By Michael S. Heiser
There are a lot of things in Scripture that are easy to read without giving them much thought. In my experience, the beginnings and endings of Paul’s letters fall into that category. Honestly, how interesting can greetings and farewells really be? Nothing to see here, citizen. Move along. Let’s get to something worthwhile.
Truth be told, we’ve all been there in Bible study. But I’ve learned over the years that some parts of Scripture I presumed were hopelessly dull were, in fact, entry points to fascinating rabbit trails. Take Philippians 4:2–3 for instance. In his farewell, Paul gently urges two women, Euodia and Syntyche to get along. Then he asks an apparently unnamed person in the Philippian church to “help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”
What’s eye-catching here is the reference to “the book of life.” On the surface, the idea is probably familiar; it shows up in a number of places in the Bible. In Luke 10:20 Jesus cautions his followers to not get too excited about the power to cast out demons. Instead, they should be excited that their names are “written in heaven.” The book of Revelation mentions the “book of life” six times (Rev 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27; compare Dan 12:1).
There are Old Testament precedents for the notion of a heavenly record of the righteous—people whose believing loyalty was focused exclusively on the saving power of Israel’s God. Moses famously begged God to “blot me out of your book that you have written” instead of annihilating his chronically faithless people (Exod 32:32). In a heated imprecation against the wicked, the psalmist rages, “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous” (Ps 69:28).
There’s more than meets the eye here. The idea of heavenly record-keeping can be found outside the Bible in the cultures of the wider ancient Near East. In Mesopotamia, the gods were considered the determiners of human fate—particularly the fates of kings. The gods wrote their decisions on “tablets of destiny” that spelled out how long the king would reign and whether he would have good health (among other things). The gods also kept records of misdeeds, errors, and good behavior. The Bible, of course, doesn’t reserve divine attention to kings. God is watching everyone.
Perhaps more surprising is the discovery that the Bible talks about other heavenly books, besides the book of life. While the Assyrian army threatened the 10 tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel, Isaiah prophesied that “he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem” (Isa 4:3; compare Ps 87:5–7). The text of Malachi informs us that “a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name” (Mal 3:16). God also tracks our suffering: “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?” (Ps 56:8). The same notion of record-keeping is applied to human evil: the Lord says he judges the wicked in accord with “what is written before me” (Isa 65:6–7).
What does all this mean? If God is omniscient, why does he keep records? Why are sins put into a ledger when God has promised to remember them no more (Ps 103:10–12)? Why care about remembering good works if salvation is by grace through faith?
The Bible isn’t expressing some deficiency in God’s memory or denying his omniscience. The idea of record-keeping is a useful metaphor for our benefit. It is a way of communicating that God does indeed know all things, good and evil. Nothing escapes his attention, and his perfect attention is the basis for his justice. Revelation 20:12 and 20:15 draw on the Old Testament record-keeping idea. Good works (or few evil deeds) are not the basis of salvation. Note the wording carefully:
12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. … 15And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Only those whose names are not written in the book of life are judged according to the record of their lives. Those whose names appear in the book of life—those who have embraced the gospel—have had their “record of debt” canceled, nailed to the cross (Col 2:14). The record-keeping metaphor reminds us that there is only one solution for being estranged from God because of sin: the work of Christ on the cross.