Revelation 20:12
Great Texts of the Bible
The Opening of the Books

And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne; and books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works.—Revelation 20:12.

1. These words form a significant part of one of the most solemn passages in the Bible. It describes the final judgment, the great assize, in which men appear before God that they may be judged “according to their works.” The throne before which they appear is described as the “great white throne”; great, that is, in contrast to the thrones which are mentioned in the earlier portions of the Book; white as emblematic of the stainless purity of Him who sits upon it. The people who stand before the throne are from every nation and kindred and tribe and tongue. They are now assembled to receive the Judge’s verdict on the lives which they have lived.

2. The imagery was evidently suggested by Daniel’s vision of judgment (Daniel 7:10): “Thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgement was set, and the books were opened.” The idea of a special book of life is to be found in the same prophet (Daniel 12:1): “At that time thy people shall be delivered, every one that shall be found written in the book.” But this figure can be traced much farther back. We remember the passionate intercession of Moses for his people (Exodus 32:32): “If thou wilt forgive their sin—; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.” And not to speak of some passages in the prophets, which speak of “those that are written among the living” (Isaiah 4:3; Ezekiel 13:9), one of the imprecations in the Sixty-ninth Psalm (Psalm 69:28) is, “Let them be blotted out of the book of life, and not be written with the righteous.” These Old Testament passages illustrate the meaning of our Lord’s promise (Revelation 3:5) to him that overcometh: “I will in no wise blot his name out of the book of life, and I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.” St. John is not the only New Testament writer who has adopted this language. St. Luke (Luke 10:20) records our Lord’s words to the seventy disciples when they returned successful from their mission, “In this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” The Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 12:23) speaks of “the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven”; and in the Epistle to the Philippians (Php 4:3) St. Paul has the very phrase, “Clement also, and the rest of my fellow-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”


The Subjects of the Judgment

1. “I saw the dead,” says the Seer, “the great and the small, standing before the throne.” It is often said that this judgment is a judgment of the wicked only, and therefore only for condemnation. But the context suggests that the judgment is extended to all humanity; and only in that sense can the wording of the passage itself be taken. The phrase “the great and the small,” which is of frequent occurrence in the Apocalypse, is a synonym for all men (except where it is expressly limited, Revelation 11:18). The dead, small and great, will stand before God; all will stand, all the righteous, as well as all the wicked, from the Apostles downwards. St. Paul is very emphatic upon the fact that he himself will be judged: “He that judgeth me is the Lord.” “Who will render to every man according to his deeds: to them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life.” “For we must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ; that everyone may receive the things done in his body” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Again, Romans 14:10, “We shall all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ.” “The Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead, at his appearing and his kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:1).

The real significance of the scene lies in the vivid picturing of that great and solemn truth that we must all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ, and that before Him there is nothing hidden which shall not be revealed. Then shall every human life appear in its true light, stripped of all the deceptive adornments which have given a fictitious respectability to ingenious fraud, and a fatal popularity to adroit wickedness and splendid vice. Then shall men be judged, not by rank, or success, or achievement, but according to their works, as it is twice stated here, and according to whether they have any life towards God. The works and the life towards God must be combined. A man may have, from the activities of his Christian works, a name to live and yet be dead: the life-book and the work-book combine to mark the real servant of Christ. If he labours more abundantly than all, it is Christ who works in him, for his life is a life by the faith of the Son of God.1 [Note: W. B. Carpenter, The Book of Revelation, 237.]

2. Why are only the dead mentioned? Why not the living? Swete thinks it is because they form so insignificant a minority; but he suggests also that the omission may be due to the fact that the keen interest which the first generation had felt in the bearing of the Parousia upon the living (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14) had abated before the end of the century.

