God has all kinds of sons and daughters, through redemption and adoption in Christ, who love him equally, but also love him differently. The body of Christ is the real rainbow coalition. Because of this, we Christians don’t tend to handle our rich diversity very well at all. No scandal of contemporary Church is more pronounced than the multiplicity of denominations, which defines the Christian topography.
As our Lord has prayed for our unity, mutual esteem, and love, we have majored on the theological minor, ecclesiastical turf protection. Painfully, and oddly enough, our disunity is nowhere more clearly pronounced than when the topic of worship emerges for discussion and planning among Christians. That which is meant to be an expression of Spirit-wrought humility and other-centered adoration of God becomes a battleground for proud combatants to vie for the right to define the liturgy and control the elements of the worship service. More often than not, this is usually only determined by a person’s aesthetic sensibilities and preferences, not theology. What an ugly circumstance and utter contradiction of the nature and purpose of the worship of God.
The book of Revelation confronts these sins and invites us to something far more glorious. In chapter 5, we are still in the great throne room. As we look at this section, it becomes obvious that John is given much more than a vision of the sovereignty of God with his glimpse into the control center of the universe. He is given a vision of the glorious worship of Heaven. John sees and hears that for which we have been made, that which will be our sumptuous feast throughout eternity, the perfected worship of our Triune God.
From this point on, we will see that the worship of the Lamb and the One upon the throne is the defining reality of the people of God. It distinguishes us from those who worship the Beast (Ch. 13), demons, and idols. It is the love song of the Bride for the Bridegroom. It is the means by which we are to wage war against Satan in the world, not against one another in the Body of Christ. It is the eschatalogical cry of the beloved of the Lord who worship now as a foretaste of how we will worship then.
Worship is presented as a way of life, and not just that which is celebrated one day a week in a special room called the worship center. The whole of God’s creation is the worship center and God himself is the center of all worship. Several hymns and doxologies are intentionally and strategically placed throughout Revelation. We can believe that Revelation is to the New Testament what the book of Psalms is to the Old Testament. Here is our worship manual and hymnal, and it is as instructive as it is encouraging.
As God is worshiped as Creator in chapter 4, so he is worshiped as Redeemer in chapter 5. Our focus moves from the One upon the throne to the One who hung on the Cross. The vision continues with John’s gaze riveted on a scroll in God’s right hand, “with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals” (5:1). This “book of destiny” is in the firm grasp of the One upon the throne. The decrees of God are comprehensive and extensive, as the double-sided writing indicates. History is the unfolding of God’s predetermined plan for all things. Chance and fate do not reign, God does.
John is further drawn into the drama of this worship as he hears and sees “a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?'” (5:2). That is, who could possibly be qualified “to perform the supreme service of bringing history to its foreordained consummation”? But none could be found worthy of the task among the angels, or even the redeemed of the Lord. John weeps tears of pain as he confronts the unworthiness of the whole people of God to even look inside the scroll, much less open it.
An elder, representing redeemed mankind, responds, “Do not weep! See the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals” (5:5). As the Lion, Jesus is the true King who is paramount over all. His human lineage is traced through Judah (Heb 7:14; 2Sa 7:13, 16; Isa 9:6; Luk 1:32; Gen 49:9). But he who came after King David is also before him (Isa 11:1, 10; John 8:57; Mic 5:2; Rev 22:16). In the birth of Jesus the “Shoot of Jesse” is also revealed as the “Root of Jesse”. He alone is worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals.
John looks for a Lion and instead sees a Lamb. What a glorious paradox. This Lamb – “looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne” (5:6) – becomes the central figure. Even in heaven, we will be eternally reminded of the fact that is is only by the virtue of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement that we are there. He is the Messianic King because he has been faithful to his calling as the Lamb of God.
There is no ordinary Lamb, but one with seven horns and seven eyes. The seven horns do not need to be painted into the image of a Lamb. Instead, they are intended to make us think of the fullness of Jesus’ power, as horns are a symbol of strength in Scripture (Deu 33:17; Psa 18:2; 1Ki 22:11). This Lamb is the omnipotent Son of God! His seven eyes symbolize both his omniscience and the pervasiveness of his Spirit’s work throughout creation.
