Go back and read Revelation 4: The Beginning of the End of the Age.
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!
Go back and read Revelation 3: The Beloved Church – Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea.
A Real Experience
Let us step back in time a moment and read of another prophet who was called by God at a critical moment in Israel’s history. Samuel 3:1 related to us how the word of the Lord was “precious in those days” and there had been no “open vision” from God. God had not given any direct revelation to His people as He had done in former times. But now, three times Samuel is called from God and he, not recognizing the voice of God, runs to Eli, who himself only understands at the third call what is going on. In a vision the Lord himself comes to Samuel and reveals things that “will make the ears of those who hear tingle.” Samuel was called by God to tell what was going to happen in the years ahead, some things soon and swift, other events away in the future. Eli heard and accepted to words of Samuel and the punishment that he and his sons would receive for their wrong behavior (v. 18) and so did Israel listen to God’s word through Samuel.
The revelation to John, the apostle who outlived all of his colleagues, was given in a manner that was far more impressive and grandiose than the visions given to Samuel. Yet, just as Samuel passed on and proclaimed the words from God to man, so does the apostle John reveal God’s plans for his world to us. Samuel talked with God, who appeared to him on many occasions, but John reports to us what he actually saw and heard as he was transported in time and space to be an actual eyewitness of what would happen in the future. It is significant that the words “I heard” are used exactly 28 times – 7 X 4 – and the words “I saw” 49 times – 7 X 7. John is reporting as a direct witness of these things to come. He tells us they will occur as he wrote them, because he was there and saw and heard them happen.
The pervasive use of the number seven in the book of Revelation is noteworthy. The word “seven” occurs more often in Revelation than in all the rest of the New Testament put together. The number seven is the number that indicates fullness or completion, the reason being that God’s creation of the universe was completed on the seventh day in that first week. Ever since creation, man has kept time in terms of seven-day weeks, commemorating God’s completed work. In the book of Revelation, the “seal of seven” is subtly reminding us that God’s work of the redemption and restoration of his creation is likewise about to be completed. See below the chart of sevens in the book of Revelation:
||1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6
||1:12, 20; 2:1; 4:5
||1:16, 20; 2:1; 3:1
||5:1; 5:5; 6:1
||8:2, 6; 15:1, 6, 7; 15:8; 16:1; 17:1; 21:9
|7 Thousand people
||12:3; 13:1; 17:3, 7, 9
||15:1, 6, 8; 21:9
||15:7; 16:1; 17:1; 21:9
|Last 7 visions
Now, in chapter 4, after a concise and fitting review of the seven churches, and recognizing much of what was taught in chapters 1-3, and considering what we see going on around us in present day churches, we join John as he begins his journey into the future. John here sees, hears and learns of the “things that must be hereafter”(v 1b). John is not watching the scenes unfold before him but is taken there in spirit and his senses are fully in tune with all that is happening around him. Just as in chapter 1:10 the voice he hears is like the sound of a trumpet and it invites John to come up and see the future. One day, like John, we too will be caught up into Heaven to be with the Lord forever and see and hear (1 Thess 4:16-17)! What a day of rejoicing that will be! It will be immediate, “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor 15:52).
The Heavenly Throne Room
John was transported – or raptured – both in space and time to the throne of God at the end of the age, and what he saw he was commanded to “bear record of” (1:2). He finds himself in front of a throne being set in the nearby atmospheric heaven – Οὐρανός (ouranos), the sky, the eternal abode of God. This throne quite possibly is the “judgment seat” of Christ, transported from the far off third heaven (2 Cor 12:2) where God presently dwells and where Paul was taken to “paradise”. On the throne is the triune God who prepares himself for the judgment of the earth, “dwelling in the light which no men can approach unto; whom no man has seen, nor can see” (1 Tim 6:16). But the light emanating from the throne becomes visible to John in a complete rainbow around it. The color emerald (green) dominates, and the colors carnelian (red) and jasper (violet) are at either end of the spectrum. The rainbow is mentioned only four times in the Bible, each time referring to God’s mercy in a time of judgment (Gen 9; Ezek 1; Rev 4 and Rev 10). The rainbow is a reminder for us that in the midst of an ungodly world ripe for judgment, there is a remnant of believers, and that the “God of all grace” (1 Pet 5:10) will “in wrath remember mercy” (Hab 3:2).
