(An excerpt from my work on John's Spirituality [IVP Academic])
After Christ revealed the truth about the seven churches (1:9-3:22)—strengths and weaknesses, threats and opportunities—the seer’s first glimpse of what’s really going on in the world comes from a heavenly perspective. Having been called up to witness the worship of God and His Lamb (4:1-5:14), John looks down upon the world as the sealed scroll is opened, bringing about the judgment of God on earth (6:1-8:1). It’s significant that John’s vision of “things to come” happens during heavenly scenes of worship. Even though John is called up to heaven, passing through the heavenly portal that brings him into the throne room of God, even though he sees and hears different kinds of heavenly creatures offer unceasing praise and adoration, the worship of God is not shut up within the heavenlies. Indeed, devoted worship of the Pantocrator and the Lamb extends to the earth, with “every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea” joining in festal praise (Rev. 5:13). The interplay between scenes of heavenly worship and the things “that must take place” reveal the eschatological purpose of worshipping God. According to John’s vision, when we worship God we are able to see the end of the world. Not only that, those who have ears to hear the reading of John’s Revelation and join in heavenly worship end up participating in the unfolding drama of this eschatological narrative—the story of heaven invading earth.2 In this way, then, “the kingdom of God and the rule of the Messiah—future, eschatological claims—are acclaimed in heavenly liturgies as present, ‘eternal’ realities.”3 Indeed, every time we gather to worship God, we’re declaring war on the world—like street-prophets holding up signs that say, “The End is Near.”
That’s why worship is an act of war in the Revelation of John.4 Notice how all seven visions of the end of the world begin with a heavenly scene.5 Sometimes John saw the heavenly temple of God (Rev. 8:3-5; 11:19; 15:5-8). Other times he saw the throne of God and His heavenly council (Rev. 4:1-5:14; 14:1-5; 15:1-4; 19:1-10). Whether in the temple or around the throne, each vision begins with a festal gathering of worshippers. Then, God executes judgment on the earth, launching His invasion with armies of heavenly beings—from horsemen to angels—so that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ” (Rev. 11:15). In the unfolding eschatological drama, two overlapping worlds (spatial and temporal) blend into one: heaven crashes into earth; the future is precipitated by the present. The dystopian scene is replicated over and over again. After the saints worship God and the Lamb, all hell breaks loose on earth. And so, the way John sees it, the Apocalypse is an unveiling of—a behind-the-scenes look at—what happens when we worship God. The seer is pulling back the veil, helping us see the invisible war occurring in the visible world as the reign of God is established on earth as it is in heaven. More than that, the seer’s vision is a call to participate: when we worship God we wage war against the powers that oppose him and us. Worship, therefore, becomes a subversive act whereby we overcome the idolatrous powers and their pretentious rule. Despite the ruinous effects of evil powers trying to destroy God’s creation, we are declaring in worship, “Our God reigns!” Indeed, the apocalyptic vision of a dystopian world is a Christian hope of God turning the world right side up, when earth is elevated to heaven’s purpose through divine purification. Furthermore, the promise (perhaps even evidence) of a dystopian world is, therefore, the apocalyptic sign of God’s reclamation of all creation. That evil is putting up a fight by trying to muck up the place is proof that God, the Lamb, and his slaves are winning the war. It’s just a matter of time until every one sees it on the last day, when heaven and earth become one. In the meantime, one must have ears to hear the audition in order to envision the end—now and then.
1 Contra Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 122, who argues that John’s auditors do not take part in the heavenly worship until the end, i.e., in the new heaven and earth. Yet, there is no service of worship in the visions of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1-22:5).
2 Leonard L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 66.
3 Ibid., 65.
4 Bauckham, Theology, pp. 67-70.
5 I follow Talbert’s schema, “Seven visions of the end times,” Apocalypse, p. 26.