I was recently asked about the use of the phrase “book of life” in Revelation 3:5, “In the same way, the victor will be dressed in white clothes, and I will never erase his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before My Father and before His angels” (HCSB).
The New Testament expression “book of life” (Rev 13:8; 17:8; 20:12; 21:27; without the article in Phil 4:3; Rev 3:5 and 20:15) is based on Old Testament references to God’s book in which were written the names of the righteous (Ps 69:28; Ex. 32:32). This, in turn, is related to the ancient custom of keeping genealogies and national registers in Israel (Neh. 7:5ff; 12:12; Ps 87:6; Jer. 22:30; Ezek. 13:9). Just as these latter records were carefully inscribed and preserved, so God knows His people.
Later Judaism developed the idea that God has two books, one for the righteous and one for the wicked. In this view the deeds of men are tallied by the angels. This is not the teaching of the New Testament.
A more modern view is that the book of life not a roll of those who are saved, but rather a list of humanity. As they come to maturity and are faced with the responsibility of accepting or rejecting Christ, their names are blotted out if they fail to receive Jesus Christ as Savior; whereas those who do accept Christ as Savior are confirmed in their position in the book of life, and their names are confessed before the Father and the heavenly angels. Again this is not the teaching of the New Testament and is contrary to the names being written by God from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8).
I think it clearest to understand “the book of life” as an expression of the sovereign choice and guarantee of God in regards to the salvation of man. Some have taken Christ’s statement in 3:5, “I will never erase his name from the book of life” as proof that one can lose his salvation. This is reading into the text something more than it says.
I think the simplest interpretation is as follows: Though Revelation 3:5 may imply that a believer’s name could be erased from the book of life, actually it only gives a positive affirmation that their names will not be erased. Jesus’ statement may thus be considered not a threat, but an assurance that saved peoples’ names will always be in the book of life.
I think this seems to be the gist of what other verses communicate as well about the “book of life.” Anchored in eternity, that salvation is certain for all those whose names are written in “the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8). Their salvation is “sure, having this seal: The Lord knows those who are his” (2 Tim 2:19). They may rejoice because their names are written in heaven (Luke 10:20).
SERMON ADDITION (3/20/2016):
Jesus extended three promises to the few who had remained loyal in the church at Sardis.
- The first promise Christ mentioned twice: “They will walk with Me in white” (3:4-5). In a later vision of the book of Revelation, John will see a large multitude of saints gathered in heaven who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). The white robes represent the cleansing from sin received by faith in Christ. The image of “walking in white” is a promise of eternal, unblemished righteousness.
- Christ’s second promise is stated in the negative: “I will not erase his name from the book of life” (3:5). If a person is clothed with eternal righteousness, make no mistake: he or she has an eternally secure future. Obviously, God has no need of a literal book to remind Him of our standing before Him. The “book of life,” is a symbol of permanent security. Our future blessings are certain, as if God has written our names in a great registry of the citizens of heaven.
- Finally, the third promise reveals the positive side of the second: “I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels” (3:5). This links two similar promises Christ made during His earthly ministry. Matthew 10:32 says, “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven.” Similarly, Luke 12:8 says, “Everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man will confess him also before the angels of God.” In other words, on the Day of Judgment, Christ will vouch for those who belong to Him.