Pastor Scott Andrews | August 7, 2022
Over the past several decades, one of the challenges in the church – especially in our country – has been the issue of worship. Style, preferences, elements. You may have heard them referred to as the worship wars. Kim Li once told me the underground Chinese church was fighting over worship. She said they didn’t know what they were fighting about, they just knew the American church was doing it. Now, you may think this all a thing of the past, but it’s not. Not too long ago, I heard about another pastor in town referring to Alliance as liberal. When asked why, his response was, “Well, you do have drums on the platform, right?”
Historically, with the onset of modern music – especially the rock-n-roll or pop genres, the question has been, should those instruments, those rhythms, those contemporary worship choruses be sung in the church? I remember hearing once, “If it moves your foot before it moves your heart, it’s not spiritual.” So, in college, Tana and I listened to those worship songs privately lest we unnecessarily offend. In our circles, Amy Grant, Petra, and Keith Green were strictly off limits.
And the truth is, we all have our preferences – hymns, choruses, a combination of both – which has led some churches with multiple services to change the style of worship – contemporary at 9:00, traditional at 11:00 – because everyone knows the early church met at 11:00. By the way, we’ve not done that because we don’t want to divide the church stylistically as if we are consumers – what do I like? Francis Chan tells the story of a person leaving a service, saying, I didn’t really like the worship today, to which Chan responded, “That’s okay, we weren’t worshiping you.”
And then, of course, is the realization that worship is not just music, but all the elements of a worship service. And yes, we are to live lives of worship. But there is something to be said about our corporate gatherings and what we do in what we call worship services. What should we do? What is permissible, what is not? Are there things prescribed or regulated in Scripture?
There is this thing in theology called the regulative principle of worship. In an article published just last November, pastor and professor Derek Thomas writes, “Put simply, the regulative principle of worship states that the corporate worship of God is to be founded upon specific directions of Scripture.” He quotes John Calvin, “God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by his Word.” I remember hearing in seminary, Martin Luther decided to formulate their worship services like this: they would keep all the forms of the Catholic church not expressly forbidden by Scripture. Conversely, Calvin decided to get rid of anything not expressly commanded by Scripture. The regulative principle.
The London Baptist Confession of 1689 says, “The acceptable way of worshiping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.” And so, for example, those holding the regulative principle would say dancing and drama, not prescribed in Scripture, should not be seen in worship services. I’ll not wade into that discussion.
But what is prescribed in Scripture? I think we would all agree our corporate worship includes reading the Bible, preaching the Bible, singing, praying, observing the ordinances of the church: the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. But what does that look like? I do believe there is a great degree of freedom in Scripture regarding forms of worship, but what do we learn when we observe the worship of God in the Bible? You do realize, we worship an audience of One. So when you say, I liked or I didn’t like worship today, you really should answer the question, why?
Last week, we began Revelation 4. John introduced this book in chapter 1 with a prologue and a vision of the resurrected and glorified Christ. He then, per Christ’s instruction, wrote letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. We found some similarities. Most of these churches were facing persecution. As a result, some had veered off course, and John writes to correct them. And in every letter, there are promises to the one who overcomes. How do we overcome? By resisting the call of the culture to compromise our convictions, to worship the made-up gods of the culture, to abandon the exclusivity of the Christian faith. To overcome is to remain faithful in the face of persecution.
You see, in the rest of the book per divine fiat, John is going to tell us – things are going to get worse – especially at the end of time as we know it – right before the return of Christ. Some call it the tribulation or the seventieth week of Daniel. It will seem like evil is in control – it is not. Some of you need to hear these words: Look up, God is sovereign, sitting on His throne. In fact, He is the one who initiates and orchestrates all that happens in the book. We will find in chapter 12:
9 And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying,
“Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night.
11 “And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death.
12 “For this reason, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them. Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, knowing that he has only a short time.”
He will know his time is short because God had begun His judgments. Don’t miss it – the rest of the book of Revelation is God bringing about His purposes to the end. He is sitting on His throne, and while it may seem at times all is lost, it is not – quite the opposite. Stay faithful and overcome. And we saw, the promises to the overcomers include:
- Eating of the tree of life in the paradise of God.
