“The Joy of Names Written in Heaven” (Luke 10:1-20)
President Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” And, in the civil realm, that’s fine. But is it so fine when we come to the ecclesiastical realm, the realm of the church, in other words, in the spiritual realm? When we’re talking about our relationship with God, is the important thing what we can do for God or what God can do for us? That is a question that our Lord Jesus Christ addresses in our text for tonight, when he speaks of “The Joy of Names Written in Heaven.”
We’ve been tracing the theme of “joy” in the Gospel of Luke in our series during this season of Lent. We’re looking at the main passages where the words “joy” or “rejoice” occur in this gospel. And we find one of those passages in Luke 10. There we find that a group of Jesus’ disciples have been rejoicing in one thing, but Jesus tells them there’s something else even more wonderful to rejoice in. Let’s find out more and then see how this relates to us.
Here’s the setting. Earlier, in Luke 9, Jesus had sent out his twelve disciples on a limited mission, sending them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and authorizing them to cure diseases and cast out demons. This they did, preaching the gospel and healing people. And on their return they told Jesus all they had done.
Then when we come to chapter 10, Jesus sends out seventy-two more of his disciples. Remember, Jesus had a wider group of followers than just the twelve. So these seventy-two Jesus sends out, giving them similar instructions: “Heal the sick in the towns you enter, and say to the people there, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” And on their return, likewise, they tell Jesus what they had done.
“The seventy-two returned with joy,” our text says. Things must have gone well, it sounds like. Yes, they have. The seventy-two tell Jesus, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”
Well, seventy-two, what did you expect? Jesus himself has cast out demons, a number of times so far in his ministry. If he authorizes you to do the same, then that is what will happen. Jesus’ word, Jesus’ name–these carry authority, they have great power. After all, Jesus Christ is the Holy One of God, the very Son of God. Of course he has authority over the devil and all the demons. So that is what you will have, also, when he sends you out in his name. But is that the biggest thing you can have joy in, namely, what you’ve been able to accomplish doing his work? Or is there something more, even greater?
Jesus goes on to tell his seventy-two disciples: “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In other words, what I’ve given you to do in my name, the work I’ve given you to do–that’s all well and good. And it includes having authority over the demonic realm. But don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. You’ve got something even greater to rejoice over. It is the joy that your names have been written in heaven.
“Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” What does Jesus mean by that? The concept or image of people’s names being written in heaven, written in a book of life–this is not unique to this passage in Luke. It’s all over the Bible. Let’s look at a few examples.
In Exodus 32, Moses intercedes for the people of Israel, asking the Lord to forgive their sin, and then adding, “but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” In Psalm 69, the psalmist talks about the righteous being enrolled in “the book of the living.” In Daniel 12, there is the prophecy that God’s people would be delivered, that is, “everyone whose name shall be found written in the book.” Then in the New Testament, in Philippians 4, Paul mentions the names of several individuals who have worked with him in the cause of the gospel–Euodia, Synteche, Clement–“whose names,” Paul adds, “are in the book of life.”
Finally, when we come to Revelation, we see this “book of life” and “names written in heaven” business all over the place. In Revelation 3, Jesus’ promise to the Christian who overcomes is that “I will never blot his name out of the book of life.” In chapter 13, the ones worshiping the blasphemous beast are described as “everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” Likewise, in chapter 17: those “whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world.” In chapter 20, at the final judgment, anyone whose name is “not found written in the book of life” is thrown into the lake of fire. To be sure, it will be a fearful thing if your name is not written in that book. But for those whose names are found written in that book, the outcome will be quite different, and much better. In Revelation 21, we read about the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city, and those who will be able to enter there are “those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
“The Lamb’s book of life.” “Names written in heaven.” This is where our great joy is to be found. In Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” This is not something that you did. This is something God did. He did this for you, by his grace, as a gift. Your names are written in heaven, dear friends, written there with the blood of Christ. This is how you get in that book. Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Lamb who was slain, was slain as the sacrifice for your sin. His blood cleanses you from all your sin.
So this is what Christ is on the way to doing, as he heads to Jerusalem on his Lenten journey. His name, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”–his name would be written on a plaque nailed to a cross, so that your name would be written in heaven, in the Lamb’s book of life.
God joined your name to his name when you were baptized into Christ. The triune God placed his name upon you. Christ’s authorized ambassador, the pastor, spoke your name and placed you under God’s name: “John, Mary, Charles, Elaine, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” God knows your name. He’s written it in his book. And he will call your name when Christ returns and raises you from the dead. Your name, dear friend, your name is written in heaven. You’ve got a place reserved there with your name written on it.
So this is what Jesus would have you rejoice in, as the main thing. It’s fine that you can do some work in the kingdom and get things done for the church. That’s great. But even greater, far greater, is what God has given you in your Savior, Jesus Christ. Your sins have been forgiven. Your redemption has been purchased. Your salvation has been won. Your resurrection from the dead and your eternal life are secure, in Christ. You are baptized. You are God’s child. You have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, to give you faith in Christ your Savior. Notice, these are all things you did not do. God did them for you.
Now, is it good if you can do some work for the church? Do we want people who will witness to Christ to their neighbors and family members, inviting them to church and Bible class? Yes, by all means. Do we want people who will give generously to support the work of the church, to be generous and regular with their offerings? Yes, of course. That is much needed. Do we want people who will volunteer their time and effort to do various tasks around the church–cleaning up, serving on various boards and committees, and so forth? Sure. Very much appreciated. And if you are good at those things, whatever they are, you can be glad about that. Praise the Lord, he’s given you gifts that you can use in the service of the gospel and for the good of others. That’s terrific. But don’t put the cart before the horse.
Don’t lose sight of the main thing. Your membership in Christ’s church is not based on how much you can do for Christ. If you can do a lot, don’t get the big head. If you can’t do very much anymore, don’t feel like you are unloved or not valued in God’s sight. You see, it’s not about how good a worker you are for the church. That’s not it. That’s secondary–good, and important, if you’re able to do those things, but still secondary.
The primary thing, the reason you are in the church, is, first of all, to be given to. That is why you are here. God has gifts he wants to give you. And they come wrapped up in the gospel, in Word and Sacrament.
So, to paraphrase President Kennedy, Christ Jesus would say to you: “Ask not what you can do for God. Ask what God can do for you.” That is faith. That is rejoicing in the main thing. Jesus didn’t want the seventy-two to get mixed up on this, and he doesn’t want us, the–how many are we here tonight?–he doesn’t want us to get mixed up on it, either. Yes, we do rejoice over how God blesses the work that he gives us to do in his name. But the big joy–the one indispensible, unchangeable, and eternal joy we have–is this: “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”