A heavenly perspective on Worship
Over the last few weeks I have been regularly reading and reflecting on Revelation Chapters 4 and 5. These chapters provide a glimpse of what it is like in heaven 'at the moment'. They describe worship of God in vivid imagery. Using words that evoke our awe and wonder and push the limits of human language, John conveys two great themes for which God is worthy of being worshiped and indeed is being worshiped right now:
- Creation (Rev 4:11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”)
- Redemption of people for a glorious future through the life death and resurrection of Jesus - the Lion-Lamb (Rev 5:9-10 “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”
Whenever I come to worship God, I am joining in with what is described in these chapters. On the surface it might seem that I am alone or in a small gathering in a church, but in fact I am joining in something far greater and more universal than I could ever imagine (Rev 5:11-14).
I am trying to make it a practice to remember these chapters when I worship God in my prayer times, when singing along to recorded music, or gathering with other Christians to worship. Reminding myself of the greatness of God and recalling these great themes of creation and redemption enables me to worship in deep and meaningful ways that hopefully give God the glory of which He is worthy.
Some help with the Book of Revelation
Sometimes the Book of Revelation can seem a bit hard to understand. That is where commentaries can be useful. One commentary on Revelation that is helpful is 'Revelation for Everyone' by Tom Wright. I have a few hard copies available for people to borrow. It is also available as an ebook from Amazon and other places. Below is an excerpts from this commentary about the beginning of Chapter 4. Hopefully it will inspire you to get a copy and read more of it!
We were walking into the cathedral as part of a great procession. My companion, a senior clergyman, was looking at the service paper we had been given.
‘Ah!’ he said. ‘I see we have Revelation chapter 4 as the second reading.’
He smiled. ‘One of the two most wonderful chapters in the Bible!’
Knowing I was setting myself up, I asked the obvious question. ‘What’s the other one, then?’
His smile grew even broader.
‘Revelation chapter 5, of course!’ he said, triumphantly.
I have often thought of that exchange as I have studied, and preached on, these two chapters. The letters to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 are powerful enough, to be sure. The opening vision of Jesus in chapter 1 is enough to make the serious reader react like John himself, and fall down in awe and worship. But now we realize that even these three opening chapters have only been preparation. Chapter 4 is where the story really starts. This is where John is given the ‘revelation’ that gives the book its title. Everything from this point on is part of the vision which is granted to him as he stands there in the heavenly throne room.
This short opening passage tells us, with every line, a wealth of detail about where John has been taken, and what it all means. It’s worth going slowly through it, almost phrase by phrase.
What do you think of when you read about ‘a door in heaven’? For many years I imagined that John looked up to the sky and saw, far away, tiny but bright like a distant star, an open door, through which he was then invited to enter into the heavenly world. I now think of it quite differently.
‘Heaven’ and ‘earth’, as I have often said, are not, in biblical theology, separated by a great gulf, as they are in much popular imagination. ‘Heaven’, God’s sphere of reality, is right here, close beside us, intersecting with our ordinary reality. It is not so much like a door opening high up in the sky, far away. It is more like a door opening right in front of us where before we could only see this room, this field, this street. Suddenly, there is an opening leading into a different world – and an invitation to ‘come up’ and see what’s going on.
This is not, as some people have supposed, anything to do with God’s people being snatched away to heaven to avoid awful events that are about to take place on earth. It is about a prophet being taken into God’s throne room so that he can see ‘behind the scenes’ and understand both what is going to take place and how it all fits together and makes sense. These two wonderful chapters, Revelation 4 and 5, do not stand alone. At one level, they introduce the whole sequence of prophecies that will take us through the rest of the book. At another level, they introduce more particularly the first of the sequences of prophecies, the ‘seven seals’ which must be broken open if the ‘scroll’ of God’s purposes (5.1) is to be unrolled.
It may help us to keep our balance in the rich mixture of imagery in the following chapters if we see the book like this, structured around its sequences of ‘sevens’. We have already had the seven letters to the churches. Now we are to be introduced to the seven seals, which are opened between 6.1 and 8.1. The seventh introduces a further sequence, the seven trumpets, which are blown one by one from 8.6 to 11.15. Then, at the centre of the book, we find visions which unveil the ultimate source of evil and its chief agents: the Dragon, the Beast from the Sea and the Beast from the Land – and also a vision of those who have somehow defeated these monsters (chapters 12—15). This then leads into the final sequence of seven: the seven bowls of God’s wrath, the final plagues which, like the plagues of Egypt (15.1), will be the means of judging the great tyrannical power and rescuing God’s people from its claws. These bowls of wrath are poured out in chapter 16, but their effect is described more fully in chapters 17 and 18, leading to the celebration of victory over the two Beasts in chapter 19. That only leaves the old Dragon himself, and the last twists of his fate are described in chapter 20. This then clears the stage for the final unveiling of God’s eventual plan: the New Jerusalem in which heaven and earth are joined fully and for ever.
