Worship in Heaven

Below are my notes from Sunday morning on Revelation 5:8-14. I have titled the post ‘worship in heaven’ because so much of the scene is set around the worship of God. Enjoy!


5:8 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

This is a beautiful chapter, and as we enter into the second half of the text of chapter five, we read some more amazing things. Hendriksen says, “No sooner has the Lamb taken the scroll, and thus accepted the office of King of the Universe, than there is a great burst of triumph and exuberant joy in three doxologies.”[i]

The Prayers of the Saints

Here the prayers of the saints are represented as incense in golden bowls, later we’ll read that the saints are made priests to our God. The chapter, and indeed looking back to the first chapter (1:5, 6), is replete with this imagery of Christians as priests. The incense being offered in golden bowls is part of that picture, which we’ll come back to in a moment.

Saints and Christians

Another interesting thing to note is that unlike the Catholics, we don’t believe that the word ‘saint’ carries any special designation other than belonging to God as one of His children. Indeed, to be a ‘Christian’ is to be a ‘saint.’ We see that throughout the Scriptures, nevermoreso than here in Revelation, where we read that the prayers in heaven are represented as incense in golden bowls, as it were.

George Ladd rightly remarks, “’Saints’ is the most common term used by John to designate God’s people (8:3, 4; 11:18; 13:7, 10; 14:12; 16:6; 17:6; 18:20, 24; 19:8; 20:9), and this is also one of the most common Pauline terms to designate Christians.”[ii]

Nor is this unique to this passage as Ladd points out throughout the book of Revelation, Christians are referred to as saints (among other titles) and unbelievers are generally referred to as earth-dwellers.

I only mention this in particular now because it is the particular privilege of God’s children to claim for themselves that designation which God himself bestows upon them. In other words, let us think God’s thoughts after him. Let us use that vocabulary which he has assigned to us. Let us call things after their proper designation according to the mind of God, which in scripture, means that ‘saints’ are ‘Christians.’

5:9-10 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, [10] and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

The Gospel and the Need for “Ransom”

George Ladd says that this word “ransom” is a Pauline word and some of the instances that correspond with it in Paul’s writing are as follows:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— (Galatians 3:13)

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, [5] to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5)

“This is Pauline word and has as its background the possibility of a slave purchasing its freedom from bondage by a certain sum of money… the cost of the purchase is Christ’s blood… the objects purchased are men… from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. Here John’s vision extends beyond his own immediate horizon to include the entire world – peoples to whom the gospel has not yet reached.”

This is the very heart of the gospel, that because of your sin a price needed to be paid. That price was the blood of Jesus. As Anselm explains:

And this debt was so great that, while it was man alone who owned it, none but God was able to pay it. So he who paid had to be both God and man… so that man, who in his own nature owned the debt but could not pay, might be able to do so in the person of God.[iii]

This is what is bound up in the substitutionary atonement of Jesus; he took our place and paid the penalty of our sin.

That is the picture of the spotless lamb that we see here. Jesus, though without sin, took our place on the altar outside the city.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

All of this is for a purpose – to make us priests and kings who reign with Him…

Priests to our God

When we look at verse 10 we know that the purpose for which we have been ransomed is to be made a kingdom and priests to our God. This is nothing short of an amazing promise. Have you ever wondered what the purpose of your life is? Have you ever wondered why it is that God saved you? In these verses we find the answers to those questions.

As I’ve mentioned before, Revelation is a series of scenes (sometimes the same scene) recapitulated from different perspectives. Each section of the book gives fresh incite into the work of Jesus and his plan for the church.

Because of the greatness of the destiny of Jesus, and because of the fact that you have been united through his death with Him (Rom. 6), you therefore have a great destiny just as he does. This will come to light as we explore some more.

Now, Beale makes the connection that what we’re witnessing here is nothing less than the coronation of Jesus after his resurrection.