- Not being hurt by the second death – which is the lake of fire.
- The gift of hidden manna and a white stone with a new name written on it.
- Authority over the nations to rule them and the morning star.
- They will receive white garments and assurance of their names in the Book of Life.
- To be made an unmovable pillar in the temple of God, and to receive the name of God, the city of God, and the name of Christ.
- And finally, they will be granted to sit with Christ on His throne.
Incredible promises. Now, last week, when John was transported to heaven in a vision in the Spirit, the first thing he saw was a throne, and One sitting on it whose appearance was almost indescribable. So last week, I wanted to give us a proper view of heaven – that central to any mental picture you have of heaven needs to be our glorious God sitting enthroned. A. W. Tozer said it like this, “What comes to our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” But that’s not all. We go on to get picture of the worship of heaven, which should inform our own. Read it with me – the whole chapter again – Revelation 4.
Last week, I asked, why are chapters 4 and 5 here? Because, believers are suffering on earth for their allegiance and commitment to Jesus Christ. Some are being tempted to bow to Caesar or to return to pluralistic worship. And so, this book makes clear that Caesar and other so-called gods are not gods – they do not sit on the throne of heaven. Our God alone is God, and He is both creator, chapter 4, and redeemer, chapter 5.
Further, in their persecution, God is about to unleash torrid wrath on the earth – against those who have rejected Him, His Son, His gospel, and His people. His people will be protected from or through the tribulation. But those who have opposed them – led by the beast, the false prophet, the dragon – by Satan and his evil world system – will ultimately be judged. God’s judgment is imminent and sure. Here was the outline we started last week:
- The Setting of the Second Vision (1-2)
- The Characters (or Persons) of the Second Vision (2-8)
- The Proclamations of the Second Vision (8-11)
Here’s my question for today: do we learn anything about heaven and the worship of heaven from this text? I think so. First, we learn that God is central to heaven – that any view of heaven should be captured by this view of God. And today, we see the other personages worshiping God.
And we learn some things – let me just say it, and we’ll come back to it over and over: worship is about God, it is not about us. So all those worship wars are perhaps misguided – because if we are fighting about what is meaningful to us and what suits our preferences, we demonstrate we don’t understand worship – we are simply consumers. Further, if our worship is anthropocentric – or more about me than about God, it has the wrong focus. You’ll see that as we go through. Here’s a simple test – look at the pronouns of your favorite worship songs – are we singing more about I and me and us, or are we singing more about Him? Again, quoting Francis Chan, “By catering our worship to the worshippers and not to the Object of our worship, I fear we have created human-centered churches.”
Well, let’s continue with the point we started last week – the other personages around the throne in verses 4-8a. In verse 4, we see there are 24 thrones around the throne, and on those thrones were sitting 24 elders. We note they are clothed in white garments with golden crowns on their heads. Which is why I reviewed the promises to the overcomers – they will receive white garments and the authority to rule and sit on Christ’s throne – notice, these elders have golden crowns. But, who are these elders? There has been no small amount of discussion as to their identity. Through all the reading and narrowing it down, it seems there are two viable options:
First is that they are angelic beings. Those leading worship in heaven seem to be angels as we’ll see in the next verses. Further, throughout the book, these elders act as messengers to John, asking and answering questions. Further, in chapter 5 verses 9-10, the living creatures and elders sing a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and breaks its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them – notice them, not us – to be a kingdom of priests to our God; and they – not we – will reign on the earth.” Further, we read these elders bear the prayers of the saints before the throne – differentiated from saints – serving in a priestly function.
The second option is that these are people, but why 24? Lots of discussion, but I think the most reasonable is they represent the chosen people of God from both Old and New Testaments – 12 representing the twelve tribes of Israel, and the 12 apostles. We remember Jesus told the Twelve they would sit on thrones judging Israel. And the term elder is never used of angels lest it be here – but the leaders of Israel and the leaders of the church were both called elders. Of course, if they are the 12 apostles – one challenge is that would include John, and he’s not sitting on one of the thrones. Of course, he’s not dead yet…it all gets a bit confusing.
