Worship In The Book Of Revelation And The Eastern Orthodox Liturgy

Themes: Biblical, Denomination, History, Liturgy, Scholar

The Revelation to John makes dramatic use of the rich symbolism of the sacrificial ritual of the Jewish temple. A comparison of the language and imagery of the book of Revelation with the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox churches suggests that in the Revelation we see an early stage in the development of Christian liturgy, especially that of the Eastern churches.

Recent studies on the worship described in the book of Revelation indicate its vision of worship made a significant impact on that of the early church, particularly Eastern Christian worship. This article points to images within this ancient vision of worship that correspond to images in the worship of the Orthodox churches.


     The Revelation of St. John the Theologian is a verbal icon of liturgy. The Revelation presents at once an almost kaleidoscopic image of the past, the present and the future, the earthly and the heavenly. Through our worship the same phenomenon occurs. In liturgy we thank God for and make “remembrance” of “all those things which have come to pass for us; the Cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into Heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the glorious second coming.”

      In the Eastern Christian worship, God’s saving events of the future are “remembered” in anticipation.

     The text states that the revelation itself was received on the Lord’s Day (i.e., Sunday—Revelation 1:10). The vision begins by setting the scene for the celestial liturgy. In fact, the whole of the Revelation was recorded in the context of the celestial liturgy. Tradition holds that it records the ecstasy that St. John experienced during the Sunday celebration of the eucharistic liturgy among the colony of persecuted Christians on the island of Patmos. While worshiping, St. John (called the Theologian in Orthodox Christianity) entered into the presence of the Holy One.

     The Apocalypse, in its familiarity with Jewish sacrificial ritual, show evidence of having been written by one intimately acquainted with the liturgy of the Jerusalem temple—a member of the priesthood, perhaps, or at least a member of a priestly family living in the vicinity. If the traditional identification of the apostle John with the anonymous “other disciple” in the fourth Gospel is well founded, then the New Testament attests that John was well known to the Jewish high priest (John 18:15–16). Perhaps the Gospel intends to identify him as one of the two disciples (the other being Andrew) who left the circle of John the Baptizer to follow Jesus (John 1:37); John the Baptizer himself was from a priestly family (Luke 1:5–25). If John the Theologian was indeed from priestly circles, he was not unusual in this respect among Christians; the Acts of the Apostles records that many priests were converted to the Christian movement in the earliest days of the Jerusalem church (Acts 6:7).

     In order to better understand worship in the Revelation, it is helpful to review certain elements in the worship of the Old Covenant.

     The temple in Jerusalem had (by the time of the Savior) become the focal point of Israel’s whole life: everything was oriented and organized around it. The temple was the earthly dwelling of the Holy One, the place of theophany. In temple liturgy Israel encountered the Almighty. By the first century, this temple liturgy had developed into an exacting and precise ritual. It basically consisted of the Tamid: the elaborate daily sacrificial offering of lambs (one in the morning and one in the evening) to pay the penalty of sin, and thus cleanse and purify the people of Israel. Other offerings and oblations were made in the temple throughout each day by various individuals and for various reasons. These were the private sacrifices (see Luke 2:2–28).

     In brief, the twice-daily temple oblation ritual consisted of the following: the vesting of the priests; the casting of lots for the tasks involved in the ritual; the preparation of the victim; the slaughter and butchering of the sacrificial lamb; the lighting of the seven-branched candlestick; a service of prayer; the opening of the gates of the temple; silence followed by the thundering of percussion instruments; the billowing of smoke caused by casting incense upon the altar of incense and casting portions of the lamb on the altar of holocaust; a full prostration toward the Holy of Holies by all present; the priestly blessing upon the assembled faithful; psalms and canticles sung to the accompaniment of trumpets, stringed instruments, and percussion that were played by the temple priests; and the final “Amen!”

     Temple sacrifices were intended to establish a point of meeting between Israel and God: they were a means of communion, or, for those who had fallen away through sin, a restoration of that communion. The Hebrew word for “sacrifice” is qorban, the root meaning of which is “coming near.”

     Next, some background into the worship of the Christians of the first century is necessary in order to understand the liturgical background of the Revelation. From the New Testament we know that Paul, James, and other Christians continued to worship in the temple in Jerusalem. When the temple was destroyed in a.d. 70, it was the synagogue (which had its own services) through which early Christians continued to participate in formal worship.

     Eventually, however, as the first century drew to a close, it became increasingly impossible to be a Christian and worship with one’s fellow Jews. Nonetheless, early Christians preserved a continuity of worship from the Old Covenant to the New. They did not invent a new manner of worship. They employed elements from the Jewish temple liturgy, the synagogue liturgy, and the rituals of the Jewish home.

     The New Testament bears witness to the fact that the liturgy of early church included psalms, doctrinal hymns, spiritual songs, doxologies, confessions and creeds, readings, proclamations and acclamations, homilies, thanksgivings, prayers, the Sanctus (“holy, holy, holy”), supplications, the holy kiss, memorial meals, blessings, daily prayer. These liturgical elements were carried out in a consistent manner under the oversight of an ordained ministry.

