Worship in Black & White, Pt. 1

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Worship is a prominent theme in the Scriptures. From Abraham on Mt. Moriah to the Jewish ceremonial law to the building and rebuilding of the temple; from the teachings of Jesus to the instruction of the epistles—the thread of worship is woven deep into the literary tapestry of the cannon. But as one embarks upon the book of Revelation the concept of worship is taken to a new level. As one author put it, “there is no book of the New Testament in which worship figures so prominently, provides so much of the language and imagery, and is so fundamental to its purpose and message as the book of Revelation.”[1]

Indeed, some might be skeptical of such a claim. It is worth noting, in fact, that when this author proposed the present study, his plans were to elucidate what he thought would be a minor theme in a book. But what persuaded him to agree with the above-cited scholar was a fresh reading of Revelation.

The book of Revelation receives much attention in academia. Genre, eschatological themes, and prophetic timetables are a few of the themes that figure prominently in the literature surrounding the last book of the cannon. But a straight-forward reading of the text surfaces an uncomplicated awareness that this book is at base level a letter from John to a group of churches.[2] It is such a reading, one that approaches the book as an epistle, which can appreciate the vast contribution the book makes to the church’s understanding of worship. And further, it should be noted that a lexical study of proskunew, the word used most prominently to indicate worship in the New Testament, places nearly half of the New Testament’s uses in Revelation.[3]

This study concerns itself first with a lexical/historical study of the words used in the New Testament for worship and for related concepts. Attention will be paid specifically to the words which occur in Revelation. An attempt will be made to place John’s use of these words among their uses in general, but specifically their New Testament uses. A second section will consider a number of relevant passages from Revelation. This section will not be exhaustive but will focus on the passages that make the most fruitful contribution to the topic of worship. These passages will be discussed for the most part sequentially, though some jumping around may become necessary to tie certain themes together. Along the way, seven theses will be identified that synthesize the exegetical findings of the passages and relate them to the topic of worship. These statements and the discussion connected with each will attempt to unearth the primary aspects of John’s theology of worship in Revelation. A final section will rehearse the findings of the previous section distilling the principles into a brief theology of worship.

Worship Words and Related Concepts

Various words are used to describe the New Testament concept of worship. Many are of comparably lesser significance and will be considered here only briefly. The verb doxazw means “to glorify.” This word is used throughout the New Testament and occurs twice in Revelation (15:4, 18:7). Connected with this verb is the noun form, doxa, which “is much more frequently used [in Revelation], in either the expression ‘give glory’ or ‘receive glory’ or as part of an ascription of praise.”[4] A second verb is piptw. While most of its uses in the New Testament simply convey that something or someone “fell,” in Revelation it is often coupled with proskunew to denote a “the sense of paying homage to God by some literal act of obeisance. . .(4:10; 5:14; 7:11; 11:16; 19:4, cf. 19:10; 22:8).”[5] A third verb adw, “to sing,” is used three times in Revelation for singing that occurs in worship contexts. The two other occurrences in the New Testament are Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 where it denotes singing in a church context. A fourth verb latreuw, “to serve,” is used throughout the New Testament. The word is even occasionally paired with proskunew to denote “worship and service” (Mat. 4:10; Luke 4:8). In general it denotes service to God and its two occurrences in Revelation (7:15; 22:3) follow suit.

The verb used most frequently in the New Testament, and specifically in Revelation, to denote worship is proskunew.[6] In pagan literature proskunew carried the basic meaning “[to prostrate] one’s body in homage before earthly superiors or divinities.”[7] Some suppose that the term may have originally meant “to kiss,” and eventually took on its present meaning by describing not just the kiss but the physical motion one would undertake to kiss the ground or an idol.[8] In the LXX the term carried this same basic meaning denoting for the most part a physical movement.[9] As the term developed moving toward New Testament times it began to describe “the inward attitude of homage and adoration and not just the outward gesture.”[10] The New Testament’s use of the term includes both aspects, the physical position and the inward attitude, to varying degrees depending on the context.[11]

In John’s writings, the emphasis of proskunew seems to be more on the inward attitude while the physical part is still present. Note that in John 4, Christ seems to turn the focus of worship away from the outward manifestation (in this passage, location) to the inward spiritual expression.[12] In the Revelation of John, this trend continues and the term focuses primarily on “adoration,” specifically toward God.[13] So much so that “the notion of paying homage to the true and living God is found in most contexts where proskuneo is used.”[14] This is not to suggest that this notion of divine worship is univocal, for false worship darkens some of the pages of Revelation (e.g., Rev 13—the worship of the beast). In summary, proskunew denotes the display of both external and internal homage. In Revelation, the term emphasizes the internal aspect though both are in view.