“…the making of the saints into a kingdom and a priesthood serves as another basis for the lamb’s reception of authority. In view of the connection with Revelation 1:5c-6a, Christ’s reception of authority in 5:7, 9b should be seen as enthronement, especially in light of the mention in 1:5 of Christ’s resurrection to his office as ‘ruler of the kings of the Earth.’”[iv]

As it said in Hebrews:

But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, [13] waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. (Hebrews 10:12-13)

What we see here is that God in Christ is making us both priests and kings, specifically we see here the priesthood of the believer. This is what was spoken of by Peter when he said:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. [10] Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

The idea of believers being priests was not always something accepted throughout church history. It is a doctrine that the reformers had to recover in the Reformation. It was told to the average serf that he had no right to come before God except through the intermediary of a priest. Nor did he have the mind or right to interpret the scriptures for himself. Not so according to the scripture, however, as we have seen so clearly here.

This idea of priesthood isn’t unique to the NT. Its roots are found all the way back in the book of Exodus:

You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. [5] Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; [6] and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Exodus 19:4-6)

These ideas in Revelation have the motif of Exodus in mind, but they also have the worldwide implications of Daniel in mind as well.

Beale comments:

… in 5:10 the influence of Exodus 19:6 (“a kingly priesthood”) is also present in the phrase “a kingdom of priests.” In this regard, Revelation 5:9b-10 is also a reworking of Revelation 1:5c-6a in light of Exodus 19:6 and the Passover idea of the slain lamb. This means that the Exodus idea of the kingdom and priesthood have been universalized and woven into the concept of the saints’ universal kingdom of Daniel 7. Strikingly, Israel was chosen “from all the nations” (Ex. 19:5) to become “a kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6); in Revelation 5:9 Israel’s’ election “from all the nations” has been widened, via an interweaving of the Daniel 7 formula of universality, to include people “from every tribe, tongue, people and nation.”

What he is saying is that just as God drew the people out of Israel to be a light to the world, to rule over Canaan and to show the world what it was like to be in a right relation with God, serving Him as priests, so we too are drawn out of slavery (to sin and Satan – Eph.2) to serve God. It is the slain Passover lamb that frees us and leads us in exodus to a new land.

We are not simply saved from something; we are saved for something. And that is why John picks up on the Danielic language of universality.

A Kingdom for our God

God isn’t just satisfied to have a people serving Him in a small strip of land in the Middle East; instead he’s redeeming a people from all over the world, to rule over the world.

This is what we also read in chapter 20:

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. [5] The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. [6] Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4-6)

The scene in Revelation 20 is similar to the scene we find here. The emphasis in chapter 20 is on the reign of the saints with their Lord after the victorious cross work of Jesus. He has made them alive through the new birth, and they are reigning with him for “1000 years”, the time between the two advents of Christ. The emphasis in chapter 5 is on the atonement specifically, though all the same themes are found here.

So what we find here in chapter 5 is the view from heaven after Christ’s victory on the cross.[v] On earth his kingdom had been inaugurated with the goal of worldwide redemption. The song of the elders and of the angels “is the song of redemption.”[vi]

These ideas are powerfully combined with the idea of our reigning[vii] with God – itself an amazing promise. How are we to reign? Well, as it is pictured here, it is through the intercessory prayers of the saints (and their work of proclaiming the Gospel and the worthiness of the Lamb) that the nations gradually succumb to the iron rod of Jesus.[viii]

Some of the background texts from Daniel might be helpful in understanding these ideas further:

“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. (Daniel 7:13)

And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:14)

But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever, forever and ever.’ (Daniel 7:18)

…until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom. (Daniel 7:22)

And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.’ (Daniel 7:27)

Therefore the ideas of priesthood and kingship/rule are combined here in Revelation 5, and we start to see that the reign of God as portrayed both here and in Daniel 7 is universal. By way of a side note, it might as well be said that Daniel is not alone in seeing the future kingdom of God as universal. David saw it, and stated as much in his reaction to the covenant God made with him. This would be picked up in the Psalms where Solomon saw the role of the Davidic king as one day ruling over all the earth. Isaiah likewise saw a kingdom that stretched over all the earth, where gentiles and their kings would come and pay homage to the Lord (Is. 66 especially comes to mind).[ix]

Saints share in that rule, and by way of conclusion, Beale says, “This rule is exercised now in a real but limited way, triumphing through the way of cross, but will be fulfilled triumphantly in the kingdom of the final new creation.”[x]

5:11-14 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, [12] saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” [13] And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” [14] And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

The praise of the Lamb moves out in concentric circles, as it were, from the Cherubim (the four living creatures), to the elders (the universal church’s representation), myriads of angels, and finally ever creature in heaven and earth.

