How can that be? The Bible teaches that we are saved by grace, not by works. It is a free gift of God, a gift that is far more expensive than we can buy.

15 We who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners” 16 know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. (Galatians 2:15-16)

So, what is this, here in Revelation? Let me start with the words of the apostle Paul:

8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than what we have preached to you, a curse be on him! 9 As we have said before, I now say again: If anyone preaches to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him! (Galatians 1:8-9)

When we come to a place like this, where it seems to contradict another part of scripture, the first thing to do is to read carefully, and make sure we understand what it is saying.

First, we should take note that in this passage, there are two categories of books. On the one hand, there are books that seem to contain a record of the works of every human ever alive or dead. They describe everything you have ever done, good or bad. On the other hand, there is one single book called the Book of Life. It looks to me like the picture is as follows: If your name is in the book of life, you are not thrown into the lake of fire (v. 15). If your name is not in the book of life, then you are judged only according to what you have done and not done.  And everyone who is judged according to what they have done falls short. Paul explains it like this:

21 Tell me, those of you who want to be under the law, don’t you hear the law? (Galatians 4:21)

Take note! I, Paul, tell you that if you get yourselves circumcised, Christ will not benefit you at all. 3 Again I testify to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is obligated to keep the entire law. (Galatians 5:2-3)

Paul’s point is this. We are not judged on a curve. There is no such thing as “close enough” when it comes to the moral perfection we need to avoid being destroyed by God’s holiness. It is a simple binary test. Were you perfect, or imperfect? If you refuse the grace given to you in Jesus Christ, then, in order to earn your place, you must be entirely, 100% perfect. If you want to live by the law, you have to keep the entire law. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, certain people wanted to make just one part of the law (circumcision) determine whether you were accepted by God or not. Paul says, “If you want to play it that way, then you have to keep not only circumcision, but every last bit of the entire law.

In the time of Jesus, some of the Jews were in danger of thinking they had done that. So, Jesus explains that it isn’t just outward behavior – it is also about your innermost thoughts. A moment of honesty here. My outward behavior has been pretty good. I have outwardly had no other God. I have never knowingly lied; I have not committed adultery, or murder. I have never taken the name of the Lord in vain. I have honored my parents. You get the picture. But Jesus tells us that the standard is not only about what happens on the outside. If your heart is not perfect, than you have not fulfilled the law:

21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire.

 27 “You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. 28 But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Now, suddenly, I don’t look so good. I’ve never murdered, but I’ve held rage in my heart, and called people fools and morons. I’ve never committed adultery, but I have had lustful thoughts. So you see, if you want to be judged by the books of works, you cannot even have had one, single, slightly wrong thought.

All this makes it seem hopeless. But there is another way. It is completely different. Many people like to say that all religions are the same. But this is where Christianity is radically different. Hindus base their judgments on the books of works. They need to pay off all the bad karma they have incurred before they can go to Nirvana. Buddhists achieve their version of Nirvana by their own efforts. They can’t get there until they have “got it right,” somehow. Jews and Muslims alike must please God in order to be saved, though they tend to focus on outward behavior, and sort of pretend that the attitude of the heart doesn’t really matter.

There are also people who believe some sort of false Christianity. They believe that God is all mellow and loving, so it doesn’t really matter. He’s not keeping score anyway, right?

Wrong, he has kept score. And we all have fallen short.

Real Christians are both more pessimistic, and at the same time, more hopeful than other religions. Jesus sets a standard that is not only based on performance, but also on the heart, and on that score, every human being falls short. And so, he offers the alternative: Repent of your sins, repent of your pride that says you are good enough to deserve heaven. Instead, let Him live the perfect life on your behalf. Let him take the punishment that your failures deserve. Trust him to do that for you. And if you really believe it, and you really trust Him, your name is written in the other book, the book of life, and that means that your behavior is no longer the basis for your eternal future.

Now, if you really believe all that, if you really trust Jesus, your behavior will change, but now, it isn’t about earning points with God. You see, we behave according to how we truly believe. If you really love someone, and you believe that the other person loves you, you will want spend time with that person. You will enjoy being in their presence, and doing things together. You will try to avoid hurting that person, and seek the best for them. You will trust them, and behave differently because you trust them. Your behavior will change because you love, and believe you are loved. It has nothing to do with earning anything. This is exactly how it is with Jesus.

I am struck by how different the preaching of the early church was, compared to preaching today. Today, we seem desperately afraid of offending anyone, of making anyone feel bad. But the gospel has two main parts. The first is incredibly offensive. It is offensive to pride, to self-righteousness, to apathy, to our own belief that we ourselves should be the final arbiter of our own fates. No, the gospel says, “You are far worse than you imagine. Your situation is desperate, and hopeless. If you think you can be good enough to please God, forget it. If you think God will overlook your little faults, you are like a cancer patient who says she feels fine, even while her body hurtles toward a painful death. The books of your deeds will accuse you, at the end. There is no hope there. You must repent, and throw yourself on the mercy of God.”

The second part of the gospel is pure good news, pure love and joy. It is this: God’s grace and love are far greater than you ever knew. His love not only matches, but overwhelms what is not right in you. Because he knew you couldn’t perform, he performs on your behalf. Because you deserve death and hell, Jesus took death and hell on himself. And so, through Jesus, we have an entirely different way to be. There is no need to measure up. There is no need to justify yourself. All that is left for you to do is to love the One who loved you first, and let gratitude at his grace guide your life.

A couple weeks ago, almost on a whim, I asked God to send me a snowstorm. I asked for it to be on a specific day, with a specific number of inches of snow. That prayer was answered exactly. Now, as I think about this, I am overwhelmed that God would send a snowstorm just for puny little me in order to show me his love. But the truth is, he has done far more than that. The extravagance of his love given to us in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is unimaginably greater than a snowstorm. When we really think about it, it becomes, literally, life changing.

What comes next in the book of Revelation is what we often call “heaven.” For Heaven to be, well, heaven, there can be no sin, no selfishness, no self-righteousness. If we want to live in a perfect world, only perfect people can be there. And so, Jesus makes perfect those who trust him.

12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:12-14, ESV)

Jesus offers us his own perfection so that we can step into the perfect world that he is rebuilding for us.

There are several possible responses to this text today. Perhaps we need to repent. Perhaps we thought our sin is no big deal. Perhaps when we look at our behavior, we realize that we aren’t living as if we really believe what Jesus has done for us.

Maybe, we need to remember the extravagance of His love for us, and realize that he has indeed made us perfect. There is no barrier within ourselves that He cannot overcome, if we simply allow him to do it.

Maybe we need to focus on the joy that awaits us after the day of judgment. We will spend a good amount of time doing so in a few weeks, but we can begin now.

Perhaps, for you, what you needed to hear was at the beginning: that the love of God through Jesus Christ should displace everything else in your life. There is no room for fear, for anger, for hatred, for worry. We have only Jesus, and the things he chooses for us. Let him be all in all.

Let the Holy Spirit Speak to you today.

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