Aun Quek Chin—Singapore
In the Book of Revelation, John records how a voice told him, “I will show you things which must take place after this” (Rev 4:1–2). These things were the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls. We tend to be interested in what the future holds, which is why the Book of Revelation is so intriguing. We feel a sense of urgency in identifying how many seals have been opened, we wonder about the seven trumpets, and we speculate what calamities and plagues will be unleashed through the seven bowls.
However, before these visions were revealed, the Lord Jesus showed John “a throne set in heaven” (Rev 4:2). Around the throne were twenty-four elders and four living creatures, worshiping and praising the One on the throne (Rev 4:4–11). This scene depicts heavenly worship. Why did God show John this vision before revealing the events of the future?
LEARN FROM THE WORSHIP IN HEAVEN
Heavenly worship is an important theme in the Book of Revelation (see also chapters 5, 7, 11, 14, 15 and 19.) Our Lord Jesus instructed John to record these occasions of heavenly worship to help the true church reflect on whether our present earthly worship measures up.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray that the Father’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10; Lk 11:2). Worship in heaven is done according to God’s word. If our worship on earth falls short of what takes place in heaven, then it is not following God’s will and will not be pleasing to Him. The following are several features of worship in heaven that we must emulate.
1. See the Door Standing Open in Heaven
After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven. And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying, “Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.” (Rev 4:1)
When John saw these visions, he was on the island of Patmos. He had been persecuted and deported there because he held fast to his faith. It was a solitary life, cut off from family and church, with probably only his fellow deportees for company. Gazing out, he would have seen nothing but the sea; there was no way off his island-prison. In these circumstances, God showed him an open door in heaven.
This vision immediately drew his gaze away from things on earth to things of heaven. Had John kept his sight on earthly matters, he would have been discouraged. But he was moved by the Spirit to see the heavenly door—to see God’s glory and the multitude of angels and saints worshiping Him. One day, John would join them in such a place to worship and be with God forever. With such a glorious hope awaiting him, there would be little point worrying about the present difficulties he faced on earth.
In their sufferings, the Christians in Corinth were understandably focused on the problems around and ahead of them. They might have wondered why God allowed these afflictions, and why He remained ignorant of their weeping. But the apostle Paul could see past his own troubles, even while in the midst of them; he knew these difficulties would achieve for them a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.
For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Cor 4:17–18)
We are often so transfixed by our afflictions that we are blind to what will be fulfilled for us in the future. We should recognize that today’s pain and toil are necessary for tomorrow’s outcome. This is well demonstrated in sport. Every athlete wants to win the gold medal. But intense training will differentiate the champions from the rest. Some are unable to take the pressure and give up. Some merely go through the motions and are unlikely to win. Champions continually push themselves. They persevere, knowing that any discomfort is temporary and relatively light. These athletes know that their future gain—the deafening applause and adulation of the crowds—far outweighs the present pain. They give their all for a moment of glory. As followers of Jesus Christ, the glory we will receive is eternal. Should we not hold on to our faith and endure even more?
If we find ourselves in a predicament similar to John’s, or worse, suffering from a chronic illness or living a solitary life, let us turn our vision from earth to heaven. Look up and see the door in heaven open.
Look with faith
The way to see this heavenly door open is not by asking God to show us a vision; instead, we ought to open the door of our hearts and see with our hearts. Abraham saw a better heavenly home—such insight and foresight made him willing to live like a sojourner. His heavenly vision kept him from worrying about any earthly affliction. Learn from Abraham to hold fast to the faith right to the end. Although we live in this tangible, physical world, we must stay focused on invisible spiritual matters. This is the faith that overcomes the world.
2. Come Up to the Lord
John saw a door standing open in heaven, and heard a voice telling him to “Come up here” (Rev 4:1). Had he not accepted the Lord’s invitation, he would not have witessed the glory and joys that lay beyond heaven’s door. In other words, having the right vision—seeing the open door—is not enough by itself. Obedience to God’s word is critical.
Climb new spiritual heights
John was lifted to the Lord in the Spirit. Today we may not be lifted in a vision, but our spirituality should be lifted to where the Lord is.
The lyrics of the hymn Higher Ground remind us:
I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day…
Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
By faith, on heaven’s table land,
A higher plane than I have found;
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.
Only by standing on a higher ground can we see more clearly and see heaven more closely. We may have established a routine of attending services, reading the Bible, and praying. But have these worship activities lifted us to higher ground, to where the Lord is? To guard against spiritual stagnation, we must always check our relationship with Jesus—are we growing closer to the Lord day by day? Is our image increasingly like the Lord’s?