In that great judgment-day the difference of sizes among human lives, of which we make so much, passes away, and all human beings, in simple virtue of their human quality, are called to face the everlasting righteousness. The child and the greybeard, the scholar and the boor, however their lives may have been separated here, come together there. It is upon the moral ground that the most separated souls must always meet. All may be good: all may be bad: therefore before Him whose nature is the decisive touchstone of goodness and badness in every nature which is laid before it, all souls of all the generations of mankind may be assembled. The only place where all can meet, and every soul claim its relationship with every other soul, is before the throne of God. The Father’s presence alone furnishes the meeting-place for all the children, regardless of differences of age or Wisdom 2 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Twenty Sermons, 60.]

3. What is meant by standing before God? We are apt to picture to ourselves a great dramatic scene, host beyond host, rank behind rank, the millions who have lived upon the earth, all standing crowded together in the indescribable presence of One who looks not merely at the mass but at the individual, and sees through the whole life and character of every single soul. The picture is sublime, and it is what the words of St. John are intended to suggest. But we must get behind the picture to its meaning. The picture must describe not one scene only, but the whole nature and condition of the everlasting life. The souls of men in the eternal world are always “standing before God.” And what does that mean? We understand at once if we consider that that before which a man stands is the standard, or test, or source of judgment for his life. Every soul that counts itself capable of judgment and responsibility stands in some presence by which the nature of its judgment is decreed. The higher the presence, the loftier and greater, though often the more oppressed and anxious, is the life. A weak man who wants to shirk the seriousness and anxiety of life goes down into some lower chamber and stands before some baser judge, whose standard will be less exacting. A strong, ambitious man presses up from judgment-room to judgment-room, and is not satisfied with meeting any standard perfectly so long as there is any higher standard which he has not faced.

The Judge is God, the Father in the Son, the Son in the Father; and thus the judgment is searching and complete and is answered by the consciences of those upon whom it is executed. They see that the Judge’s eye penetrates into the most secret recesses of their hearts, and that He is One who has been in the same position, has fought the same battle, and has endured the same trials as themselves. Thus His sentence finds an echo in their hearts, and they are speechless. Thus also judgment becomes really judgment, and not merely the infliction of punishment by resistless power.1 [Note: W. Milligan, The Book of Revelation, 353.]

“Stand before God”—past kneeling, past praying: not to be converted, but sentenced. Now, not then, is the day of salvation: not then except for the already saved.2 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, The Face of the Deep, 473.]


The Ground of the Judgment

1. “The dead were judged … according to their works.” It is therefore a judgment according to works, according to the things done in the body, which no doubt includes the things spoken and thought. And a judgment according to works is clearly taught in all the Scriptures—in the Gospels (Matthew 16:17 and parallels), by St. Paul (Romans 14:10; Romans 14:12; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Galatians 6:7) and by St. John (John 5:29; Revelation 20:12-13). But there is also another doctrine taught—that salvation is granted to faith, and to faith only. How are these two doctrines to be reconciled?

“The fundamental grace,” says Godet,1 [Note: Studies on the New Testament, 179.] “is that of the forgiveness of sins, and it presupposes no other moral condition than faith only. But this immense act of grace is no sooner granted by God, and accepted by man, than there results from it a new task, with the responsibility which attaches to it. This is the work of sanctification; the renewal of the life in the likeness of Christ. And this is the work, according to which the believer will one day be judged.” Godet recalls by way of illustration the parable of the Unmerciful Servant.

And this is in accordance with reason and experience. In this world men are judged according to their works. “I believe it to be true,” says Dr. Salmon, “that Nature never forgives: the utmost indulgence she bestows is often to postpone the execution of her penalty. In this life the rewards for what is well done are duly paid, the punishment for what is done ill strictly exacted. And what the Bible says is that the same principle is followed in the future life.”

