In Rev 21:27 John describes the role God gives to his people by writing their names in his heavenly book. This is a received role. Nevertheless, this role grounds and compels activity as one embraces God’s initiative and call to identify with him and the Lamb. This received role includes all the benefits of kingdom life portrayed in Revelation, including forgiveness of sin, divine enablement, and providential care. And it demands that the one written by God in the Lamb’s book of life lives truthfully and purely in God’s presence. John’s inscription imagery at the conclusion of Revelation 21 must be considered in light of his broader matrix of inscription ideas that precede, especially those places where humans or personified individuals are in view.
Writing Names and Titles
Inscriptions figure prominently in Revelation. In Rev 2:17b, Jesus promises the church in Pergamum that he will give those who conquer a white stone with an inscription known only to the one who receives it. Jesus promises the conquerors in Philadelphia (Rev 3:12b) that he will make them pillars of God and write on them God’s name, the name of the new Jerusalem, and his new name.
John uses references to inscriptions as a cohesive feature binding units of thought in the narrative flow of Revelation 13–14 and 17–19. First, in John’s portrait of the evil triumvirate in Revelation 13, John notes that humanity worships the beast from the sea. Everyone, that is, whose name is not written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 13:8b). Those who worship the beast take his mark on their forehead or right hand (Rev 13:16). John counters that group with his vision of the 144,000, whom God sealed as his own in Revelation 7, standing with the Lamb on Mount Zion. John notes that God’s sealed ones have the name of the Lamb and the Father’s name written on their foreheads (Rev 14:1). John’s use of inscription imagery coheres Revelation 13–14 as a composite section of the book.
Second, references to inscriptions hold Revelation 17–19 together. Here, John describes the fall of Babylon and the victory of Jesus over the beast and his false prophet. In John’s vision, Babylon is personified as a woman, a harlot filled with blasphemous names (Rev 17:3). And on her forehead, John notes in Rev 17:5, is written an epithet describing her as the mother of prostitutes and evil on earth. In Rev 13:8, John states that all those whose names are not written in the book of life worship the beast and his image. In Rev 17:8b, he notes that that group is yet astounded by the beast who rises in power at the time of Babylon’s destruction. Inscription imagery in Revelation 17 validates and verifies the evil status of Babylon, the beast, and those who associate with them. But, inscriptions are neutral and can be employed to validate and verify God and his people. Thus, when Jesus returns as the rider on the white horse in Revelation 19, readers should almost expect some reference to inscriptions. John does not disappoint, concluding his portrayal of Jesus by stating in Rev 19:16 that the epithet King of Kings and Lord of Lords is written on Jesus’s robe and thigh.
When John uses inscription imagery in Revelation with respect to the content of writing, he usually refers to a message, name, or title/epithet. In the final two chapters of Revelation, John breaks that pattern. He is no longer concerned with the inscription of names that might designate people but directly with people. In the New Jerusalem, just as in the lake of fire, people and not names dwell.
At the great white throne judgment, John does not state that the names of those not written in the book of life go to everlasting punishment. Rather, the person not written is assigned to eternal punishment (Rev 20:15). John uses the indefinite relative pronoun ‘anyone,’ where we expect him to use a form of the noun ‘name.’ Though a name might be implied, taking into account previous references in Rev 13:8 and 17:8, the absence of a name and the presence of ‘anyone’ emphasizes that in the end, God will judge persons.
In the final paragraph of John’s description of the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:22–27), John first describes God’s presence there and then notes the demographics and quality of people beholding God there. In Rev 21:22–23, John notes that God and the Lamb are central in the New Jerusalem, replacing the sanctuary and the sun. God created the sun to mark times and seasons (Gen 1:14–19; Ps 136:1–9; et al.) and the sanctuary of the temple as the place where his gathered people might experience his presence—a tradition originating in the completion of the tabernacle (Exodus 40) and the temple (1 Kings 8–9). God’s personal presence among his people in the New Jerusalem, the eternal city (Rev 21:1–4, 25), removes the need for these structures that order the older age.
In Rev 21:24–27, John describes those who will dwell in the New City with God. In view of the literary context, this is an ironic audience. John fuses inscription language in the Lamb’s book of life with nations and kings of the earth. Since Revelation 7, John has set forth what might be called the missionary theme of Revelation, as the nations are among God’s people praising him. But kings of the earth, portrayed most recently in the fall of Babylon, are notorious for rebelling against God—not bringing their glory into God’s presence. But in the flow of Rev 21:25–27, John notes that the nations and even the kings of the earth are among those written in the Lamb’s book of life. This is an exclusive group—opposite the wicked and defiled that have been cast into the lake of fire (Rev 21:8, 27); the group written in the Lamb’s book will now enjoy God forever.
¹ This is the seventh entry in a series of FTC blog posts noting how John uses a particular grammatical form, the articular substantival participle, for specific words in Revelation that resemble a playwright’s roles in a script.
² γράφω in Rev 21:27.
³ Buist Fanning comments, “He (John) had spoken in the previous verses primarily of groups of people (‘the dead’ in vv. 12a, 12f, 13a, 13b), but here (as in v. 13c ‘each one’) he speaks of ‘anyone [τις] … not found written in the book of life’ (v. 15a). The fate of such an individual is to be ‘thrown’ (ἐβλήθη) into the fiery lake of condemnation just as the infernal trinity along with Death and Hades were ‘thrown’ into it previously (19:20; 20:10, 14)” (Revelation, ZECNT [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020], 520).
⁴ i.e., ὄνομα.
⁵ G.K. Beale writes, “They were written in the book of the Lamb before the creation, which means that they were identified at that time as ones who would benefit from the Lamb’s redemptive death. Therefore, they have been given the protection of eternal life, which comes as a result of the Lamb’s death. This prehistorical identification with the Lamb has protected them from the deceptions of the world, which threaten to suppress their trust in the Lamb, and has enabled them to be ready to enter the gates of the city to enjoy the life for which they have been destined” (The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 1102).