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A Study on the Theology and Practice of Worship in the Book of Revelation


1. Introduction
Worship comprises those actions by which people express and reaffirm their devotional stance
toward, and relationship to, a deity. These actions can be done by individuals, privately or in a
public place such as a temple/shrine, or by groups of devotees gathered for corporate worship.
Worship more typically involves expressions of praise and adoration and also appeals directed to a
deity, the devotee(s) usually expressing subordination to and/or dependence on the intended
recipient of worship while also affirming a positive relationship with the recipient. In the NT and
in Christian tradition generally - although prayer and praise can be offered by individuals privately,
Christian worship is more characteristically set in the gathered assembly. ( )
The Book of Revelation is rich in its portrayal of worship. The verb tookuvce (to worship) is
used twenty four times in the book. No other New Testament book uses it as frequently. The
Gospels never show the followers of Jesus in prayer although Jesus prays regularly (Mk 1:35;
6:46; Jn 11:41-42;17:1-26), teaches his followers how to pray(Mt 5:44; 6:5-9;Mk11:25), and
harshly criticizes the hypocritical prayer of the Jerusalem(Mk 12:40; Lk 18:11-14). Like the work
of a good Novelist, Revelation shows rather than tells its audience how to offer prayer and
worship
1
. The whole drama deals with the most basic distinction - that between true and false
worship. In the whole understanding of the Biblical theology of worship the place of Revelation is
something unavoidable.
2. Various accounts of Worship in Revelation
The whole scenario of the book is said to be perceived on the Lords Day. Throughout the book
special emphasis is given in portraying the worship of the God Almighty. Not surprisingly there
are at least seven liturgical scenes of worship in Revelation. The passages include 4:2-11, 5:8-14,
7:9-17, 11:15-18, 14:1-5, 15:2-4 and 19:1-8. Each scene is unique, but there are several elements
common to most of them. To a Jewish mind, the most shocking innovation in Revelations
portrayal of heavenly worship is the presence with God of the lamb who was slaughtered as also
worthy of praise, honour and thanksgiving
2
.
3. Sources and Background influences of the theme of worship
The worship images used by John may not be completely his own creation. Scholars suggests
many background influences on the author on his presentation of the theme. The Graeco-Roman
influences , the Jewish understandings, the early Christian articulations etc. are often regarded as
the prominent among the influences upon the author.
3.1.Graeco- Roman Sources


1
Wes Howard-Brook; Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now, New York: Orbis
Books, 2000, 197.

2
Ibid., 198.
2

Many source critical scholars lay great emphasis on excavating and cataloguing Graeco-Roman
sources as the basis of the portrayal of worship in Revelation. They reject early Christian liturgical
practice as the dominant influence on Revelation and contend that the presentation of worship is
shaped more by the rituals of the imperial cult and Hellenistic magic. David Aune suggests that
John's description of the heavenly ceremonial practised in the throne room of God is a reflection,
not of the liturgy of the Christian church on earth, but rather of the ceremonial of the Roman
imperial court and cult. He depicts the latter not only as the polar opposite of the former but also as
a Satanic parody of it. The imagery used in connection with the depiction of the heavenly court
and its inhabitants is found to exhibit striking similarities to the Hellenistic and Roman kingship
tradition as preserved in Roman imperial ceremonies and protocol. Thus for example, the crowned
elders around a throne (ch. 4), being without parallel in Jewish literature, are understood to come
from the ceremonial traditions of the twenty-four bodyguards at Domitians court.
3
Similarly,
Revelations hymnic portions are sometimes explained by appealing to the tragedies of the Greek
theatre, where the chorus expressed the feelings and thoughts of the spectators as the drama
unfolded.
4

3.2.Contemporary Jewish and Christian practice
The prominence given to worship in Revelation is regarded as having influenced by the liturgical
elements in then contemporary Jewish and Christian practice that could have had some bearing on
author. These include liturgies and practice (of the temple, synagogue and church) and apocalyptic
literature (which were well known in Jewish and Christian circles in the first century). A
distinction is made here between the use or adaptation of elements or ideas from pre-existing
sources and the borrowing and replication of an overall liturgical structure.
3.2.1. Elements and ideas
3.2.1.1 Jewish elements and practice
There is a strong opinion among scholars that the hymnic portions of Revelation have their origin
in the synagogue (e.g. 4:11; 11:15-18; 15:3-4).
5
Also suggested is that the creator theme in chapter
4 is a transposition of the synagogue morning liturgy.
6
More thematically, it is argued that the
symbolism of Exodus, judgement and pilgrimage, all present in an ideal Feast of Tabernacles,
lies behind chapter 7
7
. The Lamb symbol, which theologians tend to connect with the paschal
lamb
8
, more probably reminded the early Christians of the Deutero-Isaian Servant
9
.