When men cry out against the teaching of an everlasting hell to which they have long listened, nothing could be more mistaken than to try to win their faith by a mere sweeping aside of the whole truth of retribution; nothing could be more futile than to try to make them believe in God by stripping the God we offer them of His Divine attributes of judgment and discrimination. But if there comes, as there must come, out of the tumult a deeper sense of the essential, the eternal connection between character and destiny; if men looking deeper into spiritual life are taught to see that the wrath of God and the love of God are not contradictory, but the inseparable utterances of the one same nature; if punishment be fastened close to sin as the shadow to the substance, able to go, certain to go, where sin can go and nowhere else—then the tumult will bring a peace of deeper and completer faith. But surely it will not be easier for a man to believe the new and deep than the old crude doctrine. It will lay an even deeper and more awful burden on his conscience. It will make life more and not less solemn, when men come to see and feel the punishment in the sin than when they listened for the threats of punishment as men at sea listen for the breakers on the shore while they are sailing in smooth waters, which give them no intimation of how far away or near the breakers are.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Essays and Addresses, 50.]

2. At the same time, judgments in this life are not always unerring, or always passed on good grounds; and St. John is probably making a contrast as well as a comparison. He knows that Cæsar has a throne, and that men are made great or small by standing before that throne, but he objects to the ground upon which judgment is given. Men are given their places without reference to character; they are not judged according to their works. Their position is often determined by arbitrary circumstances—family, name, wealth, influence. He sees men stand before a new throne, before a tribunal guided by other principles. Many of the first become last, and many of the last become first. Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, were at the top of the list in the old society; in the new they are very near the end of it—saved from being quite at the end only by the imputation of insanity. And in the place of honour which was held by Tiberius and Caligula and Nero stands many a despised slave, many a deformed outcast,—outcast by reason of his deformity,—many a poor invalid who was considered unfit for survival, and whom the old world’s chariot had passed, contemptuous, by.

A friend of mine who had travelled in America told me that he once heard Colonel Ingersoll lecture on the Last Judgment. That blasphemous atheist described with all the brilliant sarcasm which he possesses the last dread scene, and pictured different characters coming up to receive their sentence. First there came one who had ever helped his neighbour, who in life had done all that he could to make the world brighter and happier; and Jesus, the Supreme Judge, asked him if he believed the story of Eve and the rib; and on his replying in the negative, sentenced him to eternal damnation; and so on with a number of characters. Then there came a defalcating bank director who had broken the heart of the widow and ruined the orphan by his dishonesty and hypocrisy; but he believed this story, and so was rewarded with eternal happiness. Ingersoll’s caricature is more than a caricature; it is a wilful lie.2 [Note: H. S. Lunn.]


The Evidence

The evidence is in the books. “The books were opened.” Now the books that are opened may be taken as the records of man’s works wherever they may be found, although Augustine is probably right when he says that there is supposed to be a separate record for every man.

i. The Book of Character

1. We must think, not of a modern volume, but of an ancient book. Such a book would consist of a long band of parchment, or other substance, written over usually on one side only, and rolled upon a roller, so that it would form a scroll, which on being opened out could present all that was written therein to view simultaneously. The fundamental idea of a book is a record. Things that have happened in the history of the world are chronicled in books, or the thoughts that are the history of the inner world of a man are in like manner committed to writing, the object in both cases being to transmit to those who may follow a knowledge of what has been done or thought. Books are to the race what memory is to the individual; hence a book may well be used to signify the mind’s power of recalling the past. The power in God which answers to memory in man is therefore called His “book.”

My page in the Book of Works is to me awful: the contents are my own, the record is not my own. It is my life’s record without oversights, without false entries or suppressions: any good set down accurately as good; all evil, unless erased by Divine Compassion, set down accurately as evil. Nothing whatever is there except what I have genuinely endeavoured, compassed, done, been: I meant it all, though I meant not to meet it again face to face. It is as if all along one had walked in a world of invisible photographic cameras charged with instantaneous plates. The Book of Life may seem yet more awful, kept secret as it has been from the foundation of the world in the knowledge of God Omniscient. Yet is it really so? It is in fact no independent statement, but appears to be essentially an index or summary of the other. I who composed although I compiled not my Book of Works, I myself virtually entered or entered not my name in the corresponding Book of Life: to dread this beyond the other, is to dread a sum total rather than those very items which produce the total. For whilst we read that “the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the Books,” it was none the less “according to their works.”1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, The Face of the Deep, 473.]

