True Worship - sermon on Rev. 15.1-4 revised
Preached at Skillman Bible Church
April 24th, 2005
Sermon Text: Revelation 15:1-4
Sermon Manuscript by Rick George
Let me ask you a question: What is true worship? This subject has been at the heart of some of the most horrific battles and fights among Christians throughout the centuries. In contemporary times there has been a label placed on this ongoing debate about the nature of true worship… the worship wars. And the term “wars” is not to far off from what the debate really entails. It’s importance can be seen in the over 12 million websites and 2,000+ books written on Christian worship. People just cannot agree on how we are suppose to worship, in what style are we suppose to worship or what the product of worship should be. I have personally seen churches split over this issue and have heard of pastors quitting and even emotional outrage amongst brethren over what true worship is. Why? What is it about worship that has created such “adversity” amongst Christians?
No matter how you look at it, we must, in Christian unity, come together and understand what true worship is as we see it in the Scriptures and we get a little glimpse of this true worship in the 15th chapter of Revelation. If you have your Bible, let’s turn there together.
Before we continue, I need to give a short disclaimer if you will. As many of you know, the study of worship is a passion of mine and I enjoy any opportunity to talk with you about it. We will be looking at Revelation 15, but my intentions are to use this as an example of true worship and as a springboard into helping us define what true worship is. Therefore, for the first few minutes we will look at the meaning and context of this text and how it fits into this great series on Revelation that Terry is taking us through and then I hope to give a few suggestions, based on the overall context of scripture and what we know from history, on how to come to a middle ground on this worship style debate.
I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed. 2 And I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name. They held harps given them by God 3 and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb:
“Great and marvelous are your deeds,
Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways,
King of the ages.
4 Who will not fear you, O Lord,
and bring glory to your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come
and worship before you,
for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
We have now come to the climax of the cliffhanger part of the story. Since chapter 12 John has kept us on our toes. It reminds me of a Stephen King novel that I read when I was a kid. I knew something was about to happen, but I didn’t know what | I started to read faster and faster | The scary music, in my mind, becoming more intense, until finally… there came a break in the story; only to intrigue my curiosity as to why it happened as it did, so I would keep reading only to find that I would get caught up in the same cycle again and again.
This is what is happening here. The last timestamp that we received was at the end of chapter 11. Do you remember? John witnessed the sounding of the seventh trumpet and we heard the lyrics of the Hallelujah chorus ring out: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” Then there came a pause in the timeline of events that happen on earth and during the next few chapters, from chapter 12 up until this point, we don’t see what the seventh trumpet judgment brought about. John has been describing for us glorious events in heaven that transcend time and space. And now we come to chapter 15 and finally, what we have all been anticipating, biting our nails, clenching our jaw and the whole bit. In a stage play, this would be the final ACT. The final movement of a symphony. John shares with us what the seventh trumpet signifies: and it signifies God’s final wrath on the earth.
Let’s look at the first verse again:
“I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign:” - This is the third time John has used the word sign to describe events that are occurring in heaven. The first two signs, one depicting the woman with Child and the other depicting the dragon, were in chapter 12. This language basically serves as a signpost directing our attention towards God’s final judgment. It is moving us along on this path of God’s impending wrath.
What is this third sign? It is the “seven angels with the seven last plagues – last, because with them God’s wrath is completed.” This is it! This is what we have been waiting for. This is what the seventh trumpet has signaled. At last, God’s wrath will be taken out upon a sinful earth and He will be glorified. This is the “great and marvelous sign”. This is when God will display His righteous judgments and thus show forth the glory of His Name!
Can you imagine what the feeling must have been like for those who were witnessing these things in heaven? Can you imagine intensity of it all? God was about to make good on His ages old promise of clearing the world of its sin, of giving justice to the enemy who has attempted to turn all of creation away from God. This is it! Are you excited? I am!
Let’s read on. Verse 2: “And I saw what looked like a sea of glass mixed with fire,”… hmm. Sound familiar? This is the same image that John gave us in chapter 4 with his original description of heaven. This time though there is something that looks like fire mixed in with the sea. Remember that this is metaphoric in nature. John is describing to us something that has never been described or seen before. There have been many interpretations of the fire and quite frankly they all are similar and don’t really matter a whole lot to the overall interpretation of the book, but I believe that this fire signifies God’s impending judgment and wrath. The glass sea symbolizes the dividing factor between earth and heaven. It most likely represents the holiness and majesty of God that separate Him from His creation and this fire in the sea is God’s wrath gearing up to do justice on the earth.
