Heavenly Revelation: the Foundation of Christian Worship

St. Theophan quote

Why Orthodox Christianity? Through the deafening din of the modern age, Orthodoxy may appear as just another voice in the babble, and just another flavor choice on the “what would I like today” buffet. (To clear something up from the start, Orthodoxy Christianity is not a denomination. Denominations are the result of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. Orthodoxy predates that by about one thousand five hundred years. If anyone is “just” Christian, well that would apply to Orthodoxy.) So, in the multitude of voices why should anyone listen to Orthodox Christianity, and in the proliferation of choices why come to the Orthodox Church?

Worship. How we approach and worship God says a lot about our understanding of God. There is and has been, at large quite a bit of talk about Biblical or New Testament worship. There are numerous groups all claiming to be somehow recapturing “Biblical worship,” as if it were lost at some point in time. 

True Christian worship is an image of eternity. It is not man-centered, but God-centered and revealed, reflecting not the tumultuous nature of earthly ages and existence, but the eternity of heavenly living. Thus, true Christianity understands worship to be revealed by God; that is man does not contrive a means to worship God but rather God reveals the true manner by which to worship Him. God built the ladder by which humanity may once again ascend; He did this so that humanity may have a successful return.

In Christ Jesus, the Old Testament was fulfilled (Mat. 5:17). We now have, in Christ, the fullness of God as revealed to humanity (Eph 1:17). In the Old Testament, God gave to the Hebrew people a very concrete and definite revelation of how to worship (Ex. 35ff). Moses makes it clear, this is the revelation he received from God on Sinai. This revelation was very particular. It was not Moses’ own ideas, nor was it according to his likes or dislikes. He was given a pattern and commanded to faithfully follow it in every aspect (cf. Heb. 8:50). Why? Because true worship is about humanity returning to God and being restored to His image and likeness. Worship has to be a revelation from God because only God knows the truest way for humanity to be healed and made whole.

But, Christ came. Surely in the book of Acts, the apostles went from intense liturgical worship to sitting around at home having “free” form worship? The answer is no. Even in the book of Acts, it speaks of the nascent Church worshiping in the temple and then going to a believer’s home to partake of Holy Communion (Acts 2:46, breaking of bread is known to be the Eucharist). The early Church’s life was informed by Liturgical Temple worship. When the Christians were forced out of the Temple and Synagogues, this Mosaic revelation of worship became the foundation of Christian worship. St. James the brother of our Lord is credited with the first Christian Liturgy. The book of Hebrews says that Christ Jesus has “attained a more excellent liturgy” (Cf. 8:6), thus fulfilling the type and shadow of Mosaic worship. Although one could elaborate more examples from the book of Acts, I want to shift to one of the most worship-based books in the New Testament: the book of Revelation. In fact, only in revealed liturgical worship is Revelation truly understood. Outside of liturgy, it takes on a host of bizarre interpretations (our modern age has shown this).

In Revelation, we have a glimpse of heaven. There are the twenty-four elders with electric guitars on stage, jamming out some emotive cords. The four living creatures are casually milling about with some great java, and Jesus is giving a fabulous sermon from the heavenly pulpit … well, maybe not. What we do see is a throne that is beautiful beyond words (Rev. 4:2-3) upon which is seated the Living God, and incredible hosts falling down before Him. The four living creatures sing a hymn, which they repeat, as do the twenty-four elders. The phrase “they do not cease …” (Rev. 4:8) clearly denotes repetition, which is liturgical. In our modern age and mentalities, we might feel sorry for these creatures, stuck in eternity repeating the same thing. Yet, one does not get the impression that this is the case for them. They are enraptured in their ritual worship because it is God-centered and God-given. Further, we find censers, incense, lampstands, an altar, hymns, and unspeakable beauty (cf. Rev. 5:8, 6:9, 8:3-4, 16:7). There is reflected in the mode of worship and the disposition of the heavenly worshipers themselves, an overall sense of extreme awe and veneration for God and His holy things. There are distinct acts of worship, such as standing, and prostrations (Rev. 4:10, 5:14, 20:12).

