26 Jan 2016

Revelation: The NT’s Most Ignored Book & Its Ignored Message or “What Jesus Wished New Testament Christians Understood about Revelation!)

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Bible, Christian hope, Church, eschatology, Heaven, Jesus, Revelation, Unity, Worship

The Book of Revelation, especially past chapter 3, is one of the most neglected portions of the Bible for Restorationists.  It ranks up there revelation1with Song of Songs, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes. If Revelation suddenly disappeared it would not impact the doctrine of most members or preachers in  “Churches of Christ” in any measurable way (just writing this makes me sad!).  In most of the 20th century the only need for Revelation was to proclaim what it did not teach! That is it did not teach the dreaded “premillennialism” of Robert Henry Boll. But the Revelation of John did not shape any doctrinal perspective among “us” in any other way that I have been able to discern. Doctrinally, for all intents and purposes, John might as well never have written!

This, btw, parallels the use of Revelation among most Evangelicals of the same period, their only interest in John’s book was speculation about the time table of the return of the Lord.

Surprise! The Revelation of John is NOT about the End of the World

Probably the most surprising truth about “Revelation,” for some, is that the book is NOT “about the end of the world” nor a road map to the “second coming of Christ.” This assumption is so deeply ingrained in north American Evangelical thinking it is almost an impossible barrier to overcome. Even Hollywood promotes this (of course Hollywood could care less about exegesis).

The second biggest surprise to many, is that no average Christian, at least for many many centuries, had a personal copy of Revelation they could take home, read and study. The book itself declares that John intended the book to be READ by one person and HEARD by the rest in the assembly of believers (1.3; 22.18-19). So Revelation was given, and intended to be heard, in the context of corporate worship. This is our first clue to properly “hearing” John’s Apocalypse … The Revelation is a worship given and a received in worship document.

JohnThe Revelation is More about Loyalty – Worship – than Being Left Behind!

It usually surprises Christians to learn that Revelation has more to say about “worship” than any other book in the New Testament. This is such a stunning claim for some that it needs a little justification.  The fact is the word “proskuneo” (one of the ‘worship’ words in Greek) occurs 24x in Revelation, that is more than all of Paul’s writings combined (here are the texts: 3.9; 4.10; 5.14; 7.11; 9.20; 11.1; 11.16; 13.4; 13.8; 13.12; 13.15; 14.7; 14.9; 14.11; 15.4; 16.2; 19.4; 19.10; 19.10; 19.20; 20.4).  And “proskynein” is regularly coupled with singing in praise to God and his Christ. So singing is understood as an act of worship. “ … and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing …” (7.11, NRSV). Twice at climatic moments, we are called, near the end of the book, to “Worship God” (19.9-10; 22.8-9).

Revelation teaches that, what was promised to Israel at Mt. Sinai in Ex 19.6 is coming to fruition in the People of God now. God’s Christ has made “us” to be a “kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father” (1.5b-6) applying the language of Exodus (19.6) to us. Now God’s renewed people are “from every nation, tribe and people” to serve as priests (5.10; 7.9-15). Priests lead people in worship. Worship of the one true God of Israel. The renewed people of God that includes every tongue and tribe on earth, retain the original vocation of Israel and indeed humanity, to be a royal priesthood proclaiming the mighty acts of God (cf 1 Peter 2.9)

Revelation does not simply use the language of worship, rather as the book is audibly read we “see” it and “hear” it. At this point we need toworship recall that the Book of Revelation was read OUT LOUD in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day.  As we “hear” the Revelation of John, we are surrounded by worship – the the prayers, the hymns, the fellow worshipers, in the Revelation. Public, corporate, audible, worship punctuates the book. Thus in Revelation we “overhear” hymns in 1.5b-6; 4.9-11; 5.9-14; 7.9-12; 11.15-18; 15.3-4; 16.5-7; and 19.1-7 as if we were in the Temple of God itself … you would be blessed to read these “out loud” yourself.

What about that New Covenant Worship we Join?

John’s surprises are not limited to the shocking truth that he says more about worship than any other writer in the New Testament. It not only surprises just how saturated Revelation is with worship but also how “Old Testament” that worship is. We might even say that Revelation follows “the Old Testament Pattern” in worship. In fact Revelation “smells” so much like the “Old Testament” that anti-semitic liberal critical scholars in the 19th, and early 20th, century thought the work was actually Jewish to begin with and then edited by a later Christian scribe to insert Jesus from time to time (so Rudolf Bultmann and other equally well known scholars).

