If I were to ask you, “What is worship?” there are many answers you might give. You might say that worship is a church service on Sunday morning or a quiet reflection on your front porch at sunrise. To you, worship might be a hymn or praise song, Scripture readings or sermons, liturgies or doxologies or offerings or Communion. But I suggest to you that while all of these things are elements of worship, none of them are worship in and of themselves. While each of these are expressions of worship, worship itself is the soul’s stretching toward God, as my seminary professor Glenn Hinson said, “opening ourselves before [God] like a flower to the morning sun.” While worship can have many expressions, what it must always be (and what it can never be without) is a genuine human response to God’s infinite grace.
Unfortunately, too often we get worship mixed up with the forms of worship. We go to church, sing our songs, read the Bible, give our money, hear some scripture and a sermon, and we think we have worshiped. It reminds me of the little boy who knelt by his bed, saying his prayers on Sunday night. He said, "Dear God, we had a good time at church today—but I wish you had been there!" Sometimes I think that if God were to answer a prayer like that, He might say, “My child, it was good seeing you in My house today—but I wish you had really been there!” All too often, we bring our bodies to church but nothing else. Mentally and spiritually we check out, and we leave without worshiping at all.
The book of Revelation shows many scenes of heavenly worship that can teach us how to approach the living God. John witnesses angelic worship as the heavenly court celebrates the Lord. Revelation 4:8-11[i] says:
And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say,
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.”
9 And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
11 “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.”
When we worship God, we praise Him for who He is. Our first desire should never be to ask God for the things we think we need, but simply to love our Lord. The living creatures sing of God’s holiness. This word holy means “other” or “different.” It means that God is not like us. God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. And that should make us glad—because if God were simply a reflection of who we are, if we had made God in our own image, we would be in trouble. But God is holy. Then, these magnificent creatures sing about God’s eternal nature. Because God is eternal, we know that He is also reliable. He never changes, but will be as He has been forever.
Next, we see that heavenly worship involves paying honor to God. No dollars are dropped into the plate, but instead the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks. I wonder—do you think that God is somehow improved by these gifts, as if He gets more glorious or more powerful than He was before, simply because we give Him glory and power? No—but He is pleased when we relinquish our own glory and power and strength to Him, recognizing Him as the Source of everything good in our lives. The twenty-four elders cast their crowns before the throne, rejecting their own treasures and their own egos, declaring instead God’s worthiness to receive glory and power and strength. At church I’ve seen too many peacock shows with people strutting around showing off their own glory. Whether it’s proudly parading their fine clothes or flaunting their gifts to the church or reminding people of all the acts of service they’ve performed, they wear their crowns to honor themselves. Oh, we’ll get crowns in heaven,[ii] but they won’t be for our benefit—they’ll be so that we can have something to abandon at the feet of Jesus.
Finally in this chapter, the elders proclaim, “for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.” Whenever worship happens, worshipers are reminded of the things that God has done. This is done through the proclamation of the word. Preachers declare God’s mighty deeds so that worshipers are reminded of God’s worthiness and trustworthiness.
In chapter five, we learn of prayer and music and in heavenly worship. Verses 8-10 say:
8 When He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
10 “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.”
Often at our church we spend more time talking about people on your prayer list than you do actually praying for them. That’s why I instituted the prayer bowl. Instead of talking about these prayer needs, we simply fill out a prayer request card before the worship service. When I lead the congregation in prayer of supplication, I take these cards from the bowl, along with our printed prayer list, and just pray. Our prayer shouldn’t be a gossip session, but incense lifted before the throne of God.
Churches ought to have music like there is in heaven. Yes—there are harps in heaven (and I imagine a thousand other instruments as well) that people use to make melody and harmony before the Lord. Just as the living creatures sang (and still sing) a new song, our music should always be new in our hearts. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t cherish the old songs of the faith—but when we sing them, they should be current and fresh and meaningful in our souls, not dutiful dirges that we sing simply because the music director demands it. And, of course, it means that we should welcome new songs in our worship services, vibrant expressions of worship that reflect the styles of younger generations and old.
Imbedded in this new song is proclamation of the Gospel—of what God has done and what we must do. The Lamb who was slain to redeem His people has now given us a mission to the rest of humanity. What would worship be without a reminder to the people that they have a task to perform? Our job is not simply to come to church and worship, but to engage in service, to be a kingdom and priests and ministers to the children of God.
Verses 11-14 describe “myriads of myriads, thousands of thousands” of angels praising God.
“And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying,
“To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.”
14 And the four living creatures kept saying, “Amen.” And the elders fell down and worshiped.
When we worship the Lord, we join in the song of the angels, and raise the cry of all creation, blessing God and recognizing His authority over all. This word “Amen” is a continuous chant in heaven. It’s an unending word of submission that means, “Let it be,” declaring God’s sovereignty over the universe and over our individual lives. And it’s not simply a word of submission, but a gesture of prostration and obedience to God. So too, our ‘Amen’ ought never to just be the end of our prayers—instead it should be the way we continuously live our prayer throughout the day.
Chapter nineteen shows the final scene of worship in the book of Revelation. Four times in the first six verses, a great multitude and the living creatures shout, “Hallelujah!” This is a compound word, which is a shout of command for the people to give a hallel to Yah. A hallel is a foolish, crazy, exuberant exclamation of joy. It’s an enraptured outburst of praise and worship. Yah is simply an abbreviation of God’s name—Yahweh. Like David who danced before the Ark, those who shout hallelujahh ought to be undignified before the Lord, giving their all to Him in celebration.
In verse five, heavenly worship reflects the fact that all people are equal in God’s kingdom. “And a voice came from the throne, saying, ‘Give praise to our God, all you His bond-servants, you who fear Him, the small and the great.’” People of all social statures are alike in God’s eyes. All are servants of God. As it is in heaven, worship in our churches should reflect egalitarianism among the Lord’s people. No one is less than another, and no one is more important[iii].
Revelation’s final word on worship is verse seven, where the redeemed say, “Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.” Worship is the way we prepare ourselves to meet the Bridegroom when He comes. It’s our garment of praise[iv] that makes us ready to be with our Beloved. Each Sunday when we come to church, and each day in our private time of worship, we prepare ourselves like a bride for the Lord.
Worship on earth ought to be modeled on worship in heaven. It means preparing ourselves to meet our Master. When we worship the way the saints in heaven and angels do, we clothe ourselves in beauty as we await the coming King. Worship means singing and shouting, submitting to God and serving humanity. I pray that worship in your church and in your heart is genuine, and that you live your ‘hallelujah’ and your ‘amen’ every day.
[i] Scriptures taken from the NASB.
[ii] “What are the heavenly crowns that believers can receive in Heaven?” http://www.gotquestions.org/heavenly-crowns.html. March 11, 2015. 1 Cor 9:24-25; Mt 6:19; 1 Pet 1:3-5; 1 Thes 2:19; Php 4:4; Lk 15:7; Rev 21:4; 2 Tim 4:8; Php 3:20; 1 Pet 5:4; Ac 7:55-56; Isa 42:8; 48:11; Gal 1:5; Rom 8:18; Rev 2:10; Jn 10:10; 4:10; 6:35; 1 Jn 2:25; Jas 1:12; 1 Jn 5:3; Heb 12:2.
[iii] Mt 20:26; 23:11; Mk 9:35; 10:44
[iv] Isaiah 61:13