3
David E. Aune, "The Influence of Roman Imperial Court Ceremonial on the Apocalypse of John," Biblical
Research 28, (1983): 5,13.

4
J. W. Bowman, "The Revelation to John: Its Dramatic Structure and Message," Interpretation 9, (1955).

5
A. B. MacDonald, Christian Worship in the Primitive Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1934), 112 ff.

6
James F. McGrath, The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context (Urbana: University of
Illinois Press, 2009).

7
H.Ulfgard, Feast and Future: Revelation 7:9-17 and the Feast of Tabernacles (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksell,
1989), 70-107.

8
M H Shepherd, The Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse (London: Lutterworth, 1960).79.
3

The acclamations to the divine Lamb in the second and third strophes of the hymn in chapter 5 are
reminiscent of the vision of the Son of Man in Dn 7:14. In the hymn of chapter 15, there is a
citation which the author calls "the canticle of Moses, the Servant of God, and the canticle of the
Lamb" (15:3). This song, which is inspired by the canticle in Ex 15:1-18, is a composition in honor
of the risen Christ as Lamb of God
10
. The titles applied here to Christ, as well as several of the
expressions in this brief strophe, are taken from the OT, where they have reference to Yahweh.
3.2.1.2. The practice of the early church
There are many suggestions that relate the worship of Revelation to the practice of early
Christianity. Important among them are (1) The twenty-four elders reflect the presbytery seated
around the bishop.
11
(2) The letters draw on a minister admonishing, warning and inviting a
catechumen (chs. 23). (3) The unsealing of the scroll parallels the Old Testament reading in the
early Church.
12
(4) Revelation 5 is comparable to other hymnic texts and is evidence of a pre-
existent liturgical formula to describe Christs enthronement. Form-critical analysis of sections
such as 1:4-5, 8b; 4:8b; 7:12, 15-17; 11:15, 17-18 and 19:5-8 reveals parallelism, reverent tone and
grammatical peculiarities which suggest borrowing from pre-existing liturgies.
13
Similarly, some
detect parallels to the Odes of Solomon. These liturgical sources may have been localised in Asia
Minor. Some others suggest, on the basis of I Clement and the Didache, that these were the hymns
from Johns Eucharistic liturgy.
14

3.2.1.3. Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature
There are two pertinent observations. First, many of the common elements of apocalyptic literature
are found among the worship presentation in the book. This includes the tree of life, crown of life,
hidden manna, new name, white raiment etc
15
. The second is that the worship described follows
Jewish and Christian apocalyptic by having a heavenly aspect.
16
There was a widely-held belief
that because the tabernacle and temple were copies of heaven (Exod. 25:8-9), there was a close
correspondence between earthly and heavenly worship. Consequently, the heavenly temple was a
common theme in apocalyptic literature. A corresponding idea is seen in the Qumran communitys


9
David M Stanley, ""Carmenque Christo Quasi Deo Dicere"," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1958).

10
Stanley, ""Carmenque Christo Quasi Deo Dicere"."

11
Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to the Magnesians(XII:1) describes the elders as a precious spiritual crown
around the bishop. See Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume I, (Oak Harbor,
WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1997.

12
O. Piper, "The Apocalypse of John and the Liturgy of the Ancient Church," Church History 20, (1951): 13.

13
J. O'Rourke, "The Hymns of the Apocalypse," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30, (1968).

14
Martyn Cowan, "New World, New Temple, New Worship: The Book of Revelation in the Theology and Practice
of Christian Worship. Part 1," Churchman 119, no. 4 (2005).

