Worship is the occasion when we men and women become truly alive; when we humans made in the image of God, begin to fulfil the very purpose of our existence by relating to the God who made us. It is the moment when we are caught up into heaven itself and join with the multitude around the throne, singing the praises of God and the lamb. In the words of the ancient Sursum Corda (‘Lift up your hearts’):
“Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven
We proclaim your great and glorious name, for ever praising you and saying:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory, Hosanna in the highest!”
Worship is a wonderfully self-fulfilling experience – for we were made to worship God. But worship first and foremost is an awesome experience, in which we are overwhelmed by the majestic presence of God. When John was “in the spirit on the Lord’s Day” (Rev 1.10) he had a vision of heaven, “and there he saw a throne, with one seated on the throne… Coming from the throne are flashes of lightening, and rumbling and peals of thunder” (Rev 4.2, 8). John is here drawing upon the imagery used of the God whom the people of Israel met at Mount Sinai. He is a truly awesome God. He is not to be likened to some Scandinavian or Dutch monarch rubbing shoulders with ordinary people. In the words of Isaiah, our God is the Lord “high and lifted up” (Is 6.1). He is not someone to slap on the back and to be pally with. This is the one whom we must approach in reverence and in awe. I wonder, were you ever summoned to your headmaster’s study – I was once – I almost wet myself in terror of seeing the Old Man. Such fear is only a pale reflection of the kind of fear we should experience in coming into the presence of Almighty God. Almost certainly John was making a political statement with his description of the worship around the throne. For the language here is reminiscent of emperor worship, in which Caesar was addressed as “our Lord and God”, and where the cry “Worthy art Thou” greeted the emperor as he entered in triumphal procession. For John, however, Caesar’s throne and indeed all this world’s other tin-pot thrones are in the shadow of the throne of God himself.
John speaks of 24 elders, who “fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne” (Rev 4.10: see also 5.14). Precisely who these 24 elders are meant to represent is a matter of scholarly conjecture. I like the suggestion that the 24 elders are composed of the twelve patriarchs of Israel and the twelve apostles, whose names are on the twelve gates and on the twelve foundation stones of the New Jerusalem (Rev 21.12, 14). These 24 elders are representative of God’s people – both before and after Christ.
Two months ago I was preaching in the ‘Christuskirche’, a Baptist church in Hamburg-Altona, where a sculptor-cum-artist had sought to depict this heavenly worship on the wall at the front facing the congregation. There was a crown, symbolising the throne, and around the crown in a semi-circle were twelve small crosses, not just representative of the church, but each cross also a symbol of the love of God which has drawn us to worship him. In worship we give our all to the one who has given our all. In worship we cast down our crowns and bow down in awe before him. In worship the focus is on God, and God alone.
There is no other experience which can compare to Christian worship. It is, said Karl Barth, “the most glorious action that can take place in life”. Or in the words of Ben Witherington III, an American New Testament scholar:
If it is true that worship is what every human being created in the image of God was intended to do, and if it is true that in the End what will happen is that there will be a giant worship-fest in the Kingdom, and if it is true that the last great battle will be about the hearts and minds of humankind and the nature of true worship, then it follows that worship is the most important act that anyone can do on earth.