What we are witnessing in chapters 4 and 5, then, is not the final stage in God’s purposes. This is not a vision of the ultimate ‘heaven’, seen as the final resting place of God’s people. It is, rather, the admission of John into ‘heaven’ as it is at the moment. The scene in the heavenly throne room is the present reality; the vision John is given while he is there is a multiple vision of ‘what must take place after these things’ – not ‘the end of the world’ as such, but those terrible events which were going to engulf the world and cause all the suffering for God’s people about which the seven churches have just been so thoroughly warned.
John is summoned into the throne room because, like some of the ancient Israelite prophets, he is privileged to stand in God’s council chamber and hear what is going on in order then to report it to his people back on earth. Like Micaiah ben Imlah in 1 Kings 22, he sees God himself sitting on his throne, with his hosts around him, and is privy to their discussions and plans. But this scene reminds us, too, of Ezekiel 1, where the prophet is given a vision of God’s throne-chariot, carried to and fro on whirling, fiery wheels. The rainbow (verse 3) reminds us of that, but also takes us back to the story of Noah in Genesis 9, where the great bow in the sky was God’s visible promise of mercy, never again to destroy the earth with a flood. A ‘rainbow looking like an emerald’ is a challenge to the imagination – not the only such challenge in these chapters, as we shall see! – but the effect is a rich and dense combination of mercy, awe and beauty.
As in some other ancient visions, so here John sees God’s council: twenty-four elders, sitting on separate thrones. They represent, almost certainly, the combination of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles. They are, as it were, the embodied perfection of the people of God, sharing now in the rule of God over the world. Their white robes indicate purity and victory; their crowns reveal them as the representatives of the ‘royal priesthood’ (1.6; 5.10; 20.6). It is not (to say the least) a placid scene. Lightning, thunder and fire are sparkling and booming – something that happens at significant moments throughout the book (8.5; 11.19; 16.18). When God’s purposes are being disclosed, we are to expect things to be shaken up alarmingly.
The final detail of this opening description of the throne room is ‘something like a sea of glass’. This is deeply mysterious. Solomon’s Temple had a ‘sea’, a huge bronze bowl (1 Kings 7.23–26), and this may have been part of the point. But in 15.2 the ‘sea of glass’ has become more like the Red Sea, through which the children of Israel have passed to safety. The other ‘sea’ in Revelation is the one from which, as in Daniel 7, the great Beast emerges (13.1), while the Dragon stands beside the shore apparently presiding over the Beast’s appearing (12.18). Then, of course, in the New Jerusalem itself there is ‘no longer sea’ (21.1). All this seems to indicate that the ‘sea’ within the throne room is a kind of symbolic representation of the fact that, within God’s world as it currently is, evil is present, and dangerous. But it is contained within God’s sovereign purposes, and it will eventually be overthrown.
I have spoken of this scene so far in terms of God’s throne in heaven, and John’s appearing before it like an Old Testament prophet. But the idea of a throne room, with someone sitting on the throne surrounded by senior counsellors, would instantly remind John’s readers of a very different court: that of Caesar. We have already heard hints of the power struggle (the kingdom of God against the kingdoms of the world) in the opening three chapters. Now, by strong implication, we are being invited to see that the powers of the world are simply parodies, cheap imitation copies, of the one Power who really and truly rules in heaven and on earth. As John’s great vision unfolds, we will see how it is that these human kingdoms have acquired their wicked, cruel power, and how it is that God’s radically different sort of power will win the victory over them. This is the victory in which the seven letters were urging the churches to claim their share. We now discover how that victory comes about.
It begins with the unveiling of reality. Behind the complex and messy confusions of church life in ancient Turkey; behind the challenges of the fake synagogues and the threatening rulers; behind the ambiguous struggles and difficulties of ordinary Christians – there stands the heavenly throne room in which the world’s creator and lord remains sovereign. Only by stopping in our tracks and contemplating this vision can we begin to glimpse the reality which not only makes sense of our own realities but enables us, too, to win the victory.