The whole point of our worship should be to improve ourselves and be raised to the Lord. Let us not only strive for higher earthly achievements but, more so, aim for higher heavenly planes.
Come to the true way
Ironically, the most important life issue we all must attend to is the end of life—where will our souls go after death? Different philosophers and religious teachers have tried to provide answers to this. However, no human being can give us the truth of the matter; only the Lord Jesus can, because He is the true God in heaven who descended to earth to save humankind. Jesus is the absolute truth, eternal life, and the way of salvation. No one can come to the Father except through Him (Jn 14:6–7, 10). During His earthly ministry, Jesus invited people to come to Him. To those who labor and are heavily laden, He promises rest. To those who believe in Him, He promises everlasting life and resurrection on the last day (Mt 11:25–28; Jn 6:37–40).
We must come to the Lord. Only then can we have the absolute answer to what happens at the end of life.
“You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.” (Jn 5:39–40)
The way to the Lord is through the Scriptures—these testify of the Lord, enabling us to understand who Jesus is, and how to follow Him to eternal life. But Jesus said, “You are not willing to come to Me.” Reflect on this and how we have lived our lives thus far. What is our ambition—to gain money or to gain life? If it is the former, we ought to go to the world. There is much money to be made there for those willing and able to work hard. But the COVID-19 pandemic is an abrupt reminder that even if we are wealthy, it may be of no use to us (Lk 12:15–21).
Let us realize that the true and only worthwhile aim of life is to gain eternal life. And the only way to achieve this is to go to where the Lord is.
3. See God On the Throne
And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. (Rev 4:3)
See His glory and holiness: Be reverent
God can neither be seen with human eyes, nor His glory accurately described in mere human words. In the Book of Revelation, John thus uses precious stones—jasper and sardius—to represent God’s glory and holiness. The brilliance of these jewels should constantly remind us of our unworthiness. When the prophet Isaiah saw the glory and holiness of God, he exclaimed, “Woe is me. …Because I am a man of unclean lips!” (Isa 6:5–9). Sadly, today, some believers are proud and puffed up by their wealth, social status, or their standing in church. They conduct themselves irreverently, even in church. They behave like this because they have not seen the glory and holiness of the One who sits on the throne. True worship requires us to see the glory and holiness of God so that we can worship with reverence and piety.
See His mercy and faithfulness: Be repentant
The rainbow around the throne represents the mercy and faithfulness of God. After delivering Noah’s household, God set His rainbow in the sky. This was a sign of His covenant with man—His promise that He will never destroy the world with a flood again. In our worship, we should see the rainbow and remember God’s faithful deliverance and mercy. When we have sinned, do not give up and draw away from God. Instead, return to Him and confess our sin; seek His grace and ask for His forgiveness. When the Israelites sinned, God spoke of His mercy to Moses:
And the LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” (Ex 34:6–7)
Moses’ response to this divine proclamation was sincere gratitude. He then hastened to intercede for the Israelites (Ex 34:8–9). Let us recognize our iniquities and, while we are in this period of grace, seize the opportunity to receive forgiveness and share His faithful mercies with others.
See only Him: Be dedicated
Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; and they had crowns of gold on their heads. (Rev 4:4)
Many things were vying for John’s attention, but his eyes were immediately drawn to the One sitting on the throne. This is another attribute of heavenly worship: a focus on God who sits on the throne in heaven.
In our worship today, we must not allow our worship to become human-centered instead of God-focused. This may happen both personally and at church level. For example, some churches are more concerned about pleasing the worshipers, rather than pleasing God in their worship. To boost attendance, they overhaul their services so that people will find attending church fun and relaxing. Instead of leading the congregation to worship the Almighty God with reverence, they transform worship of the Almighty into a recreational event. Another example is sermon speakers who are more concerned with pleasing their human listeners than striving to preach what God wants them to. Such speakers may choose topics deemed to be interesting; they may even be prepared to “innovate” on the truth to please the congregation.
At the personal level, we must reflect on whether we have become the type of listener who only pays attention to feel-good sermons, shutting our ears to messages that we dislike. Reflect also on our level of concentration during services. If we use a Bible app on our smartphones during services, can we resist reading the incoming message notifications that pop up, or sneakily checking the news and social media? We may be undergoing the rituals of worship, but we are not concentrating on God. God is looking at us, but we are not looking at Him. We have other things on our minds. How could such worship be pleasing to God?