Around the throne are arranged twenty-four seats, or “thrones”, on which are seated twenty-four elders. These elders are real men who are on two occasions quoted as speaking to John (5:5; 7:13). They are redeemed men, for they are wearing white robes (3:5). They also wear the victor’s crown – στέφανος, stephanos, as in the wreath given to winners of the Olympic games – and not the diadem – διάδημα – crown of a ruler or king. Paul wrote about this stephanos in 1 Cor 9:24-27 as being the crown that will be awarded to believers who overcome the flesh and conquer sin to live godly lives. Since the word “elder” always implies relative chronological age as well as official position, it seems possible that these men are the elders of the human race (Adam to Pharez). But their appearance gives them away. They have thrones, so they are also rulers. They are seated, so their work is done. They are dressed in white, so they have been made righteous. They are wearing the stephanos, so they are overcomers. They are elders, a title associated more with Christianity than Judaism. This strongly indicates that these elders are representatives of the Church. Also, in 6:2, the first horseman of the apocalypse is wearing the same stephanos, which is in keeping with the mission of Christ to cleanse the world, i.e., he will be victorious! Each judgment of the seven seals is sent firth by Christ, and the first rider is Christ, just as at the end of his judgments of the earth (19:11).
Verse 5 now describes some more of the things around the throne. When God revealed himself to man (e.g. Exo 19:16), thunder and voices and lightning were often part of it. When God spoke to Israel and gave them the Law through Moses, he did so in the same awe-inspiring manner. If the Law were not adhered to, judgment would follow. Also here, at the time when God proclaims his final judgment, it is again accompanied by thunder and lightning.
John sees seven lamps burning before the throne. They are identified as the seven Spirits of God (c.f. 1:4; 3:1). The seven Spirits are not seven angels, but are the Holy Spirit, joining with the Father and Christ in giving the message. Seven is here to be understood as seven-fold, as shown in the book of Isaiah 11:2 where the Spirit of the Lord is identified as “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” The Holy Spirit is made visible to John here, just as when he descended upon Jesus as a dove after his baptism (Mat 3:16), and as cloven tongues of fire upon the disciples on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:3).
The sea of glass like unto crystal round about the throne has been explained by scholars in many different ways. The fact is that John does not give an explanation and leaves it to his readers to draw conclusions from similar scenes in the Bible. It may be compared to the sea of bras in the Old Testament tabernacle, the sea of cast metal (1 Ki 7:23-27), the laver or wash stand (Exo 30:18-21), or the molten sea in the temple (2 Chr 4:2-6), a similar receptacle holding water for the cleansing of the priests and for other ceremonial rites. We know that the tabernacle and temple were built to exact specifications because they are reflections or symbols if you will, as are the feasts and all their details (Heb 9:22-23). Since crystal is solid, the sea mentioned around the throne may indicate that the elders, just as all believers who were raptured with Christ into the presence of God, need no longer purify themselves with water or ceremonies, but have access to the throne of God directly.