One final option that I like and probably lean toward, is that these do represent the people of both Testaments – the 12 tribes and the 12 apostles – but are represented by angelic beings before the throne. That makes it a combination of both options. We remember that the 7 letters were written to the angel or messenger of each church – perhaps referring to the possibility that there is an angel responsible for each church.
We notice they are wearing white garments – which was promised to the overcomers, but also which angels wore in the gospels – at the empty tomb, for example. White garments symbolize the holiness needed to approach God. Further, these elders wore crowns – lots of crowns promised to people – but angels also have rank – for example, rulers, powers, authorities. Here’s the point – while we cannot identify the 24 for sure, we do know they are before the throne, and we’ll see, participating in worship, which again, informs our own.
Which brings us to verses 5 and 6 – interesting verses. Something I didn’t mention last week but is important as we look at these verses is this scene in heaven is somewhat reminiscent of the Temple. We’ll come back to the flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, but notice:
There were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. We saw the seven Spirits back in chapter 1 which most agree refer to the Holy Spirit. Remember, there is much imagery in Revelation, and the seven Spirits speak of the Spirit’s perfection. But here in Revelation 4, the seven Spirits of God or the Holy Spirit is represented by seven lamps of fire burning. And then we remember, in the Temple, in the Holy Place – there was to be a lamp kept burning – the minora – with seven spouts or seven lamps. Interesting.
Next, before the throne was something like a sea of glass, like crystal. Most point out that before the earthly Temple was the bronze laver, sometimes referred to as the sea in the OT – where the priests would purify the sacrifices. But we notice here, the sea was like a sea of glass – like crystal – without impurity.
We’re going to see the four living creatures at the end of verse 6 – in Isaiah 6 they’re called seraphim. And we remember embroidered on the veil which separated the holy place from the most holy place were cherubim, and on top of the ark of the covenant, the mercy seat – were two golden cherubim. The point is, God’s presence was guarded and surrounded by an order of angelic beings.
We will see in the rest of the book there are other comparisons between the earthly temple and the heavenly temple – the altar in the next chapter, the altar of incense in chapter 8, and the ark of the covenant in chapter 11. And then we remember Hebrews 9. I won’t take the time to read it all – but you should. In part, it reads:
1 Now even the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary.
2 For there was a tabernacle prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread; this is called the holy place.
3 Behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies,
4 having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded, and the tables of the covenant;
5 and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat; but of these things we cannot now speak in detail.
6 Now when these things have been so prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle performing the divine worship,
And then the author goes on to talk about how the high priest went into the Holy of Holies once a year to offer sacrifice for his sins, and the sins of the people. He had to do it every year, because the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin permanently. He goes on:
11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation;
12 and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.
13 For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh,
14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
What I want you to see is that Jesus entered the perfect temple – the one in heaven – of which the earthly temple was merely a copy – to offer His own blood to deal with sins forever. And we are getting a picture, a vision if you will, of the perfect temple in heaven.
Now, back in Revelation 4, we read of the flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder coming from the throne. That is reminiscent of when God descended on Mt. Sinai to give the Law. And now, by that Law, He will judge lawbreakers – that is, those whose sins have not been forgiven by the blood of the Lamb. Now, we will see almost the exact same phrasing appear three more times in this book – at the end of each of the seven seals, the seven trumpets, and the seven bowls. Look at them:
At the beginning of chapter 8, the Lamb broke the seventh seal. And in 8:5 we read, “Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire of the altar, and threw it to the earth; and there followed peals of thunder and sounds and flashes of lightning and an earthquake.”
And then followed the seven angels who blew the seven trumpets. We get to chapter 11 and the seventh angel sounded the seventh trumpet, and we read in 11:19, “And the temple of God which is in heaven was opened; and the ark of the covenant appeared in His temple, and there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder and an earthquake and a great hailstorm.”