Many scholars felt it necessary to defend Revelation as a Christian document in fact of such charges. But as anti-semitic prejudices have been submitted to the microscope of historical research we have learned that early “Christianity” was incredibly Jewish in both thought and lifte, and the real division between “us” and “them” came as a result of the Jewish/Roman wars of the 130s AD. Sadly what you do not know can in fact affect you at the most important level. So Revelation does have the “aroma” of the Hebrew Bible and the sanctuary of the David.  But this fits exactly what we see of the early Jerusalem church throughout the book of Acts, where the believers under apostolic leadership worshiped in the Temple, kept the Temple hours of prayer, offered vows and even sacrifice.  See my articles on these themes in Acts here: They Continued Steadfastly in THE Prayers … Acts 2.42Aroma of Incense: Shadow of the Temple in Luke’s Jewish Story of Jesus and The Way; and  Acts: Luke’s Jewish Story, James & Paul’s Animal Sacrifice.

But more specifically, what we need to see is how like the “Temple” Revelation smells and feels. This actually should not surprise us. Had John been present in Jerusalem in Acts 21 he would have joined the apostle to the Gentiles in his temple worship!  So the Temple is no surprise. The Hebrew Bible stresses that the Temple is the earthly counter part to heaven. Thus the worship we see in heaven SHOULD look and smell like what is going on in the Temple, that is on Earth!  Or to use an image from the Sermon to the Hebrews, the worship here on earth is a copy (type) of the worship taking place in the presence of God! The Old Testament gets this … Restorationists do not!

All life is to reflect God’s glory and honor. Praise and homage belong together throughout the “Old Testament” as in 1 Chron 29.20-21; 2 Chron 7.3-4; 2 Chron 29.28-30; Neh 8.6; etc show (See my book with John Mark Hicks and Johnny Melton, A Gathered People for more on this). The 24 elders, who surely symbolize the whole people of God from “Old Testament” and “New Testament,” are depicted as prostrate before the throne of God holding harps and bowls of incense, the worship of God’s people. Harps (5.8; 14.2; 15.2) are used in temple worship for praise and incense mingles with prayer (Ps 141.2). Even the Christ is depicted in terms of the sacrificial cultus.  Acts depicts the early church as gathering for worship at the hours of sacrifice on a daily basis – they mingled their prayers with the sacrificial incense.  This is the world of John, even if it is not that of 21st century north American Churches of Christ.

revelationsongnewPraise worship in Revelation proclaims the fulfillment of God’s eschatological hopes and promises in the Hebrew Bible. For example the Hebrew Bible frequently calls on the nations to unite with Israel to worship the Creator God – that is a united humanity, the ONE humanity, in worship of the ONE God. This is realized, John says (ironically while his readers are corporately gathered to listen in worship to the words of his book) is fulfilled in the new Jerusalem (7.1-17; 22.1-5) and it is proclaimed in the roar of praise of the redeemed,

Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways, King of the ages.
Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come and worship before you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed”
(Rev 15.3-4)

Worship Link to God’s Presence

It surprises many Christians that as God’s kingdom of priests we, his gathered from the nations people, are now God’s temple. The Gathering, the assembly that John’s “hearers” are part of, provides a link between heaven and earth.  This is the application of Hebrew Bible temple theology directly to the “church” as our current lingo goes. As we gather with our brothers and sisters we are just as much a part of the worship in “heaven” as the Book of Revelation itself. If we grasped this reality – it is a reality – how many of our worship wars would cease???

Some scholars have debated whether John uses existing hymns already sung in his churches in Asia or that he composed new ones. In the final analysis it does not matter. John fully expected his churches to be shaped, molded, and drawn into the worship depicted in his book. The reader – cantor – of the original Revelation almost certainly broke out in song when he/she came to those hymns that punctuate John’s Revelation. It is hard not to sing lyrics when you know they are lyrics!  Jews believed that the faithful on earth participated in heavenly worship (a number of texts support this view in the Hebrew Bible as do the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Book of Hebrews).

One semi-polemical note here. I was taught the NT never mentions instrumental music with Christian worship. Revelation is almost always passed over in silence in any discussion on worship in our fellowship (the irony is deep since the book says more about worship than any book in the NT but as noted above Revelation for all intents and purposes does not exist for doctrine in the Churches of Christ). But the claim is false. Revelation depicts harps in worship to God at least 3x.