In any case John is not too concerned with this glass sea, perhaps because he understands the reference, and moves on to describe in detail the four beasts that are around the throne and in the midst of the throne (4:6-8). The beasts – θηρίον, therion – are not ugly or repulsive animal-like creatures, but handsomely crafted living creatures – ζῷον, zoon. The emphasis here is on the quality of life and the attributes that relate to it. So, what are these creatures? There is a lion, a calf(or ox), a living creature (zoon) with the face of a man, and a flying eagle. Each creature has six wings and is full of eyes and energy. Much effort has been made to reconcile these four creatures with imagery and descriptions from other texts in the Bible. These living creatures are identical to the cherubim described by Ezekiel (Eze 1:5-25; 10:1-22) and the seraphim that Isaiah saw (Isa 6:1-7). They are the highest in God’s hierarchy of angelic beings and are always associated with Gods immediate presence. In fact, the four living creatures are representative of the attributes or qualities of God, similar to how the Holy Spirit is represented by seven lamps. The fact that the creatures are full of eyes is taken as signifying the omniscience and omnipresence of God who sees all and knows all. The different aspects of divine majesty may be considered as follows. The lion is a symbol of the king of wild animals, and so represents majesty and omnipotence. The calf, the most important of domestic animals, represents patience and continuous labor. The eagle, greatest among the birds, is symbolic of sovereignty and supremacy. Man is the greatest of God’s creatures, and represents intelligence and rational power. These are all undeniable attributes of God.
There are also further representations that we can see from the creation in Genesis 1:25-26. The lion represents the beast of the earth. The calf represents the cattle. The eagle represents the fowl of the air. Note here that there is no living creature representing the fish of the sea or creeping things. In the new earth there will be no more sea (21:1). As for the creeping things, the most striking examples we have now are the serpent and the scorpion (Deu 8:15; Rev 9:10, 19), which are always depicted in the Bible as enemies of mankind.
The fact that the creatures have six wings each (c.f. Isa 6:2-3) gives rise to the consideration that the creatures are angels (as depicted in so many apocalyptic books). Both here and in Isaiah the living creatures bring praise and ascribe holiness to the Lord of hosts. The ministry of the creatures is designed to emphasize the holiness of God and his eternity:
Rev 4:8 … day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!
The amazing scene before John’s eyes now moves to a new activity. The glorious resurrection and rapture of the saints has been consummated, their sins have been purged and their rewards given, and their elders have assumed the thrones prepared for them. The four living creatures now change their perpetual refrain of holiness to the Lord and sing a new song ascribing glory and honor and holiness to him, and thanking him.
Rev 4:11 Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.
But what would these creatures thank him for? Certainly not for their redemption, for they were never lost as we were. It is thanksgiving for their creation and preservation throughout all the ages. Note that the last three references to thanksgiving in the Bible all apply to this throne room in heaven. The first (4:9) focuses on God’s creation; the second (7:12) references God’s work of salvation; and the third (11:17) anticipates the great work of consummation. The elders are participants in each, glorifying and praising and thanking God with all that they are. On the occasion that the elders join, the four living creatures cast their stephanos before the throne of God declaring that he is worthy of glory and honor and power because all things have been created by him and for his pleasure. This should lead us to reflect and think, are we joining in that heavenly chorus?
As the elders join they come down from their thrones and prostrate themselves before God. The crowns given to them as their reward for overcoming and remaining faithful, now unseemly, are returned to God in thanksgiving for his faithfulness to them. Nothing that they have or are was accomplished without God’s willing and enabling pleasure – i.e. θέλημα, his will. All came from God and consequently they return their crowns, their gifts, to him in humble thanksgiving. They know that had it not been for his goodness and his grace that brought salvation, they – and we! – could not have victory over sin and death. Let us remember here that it is God’s pleasure that we be with him, and he made sacrifice to redeem us from the just punishment for our wickedness so that we could be, forever. The creature honors his Maker and accepts that man is subject to his Creator.
The world today does not give such honor to the Lord God. Though men benefit from his goodness and live in a universe of his creation, they tend to neglect the worship of God. One of the important goals of the book of Revelation is to trace divine history toward the goal of universal recognition of God.
