[A sermon preached in August 2010]
One of the major themes of Revelation is worship. That’s clear in the Scripture we read this morning: Revelation 14:6-7. As the last days of earth draw near, three angels give final warning messages. The first cries with a loud voice:
Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.
The second angel, verse 8, warns of the fall of Babylon, which, in Revelation, is a system of false worship.
The third angel, verse 9, warns against worshiping the beast.
So worship is a topic of vital concern for those in the last days. The final question will be this: will you worship the creator—or will you worship the beast?
But the theme of worship is introduced in the book long before we get to the final conflict. The book begins with Jesus appearing before John, who was in exile on Patmos. Jesus tells him to write to the seven churches of Asia, represented by seven candle-stands. Each church gets a message. Each message shows that Jesus knows the strengths and weaknesses of each church. The messages show that Jesus has loving concern for each church.
And then, in chapter 4, John is given a vision of heaven. He sees the throne of God, shining like an emerald. Around it are seated 24 elders, clad in white and wearing crowns of gold. He sees seven lamps of fire burning before the throne. Closest to it are four beasts, covered with eyes, one like a lion, one like a calf, one with a man’s face, and one like an eagle.
I’m going to start reading about the middle of verse 8 of Revelation chapter 4.
and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, LORD God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come. 9And when those beasts give glory and honor and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever, 10The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, 11Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.
Here we see that worship is not just something that the saints are to do in the last days—it is what the hosts of heaven do every day! The last call is for us to do on earth, as it is in heaven. The last question will whether we will set our faces on the things of the earth, or whether we will lift our eyes to the things of heaven. That will decide our destiny. If we value the things of this world, God will give them to us. This will be all that we will have and know. And we will perish with it. But if we value the things of heaven, and hope to have a place there, joining in the praises of those elders and beasts and angels, well, then, we need to start doing it here. Those who are saved at the end will be those who have joined the heavenly choir while yet on earth.
But this is the question I want to pose this morning: What does it mean to worship him?
These passages tell us.
Notice what it says the beasts are doing. They continually cry out, “Holy, holy, holy, LORD God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.”
And when the beasts do this, when they “give glory and honor and thanks” to the one on the throne, then the 24 elders “worship him” “and cast their crowns before him,” saying, “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”
I want to pick out a few words here. The first one is “glory.” The beasts and elders give God glory. The angel in Rev 14 says we are to “fear God and give him glory.”
The word translated glory is the Greek word, doxa. It translates the Hebrew word, kabod. It can mean that something has a shining appearance—like when the glory of the Lord fills the temple, or the glory of heavenly beings, or when the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds at Bethlehem. It can refer to earthly splendor—the glory of a king, for example. God is the king of glory (Ps. 24:7-10), and to give him glory is to acknowledge what is his (Is. 42:12). The glory of God’s kingdom is contrasted with the suffering we now experience (2 Cor 4:17; 1 Pet 1:11). It can refer to people deserving of respect (2 Peter 2:10; Matt 6:29; Jude 8; 2 Peter 2:10), in contrast to the common people.
Here in Rev. 4:11, God is worthy to receive glory and honor—he deserves respect, in other words. He must be acknowledged for who he is, and what he has done. Specifically, he is worthy of glory because he has created all things. The opposite of giving glory to God, we read in Rev 16:9, is to blaspheme him. So the beasts and elders are praising him and giving him glory when they shout out to him, “Holy, holy, holy, are you, Lord God of Hosts, you who were, and are, and are to come. For you are worthy, for you have created all things.” That is giving God glory.
And the first angel of Revelation 14 says giving glory to God follows fearing him. “Fear God, and give him glory.” The word to fear is “phobeomai.” From it we get “phobia.” Yes, it means to be afraid. It means, literally, to shake in your boots. It means that you must have a true sense of who you are in relationship to God. You must be like John, ripped from ordinary life and placed into a scene of strange beauty, of shining jewels and thunder and lightning and weird beasts and eternal praise. You must see God as he is—and when you do, you will be afraid. You will not be able to speak. You will grasp in an instant your sinfulness, as Isaiah did in Isaiah 6. You will know the vast gulf that exists between you, a frail mortal, and the eternal king of glory, your creator. And when you do that, you will give him glory. You will acknowledge who he is.
And what then? When you see him as he is, what then?
Do you know the song by MercyMe, “I can only imagine”?
I can only imagine
What it will be like
When I walk
By your side
I can only imagine
What my eyes will see
When your face
Is before me
Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel
Will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still
Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall
Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all
I can only imagine
John tells us what the elders do … verse 10, “The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne.”