Revelation 5.8-10 “when he had taken down the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense which are the prayers of the saints. They sang a new song …

Revelation 14.2-3 we read “I heard a voice from heaven like the sound of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder; the voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they sang a new song before the throne …

Revelation 15.2-3. “…those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands, And they sang the song of Moses, the servant of God and the song of the Lamb …”

When instruments in Revelation have been acknowledged, I have been assured that that is not for us because it is “heaven” and not “now.” This goes against the entire “logic” of Revelation.

John wants his vision of heaven and the reign of God to impact us NOW. He wants Christians to live in light of what he has said. There is something in Revelation we are to “obey” (1.3). If it is true that Christians “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God” and the innumerable host as the Hebrews Preacher claims (12.22-24) then our worship simply joins the ongoing worship already in play … and our songs are in some sense “accompanied” by those harps before God every time we sing!

We share the worship of heaven in the “now” and we are challenged and moved to be faithful till death. Eschatology crashes into our daily lives as individuals and as local gatherings of God’s priests.

Worship is Loyalty

It surprises many Christians to see just how political worship is in Revelation. The message of worship is not simply about getting lost in worshipful feeling. Worship is the PUBLIC declaration of allegiance to the one true King. This is done in the face of every conflicting loyalty (idolatry). Such public affirmations can, and do, run afoul of many nation states (cf Acts 17.6-9). God is King, Jesus is his Christ. In worship we proclaim “whose side we are on.” Worship in Revelation calls the Christian to do more than simply sing a new Hallelujah. John demands that worship calls for proper allegiance to God in every situation of life, to the point of death.  There is no middle ground when it comes to true worship.  You are either with Caesar or you are with God’s crucified yet resurrected Christ.

Conclusions: What we Learn about the Doctrine of WorshipWorship-in-Revelation

We learn a great deal about Christian worship in Revelation. First, Revelation is more concerned about the object of our loyalty (worship) than the mechanics. The mechanics depicted are essentially in continuity with the Temple as Jesus and John would have experienced it.

Second, we learn that worship is both God-centured and (by its very nature) joyful for God’s people. We learn that three themes seem to pervade Spiritual hymnody: 1) adoration 2) enumeration of blessings and 3) expressing eschatological hope (typically) in “Old Testament” language.

By looking at the praise in Revelation we learn we are to avoid extremes of being trite or trivial and loading hymns with such intricate imagery that only well instructed people can appreciate them.

Well there you have it. The Left Behinders will be dismayed. Some at the height of the Boll controversy wished the Revelation was not even in the NT … they will will cringe. I am ok with that.

We need to embrace the Holy Spirit doctrine of Revelation as it impacts us NOW and not simply something best left alone. But I hope that we will come to appreciate John and his call for supreme loyalty and the united people of God. Shalom

2 Responses to “Revelation: The NT’s Most Ignored Book & Its Ignored Message or “What Jesus Wished New Testament Christians Understood about Revelation!)”

  1. Dwight Says:

    I’ve always connected to Revelations on the basis of deliverance, which is what much of the OT also focused on and was the point of the NT. Man was held captive and God set him free. There was a war over man’s soul and God won it.
    But I think the book of Revelations is many faceted in nature as it does include worship and it does include fighting and winning and it does include warnings. It has something for everyone to lift them up, but it is hidden in a style we aren’t familiar with, so we are vexed by its content.

  2. John Says:

    I really enjoyed this. I used to hear about how early Christian worship was so connected to Synagogue, but it occurs to me in Revelation that there is no image of a synagogue, it is centered in the heavenly temple, using imagery derived from the earthly temple. This is one reason I am cautious about looking to Revelation for the “mechanics” of worship, one way or the other. Your point is well taken that it is not so much concerned with the mechanics as the object of our worship. Altars, incense, harps, and temples seem not to be focused on the mechanics of our worship. In fact, in my recent daily reading, I am impressed by the fact that the very particular fine details in the Torah concerning the service at the sanctuary is unique to Israel. Nothing like it exists in the New Testament. God is to be treated as holy is a strong lessen from the Torah, but how that is expressed in our corporate worship seems to have emphases that goes beyond detailed mechanics where very little of the mechanics were left to chance. I love the book of Revelation, it is actually one of my favorite books. I approach parts of it in a similar way one might approach a painting in an art museum. There are not only objective truths here, but feelings that are communicated as well. Thank you for sharing.

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