The picture is clear: all the earth will bow before the Lamb.

And the specific focus of His worthiness in this chapter is not simply due to his deity, but due to his work of atonement (hence the slain lamb who “takes away the sins of the world” John 1).

The Content of Worship

I have briefly mentioned this in prior lessons, but I want to talk here about the nature of what they are saying. Worship, as I mentioned before, is more than just an experience or an “encounter with God.” Worship has content. It is ascribing to God the truth of who He is.

Conjoined to what we say to God in acknowledgement of who he is must be a heart that is pleasing to him. In the OT, the center of worship revolved around sacrifice, it was a worshipful thing to give God a sacrifice and it was necessary b/c of the sins of the people. But now, we have a sacrifice, Jesus Christ. For as the author of Hebrews has said:

For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. [25] Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, [26] for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9:24-26)

Furthermore, it is our attitude, our heart, that God is seeking as Samuel said:

And Samuel said, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22)

So, in worship we have both content and a heart which must be right before God. Having the right attitude as well as the right doctrine is important. Worship isn’t simply an emotional encounter with your own feelings during the music on a Sunday morning. It is the combination of a heart that has been changed by God, realizing all that He has done for us in Christ, and pouring out of that heart in words of truth (content) to Him. Worship certainly involves the emotions because it involves the totality of who we are as living sacrifices. Therefore, it is not less than an emotion that we experience, but it certainly is more.

Application for Us

What is it that drives us to worship? It is the truth behind these images that Christ has died for our sins so that we might live forever. It is that he became a bloody sacrifice so that we might escape hell and eternal pain.

As Ambrose said:

He became a small babe so that you could be fully grown perfect human beings; he was wrapped in swaddling clothes so that you might be freed from the bonds of death; he came to the manger to bring you to the alter; he was on earth so that you might be in heaven.[xi]



[i] Hendriksen, Pg. 91.

[ii] Ladd, Pgs. 89-90.

[iii] Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo, Book Two, Chapter 18 (modernized English).

[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 362.

[v] In my mind’s eye I picture the session of Jesus with all the resulting pomp and ceremony entailed therein, while on earth Steven (the first martyr) looks up into heaven and sees Jesus standing before the Father in authority as the one who has conquered death and risen to eternal life and rule over all the universe.

[vi] Hendriksen, Pg. 91.

[vii] The word that corresponds with “reign” here is difficult in terms of determining whether it’s in the present tense or whether it’s in the future tense. Beale really works through some of the options here pretty intensely (no pun intended) and says that given the context, it is best to think of this as being in the present tense. I think he’s correct – the context especially demands it.

[viii] That is not to say that the iron rod imagery is symbolic simply of subduing the nations via only the spread of the gospel, but also entails end time judgment and the nations which will face their maker, Jesus Christ, upon His second advent. As we share in our reign with him, we subdue the Earth, which was the creation mandate given to Adam, who presumable was to gradually subdue all the Earth, not just Eden, the temple sanctuary of God. So we now subdue the earth, first through the spread of the gospel and the intercessory prayers we offer God but later upon his return, Jesus will put all things under his feet, not simply spiritually speaking but physically as well.

[ix] Stephen Dempster’s book ‘Dominion and Dynasty’ picks up on this a little.

[x] Beale, shorter commentary, Pg. 118.

[xi] Ambrose of Milan, as quoted from ‘’The Story of Christianity, Justo Gonzales, Pg. 221.


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