     The Scriptures, together with the witness of the Didach?, Ignatius of Antioch, and Justin and Clement of Rome all help to create a picture of the liturgical environment of the Revelation and its Christian community. These all bear witness to this one fact: The liturgy of the Old Covenant has become fulfilled and completed in the liturgy of the New Covenant.

     These Old and New Testament liturgies are reflected in the liturgy of the book of Revelation, which in turn is reflected in the liturgy developed by Eastern Christian churches.

Worship Symbolism in Revelation and in Eastern Liturgy

     The Throne. One of the most important liturgical images in the book of Revelation is the throne of the Holy One (4:2). This image appears frequently throughout the Old and New Testament and indicates the presence of God. This image is used over forty times in the Apocalypse itself. It is interesting to note that in Church Slavonic vocabulary, the word that refers to the altar is prestol, meaning literally, “throne.” Thus, the holy table in an Orthodox church is considered to be the throne of the Most High.

     Pantocrator. We read in Revelation 1:8, “ ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’ says the Lord God, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” This same text appears around the fresco of Christ in majesty, located in the central dome of a properly appointed Orthodox church. The name for this icon is “Pantocrator,” meaning “The Almighty.”

     Lamb of God. Revelation 1:13 records that John saw “Someone ‘like a son of man,’ dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.” The vesture is that of the high priest of the temple. John later notes (5:6) that he “saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain.” This Lamb bears the marks of temple sacrifice, yet it is triumphant, standing in readiness for action. In both these instances, the reference is being made to the crucified victim who is also the victorious, risen Lord. As the Orthodox liturgy declares, the Savior is “the offerer and the offered; the receiver and the received.” He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and he is the heavenly High Priest.

     Twenty Four Elders. Around the throne of the Almighty there were “twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads” (4:4). They “fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives forever and ever” (4:10). This “synthronos” of the twenty-four elders is the basis of the “synthronos” of the apse in an Orthodox church—the semicircle of presbyters that surrounds the holy Table during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. The celestial presbyters in Revelation wear the vesture of the Old Testament priesthood.

     The White Robe. The alb, or white robe, serves today as the basic priestly garment. It is an image of the baptismal garment given to all who have been clothed in Christ, the garment of salvation, the robe of light. It symbolizes blessedness, good deeds, purity and innocence, triumphal joy, eternal life, the resurrected and glorified body. It recalls the wedding banquet of Matthew 22:1–4, which is intended for all who are called to the wedding supper of the Lamb of God (Rev. 19:1–8).

     The Celestial Court Liturgy. The synthronos of elders provides a concrete image of the celestial court liturgy. Vested in priestly attire, they fall down in worship. They sing hymns, they offer incense, they present the prayers of the saints, they play their instruments. They proclaim the mighty acts of salvation—as did the priests of the Old Covenant.

     The Martyrs. Under the altar were “the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (6:9). The words witness and testimony come from the Greek word marturia. The sacrifice of the martyrs was associated with the sacrifice of Christ. The imagery of the righteous dead dwelling under the altar comes from ancient Judaism (cf. J. Massyngberde Ford, Revelation, The Anchor Bible [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975], 110). The early church continued to use this imagery. From the second century, memorials and eucharistic liturgies were celebrated on or near the tombs of the martyrs and other saints. When a bishop today consecrates an Orthodox church, he solemnly deposits the relics of the saints (ideally martyrs) under the top of the altar table. This practice is reflected in the petition of the Augmented Litany: “Furthermore, we pray for the blessed … believers, [who have] departed this life before us, who here and in all the world lie asleep in the Lord.”

Worship Components in Revelation and Eastern Liturgy

     Hymns, doxologies, acclamations, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb of God, and Communion are five major components of the celestial liturgy as recorded in the Apocalypse. The Old Covenant liturgy contained these elements (either in fact or in “type”). We find them in the liturgy of the New Covenant as well.

     Hymns and Doxologies. The hymns and doxologies of the Revelation are addressed to the Father, to the Lamb, or to both. At one time or another during the celestial liturgy, they are sung by the four living creatures, the twenty-four elders, the hosts of angels, the sealed ones, and finally by every creature in the universe. Much of what we find in the text of the Eastern liturgy reflects the very words of these hymns and doxologies.

     We may compare a portion of the hymn of 11:17–18 to the dialogue between the celebrant and the faithful at the anaphora [Great Thanksgiving] of the divine liturgy: “We give thanks, O Lord God Almighty.… ” A segment of the hymn of 15:3–4 is quoted during the prayer blessing the water for baptism and for the Feast of the Theophany: “Great and marvelous are Your works, O Lord God Almighty!” “The Lord God Almighty … ” of 4:8a (inspired by Isaiah 6:3) was probably used in the synagogue liturgy of the first century and has continued in use in Christian liturgies since at least the fourth century. A slightly varied form, known as the trisagion (“Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal … ”) has been a part of the Orthodox liturgy since the fifth century.