Php 2:9-11 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
But perhaps such powerful praise seems to be too costly. When Isaiah heard the four living creatures praising God in the temple, the doorposts and the thresholds shook. When Christ is praised, things begin to happen, especially in the temple of our lives and the temple we think of as his church. In fact, we are told that God inhabits the praises of his people (Psa 22:3). The twenty-four elders who were seated around the King of Kings left their thrones and fell down before him, laying their crowns at his feet. These crowns represented not only their positions but all the praise and achievements and glory and honor and rewards that they had received for serving God. All throughout the Bible we are encouraged to get a crown that will last forever (1 Cor 9:25), to finish the race that we might have the crown stored up for all those who have loved his appearing (2 Tim 4:8); to persevere in order to receive the crown (Jam 1:12); to hold on to what we have so that no one can take our crown (Rev 3:11).
1Pe 5:4 And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
These crowns must be important and of extraordinary value in eternity. Are they related to Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17? We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of our lives from the day that we accepted Christ as our Savior until the day that we see him face to face. The Lord will hold a torch to the pile of rubble that represents our achievements and reveal upon what foundation we have built our lives. Have we studied God’s word, lived in obedience to God’s will, been a blessing to others, proclaimed the gospel, made the world a better place for at least some? If we did, that pile of rubble will burn away and what is left over will be precious stones, gold and silver – a precious offering to God, laid at his feet.
Genuine praise is costly – it costs us our lives laid down in worship and laid down in work for the Lord our King. But what cost is this really when we have a view of eternity in the presence of the Most Holy One? How can this be reckoned as an expense, a sacrifice, when the alternative is in reality death?
Genuine praise is the overflow of a life lived in the light of the vision of his glory. Fix your eyes on the Lord who is enthroned at the center of the universe, encircled by a court in heaven, enveloped in a crescendo of praise, and who may at any moment enter time and space to claim you as his own!
The Significance Of Numbers In Scripture
The Messiah in the 7 Biblical Feasts
In the book of Revelation, the writer John (not to be forgotten as a retired fisherman) tells us of a visionary experience in the place called Heaven. He has been invited to see what was going on.
Why was John selected to be a guest for this overwhelming experience? I believe it had something to do with the fact that he was to be a historian of the future. As part of his apostolic task, he was mandated to write about an immense view of time. He was to warn us of the sinister conspiracies of evil. He was to write of judgments and blessings, suffering and crowning, defeats and victories among the nations. And most importantly, he was to affirm for us that Christ our Savior would someday return and assert kingly control over all elements of creation, whether they resisted or not. It was designed to generate hope, stamina of the spirit, and confidence in God: things real-world faith badly needs.
Many today and indeed throughout history have scoffed at the vision. But how could John be brazen enough to convey this enormous vision of history to paper if he was not convinced that it was an authentic theme originated in the heart of the God of history? How could he form a view of the real world of the heavenlies unless he was sure? He couldn’t! And thus his sense of certainty about these things was formed through an invitation to Heavenly worship where he might see how the saints on the heavenly parade ground gave homage to the Eternal Sovereign.
John was not the first to meet God in this way. Abraham’s encounters with God were at altars of sacrifice he had built. He was never the same again. Moses begged God for a view of his glory on the mountain top and finally got a glimpse of it. It kept him going when most of us, without such a vision, would have resigned immediately from running the Hebrew wilderness tour. Isaiah saw the glory of God in a temple while Paul saw it on the road to Damascus. The list goes on with people who, in varying ways, met God and as a result developed a real world faith that serves as a model for us all.
But John’s vision is the most detailed and the most useful of all because he describes what amounts to a heavenly worship service with a liturgy that is easy to follow and quite instructive. He helps us understand two things. First, something about how great God is and how he wants to be seen. Second, how people who care about God respond to him. That is useful information for someone who wants to walk connected to God in a real world sense.
Specifically, what he seems to have witnessed was something like a heavenly hymn-sing. The content of the songs he records is significant because it appears to form an outline for the themes one might want to keep in mind in the forging of real world faith on a daily basis. For example, the order of the songs seems to be like this.
First, a song about the Attributes of God; who he is.
Second, a song about the Mighty Acts of God; things he has done.
Third, a song about the Accepting Work of God; the particular way in which he has connected with broken people via the cross.
Finally, a song of Ascription; thanksgiving and praise about the worth of God, if indeed one could dare to think of computing it.