15
P Prigent, Commentary on the Apocalypse of John (Tbingen: Mohr-Sieback, 2001), 162.

16
J J Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1998).
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belief that, as the faithful on earth, they participated with the angels in the worship of the heavenly
temple.
17

3.2.2. Liturgical patterns
3.2.2.1. Christian Liturgies
Oscar Cullmann argues that John saw his visions on a Lords Day in the context of a worship
service.
18
Hence, the whole Book of Revelation from the greeting of grace and peace in chapter
1:4 to the closing prayer: Come Lord Jesus, in chapter 22:20, and the benediction in the last verse,
is full of allusions to the liturgical usages of the early community.
19
It is suggested that Revelation
follows the basic shape of the Eucharistic liturgy as Scripture, homily, prayer and Eucharist,
perhaps the paschal liturgy.
20

It is coming to be generally recognized that the author of the Apocalypse presents his visions, at
least in part, against the background or within the framework of the church liturgy of the latter
years of the first Christian century. Startling witness to the powerful grip, the persuasive attraction,
the appealing vitality which this liturgy had for the minds and hearts of the early Christians is thus
borne by the Revelator whose every thought, conscious or not, seems to be dominated by it.
21
A
detailed understanding of the liturgical aspects in Revelation is made when it is read alongside
with the reference to the earliest clear-cut description of Christian worship made by Justin
Martyr
22
, about the middle of the second century, or only a brief fifty years after the close of the
New Testament canon.
Consideration should first be given to the arrangement of the scene where the liturgy of heaven
takes place. A most elaborate description is presented in Revelation 4 and 5, and many further
details are added in other portions of the book which constantly recur to this scene. Presumably in


17
Prigent, Commentary on the Apocalypse of John., 23.

18
Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship (London: SCM, 1953), 7.

19
Cullmann, Early Christian Worship.

20
Shepherd, The Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse, 79.

21
Allen Cabaniss, "A Note on the Liturgy of the Apocalypse," Interpretation 7, (1953): 79.

22
Justin Martyr gives detailed statements regarding the liturgical rituals of the early Christian Church.
He gives two accounts of the service: one, a Eucharist after a baptism; the other, the normal service of every Sunday.
Since Justin was directing his Apology to the Emperor Antoninus Pius, that is, to a non-Christian reader, his language
is largely un-technical. For example, his use of the word president is an obvious metonymy for bishop and the brethren
are presumably the bishop's fellow presbyters. Moreover, Justin makes no mention of singing, yet in all likelihood
Psalms and canticles were used in the Christian assemblies, as we learn from the Roman Pliny and from the Epistles of
the New Testament. Still further, in the Justinian account, we can observe a two fold division of the service: an
instructional part composed of readings and exhortation; and the sacramental part consisting of prayers and the
Communion. This harks back to the description of Pentecost in the Book of Acts where the new converts are said to
have "continued steadfastly in the Apostles doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers." At a
later date these two divisions were called respectively the Liturgy of the Catechumens (Missa Cate-chumenorum, Pro-
Anaphora) and the Liturgy of the Faithful {Missa Fidelium, Anaphora), all interested persons being admitted to the
former, but only baptized true believers to the latter.
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the eastern part of the meeting-place (7:2)

there is a central throne on which sits the Eternal One.
On each side, forming a semicircle, are twelve similar thrones, occupied by twenty-four presbyters.
Close by the central throne are four creatures like those of Ezekiels vision and reminiscent of
Isaiah's seraphim.
23
The author apparently had in mind the first sight that met the eye of a person
entering a Christian religious assembly for the Eucharistic service : the presiding bishop, flanked
by his fellow presbyters, and attended or assisted by his servant-deacons. The letters of Saint
Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 110-117), only a few short years later than the Apocalypse, refer a number
of times to the bishop in the place of God, the presbyters in the place of the council of Apostles,
and the deacons in the immediate service of the bishop.