“Consider” [Emerson writes in his journal in 1838] “that always a license attends reformation. We say, Your actions are not registered in a book by a recording angel for an invisible king,—action number one, number two; up to number one million,—but the retribution that shall be is the same retribution that now is. Base action makes you base; holy action hallows you. Instantly the man is relieved from a terror that girded him like a belt, has lost the energy that terror gave him, and when now the temptation is strong he will taste the sin and know. Now I hate the loss of the tonic. The end is so valuable; to have escaped the degradation of a crime is in itself so pure a benefit that I should not be very scrupulous as to the means. I would thank any blunder, any sleep, any bigot, any fool, that misled me into such a good.”2 [Note: J. E. Cabot, A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, i. 332.]

2. Each of us writes the book of his own character. Daily and hourly we are writing ourselves down. We bear about with us, in the character we have made, the whole volume of the past. In everything we do and think in the present, in the way we meet every circumstance of life, we go on forming that character. Our book is there, and it will be opened in the hour of judgment.

Has it ever occurred to you as one strong motive to a good and pure and useful life, that we enter the world of spirits, where more things will occur than we in this imperfect state ever dream of, with the very character which we acquire in the world of sense? If we are selfish, cold, and unloving here, we shall be the very same there. Not an attribute of character can death change. It has no power over the immaterial mind, only over the perishable body does its sway extend. When the spirit bursts free and happy into the blaze of eternal day, it will be the very spirit which breathes within us now; the same feelings, longings, loves, desires, only, in the case of the Christlike, purified at last from all taint of sin.3 [Note: Dr. MacGregor of St. Cuthberts, 94.]

3. All that is set down in this book is thoroughly trustworthy. Autobiographies, as a rule, are not so. They are partial, prejudiced, one-sided. They must be so, for the simple reason that no living person, however saintly, dare reveal to the world all the secrets of his own heart. There have been good and worthy men who have walked on serene heights in company with Christ, and who have told us something of the story of their own victories and defeats; but no one has ever told us the whole story. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,” and there is no one who is brave enough to draw aside the covering and reveal all that is in it. We are glad that there is not, for the story of the man who did that would not make pleasant reading. The jealousies, the spites, the uncharities, to say nothing of other and darker things, would shock and appal us. But in the book of character the record is complete. Nothing is withheld, nothing misrepresented. Everything done is set down there in naked truth, and the story in its totality is to be thoroughly relied on.

We are all writing our life-histories here, as if with one of those “manifold writers,” a black, blank page beneath the flimsy sheet on which we write; but presently the black page will be taken away, and the writing will stand out plain on the page behind, that we did not see. Life is the unsubstantial page on which our pen rests; the black page is death; and the page beneath is that indelible transcript of our earthly actions, which we shall find waiting for us to read with shame and confusion of face or with humble joy in another world.1 [Note: A. Maclaren, in Christian Endeavour World, May 12, 1910, p. 644.]

The deeds we do, the words we say,—

Into still air they seem to fleet,

We count them ever past;

But they shall last,

In the dread judgment they

And we shall meet.2 [Note: J. Keble, Lyra Innocentium.]

ii. The Book of Influence

There is another larger book on which our words and actions write themselves; for they influence not only ourselves but others. We print our thoughts, our doings, on those we live with, on thousands whom we shall never see, but whom our work has influenced. We die, but this writing of ours does not die with us. Its power for good or evil still continues. Its book still speaks to bless or curse. Even on the whole race, so closely are we bound together, something of us is written. Our book is there, in prose or poetry, in song or tale, our unconscious literature, fraught with joy or pain to men, with good or ill.