Is this theology? Of course! Is it practical? Does it really make a difference in the real world whether or not these things are known and appreciated? Scan the list of people you’ve met this week, whether powerful and rich or lowly and poor, or just surviving life, or sickly and dying. Can it make a difference to them? Most definitely!
We can use these words – Attributes, Acts, Acceptance, Ascription – to form an outline for personal meditation both in quiet moments and in hassled moments throughout the day.
When we see the signs on magnificent buildings in the metropolis that speak of globally famous company names, we may be tempted to reorient the base of our faith to something visible and immediate. But then we must remember the great attributes of God and pray, Microsoft and Samsung have great names, but you, O Lord, have a name above all names, a name echoed continuously in the heavens. Microsoft and Samsung will one day be a footnote in history, but the name of God will live forever. We would think that those in the corporate world would profit from keeping the attributes of God in mind when they are tempted to think they are running the world.
At a lunchtime meeting someone may point out a powerful mover and shaker. This guy makes things happen; he is a king-maker. We may be tempted to an interior adulation that is absurd. Then we must remember the mighty acts of God and pray, You, O Lord, have done the truly great things that cannot be defeated or reversed. This guy may orchestrate a leveraged buyout that will earn the investors millions, but you have orchestrated the creation of Heaven and Earth with nothing but a word, and the whole thing keeps going simply because you will it.
We might one day be invited to give a talk at what is considered a significant function and begin to be aware of something growing within, something that makes us feel important and valuable. But this is dangerous and an illusory feeling, and may suddenly remember a time in our lives when very few saw much value in us – except God! And he as Creator and Redeemer loved us and valued us as much in our totally broken moments as he might on another day when we seem to be all together. That invitation does not add one iota of value to a life that God has not put there first by accepting us. We would hope that some of those who perceive themselves powerless because they are aging, broken, or very sick, would understand that they are as valuable to the Lord as anyone who might hold the attention of the world.
There are days when we have difficulty sleeping at night. Perhaps we went to bed thinking about so many things and our minds will not turn off and open the way to rest until we concentrate on ascriptions, praises to God. We can turn to ponder the worth of God, and our worries melt away. We pray, You, O God, are the sum total of everything; it is all yours. It comes from you and returns to you. While I seek to sleep, you never stop watching over creation. Of what conceivable use is my own worry or my fear? I am your child. Then things within us can settle down, and before long, the Spirit of the Lord gives us rest.
These meditations are John’s gifts. The size of things, the importance of things, the value of things, the majesty of things – these are outstanding elements to real world faith. John seems to have learned them at a heavenly worship service as he heard the angels and the saints sing.
The first thing John heard was the opening hymn of the heavenly family, which focused on some of God’s attributes. They were statements about who God is.
Revelation 4:8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
Attributes are those qualities about the person of God that he has chosen to reveal to us. There are probably many more attributes that he has not chosen to reveal yet. In this brief accolade sung to God by the heavenly family, at least four attributes were acknowledged:
Holy – repeated thrice, suggesting an infinitude of holiness
Lord – sovereignty over all
Almighty – the power of our God
Everlasting – he was, and is, and is to come
The Christ followers of heaven teach us a fundamental lesson as they sing of the attributes first. They tell us that one of the very first things an individual does whenever he enters into the presence of God is to celebrate the things known about him. The attributes they chose in this case stretch the inner spirit because they speak of dimensions of immensity far exceeding our human understanding.
We are challenged to ponder a God who is infinitely holy and totally untouched by the pollution of evil. We are invited to think about a God who is sovereign Lord, who is so powerful that his word alone is law for the universe. Then there is his eternal nature. The matter sends the mind spinning, for we have been taught from the beginning that everything is subject to a cycle of birth and death. But God is not! And that truth alone should cause the worshipper to kneel in awe and respect.
The Mighty Acts
Soon after the first song, the heavenly family begins a second section of worship before the Lord. Now the song centers on God’s mighty acts. What has God done?
