Rev. 22:12 – “Look! I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me to repay each person according to what he has done. (HCSB)
My reward is with me
Jesus speaks in verse 12: “Look! I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me to repay each person according to what he has done.” The New Testament often repeats the theme of judgment based on works. For example:
- In Matt. 16:27 Jesus declares, “For the Son of Man is going to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will reward each according to what he has done.”
- In Matt. 25:31-46 Jesus speaks of the coming judgment of the “sheep” and “goats.” He separates those on His right from those on His left and explains that their works revealed their character. The sheep are welcomed into His kingdom, prepared for them from the foundation of the world, while the goats are banished to the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels.
- In Rom. 2:5-8 Paul writes, “But because of your hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed. He will repay each one according to his works: eternal life to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality; but wrath and indignation to those who are self-seeking and disobey the truth but are obeying unrighteousness …” While commentators have offered nearly a dozen interpretations of this difficult passage, the most likely one is that works are the outcome of a person’s faith, or lack thereof. Paul quotes from Ps. 62:12 and Prov. 24:12 when he writes, “He will repay each one according to his works.” The believer, indwelled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, lives a life of conformity to the image of God. The unbeliever, driven by the flesh, produces works worthy of eternal separation from God.
- In 1 Peter 1:17, Peter notes, “And if you address as Father the One who judges impartially based on each one’s work, you are to conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your temporary residence.”
- And in Rev. 20:13, as unbelievers stand before the great white throne, they are judged “according to their works.”
Rev. 20:15 – And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. (HCSB)
Anyone not found
John concludes this section with the words, “And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (v. 15).
As the wicked pass through the gates of hell in Dante’s epic poem Inferno, they are greeted with these words: “Abandon hope, all you who enter here.” These words remind the damned that once inside, there is no escape from the fiery torments they have brought upon themselves.
As Charles Swindoll writes, “Though the details of Dante’s fictional picture of heaven, hell, and purgatory range from the fantastic to the heretical, he was right about this: the final destination of the wicked features a one-way entrance. All hope vanishes beyond; there will be no escape from the lake of fire…. The facts of eternal punishment are set forth without a hint of hope … because no hope exists apart from God” (Insights on Revelation, pp. 266-67).
Books are opened at the great white throne, and the wicked find their names there, along with details of their lives – perhaps even a full accounting of their deeds. Some may wish to be excluded from God’s record of their thoughts, words, and actions, for their lives are laden with every sort of evil. They stand before their Creator – who has revealed Himself in creation, conscience, Christ and Canon – with no excuse (Rom. 1:20). They have turned up their noses at God’s revealed love and turned their backs on His grace. And now they are reminded of every idle word, every selfish deed, every squandered opportunity as the evidence written in the books piles so high and wide it becomes like prison walls that cannot be scaled.
Rev. 20:12b – and books were opened … (HCSB)
Books were opened
As unbelievers stand before the great white throne – alone, without a defense, and with no escape – John notes that “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” (v. 12). What are these books, and how many are there? What is different about the book of life that it should be named, while the others are mentioned as a group without distinction?
It seems clear that God keeps a record of our lives and holds us accountable for how we manage the time, talents, relationships, and other gifts He has entrusted to us. He knows our thoughts, which form the action plans for good and evil deeds (see, for example, Matt. 5:27-28). He hears our words, which reveal the true nature of our hearts and for which we must give an account (Matt. 12:33-37).
In various places, the Bible depicts God’s record of our lives as contained in heavenly books. No person escapes the Creator’s interest or avoids a day of reckoning with Him. “Myriads of human beings have lived and died of whom the world knows nothing; but the lives they lived, the deeds they wrought, the thoughts and tempers they indulged, still stand written where the memory of them cannot perish. Not a human being has ever breathed earth’s atmosphere whose career is not traced at full length in the books of eternity” (Seiss, p. 479).
Rev. 20:12 – I also saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne … (HCSB)
I also saw the dead
Evidently these are unbelievers of all time summoned to final judgment. They are “dead” in three ways. First, they are spiritually dead, separated from God by their unbelief. Second, they are physically dead, having died and now having been physically resurrected to stand in judgment. Third, they are everlastingly and irreversibly dead; once their judgment is complete, they are cast into the lake of fire where they experience unending separation from their Creator and are shackled with the reality that God has given them what they desire: the freedom to live independently of Him for eternity.
John describes them as “the great and the small.” They are the famous and the obscure; the mighty and the frail; the elderly and the young; the educated and the unschooled; the peerless and the impoverished; the gifted and the ordinary; the blunt and the arcane; the religious and the atheistic; the moral and the decadent; the violent and the gentle; the arrogant and the fearful.
God is no respecter of persons. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45). Christ’s offer of salvation is open to Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. The kingdom of heaven is populated with people every tongue, people, kindred, and nation, and there is equal representation before the great white throne.
Rev. 20:11 – Then I saw a great white throne and One seated on it. Earth and heaven fled from His presence, and no place was found for them. (HCSB)
A great white throne
In contrast to the heavenly “thrones” upon which people sit and from which they are given authority to rule (verse 4), John now describes “a great white throne” upon which God sits to judge the wicked standing before Him. Specifically, the One seated on the throne is Jesus, to whom the Father has given all judgment (John 5:22). John describes the throne as great and white to indicate the purity of Christ and the awesome weight His judgments carry.
John sees a similar throne in heaven in Revelation 4, but the circumstances are vastly different.
The One seated on the throne in Revelation 4 is surrounded by a rainbow, indicative of God’s covenant promises; but the throne in Revelation 20 is stark and singular, for there are no further hopes to fulfill.
The throne in Revelation 4 is surrounded by 24 elders that cast their crowns before Him and declare His worthiness; but the throne in Revelation 20 stands alone, for there is no reward to share with the wicked standing there, and no praise from their lips.
The throne in Revelation 4 features lightning and thunder as warnings of God’s power and as invitations to repent; but the throne in Revelation 20 is silent and eerily calm, for the end of grace has come.
The throne in Revelation 4 witnesses the seven-fold Spirit of God, which bears testimony of Christ and woos people to turn to Him for salvation; but the throne in Revelation 20 has no flaming torches and no still, small voices.
The throne in Revelation 4 has before it a glassy sea to indicate heavenly peace and security; but the throne in Revelation 20 is barren of such harbors because the wicked have rejected the Person who offers them peace.
The throne in Revelation 4 receives thunderous praise and joyful exultation from heavenly creatures and redeemed people; but the throne in Revelation 20 receives only silence because the ones standing before it have no praise to give and no defense to offer.
There is something stark and terrifying about the throne in Revelation 20, as we are about to discover.