Selected Worship Passages and Related Theses

The book of Revelation opens with a prologue, epistolary greeting, and doxology (Rev 1:1-8). From there John launches us into his heavenly vision, recording his encounter with Christ and the charge he receives to write to the seven churches (1:9-20). Chapters 2-3 record seven individual letters to seven churches in Asia Minor presumably under John’s care and influence. Two of these letters, to Pergamum and to Thyatira, record deficiencies in the area of worship and will be considered now in more detail.

The letter to Pergamum is recorded in 2:12-17. Pertinent to our study of worship is verse 14 where the church is reprimanded for its participation in pagan worship. John compares their sin to the Israelites’ problem with Balaam. From the description given, it becomes apparent that members of this church are eating food offered to idols and participating in cultic immorality.[15] The problem went deeper, however, than the mere commission of wrongdoing. The real problem lied with those who, like Balaam, “taught others to relax their principles the way Balaam did.”[16] Following these poor examples, the church had chosen the path of religious syncretism and embraced these pagan practices side by side with their worship of God.

Similar charges are made against the church at Thyatira (2:18-28). A certain woman called Jezebel[17] was seducing members of the church into immorality and the eating of food offered to idols. John notes that she commits these wicked deeds while claiming to be a prophetess (2:14). As with the church at Pergamum, the charge against Thyatira reeks of religious syncretism. The church, enticed by this prophetess, was “ready to conform to the practice of their heathen neighbors” and “had lost sight of the essential Christian position.”[18]

These two letters surface the first thesis concerning worship: Syncretism in worship is disallowed. For John, worship is in black and white. “Any allegiance to anything else amounts to idolatry and negates the church’s witness and association with Jesus Christ.”[19] It is no mistake that on the heals of the letters to the seven somewhat-deficient churches comes John’s vision of heavenly worship. “This juxtaposition. . .may suggest that the latter [is meant to] have a paradigmatic or paranetic function.”[20] In sum, John’s perception of worship includes an undivided focus on God where syncretism is disallowed on the basis of the one’s devotion to the singular object.


1. Marianne Meye Thompson, “Worship in the Book of Revelation,” Ex Auditu 8 (1992): 45.

2. D.A. Carson, Douglass J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992) 479.

3. 24 of 60 according to Bible Works 5.0.020w. Matthew is second with 13 and John’s gospel is third with 11 (most of them in John 4). These numbers differ slightly with H. Schonweiss and C. Brown, “Prayer,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 2, Edited by Colin Brown (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 877. He counts only 9 in Matthew.

4. David Peterson, “Worship in the Revelation to John,” Reformed Theological Review 47 (Sep-Dec 1988): 68.

5. Ibid., 73.

6. Thompson, “Worship,” 42.

7. David Peterson, “Worship,” 68; also see Moulton and Milligan, Vocaulary of the Greek New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997), 549 for uses in extra-biblical literature.

8. Schonweiss and Brown, “Prayer,” NIDNT, 875-76; also Warren W. Weirsbe, Real Worship: Playground Battle Ground, or Holy Ground, 2nd ed, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000) 20.

9. See Schonweiss and Brown, “Prayer,” NIDNT, 876-77 for a myriad of OT references.

10. David Peterson, “Worship,” 68.

11. Weirsbe, Real Worship, 20-21. Note, however, his focus is more on the broad concept of worship rather the lexical root proskunew, though his comments still apply; see also Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III, eds., “Worship,” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 969-73 where the dual nature of the concept of worship is described; see also the lengthy discussion in Thomas Allen Seel, A Theology of Music for Worship Derived From the Book of Revelation, (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1995) l31-47.12. D.A. Carson, ed., Worship by the Book, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 37. Also see David Peterson, Engaging with God: A Biblical Theology of Worship (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1971), 97-100.13. Schonweiss and Brown, “Prayer,” NIDNT, 877-8.

14. David Peterson, “Worship,” 69.

15. G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 248-49 and Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1-7: An Exegetical Commentary (Chicago, Moody Press, 1992), 190-91. Both agree that a literal participation in the sins described by the church at Pergamum.

16. Thomas, Revelation 1-7, 190.

17. Likely a symbolic name according to Leon Morris, Revelation, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, revised ed., (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 70.

18. Morris, Revelation, 71.

19. Beth Trone, “Worship in the Book of Revelation: A Present and Future Reality,” Evangelical Journal 20/2 (2002): 76.

20. Thompson, 48-9.

This article is part of a larger paper entitled “Worship in Black and White: A Johanine Theology of Worship from the Book of Revelation” by Peter Radford. Pete is a friend and an instructor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Lansdale, PA. These articles are published with his permission.


2 responses to this post.

  1. This looks like a profitable article. I will be eagerly awaiting future installments.

    Thanks, and God bless.


  2. […] Do go and read his post, there is much more on this over there.  And while you’re at it, you may want to keep an eye on Brian McCrorie’s recent post on this subject too! […]


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