Revelation 4:11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
This God is not a gigantic Buddha or a massive rock formation, objects of animistic worship. He has done and is doing certain things that deserve our attention and praise. The attention of the heavenly family is now focused on what God has done. He created all things, and by the constant exertion of his will, all things keep on existing. Should God change his mind about keeping things going, everything would suddenly go awry, collapse, and cease to exist. This company of worshipers that John has joined declares something that we do not think about enough:
The Lord God made everything
The Lord God owns everything
The Lord God keeps everything going
One thought from his mind, and all these things that we hold onto so tightly will disappear. Our wealth, our health, our potential – all belong to him and exist only at his pleasure. And that is what this hymn sung in the heavens is all about.
This stunning reality (not new, just not thought about enough) is sure to reorient our thinking. Next to this kind of God whose attributes and acts are stupendous, our boss, our company, our city or even country seem quite puny. This is in part why Jesus was fearless as the incarnate Savior when he stood before Pontius Pilate. Pilate was upset that Jesus paid such little respect. “…Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” the Roman asked his prisoner (John 19:10). Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above…” (John 19:11).
What was happening here? Jesus was simply operating on a practical knowledge of both the attributes and the acts of his Father. Daniel had also been fearless before an angry king, and for the same reason. They were thinking in total independence of the human system. Why? Because they knew who was really in charge, and nothing was going to happen that was not in accord with the purposes of the Father. Pilate’s cross may have been in the immediate future of Jesus, but only because it was permitted in the sovereign design of a great God. Jesus stands like a rock and we see as Pilate becomes the one in actual bondage. Daniel stands tall, in the lion’s den, and we get to watch his confident adversaries end up the fools.
The Theme of Acceptance
A third event in the worship of the heavenly company is about to begin. John writes that he saw a sealed scroll and he wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll. But John wept only because he had not seen a principal figure in the drama that appeared to be happening off to one side. It was a lamb that although alive had the marks of being freshly slaughtered. The images grew more complex, and it became apparent that this was the Lamb of God (also called the Lion of the tribe of Judah, paradoxically), whom we know to be Christ himself. And suddenly John was aware. This was the solitary One who was worthy to open the scroll. Again, the choir burst into praise, this time singing to the Lamb.
Revelation 5:9-10 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
The third great theme that the choir sought to highlight has to do with acceptance through redemption and reclamation. At issue here are the Cross and what the Lamb of God accomplished as the once and for all sacrifice for the sin of all humanity. In just one sentences, they raised all sorts of remarkable truths about God’s purposes:
The act of Atonement
The multinational and multicultural character of the family of God
The call for the saints to be priests and servants of a kingdom in which to reign forever
If there is a key point here, it is Christ making all things new in the lives of broken people from every age in history; Christ doing what seems – and is in fact – impossible for anyone else to do: bring new life to the living dead.
Let us think about the cross-section of people that we might intersect with in our lives on Earth. How are they to be treated in light of the revelation of John discussed here? The answer is, as the Lamb treated them in the giving of his unblemished life for them. We must treat them all with respect, with value, with the intention in mind of serving whenever possible to let the work of the Lamb be seen in our lives. This is a reminder that we, although sinners as well, were accepted by God through the gracious act of the Lamb upon the cross. When a person is overwhelmed by guilt and confused about how things in life have turned so sour, he or she needs those who will affirm that the grace of God is available to everyone. That person has to hear it tenderly spoken in a prayer, confidently sung in a song, meaningfully declared in a sermon, faithfully applied in a life. Then hope springs anew.
Rom 3:10,22-23 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; … there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”
What is life without the act of the Lamb? Each day that a man or woman goes through the tasks of making a living, raising a family, developing friendships, a thousand and one seemingly insignificant choices are made. Who can make them all correctly? Who can go through even just one day without offending someone? Who can be sure that the inner being is not marked with substandard motives and desires that produce agendas so hidden that we are really not fully aware of what we are doing? Does anyone really think that there are only a few simple sins, that sin is so easily codified and defined? Or have we all come to gloomily realize the truth that evil permeates the human condition? Were it not for the Lamb who becomes our friend and makes it possible for us to receive the acceptance of God, we would all be doomed anew every day.
