Heaven’s Liturgy

One statement that I’ve made and have heard other preachers make is, “If you can’t stand an hour of worship, how do you expect to enjoy heaven?” This statement has been made with an understanding that heaven, as depicted in Revelation, is a place where there’s continuous worship of God. However, one thing I hadn’t done until recently was to study heaven’s worship and see just how close our worship here on earth mirrors it. After all, what purer example of worship could we have than what occurs in the very presence of God in heaven? Temple worship was only a “copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5). Since earthly worship was a copy of heavenly worship, why not look to heaven for our liturgy?

I use the term “liturgy” in the place of worship in this article because that’s what early Christian worship was: liturgical. We see it translated as “ministered” in Acts 13:2. This same term was also used of the priests’ service in the Temple (cf. Luke 1:23). There would be some correlation between Christian and Temple liturgy in the sense of the prescribed rituals performed to God by a priest. Heavenly liturgy, however, does not depict the offering of sacrifices despite the presence of an altar (Rev. 6:9; 8:3, 5; 9:13; 11:1; 14:18; 16:7). The Christian altar is the Lord’s Table upon which the bread and cup sit: “We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat” (Heb. 13:10).

Christian liturgy, however, differs in that our priest is Christ Himself who is said to be “a priest forever” (Heb. 7:21). Whereas in Judaism the priests were such for their lifetime, Christ’s priesthood has no end. It is perpetual. Because He is the perfect High Priest whose term is unending, He is “a Minister [liturgist] of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, not man” (Heb. 8:2). There, He mediates the new and better covenant (Heb. 8:6), and He does so through the cup which is the new covenant in His blood (Luke 22:20). The shedding of blood makes the covenant necessary (Heb. 9:16–22), and we partake of His blood through the cup.    

In Revelation, we see the worship of God in heaven. There, the glory of God is on full display as John the Revelator depicts the august scene before him (Rev. 4:2–3). The appearance reminds us of a king’s court with the Sovereign on His throne, and around him, lesser thrones upon whom sat His princes, or in this case, elders. What proceeds from the throne are depictions akin to God’s appearance before Israel in Sinai (Rev. 4:5): “Then it came to pass … that there were thunderings and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled” (Exod. 19:16).

Surrounding the throne were living creatures akin to the cherubim mentioned in Ezekiel 1, 10 (Rev. 4:6–7). These particular cherubim are described as the seraphim were in Isaiah 6:1–10, and they sing a hymn akin to the seraphim’s hymn, the Trisagion (thrice holy). They sing this hymn night and day, continuously. This, I believe, would rule out spontaneity as a form of worship since this is continuously ongoing. Furthermore, we might add that when we worship, we join an already active procession. We also have our version of “Holy, Holy, Holy” that we sing. After this, the elders cast their crowns before God and sing a hymn to Him.

As we proceed to Revelation 5, we note that God the Father is upon the throne as depicted in Revelation 4, and God the Spirit is depicted as a fire (Rev. 4:5) while God the Son approaches as a Lamb (Rev. 5:6). The Son is among the elders and living creatures, perhaps reminding us of Christ who was a bridge between humanity and God. Nevertheless, all three members of the Godhead, or Holy Trinity, are present. The elders and living creatures also fall before God the Son and sing a hymn to Him (Rev. 5:8–14). What’s of special interest to me is that the elders and living creatures each had a harp and bowls of incense. The incense, we are told, are the prayers of the saints bore by angels (Rev. 5:8; 8:3–4; cf. Ps. 141:2). The harps, however, aren’t identified. The harps were variously interpreted by early theologians as either the bodies of the sacrifice of the martyrs, or thanksgivings. Another possible interpretation of the harps and incense together is that the hymns of the church are prayers as well as praises. The language of Acts 16:25 should read, “Praying, they were singing hymns to God.” Therefore, a correlation between songs being prayers and some prayers being sung may be indicated here.

Here are a few of my takeaways:

  1. Heaven’s liturgy is set and not spontaneous. The only spontaneity we have in our liturgy is we may not know which prayers will be prayed and songs were sung. There is also the matter of Scripture readings and sermon which are not set each week. The early church had set prayers and hymns they were sung, likely at every service, but there may have also been time allowed for this sort of spontaneity and not the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants sort of lack of structure that some wish for at times.
  2. Heaven’s liturgy is focused on God, not the lost. Our worship often is disguised as evangelism. Certainly, I think we should preach to the lost, but I am beginning to hold that Scripture teaches this as something done more outside of worship than inside it. Worship’s focus should be God-focused and not person-focused. When it’s God-focused, then it’s worship. If it’s focused on the lost, we make worship about people while heaven’s liturgy focuses on God’s people attending to Him.  
  3. Heaven’s liturgy demonstrates unity in worship. Prayers and hymns make up the most of what I see. It is done together by those in heaven. They praise Him, and angels present the prayers to God from those on earth.
  4. Heaven’s liturgy is where God and His people are together. They are before His very presence. Even the martyrs are comforted and clothed with white robes so that they may rest. Togetherness with God is what I think of most when I envision heaven. That’s truly a beautiful reality to me.

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.