We must recalibrate our worship today to the standard of heavenly worship. When we come before God, focus our eyes on He who sits on the throne, focus our minds on the presence of God, and tune our ears to the word God wants us to receive. Worship God with a reverent heart and a dedicated mind.
4. See the Sea of Glass Before the Throne
Before the throne there was a sea of glass, like crystal. (Rev 4:6)
Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva, the famous Russian writer, once said that she could never love the ocean because—given its vastness—it is uninhabitable by man. In contrast, land covers a smaller portion of the earth’s surface, yet sustains so much human life. The ocean is also temperamental: calm and peaceful one moment, but terrifying when a storm whips the waves into a frenzy. So puny and helpless is man before the vast ocean that life, with all its uncertainty, is oft described as a bitter ocean. However, the sea of glass in John’s vision reassures us.
Jesus is our shelter
On one occasion, when Peter saw Jesus walking on the lake during a storm, he asked Jesus to allow him to do the same. At Jesus’ invitation, Peter got out of the boat and started to walk on water. However, when he saw the winds, he became afraid and began to sink. When he cried out to the Lord, Jesus immediately reached out His hand to catch him, and together they made it back to the boat (Mt 14:22–32).
Like Peter, we too may lose our nerve when assailed by the ferocious storms of life. There is no need to fear because the Lord is our shelter; He can turn the bitter ocean into a sea of glass. Then we can, like Peter, stand and walk on the sea together with the Lord.
In my distress I called upon the LORD,
And cried out to my God;
He heard my voice from His temple,
And my cry came before Him, even to His ears. …
He sent from above, He took me;
He drew me out of many waters. (Ps 18:6, 16)
Today, when calamity comes, and we find ourselves sinking into the bitter sea, learn from Peter to cry out to the Lord. Our merciful Lord Jesus will surely stretch out His hand and save us.
Worship is an essential time of communion between our Savior and us. However, some Christians claim that since God is everywhere, there is no need to worship God in His temple; they can just worship God in their hearts or worship at home. But in Psalm 18:6, the Psalmist says that God heard his voice from God’s temple. This is a reminder that God wants us to gather in His temple—His church—for worship (Heb 10:25). If we do not obey God’s instruction and see formal worship as a waste of time, then our cries for help during times of distress will be displeasing to Him.
Technology has been a blessing, allowing us to continue worshiping throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing social distancing measures. But as lockdown gradually lifts, do we find ourselves eagerly anticipating the opportunity to once again worship with fellow-believers at church? Or have we come to prefer online services since they are so convenient, saving us time and trouble, and providing us with a choice of speakers from around the world?
The ancient saints remind us:
Blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
Whose heart is set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
They make it a spring;
The rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength;
Each one appears before God in Zion. (Ps 84:5–7)
These ancient saints worshiped God in their houses, but they still willingly traveled to God’s temple for worship. God had instructed them to worship in the place where He put His name (Deut 12:5; 16:2, 11; 26:2; Neh 1:9). This was His temple, where the ark of God was placed. The ancient saints did not have the convenience of our modern transport. And they would have had to pass through the Valley of Baca, which means the valley of “weeping”—a warning that they needed to traverse many sorrows. Yet, by relying on God, these ancient saints found the strength to obey God’s command to worship at God’s temple.
The Psalmist declares that those who desire to worship God in this manner will be blessed; God will add to their strength so that they can come to His temple to worship Him. Hence, we should not let anything deter us from making the trip to church. It is true that we—the people of God—are the church. But the physical church building is no ordinary building because it has been dedicated to God for worship. This is a place that belongs to God—the sanctuary where God’s name has been established and continues to be proclaimed (cf. 1 Kgs 9:3). More importantly, this is the place where God commanded His rituals be performed (Deut 12:11; 16:6). As God’s children, we ought to rejoice when we can come to worship Him at church. Our desire to go to His temple reflects our obedience and our longing to receive God’s grace. Therefore, no matter how tired we may be or how arduous the journey, come to God’s temple to worship.
Jesus is our peace
In John’s vision, the sea of glass was like a clear crystal. The clarity and solidity of crystal remind us that when we come before God, we enjoy peace and tranquillity. In His presence, we will not be affected by worldly troubles. Today, when we come to worship God in His temple, are our hearts peaceful? Peace is not an external display. Some believers appear to be listening quietly to the sermon, but in their hearts, they are like Martha—troubled and distracted by many things, unable to hear God’s word (Lk 10:40). But some successfully emulate Mary—when they come to church, they resolutely put aside all their worldly cares and quieten their hearts to worship God. Such worship is truly like heavenly worship because, before the throne, we see a crystal-clear sea of glass.