Following the description of this sea we see another image: “and, standing beside the sea, those who have been victorious over the beast and his image and over the number of his name.” Hmm… who can these people be? Well, we know by now that it is not the church for the church has been raptured before the beast took control of the earth. The church was represented earlier by the 24 elders encircling the throne room of God and these elders are not mentioned here. Well, what about the 144,000 Jews for Jesus? Could it be this group? Remember back two weeks ago? Pastor Terry took us through the beginning of chapter 14 and we saw the 144,000, the faithful remnant, gathered on Mount Zion singing a new song. We know it’s not them, for they have been protected from the beast and could not be in heaven because they will be on the earth throughout the seven bowl judgments. To solve this puzzle, let’s look back in chapter 7. Keep your finger in chapter 15 and turn to chapter 7, verse 9:
9 After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
THEN SKIP DOWN TO VERSE 13:
13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore,
“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them.
16 Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat upon them,
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd;
he will lead them to springs of living water.
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
These are the men and women who have come to faith during the tribulation and have given their lives for the sake of Christ. They have been victorious in that they did not submit to the beast or his image or to the number of his name. They died as martyrs and have been before the throne of God, “serving him day and night in his temple” since their death. Back in chapter 15 we come upon them again, still in the throne room of God, serving Him day and night and so they are also witness to what John is seeing and they now begin to worship in anticipation of God’s righteous acts and their vindication - God’s wrath on the earth and on the beast.
Let’s look again in chapter 15, this time verse 3:
“They held harps given them by God and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: ‘Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God almighty. Just and true are your ways, King of the ages. Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
What is the source of this song? Where did it come from? Terry has taught us that many of John’s visions are similar to and related directly to passages found elsewhere in the Bible relating to the end times. John knew the scriptures well enough to relate to them as he was witnessing these visions. This inclusion of the “Song of Moses the servant of God” provides another way for John to relate what he has seen to what he already knows. Remember the old testament passage that was read for us today, Exodus 15. Here we see Moses and the Israelites after they just crossed the Red Sea and were saved from the Egyptians. Right beside the sea, Moses led the Israelites in, what I believe, is one of the greatest Psalms of Praise and Thanksgiving. They were praising God for His deliverance from the pursuing Egyptian army.
The context of Revelation 15 and the context of Exodus 15 seem to be very similar. Even though the words are not the same, they are both songs of praise in response to God’s great deliverance. In Exodus, the Israelites are praising God for His deliverance from the Egyptians. In Revelation, the martyrs are praising God for His deliverance from the beast. Except here, we have the Song of the Lamb added to this praise chorus. What is this Song of the Lamb?
I contend that these two songs represent two different deliverances, all provided by God. The Song of Moses is a praise song for the deliverance from the things of the world and in this context, from the beast. The Song of the Lamb is a praise song for the deliverance from sin through Christ and cannot have been sung by anyone else except those who have been glorified in the presence of God in heaven. The song can only be fully realized by those who have experienced salvation and have been transformed and glorified. This is a new song, not found anywhere else in the Bible, but rather it is found in the saving work of Christ on the cross and in His blood covenant. He is the King of the ages. His ways are just and true.
This is the song sung by those who have suffered greatly during the tribulation, have not bowed and worshiped the beast and have now passed to the other side and stand beside the great sea in heaven, worshiping God in the same way Moses did, but with a new song because of the deliverance not just from their enemies, but also from death itself. What greater reason is there to praise God! He is the author of our salvation, our eternity and of our song!
Worship is not about us… it is about God and is manifested in our heart’s cry to Him. The literal English translation of worship from both the Greek and Hebrew means to “prostrate oneself before God” or to “bow down before God”. In doing so we come before the Father, on our knees and head and body bowed <perform physical example>. As you can see, when I was in a prostrate posture, I became completely vulnerable to you. You just missed your golden opportunity to give me a kick in the head. I wouldn’t have been able to see it coming. By assuming this position, I put my life into your hands..
It is the same in our worship. We come before the Father in complete trust for our eternal lives. As the Person whom we are prostrated before, He has the power and the right to condemn us or to protect us, and He has chosen to do the latter. The worshipper, by his attitude, his actions, and his speech communicates the fact that his will is no longer his own. He who falls prostate before the Lord in true worship surrenders his life, his possessions, and his service to the Lord. We are nothing, but God is everything,all-powerful, and He alone is worthy of our praise.