The word translated “worship” in most of our English versions is the Greek word, proskyneo—it literally means to fall down and kiss the ground. It’s what many ancient peoples did before their masters or kings. We see lots of examples of it in the Bible. Abraham bowed himself to the ground before his three visitors (Gen 18:2), as Lot did before the angels (Gen. 19:2). Moses bowed before his father-in-law (Ex 18:7). Israel bowed down toward the temple (Ps 5:7). Nebuchadnezzar commanded all to bow down before his image (Dan 3).
In the New Testament, there are examples that illustrate the literal act. Some have sought to downplay these by quoting the passage in John’s gospel where Jesus speaks of worshiping “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:22-24); in context, he intends to strip holy cities such as Jerusalem and Samaria of any claim to monopoly over place. In Revelation, however, John clearly means it in the literal sense when he says the elders fall down and worship. We see references to falling down and worshiping many places in the book. At the end, John is warned not to fall down and worship at the feet of the angel (19:10; 22:8-9)—God only is to be worshiped.
So let’s sum up what we’ve seen. In Revelation 4, John gives a glimpse into the heavenly throne room. Here we see God praised continually by the beasts as by the seraphim of Isaiah, extolled as Lord God Almighty, who was, and who is, and who is coming. And when the beasts give him glory, praising him for who he is and what he has done, acknowledging his uniqueness, the 24 elders fall down with their faces to the ground—he who alone is worthy of worship and honor, to whose rule they submit fully. And they cast off their own crowns—signs of honor and glory of a kind, but not of a kind that can be compared with God’s, saying that he alone is worthy to receive doxa and honor and power, for he has created all things by his will they were made and are upheld. Thus he holds the scroll of history (ch. 5), which he passes to the worthy Lamb. Thus he judges the world which has spurned his will and worship of him to worship the beast and his image. Thus he has the power to create all things anew.
And this is what the First Angel’s message asks us to do (Rev. 14:7). The angel says with a loud voice, “Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.” The angel, in effect, calls the inhabitants of the world to join in the heavenly liturgy, to give glory to the one coming in judgment, the one who created all things. They are to turn their backs on the beast who demands worship of himself and his image, for all beasts are but creatures sharing the same duty as us—to worship God. The beast will be destroyed—the one on the throne lives for ever, and has all creation in his hand.
Now let me ask you a question.
Based on what we’ve said, think about what we do in this service.
Is it “worship”?
Do we have a sense of the presence of God? Do we really feel like we are in his presence? Are we overwhelmed by his majesty, so that we must cry out and fall down?
Or do we see only the same ordinary building we’ve seen before, and the same people, with their faults and failings … distracted by our thoughts of things we’ve done or forgotten to do or must do when this is over?
Do our songs and prayers extol him, and honor him, and give him glory … or are they vehicles for expressing what we think or what we want or what we like?
When we put our check in the plate, are we focused on our bills, and whether we can afford it—or is our heart focused on him, are we giving it as an expression of our love for him, as an expression of what we must give to him because he is good and great?
Do we think about the people around us, and fret about things they have said or done—or is our entire focus directed on the Lord God Almighty, the one who is, and who was, and who is to come, who made heaven and earth?
Do our testimonies praise him, and thank him, and give him glory—or do we get caught up in telling a story, or talking about ourselves?
I think we all can say we have a mixed record. The disciples, too, fell asleep. They misunderstood. For a while.
But not on the day they saw the Risen Lord. They didn’t sleep then. They didn’t worry about fishing then. They didn’t worry about their enemies, or their friends. They didn’t squabble about who would be first. They could only fall down at his feet in joy and wonder and awe. And on the day of Pentecost, when tongues of fire fell on them, and they burst out into the streets praising God and proclaiming his goodness.
What made the difference—in each case, an awareness of the presence of God.
I think that’s the key. The elders and beasts fall down and sing his praises because they are in his presence always. We would do the same if we saw him here in our midst.
I think of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
God isn’t absent. God is present—but we fail to see him. He’s present at all times and in all places. But he hides himself behind the ordinariness and predictability and the grime and grit.
It takes the gift of faith to see him. Oh that he would open our eyes, day by day. Oh that he would rip the veil that hides his face especially here. Then would our service be transformed. Then would we no longer think about what we might get from worship—then we would truly worship, falling down before him, and praising him, and giving him glory. We would not need to be prodded or poked or reminded. We wouldn’t be able to help ourselves.
Join me now. Let us bow down and worship.
Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord. We want to see you. To see you high and lifted up, shining with the light of your glory.
Turn our eyes from the things of this earth, toward your throne. Let us worship you. Let us give you glory. For you are holy. You are mighty. You are the eternal Father. You are the Lord. You are the creator. And you are worthy of all praise, now and forever, with the Holy Spirit, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.