Babbage spoke of the traces spoken words leave on the physical atmosphere. There is a moral atmosphere which presses on us all, though as in the case of the physical atmosphere we feel not the pressure, and scarce take note of its existence unless when its motions are unusually violent. That atmosphere is the public opinion of the community in which we live, which is practically the law that regulates our conduct. On the wholesomeness of this atmosphere our moral health in great measure depends. But it too responds obediently to every impulse communicated to it by those who live in it. Public opinion is, in short, nothing but the aggregate representation of the moral sentiments of each individual of the community; and plainly each change in the moral condition of any individual affects that of the community; in an infinitely small degree, no doubt, but the great changes in nature are the results of the accumulation of movements each infinitesimally small. Yet, however small the direct effect of the action of one individual on the whole community, it might be large enough in his own immediate neighbourhood. Poisonous miasma which might have no perceptible effect when diffused through the whole atmosphere might be enough to make a whole house uninhabitable.

Science has been showing us of late something of the force residing in the actinic rays of light, by which it transfers impressions from one object to another. Wherever light goes, it carries and leaves images. The trees mirror one another, and opposing mountains wear each the likeness of the other upon their rocky breasts. These fine properties in nature suggest corresponding probabilities in man. It is poor logic to accept these fresh miracles of nature that are being so often revealed, and hold that we have compassed man and his possibilities. If such a process as this is going on in the dull substances without, how much more surely is it going on in the soul. All contact leaves its Mark 1 [Note: T. T. Munger, The Freedom of Faith, 353.]

The lost days of my life until to-day,

What were they, could I see them on the street

Lie as they fell? Would they be ears of wheat

Sown once for food but trodden into clay?

Or golden coins squandered and still to pay?

Or drops of blood dabbling the guilty feet?

Or such spilt water as in dreams must cheat

The undying throats of Hell, athirst alway?

I do not see them here; but after death

God knows I know the faces I shall see,

Each one a murdered self, with low last breath.

“I am thyself,—what hast thou done to me?”

“And I—and I—thyself,” (lo! each one saith,)

“And thou thyself to all eternity!”1 [Note: D. G. Rossetti.]


The Book of Life

1. Judgment is tempered with mercy. In the text, as everywhere in the Book of Revelation, there is a touch of mystery, through which, as through a veil, we seem to see the form of truth. We read: “And the books were opened.” But we read further: “And another book was opened, which is the book of life.” We know that, throughout the Apocalypse, “the book of life” is that record in which God keeps the names of those who, in this world, are faithful to Jesus Christ. In it are inscribed the names of those who live the “overcoming life”—those who hold this world to be a field of battle, and who, with their deepest and truest will, are contending for the life of the Spirit. Of these, the names are in “the book of life.”

In this “book of life” God has the record of our tears. There He may read the story of our private lamentings, our shame, our sorrow, our prayers, our cries, our protests against ourselves, our final humility of soul. And it is the message and gospel of this Scripture that those very things which, for the most part, the world could not see, those things which seemed to ourselves to stop short and to avail nothing, shall be known at the last to have been the precious and decisive things, the interceding things, the things which in the sight of God have the saving power, for they are bound up with the eternal intercession of Christ’s Passion, and for Christ’s sake are accounted for righteousness.

The best account of the ideas associated with the Book of Life will be found in an article under that title in the second volume of the Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics. In that article Dr. Alfred Jeremias of Leipzig shows that the idea of heavenly books is present in the religion of Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, India, China, and Islam. In the mythology of Babylon, reference is often made to the “tables of destiny,” which probably refer to two heavenly tablets, on one of which were written the commands of the gods, on the other the records of the life of men. The idea of a reckoning kept in heaven of men’s deeds frequently occurs in the Apocryphal literature. The suggestion of such a reckoning may have come from the roll or register of citizens, such as the register of the citizens of Jerusalem referred to in Isaiah 4:3. Such a roll God Himself keeps of the names of His own people. Moses refers to it when he says, “And if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written” (Exodus 32:32). In Psalm 69:28 it is called the “book of life.” In Revelation 13:8 it becomes the Lamb’s book of life.