This is true worship. Our modern culture attempts to portray worship as some kind of spiritually good feeling about God. We come out of worship services saying, “that song really moved me” or “I didn’t like the way that song sounded”.
Even the whole idea that singing songs is, considered by many, to be the only means of worshiping is wrong. Singing is just one way to worship our Lord, but it is in this medium that has become such a hotbed for heated discussion amongst Christians. Why?
Music may not be the only way to worship God, but it is possibly the most expressive means of directing our worship toward God. It can give voice to our deepest feelings and attitudes of the heart. I can personally give testimony to this because in times when I am most excited about what God is doing or during times when I am in the most anguish, these are the times when my most heartfelt and true worship come out of my mouth through music and song.
Music is also a major theme of the Bible. From this song of praise and thanksgiving that we have seen in Revelation 15 to the song of the morning stars in Job, to the music of celebration and feasts throughout Israel’s history and to the hymn that Jesus sang with his disciples just before His arrest, music plays an important role in the life of old and new testament saints. God has created music. All three Persons of the Godhead are involved in making music. In reflection of His image, He has created within man the ability to create and perform music somusic. We can surmise from this that music in itself is not essentially wrong. Allwrong for all things were created to bring to worship to God, butGod. But just as in all of creation and created things, the enemy seeks to take that worship away from God by perverting it and destroying it. This is not only seen in secular music, but also sacred music where many hymns and worship choruses have prideful “me” first lyrics. We must be careful to examine the music we listen to and to discern that which is pleasing to the ears, with that which is glorifying to God and edifying to the body. I am not saying you cannot have both in worship music, but it is the utmost importance that we worship God with music that is glorifying to Him and that which contain sound theology.
We live in a humanistic society that raises the elevation of personal opinion to the level of divinely inspired truth. If a person likes the music, then it can become, in their minds, the only music that God desires for us to worship Him with. This, I believe, is the reason why we have these “worship wars” in the church at large. It is rooted in the very real and grounded opinion of some very well meaning and sincere people on both sides of the spectrum.
You can’t blame others for being defensive about their preference of music style. Since music is a reflection of our deepest feelings and emotions, we become very attached to the style of music in which we praise our Savior. Therefore, a person’s musical tastes go far beyond mere aesthetic preferences and for this reason most people will respond negatively when their musical preference is attacked. We must come to an understanding of what true worship is so that we can come together in agreement on the essentials and grant liberty on the non-essentials.
We must understand that worship is a matter of the heart. It is the manifestation of the believer’s heart cry to God. It is a direct reflection of our attitude and our humble surrender to God and His will for our lives. Therefore, the music of a Christian will only be right when his heart is truly right. The only music that can be considered true worship is that which exhibits the attitude of surrender to the will of God and praise to Him for His greatness.
To help us discover what true worship is, we need to look at what true worship is not. True worship music is not based upon the mere opinions of men. This is regardless if they are a Christian or not. As Christians and as the church, we must remain rooted in the teaching of the Word. Now Scripture does not command us to worship one way or another. There is no Biblical precedent saying that we must use classical hymns or that we must use contemporary music. We do have examples of how old and new testament saints worshipped. These examples show us that the worshipers used music that was familiar and contemporary to them during their day and that they also used music from their past. New Testament figuresChristians would sing the Psalms (older, traditional music) in the synagogues as part of their worship. While at the same time, hymns, probably taking the same musical form as songs sung to Greek and Roman gods at the time, were sung as songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.
The only example written down that we can find from our Lord of singing a worship song is from Mark and Matthew, when they record Him singing with the disciples after the Lord’s Supper. The mention of this song is very generic – thisthat is there is no title or style attached to it. It simply states that they sang a song. Can you imagine what would have happened if there was a designation of style to this song? Worship in the church would be nothing more than thethis same, repetitive song week after week. I believe God intended to be generic about the identity of this song so that we would have freedom in creating new worship to Him.His glory. There is no biblically ordained style of worship music.
I believe that we should treat worship music as we treat the teachers of theology throughout church history. There have been some really good theologians, which have put names to things that we would not have understood before. Just because the teachings are old and non-contemporary does not mean that they are no less valid for our study of understanding God. There have also been some theologians who have taught bad doctrine. We would not want to base our idea of God on them. On the flipside, there are some modern theologians who are coming up with new, creative ways to understand God and His purposes. We must be discerning with the new theology, but be open to considering it and evaluating it against scripture and what has come before.