     To God and to the Lamb are ascribed glory, dominion, blessing, honor, power, riches, and wisdom for ever and ever. The various doxologies found in 1:6; 4:11; 5:12; 5:13; etc., reflect the liturgical practice of first century Christianity. This can also be seen in the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer as found in Matthew 6:13. The First Epistle of Clement, as well as Didach? bear witness to early Christian doxologies. It is important to note that exactly the same glory is given to the Lamb as to the Holy One. The Father and the Son are accorded the same divinity, equal in majesty and glory.

     Amen. The doxology of 7:12 begins and ends with an “Amen!” “Amen” is a liturgical acclamation that was common in the liturgy of the Old Covenant. It signifies “so be it!” or “I ratify!” and acknowledges as one’s own whatever has been previously uttered by the liturgical celebrant. It was carried over into the Christian liturgical assembly, as we can see from the witness of 1 Corinthians, The Didach?, 1 Clement, and Justin’s First Apology. In Revelation this acclamation is found in 5:14; 19:4; and 22:20. In the Eastern Orthodox liturgy it abounds. It is most solemnly proclaimed as a response to the initial “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!” immediately following the words of institution; and again as a response to the prayer of the epikl?sis, the prayer of the anaphora that calls down the Holy Spirit upon the gifts.

     Alleluia. Next comes the “Alleluia.” The only place in the New Testament where the “alleluia” is found is in Revelation 19:1, 3–4, 6. This Hebrew liturgical word, which means “praise the Lord,” is found throughout the Psalms. It was sung in synagogue and temple alike. The primitive Christians did not desire to make a translation of it, so they kept the Hebrew in Greek transliteration. The Alleluia remains in the Orthodox liturgy today as a conclusion to the singing of Psalms. It follows the reading of the Epistle; it is sung during the offices of burial and memorial; it occurs during the matins service of Great Lent; it is featured in the divine Liturgy of Holy Saturday.

Worship in the Presence of the Holy One

     Revelation 8:1–6 provides an important clue to the liturgy. “When [the Lamb] opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. Then the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to sound them.” We find here an image of the temple ritual of Jerusalem, the liturgy of the church, and the celestial liturgy. The passage records something that has a direct correspondence with the most solemn portion of the temple liturgy; the act of worship in the presence of the Holy One. The occurrence of thunder, rumblings, lightning, and earthquake is reminiscent of the theophanies recorded in the Old and New Testaments.

     At the end of the whole scene, which begins with Revelation 8, the theophany occurs in the celestial liturgy: “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm” (11:19). We later read, “ ‘Now, the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’ ” (21:3–4). This proclamation, based on Isaiah 25:8, is echoed in the funeral liturgy of the church. The reality expressed here is this: In the final analysis, the new order of the universe will be that God’s people wall partake of his divinity (2 Pet. 1:4). There will no longer be the need for anything that is merely an image of God’s presence, for his presence will be complete (Rev. 21:22). God will be all in all, filling all things with himself (1 Cor. 15:28; Eph. 1:23; Col. 3:11). The new order will simply be God.

The Wedding Supper of the Lamb

     Finally we come to the Wedding Supper of the Lamb of God: Holy Communion in Jesus Christ. This communion is announced by the hymn of 19:6–8: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”

     The concept of a marriage between God and his people is deeply rooted in the Old Testament where the covenant relationship is described as a marriage. This theme was proclaimed scripturally at the Feast of the Passover. In the New Covenant, it is applied to Jesus, who is the Bridegroom. It is with this theme that we enter into the services of Holy Week.

     The image of a messianic banquet is taken from both the Old and New Testaments. Eating and drinking in the kingdom of God form one of the most significant images we can find to express the concept of Communion. Since the communion in Paradise was broken by a disobedient act of eating (Gen. 3), restoration of that communion (and return to paradise) comes about in part through the obedient act of eating (1 Cor. 11:24–25).

     Eating of the tree of life (Rev. 2:7) and partaking of the hidden manna (Rev. 2:17), or tasting of the bread from heaven (John 6:31; Heb. 9:4) is linked with the spiritual food (1 Cor. 10:3) of the Eucharist. Ignatius describes the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality.” The Lord declares: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20). The mystical supper of the Lamb of God is the ultimate reality of the kingdom.

     In this world, and until he comes, that reality is celebrated most profoundly at the feast of feasts, the Holy Pascha of the Lord (Easter). In the middle of the night, vested in bright and pure fine linen, the bride awaits her risen Bridegroom for the festal consummation of their love. Mystical communion with the Lord occurs by partaking of the bread that is his essence (Matt. 6:11) and by drinking of his cup of salvation (Ps. 116:13).

     “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ … Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life” (Rev. 22:17). In the Divine Liturgy, the celebrant exhorts the communicants, “With awesome fear of God, in faith, and in love, come near to the holy gifts.” The Bridegroom declares “Yes, I am coming soon!” (Rev. 22:20). His bride hears him. She recognizes the voice of her beloved and runs to meet him (Matt. 25:6). In the delight of their marriage, filled with excitement, she answers him, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” (Rev. 22:20). Thus the mystical supper begins.

     Through these images it can be seen that those within the church “standing in the temple, stand in heaven.”

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