Worship in the book of Revelation

Worship in the book of Revelation: Worship as confession and moral identity—Part 1 of 2

Delve into the book of Revelation with the author to reveal its vibrant aspects of worship.

Larry L. Lichtenwalter, PhD, is dean of philosophy and theology, Middle East University, Beirut, Lebanon.

Revelation’s visions of the heavenly realm consistently portray the offering of adoration and praise to God and to the Lamb. The language of worship pervades the whole book.1 But what are the implications of the book’s vision of
worship for everyday life? How do the language, expressions, settings, or focus of worship found in these visions frame or articulate moral realities? What link exists, if any, between Revelation’s vision of worship and ethics?

Revelation’s “worship scroll”2 narrative (chapters 4–11) gives the sense “that worship itself is symbolic of bringing life under the control of God.”3 The worship term proskynein is used twenty-four times in the Apocalypse in ways that
indicate the centrality of this focus. The word often implies the physical posture of bowing down or prostrating oneself before another, a posture suggesting submission and homage.4 Physical posture indicates the attitude and action of offering one’s allegiance to another. Bowing down in worship means yielding one’s whole self.

The liturgical elements of Revelation depict the attitude of worshipful reverence to God as bowing to divine sovereignty in every aspect of human life and every facet of God’s sovereign outworking in both personal and corporate life.5 Worship is the commitment of a whole person to God—a commitment lived out in daily existence.6 The fundamental question throughout Revelation is, Who is on the throne (of one’s life)? The book’s competing thrones—the dragon’s (2:13; 13:2) and the beast’s (16:10)—bring to light created beings (human and demonic) desiring to so sit and rule their own affairs without interference from God.

Worship and morality

This bowing (or not bowing) of self to divine sovereignty in every aspect of life points to both why and how the matter of worship inevitably touches moral life—ethics.7 Moral matters inevitably converge with those of worship. Worship and ethics become inescapably related.8 They are entwined in Revelation’s apocalyptic vision as confession, character, and conduct. Confession brings to focus questions of who is to be worshiped, how one
worships, and what one says and does in worship.9

These three themes profoundly interconnect in Revelation’s vision of worship,10 making it obvious that “worship is a constitutive act”11 forming character and guiding conduct. Eschatologically oriented worship in particular is constitutive, for it frames moral being, identity, and action. The cultural realities of worship ritual both express and engender a worldview. Character and conduct are correlative to confession, and both are shaped by it.12 But character also shapes conduct and nuances confession. Conduct likewise impacts character and confession. Each becomes a facet of the worship found in John’s Apocalypse, and together they express the book’s worship/ethics link.

Becoming what we worship

The sixth-trumpet imagery of unrepentant human beings opens up a window into the profound link between worship and ethics and how confession shapes both character and conduct. The frightening vision includes grotesque
hordes of cavalry swarming over the earth with but one assignment—to kill a third of humankind (9:13–16).

Fire, smoke, and brimstone belch out of the horses’ mouths like a deadly volcano spews out fire, smoke, and lava (9:17–19). Everything in the path of the fire, smoke, and brimstone perishes. Snakelike tails inflict further injury (9:19). The death toll is unimaginable: a third of humankind (9:18). The two thirds who survive this sixth-trumpet woe refuse to “repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons, and the idols of gold and of silver and of brass and of stone and of wood, which can neither see nor hear nor walk; and they did not repent of their murders nor of their sorceries nor of their immorality nor of their thefts” (9:20, 21).13

While the visual description of this sixth trumpet scourge unfolds with vividly grotesque and highly symbolic imagery, this sixth trumpet abruptly finishes on a stark note of moral reality. In doing so, its closeness brings understandable meaning to our earthly frame of reference. The passage ends with moral terminology with which any reader can identify—movement from symbol to real, from vision to life. No matter one’s interpretation of the sixth trumpet, the bottom line issue is the forceful link between worship and ethics.