It is as the Lamb’s book of life that it is referred to in our text. The book contains the names of those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. After all the books on which the works of men have been recorded are opened, the Book of Life is opened. Upon the record of the other books, what can a man hope for but condemnation? But those whose names are found in the Book of life have been purchased unto God through the precious blood of the Lamb. There is therefore now no condemnation to them.1 [Note: Expository Times, xxi. 210.]

2. The original record is written, but it is not permanent; the story is complete, but it is not ineradicable. The writing may be blotted out; the page may be recovered. The story which is spoilt may be written over again. “What I have written I have written,” said the obstinate procurator: and many a man has been inclined to take up his words and to repeat them with a meaning which they would not bear as they came from the lips of that astute Roman. “Done is done,” we hear men say, “and it can never be undone.” There is a sense, of course, in which they are right; there is another and deeper sense in which they are most certainly wrong. Done is not done in the sense that all the consequences to which we, by our sin, have exposed ourselves must inevitably come upon us. Mercy has intervened in order to prevent that. God has given His best that the deepest and darkest penalties to which sin has exposed us may not come upon us. Through His gift its consequences may be diverted, and the sin itself may be put away.

You know the incident in the life of Martin Luther, how the poor monk in his cell was visited in his night visions by the Arch-enemy of souls. The Tempter brought him great rolls which he bade him read, and he saw in his dream that those contained the record of his own life, and that they were written with his own hand. And the Tempter said to him, “Is that true? Did you write it?” and the poor stricken monk had to confess it was all true, and scroll after scroll was unrolled and the same confession was perforce wrung from him. And then the evil one prepared to take his departure, having reduced the poor monk to abject misery; but at that moment there came to him as in a flash another vision, and he turned to the Tempter and said, “It is true, every word of it. But write across it all: ‘The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.’ ”1 [Note: Church Pulpit Year Book, 1913, p. 245.]

Almightie Judge, how shall poore wretches brook

Thy dreadfull look,

Able a heart of iron to appall,

When thou shalt call

For ev’ry man’s peculiar book?

What others mean to do, I know not well;

Yet I heare tell,

That some will turn thee to some leaves therein

So void of sinne,

That they in merit shall excell.

But I resolve, when thou shalt call for mine,

That to decline,

And thrust a Testament into thy hand:

Let that be scann’d.

There thou shalt finde my faults are thine.2 [Note: George Herbert, The Temple.]

The Opening of the Books


Alexander (W.), The Great Question, 95.

Booth (Mrs.), Popular Christianity, 144.

Brooks (P.), Twenty Sermons, 60.

Carroll (B. H.), Sermons, 396.

Fuller (T.), Selected Sermons, ii. 276.

Hutchings (W. H.), Sermon-Sketches, i. 31.

Hutton (J. A.), The Fear of Things, 94.

Jerdan (C.), Pastures of Tender Grass, 421.

Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year: Advent to Christmas Eve 99.

Lambert (J. C.), Three Fishing Boats, 53.

Matheson (G.), Sidelights from Patmos, 236.

Mozley (J. B.), Sermons Parochial and Occasional, 337.

Muir (W.), “The Dead, Small and Great,” at the Judgment, 1.

Muir (W.), The Book we all Write, 1.

Munger (T. T.), The Freedom of Faith, 339.

Norton (J. N.), Milk and Honey, 9.

Pulsford (J.), Our Deathless Hope, 148.

Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, vii. (1862), No. 391.

Talmage (T. de W.), Fifty Sermons, i. 388.

Thorold (A. W.), The Gospel of Work, 159.

Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), ii. (1862), No. 371.

Christian World Pulpit, xii. 216 (H. T. Robjohns); xxxvii. 278 (H. S. Lunn); xl. 299 (H. H. Snell); lviii. 353 (C. Gore); lxxvi. 68 (J. R. Walker).

Church Pulpit Year Book, 1913, p. 243.

Churchman’s Pulpit: General Advent Season, i. 252 (R. Vaughan).

Contemporary Pulpit, 2nd Ser., i. 129 (G. Salmon).

Inquirer, Sept. 10, 1910 (S. A. Brooke).

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