Clement of Rome, almost exactly
contemporary with the Apocalyptic writer, uses Old Testament verbiage with the same implication
when he says in his (First) Letter to the Corinthians: To the high priest have been given his
proper liturgies ; to the priests has been given their proper place; and on the Levites have been
imposed their proper 'deaconings.
24

In front of the main throne and on the chord of the arc formed by the other thrones are, so the
Apocalyptist says, three objects, seven lamp-stands with their lights, a laver of water, and an
altar.
25


The lamps at once call to mind the famous letter of Pliny to Trajan which states that the
Christians were accustomed to meet before dawn; hence the need for artificial lights. The laver
suggests the close association of the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist mentioned by Ignatius
26
,

Justin
27
,

and the Didache (ca. 100),

and also the vague allusion of Pliny to the Christian
renunciation of certain crimes.
28

The altar, or table, is, of course, a practical necessity for the
sacrament of Holy Communion,
29

but here also faintly intimates an early Christian practice of
meeting in cemeteries and using the tomb of a martyr as a place for the celebration of the
Eucharist.
30

The scene, then, as portrayed by the Apocalyptist, is a remarkable parallel to the scene of Christian
worship as suggested by Clement and Ignatius, his contemporaries, and as described by Justin a
half-century later. The day on which this liturgy is celebrated is surely Sunday, clearly stated by
the Didache and Ignatius, implied by Pliny, and confirmed by Justin Martyr
31
. Thus the liturgical
patterns of heavenly worship portrayed in Revelation seems clearly resembling the early Christian
liturgical patterns.
3.2.2.2. Jewish Liturgy


23
Ezek. 1: 5-10, Isa. 6:2 f.

24
Cabaniss, A Note on the Liturgy of the Apocalypse.

25
For the altar, see Rev. 6:9-11, 8:3-5.

26
Roberts, Alexander and Donaldson, James, The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans,Ante-Nicene Fathers:
Volume I, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1997

27
Apology, I, Chap. 65.

28
Cabaniss, "A Note on the Liturgy of the Apocalypse.

29
Ignatius, Magnesians, 7:2; Romans 2:2; Philadelphians, 4.

30
Cabaniss, "A Note on the Liturgy of the Apocalypse.

31
cf. Rev. 1:10 (reference to "the Lord's day") with 1:18 (reference to the Lord's resurrection); Didache, 14:1;
Ignatius, Magnesians, 9:1
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Carrington argued that the structure of Revelation showed substantial similarities to the pattern of
Old Testament temple liturgy, in particular, that of the daily morning sacrifice. A high priest
sacrificed a lamb at the temple and splashed its blood on the altar. Trumpets are sounded, the gate
opens, the sacrifice is prepared, incense is offered, the victim is burned and then there is a
sacrificial feast
32
.
Similarly, Farrer believed Revelation to be a continuous, hard-headed and systematic working out
of Old Testament themes which exhibited an extremely elaborate and varied cyclic pattern, both
in the regular recurrence of themes, and in the form of their visionary presentation
33
. He argued
that Revelation paralleled the Old Testament liturgical calendar, which began with Dedication and
moved through Passover, Pentecost, New Year (Trumpets), and Tabernacles before returning to
Dedication in Revelation. The cycle was then repeated a second time, returning to Dedication (ch.
22).
4. Theological significance of Worship in Revelation
Scholars suggest a number of proposals which examine the literary and theological function of
Johns description of heavenly worship. Examining Johns purpose should give us criteria to weigh
the merits of the suggestions outlined above and so better understand the background to
Revelation.
4.1.The Pattern of Heavenly Worship
John may have recorded the heavenly worship as a pattern to give to the church. Thus John
received, in a Moses-like manner, the heavenly pattern of worship that the church on earth should
reflect. This enables worship to be done on earth as in heaven.
34

4.2.Participating in Heavenly Worship
John may have been explaining the very nature of Lords Day worship i.e., worship takes place
both on earth and in heaven.
35
Angels are present because the church gathers around the heavenly
throne. John, though exiled from the people with whom he previously worshipped, was not that far
away from them because they met in heaven which was much closer than they realised
36
. This
means that as the church on earth gathers, the Spirit breaks into our world and sweeps us into the


32
Cowan, "New World, New Temple, New Worship: The Book of Revelation in the Theology and Practice of
Christian Worship. Part 1.

33
A Farrer, A Rebirth of Images (London: Dacre Press, 1949), 349.

34
M. S. Horton, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-centred worship (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002),
139.