The world of the first century a.d. was full of idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood. Here we find the cults of paganism linked with murders, sorceries, immorality, and thefts as an expression of humankind’s rebellion against the rule of God, the Creator. So powerful were the forces of natural religion that people would not abandon their immoral values and dehumanizing practices even in the face of God’s terrible judgments.The demonic nature of the idols as the transforming influence on the idol worshipers becomes apparent.15

Consequences of false worship

Refusal to worship God as God has its consequences in every form of human wickedness, abuse, hypocrisy, and injustice in human relationships. Within this imagery, Revelation discloses how false worship and immorality are closely linked.16

The list of sins in Revelation 20, 21 should not to be separated.17 The list is prefaced by a summary of idolatry’s spiritual essence: behind the idols are demonic forces, which are worshiped instead of God (9:20).18 Moral
dysfunction is expressed in the context of idolatry.19 While the language comes as that of “idol worship,” it assumes anything that comes between us and the living God and that reduces God to a tacit nonentity. Our gods are things (or persons, ideas, powers, objects, behaviors, or thoughts) before which we bow down with our most sincere and profound respect or commitment. They are what we sacrifice time, money, and effort for. They are the center of our lives, giving us meaning, purpose, and direction.

Sin, generally, comes of two kinds. Verse 20 focuses on sins directed against God (the first four of the Ten Commandments, Exod. 20:1–11). Verse 21 addresses sins directed against human beings (the last six of the Ten Commandments, Exod. 20:12–17).20 The moral reality expressed in this linkage (idolatrous worship and ethics) is that when human beings worship images (idols), they demonstrate gross disrespect for that which God has made in His image—their fellow human beings (Gen. 1:26, 27). Social disruption and evil are a direct result of false worship. The image of God in humans distorts before inanimate images.

Old Testament moral imagery stands behind Revelation’s purposeful worship-ethics link:21 “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of man’s hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak; they have eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but they cannot hear; they have noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but they cannot feel; they have feet, but they cannot walk; they cannot make a sound with their throat. Those who make them will become like them, everyone who trusts in them” (Ps. 115:4–8).22

Idol worshipers shape their gods after their own view of reality; that is, they are “the works of their hands” (Rev. 9:20).23 Those who make idols and put their trust in them become like them—they can neither see, hear, nor walk, morally. They become morally deaf, catatonic, and insensitive. It is a moral principle: we resemble our ideals, we become like what we worship.24 We become like our gods. We resemble what we revere, either for ruin or for restoration.25

From here worship takes its start. A person’s god dictates his or her moral vision and conduct, consciously or unconsciously.26 The Apocalypse, in this sense, alludes to this moral principle when it refers to “the works of their
hands” in conjunction with idols of gold and silver, bronze, stone, and wood, which “can neither see nor hear nor walk” (Rev. 9:20). The “works of their hands” extends beyond the mere material nature of idols themselves to murder, magic arts, immorality, and theft.

This Old Testament principle that we become like what we worship is carried on in the New Testament, especially by Paul.27 Note what the apostle states: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

“Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. . . .

“And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:21–25, 28–32).

Worship, confession, and moral identity

Worship as “confession” thus shapes Christian moral identity.28 Worship as “confession” determines the shape of human life now and defines life in the hereafter.29 It both orients and orders our lives.30 “It marks us out and trains us to be a particular people who are citizens of another city and subjects of a coming King,”31 and worship is a practice of desire that brings inner formation. Worship becomes a pedagogical practice that trains our love—either for God, self, or the world.

Confession (whom and how we worship), then, locates worshipers within an all-inclusive and overarching vision of reality.32 In worship, the self becomes reconstituted; character is reshaped in direct correlation to confession33 and responds to the reality of God as disclosed.34 This becomes a constitutive act, forming character and guiding conduct.35 Various elements of worship create certain perspectives and understandings about God and specific attitudes and habits of being that affect how we think, speak, and act. They determine who we are.36

In the Apocalypse, worship brings moral awareness in the context of the holy character and conduct of God.37 In the Apocalypse, confession locates worshipers within an all-inclusive and overarching vision of reality where God is all in all.38 There, worship as confession—in terms of liturgy affirmation—has moral influence. In keeping with these principles, Revelation’s worship centers, gathers, reveals, and affirms around various moral realities of holiness,39 truthfulness,40 covenant faithfulness,41 reconciliation,42 and righteousness.43 There is response to who God is, what God has done, and what God will do. Revelation’s worship movement gives the hearer words of confession. When one voices them—uses the words of Revelation, that is, “holy, holy, holy,” “righteous and true are Your ways”—the very words will affect their thinking and touch their being.

A study of the Apocalypse thus reveals the true meaning of worship and how believers today should worship God. Those who worship God in Revelation are seen adoring God’s being,44 declaring the Lamb’s worthiness, 45 celebrating God’s glorious presence,46 submitting to His authority, 47 and fearing and serving Him.48

(Part 2 of this article will consider worship as it relates to conduct in the November issue.)

1 David Peterson, Engaging With God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 261; Leonard L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1990), 53.