Likewise it is with worship music. We should not disregard the old just because it is old, but rather embrace it as the music that our beloved church fathers have sung in heartfelt worship of the same God we worship. It is a way of connecting to our historical roots and understanding that God is a God of all ages and time. We should also be willing and open to accept new ways of worshiping God and be creative in our worship to Him. We must use discernment with both old and new, but we should never dismiss one over the other as false worship for the sake of it’s style.
Worship is also not entertainment. I believe it is ok to listen to Christian music for entertainment value, but we must make a distinction between listening for the joy of listening and worshiping God. When we approach a worship service as a place to come and be served up good sounding music that makes you feel good and that you can relate to, then the worship musicservice has become entertainment solely based on a consumer mentality. Let’s get out of the consumer mindset and let’s offer God a sacrifice of our praise.
I have said what worship music is not. Let’s flip that around and come up with five guidelines for what worship music should follow to help us discern what true worship is: 1) Worship music should be scriptural: This does not mean that the lyrics must be word for word right out of the Bible, but that the lyrics should reflect the truth of scripture and be based on scripture. 2) It should be scholastic: Since we learn the majority of our theology from our worship and the music we sing, our worship music should contain sound theology and should teach, uplift, edify, encourage, or admonish believers in their walk with God. 3) It should be superior: Are you giving your all and your best when you worship? 4) Worship music should be Spirit-filled: Is the music consistent with the Holy Spirit's leading -- does the music point people to Christ or to the singer? 5) Lastly it should be centered on God and not man-centered: There is nothing wrong in worship that produces emotion, but there is something wrong in the person who seeks worship for that emotional quality. Don’t seek worship music that feels good, seek worship music that is Biblical and directs your focus to God.
So we have the five S’s. Scriptural, Scholastic, Superior, Spirit-filled and Centered on God.
A few months ago someone in the congregation came to me and asked me about a song I used during one of our worship services. The song was “Once Again”. This is a wonderful song with a moving melody, but there was a line that was troubling this person. The line goes “You became nothing, poured out to death.” The context of this line is referring to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and His voluntary act of the giving up of His power and greatness to become man. However, as this congregant pointed out, Jesus did not become nothing… He never became nothing. This person was right. Jesus, while He took on human flesh, was still God and was perfect and sinless. I hadn’t caught this line, but I was very thankful for the person who did and I have not used the song since.
Likewise, I encourage you to be discerning in what you sing during our worship services here at Skillman Bible Church. Examine the songs against Scripture and the guidelines I have listed. The worship leaders, myself included, are fallible creatures. We make mistakes… we try not to, but we do. Please come to me and ask me if you have a question about a particular song that we sing. I will love to examine it with you and see if we missed the mark on a proper theology in the song.
I have one more thing to share with you on this issue of style: I believe that we should treat worship music as we treat the teachings of theology throughout church history. There has been some really good theology produced over the centuries, which have helped us put names to things that we would not have understood before. Just because the teachings are old and non-contemporary does not mean that they are no less valid for our study of understanding God. There have also been some teachings produced that contains poor doctrine. We would not want to base our idea of God on them. On the flipside, there are some modern theologians who are coming up with new, creative ways to understand God and His purposes. We must be discerning with this new theology, but be open to considering it and evaluating it against scripture and what has come before.
Likewise it is with worship music. We should not disregard the old just because it is old, but rather embrace it as the music that our beloved church fathers have sung in heartfelt worship of the same God we worship. It is a way of connecting to our historical roots and understanding that God is a God of all ages and time. We should also be willing and open to accept new ways of worshiping God and be creative in our worship to Him. We must use discernment with both old and new, but we should never dismiss one over the other as false worship for the sake of its style.
True worship comes down to the attitude of our heart. Our motive should always be pure and without pride. True worship is coming before God, not necessarily in a physical posture of the body, but more importantly, falling prostrate before the Lord with our life, actions and attitudes. We should always strive to worship as the martyrs do in Revelation 15. In complete submission and surrender of our will to God, with thanksgiving for what He has done for mankind on the cross, and in anticipation for what He will do, we must come before Him not with concern for style or emotional satisfaction, but with only concern for the glory of our Holy and Righteous God.