Have you ever been amazed by the ocean? I remember surfing once, floating upon its mighty waves, and being struck by a thought: The water is so beautiful and graceful, and yet the weight of its power could crush me. The beauty of the ocean lies partly in its immensity, stretching wide into the horizon, farther than our eyes can see. And yet this picture of transcendence also reveals how small we are by comparison—like a pebble at the base of Mount Everest.
Worship is similar. Awe and gratitude arise when we recognize how small we are before the greatness of our God. In Revelation, God is seated on a heavenly throne, surrounded by living creatures and myriads of angels. Twenty-four elders representing the people of God (12 for the tribes of Israel; 12 for the apostles of the church) regularly “fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and … worship” (Revelation 4:10).
It’s quite a scene, and the Greek term proskuneó—used here for “worship”—is a key word, one that shows up 24 times in the book of Revelation and 60 times in the New Testament as a whole. What can this word, and this scene, teach us about our posture toward God?
Worship Is Bodily
First, worship involves the physical body. In the ancient world, it literally meant to fall upon your knees, prostrate yourself, and kiss the hand of the one you bow before. This was a way of physically recognizing someone as your authority and showing reverence. Psalm 2:12 (ESV) declares, “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry.” What this verse calls for isn’t a romantic smooch on the lips but, rather, royal reverence to the hand—“kissing the ring” as it has sometimes been called, in recognition of the king’s sovereignty.
Similarly, when the wise men came to visit Jesus, they “fell down, and worshipped him” (Matt. 2:11 KJV). Can you imagine dropping to your knees to bow before a baby? Jesus may have been small, but like the weight of the ocean, the gravity of the world’s hopes rested upon this child. They recognized Him as the promised Savior and desire of the nations.
When we recognize the gravity of who God is, a healthy fear accompanies that knowledge.
God is worshipped in Revelation because He “lives forever and ever” (Revelation 4:10). He is the Eternal One who has inexhaustible life in Himself, with no beginning or end. God is also worshipped because He “made the heaven and the earth” (Revelation 14:7). All things have come from Him and exist for Him; we depend on Him for the breath in our lungs. The whole universe revolves around our Creator; our existence hangs on His. There’s nothing more momentous than that. When we recognize the gravity of who God is, a healthy fear accompanies that knowledge. Not because He’s mean and we’re afraid He’ll throw a tantrum if He has a bad day, but simply because of the immensity of His very nature and power. As with a surfer on the waves, our fragility and vulnerability before the monumental immensity of God should make us all the more grateful for His character and the fact that He loves us, cares for us, and sustains us upon the greatness of who He is.
Worship Recognizes God’s Authority
A second observation from Revelation is that worship acknowledges the Father’s claim over all of life. God is on a heavenly throne, and some might wrongly conclude this means He’s Lord only of the skies above. But the Bible tells us that He reigns from heaven over the earth. As the psalmist writes, “Sing praises to God, sing praises … For God is the King of all the earth … God reigns over the nations, God sits on His holy throne” (Psalm 47:6-8). In other words, His ultimate authority is over all things. Every square inch of creation was made to sing His praise.
As followers of Jesus, we give God our allegiance in all things—work, romance, attitude, checkbook, parenting—and everything else must be prioritized around our obedience to Him.
Unfortunately, other things compete for our worship. God is not the only object of adoration in Revelation. Some people are tempted to revere demons and idols (Revelation 9:20), while others venerate “the dragon” and “the beast” (Revelation 13:4; Revelation 13:12). God has would-be competitors. We can’t avoid making something central in our life; we were designed to worship. As Bob Dylan famously crooned, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” The question is, Who?
Jesus tells us God is most worthy. When Satan offered the kingdoms of the world if the Lord would simply “fall down and worship” him, Jesus responded to the temptation by quoting the Old Testament: “You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only” (Matt. 4:9-10). We should make God ultimate in our life. Jesus reminds us that creation is set up to have its Creator at the center. As followers of Jesus, we give God our allegiance in all things—work, romance, attitude, checkbook, parenting—and everything else must be prioritized around our obedience to Him.
Worship praises Beauty
Like the ocean, God is both powerful and beautiful. We worship Him not simply because He’s strong, but even more so because He’s good. In Revelation, God is praised as glorious—His goodness shines forth in radiant splendor. He uses His strength in mighty deeds of justice and salvation, and His reconciling work is the hope of the world (Revelation 1:12-17; Revelation 5:9-10; Revelation 11:17-18; Revelation 21:1-4).
If you grasp only God’s power, it’s possible to physically bow down to Him but hate Him in your heart. You might feign worship to get what you can from Him, rather than give your all to Him. In Mark 7:6-7, Jesus confronted the religious leaders of his day about this very thing, once again quoting from the Old Testament: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me … In vain do they worship Me.” (See Isa. 29:13.)
We worship Him not simply because He’s strong, but even more so because He’s good.
It’s dangerous to perform the actions of worship without the right attitude of worship. God is not fooled by such hypocrisy. The Father is looking, Jesus tells us, for those who will worship Him “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). This is an “inside-out” worship, in which our affections are captivated by the splendor of who God is.
In the Old Testament, the word halal is used for the kind of worship with such admiration for beauty that it can make a person crazy. The first time this word shows up, in Genesis 12:15, the Egyptian princes are dumbstruck by the loveliness of Abraham’s wife Sarah and praise her to Pharaoh.
Have you ever come across someone so stunning that it makes you go out of your head and feel as if you’re losing yourself? (In fact, the same word is used in 1 Samuel 21:13-14, when David feigns insanity to trick King Achish.) This is an appropriate response to the splendor of our Redeemer. It’s the root of hallelujah, which comes from a combination of halal and Yahweh, the name of God. Hallelujah means something like “go crazy for God.” It shows up four times in Revelation 19—all of which occur after God’s victory is established in the world. If you want to set your heart aflame again in worship, simply stare into the majesty of who God is and what He does.
Like the deep blue sea, God is mighty and majestic, while at the same time strong yet graceful, intimately close and sublimely distant. We’re invited to dive in and give Him all of who we are, the fullness of our praise evoked by the totality of who He is. We join the saints of Revelation, awestruck afresh at His glory. To Him who sits on the throne be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever—hallelujah!
Illustration by Adam Cruft