The book of Revelation reflects that which was revealed to Moses on Sinai (the Tabernacle and then the Temple in Jerusalem had all the above elements), the conclusion is that Moses also glimpsed heavenly worship, which was then imaged in the Tabernacle/Temple (Heb. 9:23ff). In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John was, and is, assuring the worshiping community of Christians: behold, your act of worship on earth is an extension of the eternal reality of worship in the heavenlies. Your worship is not just some man-made thing, its origins are in the heavenlies, and it’s the beginning of heaven on earth. It is part of the cosmic battle, in fact, it is a vital feature in the overthrow of the enemy. The Church of God on earth is an image of the Church in heaven. Worship is one of the paramount unifying factors. One could go on, but this suffices to show that Christianity has always seen worship as an image of heaven and participation in heaven. If Moses and the Apostle had almost identical revelations of worship (we can safely call this the Biblical revelation of worship), when did this revelation become obsolete, and why is it that some assume these models can be thrown out the window as if they are dead and no longer valid? When did heaven change its mode of worship?

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the Lord Jesus Christ is clearly portrayed as a liturgist, St. Paul tells us of heavenly worship: “The chief point is: We have such a High Priest, Who sat down on the right of the throne of the majesty in the heavens, a Liturgist of the holies and of the tabernacle, the true one, which the Lord pitched, and not of man” (Heb. 8:1-2, the word “liturgist” is most often translated as “minister” which diminishes the clearly liturgical tone of St. Paul). This heavenly tabernacle, not of man, is the very one imaged in Orthodox Church through Her liturgical worship (which simply is the way Christians have worshiped throughout the ages). Founded upon this clear Biblical understanding of worship, Vladimir Lossky comments: “Christ, who is both the Sacrificer and the Sacrifice, offers on the heavenly altar the unique sacrifice which is done here below on numberless earthly altars in the Eucharistic mystery. Thus, there is no schism between the invisible and the visible, between heaven and earth, between the Head seated on the Father’s right hand, and the Church, His body, in which flows unceasingly from His most precious blood.”

St. Paul says, “I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11-12). It is no stretch to contend that at the heart of the Gospel is true worship of God. St. Paul confirms that Christian worship is based on divine revelation, not the passing ideas of man.

When a person enters an Orthodox Church, these revealed images are alive. There is an altar, beauty, incense, lamp stands, ritual hymns, petitions, a priest, and so on. Everyone (priest and people) faces the altar, which has a host of meanings, among which is the throne of God. The focus is not on a preacher, a band, a techno screen, or a spinning globe, etc. We all face the throne of God together (as they do in heaven). True Christianity does not reflect the mutable age (though it must work and live in it, engaging it on many levels) but the age to come. True worship reminds the worshiper that the paradigm of fallen earthly realities (no matter how innocuous) is not abiding (Jn 15:19). And it reminds the world that it is temporal and passing away. St. John of Kronstadt says: “The church and worship are the embodiment and realization of all Christianity: here in words, in persons and actions is conveyed the entire economy of our salvation, all sacred and church history, all that is good, wise, eternal and immutable in God … His righteousness and holiness, His eternal power. Here we find a harmony that is wondrous in all things, an amazing logical connection in the whole and its parts: it is true divine wisdom accessible to simple, loving hearts.”

Unfortunately many sectors of Christendom have abandoned the heavenly model of worship; opting instead for earthly reflection, those that resonate with worldly likes and dislikes. Some even become indistinguishable from worldly events. Christianity is reduced to a fad of humanity, instead of being the image of heaven. A worldly model will never heal the world (though it may draw large crowds and be very entertaining), only the heavenly can (cf. Jn 6:33); indeed it must be light to the world (Jn. 8:12, 12:46).

When a Biblical standard is held to, one finds that Orthodoxy is living and worshiping accordingly. Of course, it was the Orthodox Church that compiled the canon of Scripture (the Bible)….

Why Orthodox Christianity? Because true Christian worship is a divinely revealed reflection of eternity centered around the throne of God. Everyone is invited to come and worship as Christians always have, since the beginning, and for all eternity.

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