In one of the most dramatic and glorious events in all of history, Jesus, as the Lamb, comes and takes the scroll from the Father’s right hand. Immediately, worship breaks as the four living creatures and 24 elders fall down before the Lamb (5:8). This tender picture reminds us that our supplications and our prayers actually matter to God. The worship and prayer of the “church militant” connect us with the “church triumphant” like nothing else (Exo 31:1-8; Deu 33:10; Psa 14:2; Luk 1:10).
Try to imagine experiencing what John was next privileged to witness as the Lamb takes the scroll from our Father’s hand. The elders begin singing a “new song”. This song of redemption is new in the sense that it is fresh and special. It is a song that will never grow old because the wonder and joy of this salvation will never pall. The threefold worth of the Lamb to open the scroll is proclaimed as he is praised.
You were slain (5:9) – Jesus’ sacrificial death is the zenith and purest expression of his costly and unconditional love for sinners
You purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation (5:9) – Jesus did not merely make redemption possible, he has actually secured the salvation of many from every people group
You have made the to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth (5:10) – through Jesus our lives have meaning, not just in eternity but also in Baguio, Asia, throughout the world and throughout history
What is the only appropriate response to such a glorious vision? John “looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise'” (5:11-12). What a dynamic and dramatic scene. When is the last time you participated in a worship service and approached this kind of inviting reality?
But this celebration of God’s mercy and might grows even grander. “Then I heard every creature in Heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, forever and ever!’ The four living creatures said, ‘Amen,’ and the elders fell down and worshiped (5:13-14). Everyone and everything gives God and the Lamb their worthy due. Has a more awesome worship gathering ever been described?
What effect do you think this vision would have had on the seven churches? The persecuted are deeply encouraged to endure all things on behalf of him who bore all things for their redemption. The cold-hearted are invited to be renewed in their affections for him whose love is their own rebuke. Jewish Christians are secured in this new covenant faith as they are reassured that Jesus is, indeed, God’s Messiah, the Lion of the tribe of Judah. The fearful are given strength, confidence and hope as they see who really controls history and their destiny. The outnumbered Christians on the Roman world are made aware that they are far from being a minority – they are part of an uncountable community. Those deceived by false teaching are confronted with worship that is in “truth” and, therefore, pure. The whole church is called to affirm afresh with confidence, passion and joy, that Jesus, not the emperor, is Dominus et Deus, Lord and God.
What about us? How are we to be affected by the vision of heavenly worship given in this chapter? For those who claim great interest, passionate concern, and/or personal responsibility for the worship of God in our day, this portion of Scripture is critical and compelling. Doesn’t it stand to reason that the perfected worship of Heaven should be the paradigm from which we work as we seek to faithfully adore, praise and honor the One who alone is worthy of everything that we have and are? How should our understanding and experience of worship in our church families be shaped by what we see of the worship of God in eternity?
As we give careful attention to the details of john’s description in Revelation 4 and 5, certain continuums of worship emerge which are instructive and helpful. They guide us as we seek to mature as a community of God’s people who accept the worship of God as our most glorious, important and eternal of all callings. For as long as the discussion about worship centers on what we like or dislike, we have missed the heart of worship. Perhaps we have unwittingly done a better job of worshiping worship than worshiping God. As Christians we are to accept what the Reformers called the regulative principle, the belief that the Bible alone has the authority to regulate all things for the people of God, including what we do in worship. The questions we should be wrestling with are:
- What does God desire in his worship?
- What is acceptable worship according to the Bible?
- How can we more faithfully represent, honor and serve God in his worship?
That we worship our Triune Lord is great, appropriate and awesome. We should! But that is neither the point not the goal of true worship. All that should ultimately matter to us is his glory and honor.
Let us look at some of the principles of worship continuums:
Spirit (Holy Spirit) – versus – Truth (Doctrine)
Many Christians tend to set up an unbiblical dichotomy based on the difference between what they call dead worship and alive worship. Dead worship is usually stereotyped as being too cerebral, liturgical, theological, weighty, musically out of touch, and boring. Alive worship is described in terms of being Spirit-led, emotionally real and affective, musically relevant, and powerful. It is assumed by many that theology and passion are mutually exclusive in worship. But in the visions and worship given in the book of Revelation, we find rich theology leading to impassioned doxology: sound doctrine effecting spiritual delight; a clearer vision of God segueing into a deeper experience of his glory and grace.
