Worship in Black & White, Pt. 3

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Worship and Music

The next thesis requires a brief diversion from our chronological sweep of the book. The term adw, “to sing” occurs in three places in Revelation. In each of the three passages (5:9; 14:3; 15:3), this word occurs in close proximity of an occurrence of proskunew (5:14; 14:7; 15:4). But more significant than the lexical connection[1] is the thematic connection. Each of these occurrences signify a created being or beings singing worship to God and/or the Lamb. These connections, in part, fueled the following comment by Thompson:

Throughout the book the portrayal of God happens not so much in prose or narrative, but in song. There are numerous hymns or parts of hymns within Revelation (4:8-11; 5:9-14; 7:9-12; 11:15-18; 12:10-12; 15:3-4; 16:5-7; 19:1-4, 5-8). Although they appear at different points throughout the book, and sometimes at key junctures, the reader is left with the unmistakable impression that these are not sporadic offering of praise, but rather unbroken melodies of heaven that John the seer and the readers are privileged to overhear for a few moments.[2] 

The fifth thesis draws on Thompson’s astute observation as well as the exegetical data that preceded it: Worship and Music are intricately linked. Music figures so prominently in Revelation that one scholar has attempted to construct a theology of music for worship from the pages of John’s letter.[3] In general this connection between music and worship colors the present understanding of worship with an emotional, expressive tint. It is with this musical element in mind that one author defines worship as “the celebrative response to what God has done, is doing, and promises to do.”[4] Clearly, for John music and worship were inseparably connected. 

Worship and Allegiance 

Moving briskly now from the throne-room scene in chapter five, Christ, the worthy Lamb, opens successively the first six seals (6:1-17). Chapter seven records the sealing of the 144,000 as well as the song of the tribulation saints as previously discussed. The opening of the seventh seal and the commencing of the first six trumpet judgments occupy chapters 8-9. Chapters 10-13 record several events including the ministry of two witnesses, the seventh trumpet, the woman and the dragon, and the worship of the beast.

The discussion turns now to chapter 14:1-5 where the 144,000 worship the Lamb. Note the description of these persevering saints in verses 3 and 4: “And they sang a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and the elders; and no one could learn the song except the one hundred and forty-four thousand who had been purchased from the earth. These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes.” Two elements in this description are pertinent to the discussion. First is the fact that the 144,000 were the only ones to learn and sing this song. Why this exclusion? Part of the answer may be that “their spiritual achievement [which is subsequently described] reflects their spiritual growth, which is the measure of their spiritual apprehension or ability to appreciate the new song deeply.”[5] To say it another way, these 144,000 are uniquely qualified to sing the song because of their fresh experience of remaining loyal to Christ in difficult circumstances. Strauss notes that their way of life in this passage is evidence of their loyalty.[6] The second fact involves the description of the 144,000 as “following the Lamb wherever He goes.” This statement echoes the teaching of the gospels and Paul speaking of a life pattern of commitment (note the present participle) and surfacing their willingness to identify with Jesus.[7] In general, then, this passage connects the loyalty and commitment of the 144,000 with the exclusive worship they offer in song before the throne.

An additional passage (9:20-21) makes this same connection only in a negative way. This passage offers a description of the worship of the beast after the sixth trumpet judgment: “And the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not 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.” This passage casts God’s judgment in something of an evangelistic light. Morris notes that “those not killed [by the judgment] might have been expected to take warning from what had happened and become devout servants of God.”[8] Sadly, these people refuse to repent. But more than just passively refusing, these people actively engage in their pagan worship and the sordid list of evils. They display their undying allegiance to their own way by continuing “in their worship of impotent, non-existent deities made by their own hands and [remaining] trapped in a selfish style of life which does not submit to God but to demons.”[9] 


The sixth thesis about worship draws on this example and the previous one: Worship functions to display allegiance. In both of these examples, one positive and one negative, worship evidenced an inward commitment and loyalty to the object worshipped. For John worship was a manifestation of personal commitment and allegiance.


Worship and Its Object

Following the song of the 144,000, the seven bowls are unleashed upon the earth (chapter 16). When the final bowl is poured out the simple words, “It is done!” propel us into the final sequence of events. The Great Prostitute, Babylon is punished and the city falls (chapters 17-18). Chapters 19-20 record the great battle of Armageddon and setting up of the Millennial Kingdom. From there, John completes the recounting of his vision with an Edenic description of the New Jerusalem (chapters 21-22).

Amidst the final sequence of events two incidental events occur that are of more than incidental import. 19:10 records John’s attempt to worship the angel who had revealed all these things to him. Later, in 22:8 John attempts to worship the angel a second time. Both times he is prevented from doing so and subsequently rebuked. The angel’s response is both simple and profound: “Do not do that; I am a fellow servant of yours and your brethren who hold the testimony of Jesus; worship God!” (19:10; note 22:8 is similar).


The final thesis concerning worship draws on these two examples, but also from the book as a whole: The validity of worship is determined by its object. In a larger sense, the book of Revelation might be summed up as a cosmic struggle of good against evil, of the Lamb against the Dragon, of true worship (Rev 4-5) versus false worship (Rev 13). The message of the book to its first readers is simple: (in the words of the angel) “Worship God!” Or to say it another way, “Choose God as the object of your worship!” For John, the validity of worship was determined by the worshipper’s choice of objects. Any object but the Father and the Lamb amounted to false, invalid worship.

Summary and Conclusion 

            John’s theology of worship as presented in the book of Revelation is in black and white. By that description it is meant that John’s presentation of worship is a dichotomy. Worship is either true or untrue, valid or invalid. As such, syncretism in worship is disallowed. And, in that the validity of worship is determined by its object, those who choose the proper object of worship will highlight God’s transcendent being, God’s righteous acts, and the redemptive work of Christ. Such worship displays a person’s personal allegiance to God and the Lamb and understands the Godhead’s shared role in accepting worship. In a real sense, John has painted a majestic picture of heavenly worship around the throne of God (the white), so that believers, who live in a world controlled by darkness (the black), might mirror that heavenly worship in anticipation of the day when they will join the heavenly chorus in person.

[1] Peterson, “Worship,” 74 notes that “it is significant that verbs of saying and singing are regularly coupled with the verb to worship.’”

[2] Thompson, “Worship,” 49.

[3] Thomas Allen Seel, A Theology of Music for Worship Derived From the Book of Revelation, (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1995).

[4] John E. Burkhart, Worship (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 17 in Nakhro, “The meaning of Worship,” 80.

[5] Thomas, Revelation 8-22, 194.

[6] Lehman Strauss, The Book of Revelation, (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1987), 263.

[7] Beale, Revelation, 741.

[8] Morris, Revelation, 132.

[9] Trone, “Worship” 83.

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.

End of Series


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