In this series, we have looked at worship practices and principles from a wide range of perspectives—form vs. freedom, Word and sacrament, degree of congregational participation, regulative vs. normative principle, and worship in the Old and New Testaments. To wrap up this series, we need to look at the place where worship is done the most perfectly: heaven, as revealed in the Book of Revelation.
Worship in Revelation
Revelation 4 describes the throne room of heaven. In it, we see the “four living creatures,” identified as seraphim in Isaiah 6, who constantly chant the holiness of God, and twenty-four elders who declare His worthiness of glory, honor and power because He created all things—including the heavenly beings themselves.
Ancient Roman wills were sealed with seven seals, each of which was impressed with the signet of a witness to the will. When such a scroll was presented in heaven, only Jesus, the Lamb of God, was worthy to break the seals, thereby inaugurating the New Covenant, and so in Revelation 5, we see Him worshiped.
The elders prostrate themselves before Jesus. They bring with them censors of incense representing the prayers of the saints and play harps, singing a hymn of praise to Jesus. The rest of heaven joins them in proclaiming Jesus’ worthiness. Later, the saints also sing and play harps in declaring God’s praise, this time as revealed by the judgment of the fallen world (Rev. 15:2-4).
The souls of martyrs call for divine justice (Rev. 6:9-11) and stand before the throne of God and the Lamb, crying out loudly about God’s salvation; their cry is answered antiphonally by the four living creatures and the elders (Rev. 7:9-12).
Worship in heaven also includes silence for a full 30 minutes (Rev. 8:1). This was followed by seven blasts of trumpets much like the shofars which called ancient Israel to worship. Much of the rest of the book deals with judgment. Judgment is both proclaimed (e.g. Rev. 18:2-8) and celebrated in Heaven (Rev. 19:1-5), as is the salvation of God’s people (Rev. 19:6-8).
And in the end, in the New Heavens and New Earth, God himself will live among us, so there will be no need of a temple. He will be our light, and with His continual presence with us there will be no night. Every blessing will be ours at that point, though we are told little of what worship will look like as we live constantly in the presence of God.
More points could be brought out about worship in Revelation, but here we can note several worship practices evident in this brief survey.
- Liturgical prayers: note that groups recite prayers together
- Antiphonal prayers
- Singing, sometimes accompanied by musical instruments (i.e. harps)
- Prayers, represented by incense
- Prostration: worship engages the body
Worship in heaven thus involves our senses—sight, hearing, smell—as well as our bodies. It isn’t only a matter of singing or listening to music, and it isn’t purely cerebral. It includes our whole being, and the closer we are to God the more engaged we are in worship and the more extreme our actions (e.g. prostration before him).
This raises the obvious question, if these responses to God’s holiness and works are appropriate in heaven, what does that mean for us on earth? To what extent should our worship activities mirror those of heaven, and what might that look like in our cultural and historical context?
The Center of Worship
Several themes of worship are also evident in Revelation: God’s holiness; God as Creator; Jesus’ death and the salvation it obtained; God’s judgment of sin including the punishment of sinners; and the consummation of the age in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.
Above all else, the focus of worship in heaven is always God. It is never about us, about how we feel, or about our desires, needs, or preferences. It is never about the saints or angels. Worship is always directed Godward.
Worship and Building Up the Body
This observation raises an immediate question about the relationship of our corporate and private worship on earth with the worship of the saints in heaven. In 1 Cor. 14:26, we are told that everything we do is to be done for building up the church, which includes learning, encouragement, and consolation (cf. 1 Cor. 14:3-4). What is the relationship between the Godward focus of worship and building up the church?
For some people, the idea of building up the Body is ultimately about building up themselves. Thus, they judge worship by how they felt during it, or the sermon by what they got out of it. They expect the message to speak to their felt needs or to give them something practical that they can apply right away in their lives. This is why you can hear messages in church that sound more like advice from pop psychology or from a self-help program. While there can be some value in these sorts of things, focusing on them misses the point of what building up the Body really means.
The way the Body is built up is by strengthening its connection to its head.
The focus of our worship and our teaching must be on God and what Jesus has accomplished for us. This does not mean that we should not address social problems or challenges in society, in the congregation, or in personal lives, but to engage in biblical edification, we must address these things through the lens of the Gospel and by calling us into a deeper understanding of God as our creator, redeemer, lord and king.
Ultimately, the solutions to the issues that plague our lives and society are found in the Gospel, in calling people into the Kingdom, and thus are God-centered, not human-centered. When Jesus addressed the needs in the world around Him, He did it by showing what the Kingdom of God looked like by healing people, delivering them from demons, feeding them, raising the dead, giving alms, etc., and proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom. He always pointed people back to God and the presence of the Kingdom in himself. If that is the solution Jesus had to a world that was “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt.9:36), then it is what we should be doing ourselves and should be the heart of our efforts to build up the body.
After all, it is His Body that we are building up!
Worship Here and Worship in Heaven
As we center our worship on God, another dimension opens to us that we too often do not recognize. The Psalms tell us that we are to enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise, that we are to come before him with music and song. Praise and thanksgiving, celebrating God with Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, is the route into God’s presence. God is enthroned on the praises of his people, and the seraphim, the elders, the angels, and the saints in heaven are all engaged in worshipping him. Our praise and thanksgiving join with theirs, and thus ushers us directly into God’s presence.
In the same way, Revelation tells us that as the elders and angels offer incense before the Lord in heaven, that incense is the prayers of his people. Even in our prayers, we join in the work and worship of the angels in heaven.
In our worship, the visible and invisible, time and eternity, heaven and earth, all come together, giving us a foretaste of life in the New Heavens and New Earth. As Paul says, we see now only in a mirror dimly; it is hard for us to recognize the full dimensions of our worship. But as we come to a deeper appreciation of all that worship is meant to be, we will find our spiritual lives immeasurably enriched by our growing appreciation of God and all he has done for us in creation and in the work of Christ, through whom we now can truly enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.