This same John who recorded Jesus’ revelation of heavenly worship also recorded some of the most important teaching that our Lord gave on the topic of worship. In chapter 4 of John’s gospel, Jesus had an encounter with a Samaritan woman in which he made known to her that:
Joh_4:23 “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”
It is important for us to hear that, first of all, our Father is seeking worshippers. It should humble us to realize that our God actually longs for and delights in the worship of his people.
Second, however, notice that not just any kind of worship will do. True worship (as opposed to unacceptable worship) must be in spirit and in truth. Neither dead orthodoxy (truth without spirit) nor live heterodoxy (spirit without truth) is acceptable to God. God’s worship must be grounded in his truth and enlivened by his Spirit. This balanced continuum must be celebrated in every liturgical setting in the Christian church, no matter our ecclesiastical heritage, whether Baptist, Charismatic, nondenominational, Episcopal, or whatever.
Transcendence (God’s holiness) – versus – Immanence (God’s nearness)
God’s holy otherness is celebrated in John’s visions just as his Abba, Father’s, heart is fully enjoyed. We hear the same “holy, holy, holy” ringing out in the worship of heaven as Isaiah experienced his magnificent vision (Isa 6). God is “high and lifted up”. His glory still fills the temple. John also describes God coming off his exalted throne and wiping every tear out of the eyes of the people of God (Rev 21). What a glorious mixture of images, of reverence and intimacy. We tend, however, to negate one of these aspects of God’s Being in preference to the other, but we are not to treat the attributes of God like ice cream where we can pick our flavors of choice.
Such an attitude is what the Bible calls idolatry, the remaking of God after our own image or liking. We dare not trivialize the worship of God by reducing it to some kind of syrupy sentimental familiarity. And neither are we faithfully and in keeping with his own revelation when we keep God in the rafters of the sanctuary under the pretense of mystery and respect. In heaven we will fully and eternally enjoy an affectionate reverence for God. May the same become increasingly manifest in the way we worship him today.
We have learned so much about the mercy, grace and love of God. We richly enjoy God’s nearness in the Gospel. Let us look forward to entering a season of rediscovering what it means to be in awe of God’s majesty and eternal perfections, as David must have been when he wrote Psalm 145. Without such a vision, we tend to trivialize the gospel of God’s grace. May that never happen.
Heart (Inner expression) – versus – Art (Outward expression)
As you look very carefully at the worship of heaven you will realize that it includes many elements that are spatial, visual, auditory, musical, and participatory, just to name a few. There represent the art of heavenly worship and should be seen as the creative expression of the heart of worship.
God bids us surrender of our creative energies, gifts and artistic sensibilities to the most noble and rand of all realities, the worship of God. No, we are not called to worship art nor artists for this is nothing more than idolatry. (Tragically the church has proven itself quite capable of this and many other idolatries in our worship services.) But neither are we to congratulate ourselves for giving artless expressions to the richness of our theology and experience of the living God. Too often, we settle for a “hymn sandwich” in our worship services – a big fat slice of meaty sermon between an opening and closing hymn. Surely God’s worship is to be more creative and participatory than this. There is more of a defense for artless worship than there is for heartless worship. Surely we are not to offer to the Lord that which cost us nothing.
Liturgy – versus – Life
Lastly, we should be profoundly stirred by the implications of God being worshipped in Revelation 4 as Creator before he is worshipped in Revelation 5 as Redeemer. The whole of life is to be seen as the worship center for the people of God. His praise is to be demonstrated and celebrated in all life, in all this world, and in every sphere of his creation. Indeed we are to plan, pray and work hard at cultivating faithful worship in our weekly celebrations in terms of the liturgy, the word, prayers, communion and music. But we must not reduce worship to mean only that which occurs in the sanctuary once a week.
Such reductionism has been destructive to the way God’s people tend to think of the nature of worship. All of life for Christians is to be loved as an act of worship. The chief end of man is to “glorify God and to enjoy him forever”. We do this best when we seek to worship him in every sphere of life – work, play, family, friendship, everywhere and all the time.
William Temple, founder and president of Temple university, offered this helpful definition of worship that captures a consuming understanding of what worship is about:
Worship is the submission of all our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by his holiness, the nourishment of mind with his truth, the purifying of imagination by his beauty: the opening of the heart to his love, the surrender of will to his purpose – and all this gathered up in adoration, the most selfless emotion of which our nature is capable, and therefore the chief remedy for that self-centeredness which is our original sin and the source of all actual sin.
As it is in heaven, may it be incremently and demonstrably so here!