And then the third time, in chapter 16. In verse 17, the seventh angel poured out his bowl, and a loud voice came from heaven which said, “It is done.” Verse 18 reads, “And there were flashes of lightning and sound and peals of thunder; and there was a great earthquake…”
I read that so you know this vision of heaven in Revelation 4 portends the wrath of God to be poured out on the earth. So that you know that God initiates this battle and final defeat of Satan. So that you know there is a God, the true and the living God, who sits on His throne.
Next group of characters – the end of verse 6 through the first part of verse 8, “and in the center and around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind. The first creature was like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had the face like that of a man, and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within.”
Now remember, this is apocalyptic imagery, and therefore points to meaning rather than seeing these exact depictions. John’s view is clearly connected to both Isaiah and Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 1, we read a description of these four living creatures. There are some differences, but lots of similarities. For example, there are four, they are eyes all around, and there are the faces of lions, oxen, men, and eagles. The primary differences are each of the four creatures in Ezekiel have the four faces, and the eyes are found in wheels. Again, apocalyptic imagery. What do they mean?
Most agree the eyes all around represent the all-seeing presence of God – both as He is omnipresent and omniscient, and by His angelic beings – seeing all that takes place, and diligent to protect His throne and do His bidding. The four creatures represent all animate creation – the noblest, the strongest, the wisest and the swiftest – the lion as the king of the beasts, the ox as the strongest of domesticated animals, the man as the crown of creation, and the eagle as the most majestic and swiftest of birds. The point is, the greatest of all God’s creation worship Him.
The reference to six wings is like that of Isaiah’s vision of the seraphim. They had six wings, we assume for the same purposes here: with two they covered their faces in the presence of God, with two they cover their feet as a symbol of humility, and with two they flew. What is most important is what they said, leading us to our final point – the proclamation or the praise and worship of heaven. They cease not day and night to say, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.”
One of my commentaries noted the most used attribute ascribed to God in the Bible is holy. To be holy is to be set apart, to be separate, to be absolutely and totally other. And our God is just that. And day and night, the four living creatures do not cease to say, not love, love, love, not gracious, gracious, gracious – although He is those things – but holy, holy, holy. How many times have they said it since we’ve been in this room?
Notice the ascriptions to God – He is the Lord God, which means He sovereign; He is the Almighty, which means He is all powerful; and He was, and is, and is to come, which means He is eternal. Do you think this would have been encouraging to His suffering church?
Look at verse 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 – notice again the declaration of His supremacy, sovereignty and eternality. And notice the praise of heaven – they give Him glory and honor and thanks. Of course, they don’t give Him what He doesn’t have – they don’t give glory and honor – they just proclaim what He already has. And they give Him thanks. You see, worshiping people are thankful people.
Which leads, finally, to the praise of the 24 elders – who fall down before Him. Don’t miss that – there is a physical response – a position of worship, if you will, in the presence of God. The word worship originally meant to prostrate oneself before a deity and kiss the feet or hem of the garment. But that’s not all – they fall down and cast their crowns before the throne. The purpose of crowns, undoubtedly given by God, is to cast them before the One to whom they are ultimately due.
So every time the living creatures declare His holiness, the 24 elders also worship – saying. Don’t miss that. A lot of times we think of angels or angelic beings singing – and perhaps they do. Chapter 5 says they sang a new song. But the emphasis in all these descriptions of heaven is on what they say. In other words, it’s not the melody nor the instruments nor the beauty of their voices – no, the emphasis is on the content of what they say. And the 24 elders say, Worthy. Worthy are You – notice the emphasis in the use of the second person in all these praises. In other words, worship is about the One worshiped, not the worshipers.
“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.” We remember Colossians 1, All things were created for Him and through Him. What do we take from this chapter? That the center of heaven and the center of worship is God.
I’m out of time. Perhaps we should make less of us and more of God in our worship. Last Francis Chan quote, “There are times when the most loving thing we can do is teach people that joy will come only when they stop screaming for attention and save their voices for the throne.”