We go then into the world knowing that our acceptance by the creator is not based on achievement or human acclamation. It is based on the love of the Lamb, and we stand equal with everyone in the world who has drawn upon his gift of the cross.
We invite you all to sing to the freshly slaughtered Lamb, who is raised up as the Lion. Sing in your heart, loud and long, sing in the churches and in the streets, sing in your bed at night and in the quiet of your office, sing in the taxi and in the cafeteria. It is the Lamb who brings sanity to life and makes us brave enough to rise from one failure after another to try again. It is the Lamb who brings humility when we have done our best and won handily. Sing to the Lamb! He is at the base of our real world faith. If it is designed to gratify the Lord to whom it is directed, then sing! It is also designed to be our personal fortification, giving us a framework of reality from which to operate as we live our daily lives.
As the service of worship in Heaven draws to its conclusion, the choir sings something like a benediction.
Revelation 5:13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
Many are tempted to bypass these themes about worshiping God. Many will see little or no point in worrying about what is going on in Heaven. Their concern is limited to holding up under the stress of modern life and the many tasks at hand – keeping faithful to a spouse, figuring out how to keep children away from drugs, how to be reasonably kind to the person who has to be fired (or the one firing you), what to do about the problem of money (either earned or coveted) – “real” concerns. But this decision to ignore the worship in Heaven that John witnessed renders weak the faith that a person has, and precisely at the time when we need to address those “real” concerns. These matters find their scale of size only when one has first learned what it means to understand and know God.
Corporate worship such as the one John witnessed in the heavenlies is necessary and reminds us that we are not alone. We are one people, meant to be in touch with the larger family of Christ’s followers, undivided by the gender or age or economic status or race or educational attainment that are liable to separate us during our regular days on Earth. In that worship experience, some of us are reduced to our true size while others of us are elevated to our true size – the true size that Jesus designed for us to be.
Let us examine these needs:
- Every disciple of Christ has a need for a corporate worship experience that invites him or her into the presence of a holy, holy, holy God. This is an amazing, humbling gift.
- Everyone has a need for a worship experience that expands the soul and rebukes and cleanses the guilt caused by indwelling evil.
- Everyone has a need to come to a place where he or she feels sensitively prayed for and where the Bible has been exposed in terms of its real world relevance.
- Everyone has a need to feel that the worship service belongs to him or her and is not the possession of a few professionals who entertain us with their abilities in music and oratory.
The corporate worship experience should be a springboard to the experience of personal worship. The body should have the sense that what we did with our brothers and sisters in the Christian family on the Lord’s day should be echoed in private during all other days.
And whether privately or corporately, genuine worship in the presence of God reminds us that the world of the streets is not all there is to the real world. The heavenlies were there before the streets of the earth were conceived of by men, and they will exist long after these streets are all but dust. The heavenlies, and all that is going on there, is where the real world begins. Then we must will to receive a faith that knows how to operate there. We are not being unreasonable when we then begin to insist that our worship must bring us to God, so that we can walk out onto the streets confident that we know how to live as followers of Christ ought to live, especially when the storms of life threaten to overpower and consume us.
As the heavenly gathering wound down, it seems to have wished to ascribe to God several great values: praise, honor, glory, and power. I believe that it was quite important for John to hear these words echoing in his mind. Implanted within him, they would refresh him concerning God’s grandeur as he wrote the Revelation. There was no way that he could have written what he did if he was not absolutely convinced that the God of Heaven was the Lord of history. Such an ascription of value to God needs to be implanted within us also. They serve as reminders to us over and over again as to who is in charge of the universe when we are tempted to doubt, and how we should respond to him in worship. Our God is in control and we are recipients of his love!