35
N. T. Wright, Freedom and Framework, Spirit and Truth: Recovering Biblical Worship, Studia Liturgica 32
(2002): 177-79
36
E. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (San Francisco: Harper and
Row, 1988), 89.
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kingdom that is, even now, coming down from heaven.
37
Thus, simple and outwardly unimpressive
gatherings actually have salvationhistorical significance because, in worship, future realities are
realized to such a degree that worshippers gain a foretaste of what is to come.
4.3.Countering the emperor cult
Perhaps the most prevalent idea is that John wrote to strengthen churches to resist the emperor cult.
The author was thoroughly convinced that the claims of Caesar were antithetical to those of Christ.
He regarded any compromise as impossible and any accommodation as blasphemy and thus
produced an elaborately designed and ingeniously crafted literary work in which he both
heightened and schematized that antithesis to persuade his wavering readers that his perceptions
were not only right, they coincided with the perspective of God himself. The author therefore set
out the radical distinction between the true worship of God and the lamb, and the demonic worship
of the dragon and the beast in the emperor cult. This view assumes that a new form of emperor
worship had become widespread in Domitians day; Christians who refused to participate were
persecuted
38
. Moffatt contends that this form of emperor worship could not be found earlier than
Domitian.
39
Similarly, Charles argues that the antagonism presupposed in Revelation was not
present until the closing years of Domitians reign.
On this view, Johns urgent challenge to churches is that they engage in true worship and not in
its pseudo and pretentious counterpart. John enables Christians to resist by showing how
deceptive present appearances of power can be
40
. In fact, participation or non-participation
becomes determinative of eschatological destiny. John constructs counter-definitions of reality
to help Christians take their stand against the power, oppression and idolatrous ideology of Rome.
Revelation encourages Christians by giving them a glimpse of the final blessedness of Gods
people.
41

5. Evaluation and Conclusion
It can be concluded that the author presented the worship theme in such a way as to fit his
theological goals grounded in his visionary experience. Through the presentation of various styles
of worship, the writer draws the attention of his reader to meditate up on it. The main thrust is to
worship God who is the preceder of all things, the creator and He who will bring all things to the
eschatological fulfillment. For that he travels through the Jewish and early Christian subways and
recollects the liturgical elements and patterns out of it.Its visions are presented within a framework
of liturgical activities, and toward the end of the book it is hardly possible to dissociate the acts of
worship from the visions of the future. This close relationship shows that its liturgical portions are

37
Cowan, "New World, New Temple, New Worship: The Book of Revelation in the Theology and Practice of
Christian Worship. Part 1.
38
L. Morris, Revelation (Leicester: IVP), 35-36.
39
J. Moffatt, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 307.
40
L. Morris, Revelation, 38.
41
Cowan, "New World, New Temple, New Worship: The Book of Revelation in the Theology and Practice of
Christian Worship. Part 1.
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not a purely literary device. Rather in the Seer's mind they form part of the revelatory process itself
representing the reaction of initiated creatures to the gradual disclosure of the saving purpose of
God and its execution.
Bibliography

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Cowan, Martyn. "New World, New Temple, New Worship: The Book of Revelation in the Theology and
Practice of Christian Worship. Part 1." Churchman 119, no. 4 (2005): 297 - 312.

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Farrer, A. A Rebirth of Images. London: Dacre Press, 1949.

H.Ulfgard. Feast and Future: Revelation 7:9-17 and the Feast of Tabernacles. Stockholm: Almqvist and
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Horton, M. S. A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship. Grand Rapids: Baker,
2002.

MacDonald, A. B. Christian Worship in the Primitive Church. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1934.

McGrath, James F. The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context. Urbana:
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9


O'Rourke, J. "The Hymns of the Apocalypse." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 30, (1968): 339-409

Peterson, E. Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination. San Francisco:
Harper and Row, 1988.

Piper, O. "The Apocalypse of John and the Liturgy of the Ancient Church." Church History 20, (1951): 13.

Prigent, P. Commentary on the Apocalypse of John. Tbingen: Mohr-Sieback, 2001.

Shepherd, M H. The Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse. London: Lutterworth, 1960.

Stanley, David M. ""Carmenque Christo Quasi Deo Dicere"." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 20, no. 2 (1958):
173 - 191.

Wright, N.T. "Freedeom and Framework, Spirit and Truth: Recovering Biblical Worship." Studia Liturgica
32, (2002): 177-179.