SEA OF GLASS IN LIFE: MANAGING FEAR AND ANXIETY
But now, thus says the LORD, who created you, O Jacob,
And He who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by your name;
You are Mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.” (Isa 43:1–2)
Fear is a natural human instinct. God understands this. So, throughout history and through the Scriptures, God has provided reassurance for His people. This passage brings to mind two of history’s greatest miracles.
First, “passing through the waters” reminds us of Israel’s miraculous crossing of the Red Sea (Ex 14). With Pharaoh and his army in hot pursuit behind, and the Red Sea in front, the people of Israel were terrified: they would either be killed or drowned. Moses was the exception (Ex 14:13). He remained calm and unafraid because he saw God’s presence. He knew God would make a way and lead them through the waters.
Second, “walking through the fire” reminds us of the miraculous delivery of Daniel’s three friends from the fiery furnace (Dan 3). These three Jews chose to be thrown into the furnace rather than compromise their religious principles. When the king urged them to reconsider, they still refused to worship the gold image (Dan 3:17–18). They believed that God was able to deliver them, and even if He did not save their physical bodies, He would deliver their souls into His kingdom. They demonstrated this extraordinary lack of fear because they remembered they had God’s presence.
At present, we may be living in a country or area where COVID-19 infections are spiraling out of control. Perhaps we are struggling through deep waters and fiery furnaces. Do not be paralyzed by fear. Let us open our eyes to see the presence of God. Trusting in God’s abidance and deliverance will quieten our anxious hearts. Open our ears to hear God tell us: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are mine” (Isa 43:1). God has redeemed us with His blood and the Holy Spirit. We are the children of God, the almighty Creator of the heavens and earth. The heavenly Father takes care of the birds in the skies, and we are much more important than these. But the crucial question is whether we are willing to place our lives into His hands.
Consider the bird who perches on a tree branch. It never fears that the branch will break, resulting in a plunge to certain death. This is because the bird does not put its trust in the strength of the branch, but in the wings God has given it. Similarly, for us, we are “perched” in the situation we find ourselves in. Our faith in God is like the wings of the bird. Is our trust rooted in our circumstances, the wealth, or influence we possess? Or do we trust in our wings? No matter how sturdy the branch, it will still snap in a fierce storm. But the wings of our faith allow us to soar and overcome these calamities.
For some Christians, sin and time spent away from God may have left their wings wounded. This is why they struggle with life. If we are in this situation, we must return to the Lord, who heals the broken and broken-hearted (Ps 147:3).
Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate headlines; it has been called the crisis of a generation due to its far-reaching health, economic and social impacts. But crises are also opportunities. In the end time, there will be pestilences in various places. This crisis is an urgent warning to review the state of our worship and faith.
The Book of Revelation fascinates readers because of its detailed description of the events leading up to Jesus Christ’s second coming. But an important focus for believers is the heavenly worship that John saw in his vision. God wants us to look up and see the door open. He wants us to rise to see the throne in heaven. These are reminders that our spiritual gaze must always be firmly turned heavenward. Specifically, we must see the almighty and holy God and come into His presence. When we do so, our lives of worship will have the right motivations and attributes of repentance, reverence, and dedication. Though the stormy winds howl around us in the bitter sea of life, our eyes are on the crystal-clear sea of glass in heaven, and our hearts will remain at peace. God gives His children wings of faith. Even though we may pass through many waters or fires, the Lord will lead us, His beloved children, along.
 By Johnson Oatman, Jr (1856–1922).
[APPENDIX] LOCKDOWN MEASURES: A BLESSING IN DISGUISE
In normal times, we have the freedom to go anywhere we wish. However, because we have so many things to do and places to visit, we leave no time to spend with God. As a result, we drift further and further away from the Lord. Our preoccupation with work and worldly entertainment have also distanced us from our family.
When COVID-19 lockdown measures were imposed in different cities, many rued the loss of freedom initially. Some grumbled at the virtual imprisonment. However, staying at home not only protects us and averts further disaster, it also provides an opportunity to improve our relationships with the Lord and our family members. By compelling us to suspend the busyness of normal life, we are able to quieten our hearts and reflect on the state of our souls. When our lives come to an end, are we able to enter the heavenly kingdom with the Lord?