Words Relating to Visionary Worship in the New Testament

In addition to the vocabulary of worship actually being offered in the church, the New Testament contains references to worship that may be described as “visionary”; that is, worship is described in images that seem to transcend the actual practice of the nascent church and which place its worship in an eternal and glorious context.

Visionary Worship in the Epistles

Paul, commending to the Philippians Christ’s attitude of humility, declares that his obedience even to death on the cross has led to his exaltation; God “gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9–11). Here, in words partially borrowed from Isaiah (Isa. 45:23), Paul portrays the universal sweep of the covenant as all people swear allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ; the word confess (exōmologeō) translates Isaiah’s nishba‘, which means to swear an oath of covenant faithfulness. In 2 Corinthians 3:12–18 Paul speaks of the veil of Moses, which conceals the glory (doxa) of God. But when a person turns to Christ, the Spirit of the Lord removes that veil, so that “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory … ” (2 Cor. 3:18). Paul goes on to refer to the Christian’s inward experience of “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). That worship is the background for this thought is clear when we recall that the manifestation of the glory of the Lord was a high point in Israelite worship, reflected in many of the psalms and in other passages, such as the account of the dedication of Solomon’s temple; the Sinai covenant was initiated by just such a manifestation or “theophany.”

The writer to the Hebrews also carries covenant worship into the visionary realm, declaring that his readers have come not to an earthly place of meeting with God but to the true and spiritual Mount Zion, “and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant … ” (Heb. 12:22–24 NASB). In such language the distinction between the earthly assembly (panēguris, “festival gathering”) or worshiping church (ekklēsia) and the heavenly city of God, the angelic Jerusalem, is lost; the concepts merge as one and the same new covenant reality.

Worship in the Revelation

It is the Revelation to John that is the supreme worship book of the New Testament. Composed in the form of a great drama of the victory of Christ, it begins with letters addressed to Christian assemblies in seven cities of Asia Minor and ends with a vision of the new Jerusalem in which God himself dwells among his people (Rev. 21:3), in fulfillment of the Israelite prophets’ capsule formulation of the covenant, “I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Jer. 31:33). This new Jerusalem is a spiritual reality, described in rich symbolism drawing on themes from the Old Testament; for example, there is no temple in the city, for “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Rev. 21:22); the foundation stones of the city are precious stones corresponding to those that adorned the breastpiece of the high priest, which in turn stood for the twelve tribes of Israel (Exod. 28:15–21). It seems clear that a statement is being made about the church as the embodiment of the true worshiping Israel; it is, as Hebrews says, the “heavenly Jerusalem” to which Christian believers have already come (Heb. 12:22), the free “Jerusalem above,” which Paul calls “our mother” in contrast to the present Jerusalem with its temple (Gal. 4:25–26, alluding to Ps. 87:5–6). This worshiping church is the bride of the Lamb (Rev. 21:9), who joins the Spirit in the invitation to genuine life: “the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ ” (Rev. 22:17).

Setting the pattern for the worship of the Creator are the twenty-four elders (presbuteroi); their number combines the twelve tribes with the twelve apostles, a representation of the fullness of the worshiping Israel of both old and new covenants. Like the chorus of a Greek drama, the elders, and the larger choir of which they are a part, appear at strategic points in the unfolding drama of the gospel. As the judgments of the Lamb against the unfaithful are revealed, they interject their commentary in the form of powerful declarations of praise, falling down to worship God (proskuneō, Rev. 5:14; 11:16; 19:4) and singing hymns (Rev. 4:8b, 11; 5:9–10, 12, 13b; 11:15b, 17; 15:3–4; 19:6–7), which seem to press the vocabulary of worship to its very limits. The elders sing antiphonally with four “living creatures,” an image drawn from Ezekiel’s vision of the glory of the Lord (Ezek. 1) and whose number may signify the universal adoration of the Creator by the created order, the earth or land. At the outset, the living creatures take up the seraphic hymn of Isaiah, “Holy [hagios], holy, holy, is the Lord God, Almighty” (Rev. 4:8). The elders echo with a similar-sounding word: “You are worthy [axios], our Lord and God … ” (Rev. 4:11), also uttered three times, as the elders’ acclamation is taken up by a widening chorus, first of angelic beings (“You are worthy … ” Rev. 5:9) and then of all creatures (“Worthy is the Lamb … ” Rev. 5:12). These anthems pile declaration upon declaration, with ascriptions of “glory and honor and power” (hē doxa kai hē timē kai hē dunamis, Rev. 4:11), “praise and honor and glory and power” (hē eulogia kai hē timē kai hē doxa kai to kratos, Rev. 5:13b) to the Lamb.

At that point in the drama that narrates the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus (under the figure of the two witnesses; Jesus is the “faithful witness” [Rev. 1:5]), the chorus joins in a massive declaration of the kingship and dominion of the Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15b), to which the elders respond, “We give thanks” (eucharisteō, Rev. 11:17b). Significantly, it is here that “God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant” (Rev. 11:19); this corresponds to the gospel narrative of the Crucifixion, when the veil of the temple was torn, with similar theophanic manifestations (Matt. 27:51), to reveal the emptiness of the earthly sanctuary. In Israelite worship, the ark was the symbolic throne of Yahweh the King and played an important part in the covenant cult of Israel. With this imagery, as with so much else, the Revelation takes us into the realm of covenant worship, making the point that the covenant is renewed through the death and resurrection of Christ.

At the dramatic climax, when the seven final plagues of judgment are about to be released, the chorus of the overcomers sings “the song [ōdē] of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb ‘Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty.… For you alone are holy.… for your righteous acts have been revealed’ ” (Rev. 15:3–4). In the Old Testament, the Song of Moses (Deut. 32) is the conclusion of a curse liturgy invoking the sanctions of the covenant against an unfaithful people. In the Revelation, the “song of Moses and of the Lamb” stands in a similar place, preceding the outpouring of judgment against the apostate harlot “Babylon,” the persecutor of the prophets and saints (Rev. 18:24)—a description that fits Jerusalem far better than it fits Rome. Finally, after the destruction of the city, come the “Hallelujahs!” of chapter 19, culminating in the great affirmation, “For our Lord God Almighty reigns” (Rev. 19:6b).

The Revelation to John is a work of dramatic and liturgical art, based on symbolism drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures. How far the worship in the Revelation corresponds to actual worship in the New Testament church is an open question, but the book was written to first-century Christians who may be expected to have had a definite frame of reference by which to interpret the symbolism of the events narrated, including the descriptions of the worship of the Lord God and of the Lamb. Although “visionary,” in the sense that John includes it with the transcendent imagery of his drama, it is not heavenly worship, as is often claimed, but the worship of the “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), a “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), the new Jerusalem created “for rejoicing, and her people for gladness” (Isa. 65:18 NASB).

Leave a Comment