2 David L. Barr, Tales of the End: A Narrative Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1998), 61.

3 Ibid., 100.

4 Revelation 4:10; 5:8, 14; 7:11; 11:16; 19:4, 10; 22:8, 9.

5 G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1999), 176.

6 J. D. G. Dunn, Romans 9–16 (Dallas, TX: Word, 1988), 710.

7 Revelation 1:17; 4:8; 14:1–5; 15:2–4; 19:1–8; 22:3, 4.

8 Michael R. Weed, “Worship and Ethics: Confession, Character, and Conduct,” Christian Studies 13 (1993): 47.

9 The term confession is used here to mean “who one worships and how one worships.” It is more than mere declaration of beliefs or doctrines.

10 See discussion of these themes in both apocalyptic and non-apocalyptic contexts: Miroslav Volf, “Worship as Adoration and Action: Reflections on a Christian Way of Being-in-the World,” in Worship: Adoration and Action, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1993), 203–252; Weed, “Worship and Ethics,” 47–53.

11 Weed, “Worship and Ethics,” 53.

12 Ibid., 47.

13 Except as otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.

14 Peterson, Engaging With God, 262.

15 G. K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 264.

16 Cf., Jeremiah 16:18. David Peterson, “Worship and Ethics in Romans 12,” Tyndale Bulletin 44, no. 2 (1993): 276.

17 Beale, We Become What We Worship, 265.

18 Ibid., 264.

19 Ibid., 265.

20 “The Ten Commandments may have inspired this list, since there idolatry is first mentioned followed by the four sins also here (as most commentators observe).” Ibid., 265, 266.

21 Beale, The Book of Revelation, 518, 519; Stephen S. Smalley, The Revelation to John: Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (Downers Grove, IL:
InterVarsity Press, 2005), 242, 243; Gordon D. Fee, Revelation: A New Covenant Commentary (Eugene,OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 136, 137; Beale, We Become What We Worship, 36–49.

22 Cf. Psalm 135:15–18; Daniel 5:23. Compare with“They worshiped worthless idols, only to become worthless themselves” (Jer. 2:5, NLT).

23 Cf. Isaiah 40:18–20; 44:9–20; 66:3; Jeremiah 10:3–8; Habakkuk 2:18, 19.

24 Beale, We Become What We Worship, 36–70, 241–267; F. B. Meyer, Gems from the Psalms (Westchester, IL: Good News Publishers, 1976), 188.

25 Beale, We Become What We Worship, 49.

26 William Barclay, The Ten Commandments for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1973), 17, 18.

27 Fee, Revelation: A New Covenant Commentary, 137.

28 Weed, “Worship and Ethics,” 47.

29 Marianne Meye Thompson, “Worship in the Book of Revelation,” Ex Auditiu 8 (1992): 47.

30 Ibid., 51, 52.

31 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 154.

32 Weed, “Worship and Ethics,” 52. See also Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 133–154.

33 Weed, “Worship and Ethics,” 52.

34 Ibid.

35 Ibid.

36 Marva J. Dawn, “Worship and Ethics,” Dialog 32, no. 4 (1993): 297.

37 Revelation 14:6, 7. As per above, “Worship in the Heavenly Realm,” we noted how God is praised because He is holy (4:8; 6:10; 15:4; 16:5). God is praised because He is sovereign (1:8; 4:2; 15:3, 4; 20:11; 21:5). God is praised because He is moral (15:3, 4; 4:11). Et cetera. The profound epithet “holy, holy, holy” in itself is enough to mold the inner self of one who so envisions and praises God.

38 Revelation 1:4–8; 4:1–11. Weed, “Worship and Ethics,” 52.

39 Revelation 4:8.

40 Revelation 6:10; 15:3; 19:2.

41 Revelation 4:3; 5:1; 21:2–8.

42 Revelation 5:9, 10; 7:9; 21:2–8; 22:1–5.

43 Revelation 15:3, 4; 19:1–6. Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 59.

44 Revelation 4:8, 9, 11.

45 Revelation 5:9–12.

46 Revelation 4:9–10; 7:9–12, 15; 11:16; 19:6, 7; 21:3–7.

47 Revelation 4:10; 5:14; 7:11; 11:16; 19:4, 10.

48 Revelation 14:7; 7:15; 22:3. See Mazie Nakhro, “The Meaning of Worship according to the Book of Revelation,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 158 (January–March 2001): 75–85.


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Larry L. Lichtenwalter, PhD, is dean of philosophy and theology, Middle East University, Beirut, Lebanon.

September 2016

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