As the apostle John presents the final vision of Revelation 20, he wants his readers to face the reality of the final judgment. John wrote: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it” (v. 11). The apostle Paul warned that God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world” (Acts 17:31). Jesus defined this day as the day of His return: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne (Matt. 25:31). Whatever clever arguments may be made to urge us not to expect God’s judgment, Revelation 20:11-15 starkly upholds the words of the Nicene Creed: Christ “will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead.”

John begins by describing the judgment seat: “Then I saw a great white throne” (v. 11). Back in chapter 4:2, John was invited into heaven and the first thing he saw was a throne, and now at the end it fills his vision. As a “great” throne, it exudes majesty and authority. As a “white” throne, it radiates perfect purity, holiness, and incorruptible righteousness. When Isaiah saw his vision of the heavenly courtroom, the seraphim were crying, “Holy, holy, holy” (Isa. 6:3). The great white throne conveys the same message of infinite perfect justice.

John doesn’t specify who is seated on the throne, which suggests the presence of God the Father, as when this throne was first seen in chapter 4. In Daniel 7:9, from which John’s vision likely draws, it was “the Ancient of Days” who sat on the throne, clothed as “white as snow.” The Bible also states, however, that Jesus will judge the world together with the Father. Therefore, while verse 11 seems to focus on God the Father, it is clear that Jesus, God’s Son, is the agent to whom judgment is committed, which is why He was seated at the right hand of the holy God (Eph. 1:20; Heb. 12:2).

John adds the striking statement: “From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them” (v. 11). This imagery connects with earlier language in Revelation that was tied to Christ’s return. After the sixth seal was opened, John saw a cataclysmic end to the physical order, with a great earthquake and the falling of stars. “The sky vanished like a scroll,” he said (Rev. 6:12-14). This shows the upheaval that results from the absolute holiness and majesty of God when His throne is brought into the fallen world order. The reason for the fleeing of creation was “transgression and sins” (Mic. 1:5).

In addition to the reality of judgment, John’s vision presents the scope of the final judgment: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne” (v. 12). The meaning is that every human being who has ever lived will stand in this judgment. John emphasizes the general resurrection of all the dead to stand before God’s throne. Jesus said that “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out” (John 5:28). The universality of this resurrection is conveyed in verse 13. The point is that all will stand before the judgment throne. John emphasizes that there will be no distinctions, since the “great and small” stand together before God.

Since each of us will be present before God’s throne, we should realize now what is the basis for the final judgment. John answers: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened… And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (v. 12). Here we arrive at the vital matter. Since each of us must face God’s judgment, what will be the basis of condemnation?

The Bible is clear in stating that we are judged by our deeds. A book is opened, John reports, pointing out the divine record of our every thought, word, and deed, together with our sinful omissions. The infinite and omnipresent God has watched over every detail of history, with a perfect and infallible observation. This thought is unsettling, to say the least. Yet while we might forget our transgressions, the Righteous Judge of the universe remembers every single one. Not only are all our sins recorded in God’s book, but that book will be opened before all creation and the great white throne of the holy God.

When we understand the basis for God’s judgment, we realize the great problem that all of us are guilty and stand worthy of condemnation. For this reason, the most important of all truths is how sinners can escape from final judgment. John answers: “Then another book was opened, which is the book of life” (v. 12). The Bible states that God has a record of every person chosen to be saved by His grace. This book contains not deeds but names.

The full name of this book is given in Revelation 13:8: “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” This makes clear that election and salvation are always in Christ. To say that it is the book “of the Lamb” is to affirm that the names recorded are those who belong to Jesus Christ. Moreover, in calling Jesus “the Lamb who was slain,” this book records those who are saved by means of His atoning death for sin. Paul exclaims: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7). This redemption is received through faith in Jesus.

The question is raised about believers’ standing before God to be judged according to their deeds. It is clear in John’s vision that while all mankind outside Christ must be judged by the book of their works, believers in Christ are vindicated by the record of their names in the Book of Life. With our sins forgiven through His blood, our good deeds will then be rewarded with the praise of our dear Savior and Lord (Matt. 25:35-40). This is the reason of Paul’s statement that believers must appear before Christ and the reason we should be zealous in our living (2 Cor. 5:10). It is for this reason that Christians are taught to look forward to the return of Christ and the final judgment. Not only the guilt but also the shame of our sin was fully borne by Jesus on the cross. We will face not judgment but our coronation as joint heirs together with Christ in blessing.

Yet how dreadful is the punishment of the final judgment for those whose names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life and who are judged for their sins. John writes: “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (v. 15). This statement makes it clear that no one will ever be saved by his or her own works. The reason was stated by the apostle Paul: “None is righteous, no, not one; … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:10, 23). Since all are sinners, none can be justified by their works before God. Salvation comes only through faith in Jesus, by grace, according to the Lamb’s Book of Life.

John’s vision of the final judgment concludes with God’s ultimate victory – a triumph over even hell and death themselves: “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire” (v. 14). Death was the curse brought by sin into God’s perfect creation. In order for Christ to bring the “new heaven and a new earth” of eternal glory (21:1), then He must put an end to the curse of death, along with Hades, the abode of the condemned. Because of this victory, the final judgment is a day of rejoicing for the holy angels together with God’s redeemed people. For then it will be truly declared by the exultant voices of heaven: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (11:15).

Revelation 20:11-15 Study Questions:

What is the significance of the books that are opened as the dead gather around the throne (vv. 12-15)?

How does knowing we are in the Lamb’s Book of Life change who we are and what we do today?

How have you seen the Spirit of God working within you to redeem and enhance your thoughts, desires and actions?


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