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Participants in Worship: Seen and Unseen (Bible Study)

Remember that you are getting a view of the throne room of heaven. Notice the throne, the One on it, the crowd around it, and the nature of the worship they are bringing.

Lesson 2                    See all lessons
Scripture: Revelation 4 and 5

Last month we began with this same passage. Since the passage provides many insights about worship, we'll use it as a starting point again this month.

Remember that you are getting a view of the throne room of heaven. Notice the throne, the One on it, the crowd around it, and the nature of the worship they are bringing. Then notice (in chapter 5) how the focus shifts to the Lion/Lamb.

Look Around in Church

By its very nature, public worship is a group gathering. So look around. Who's here? Who do you see? It matters not whether the group is small or large. You may be worshiping with only a few others, or you may be part of a huge congregation. In either case notice who is there. How many of them do you know? Are they young, or old, or a mixture of both? Do the same people sit near you each week? Notice the accompanist, and the choir or other musicians. Notice the pastor and other leaders.

As you look at them all, what do you notice? Do you see how similar or dissimilar their ages are? Are they grouped together as families, or scattered as individuals? Do they look interested or distant? When they sing do they do it heartily or do they mumble? Do some not sing at all? Take a quick survey and ask yourself how many seem to be genuinely worshiping, and how many seem merely to be watching. Do they seem to know what they should do, or do they seem confused?

Try to make some observations about your congregation on the basis of what you have seen in looking around.

Who Participates?

Obviously, the little survey we just did was based only on what we can see and that makes it very limited. There's so much more in worship that we can't see. The heart. The motives. The frame of mind in which people come. The inner thoughts.

There are also participants in worship who are unseen. You may be able to count the people in each row, but that's not all who are there.

Revelation 4 and 5 describe the scene of worship around the throne of God in heaven. Such a scene gave hearty encouragement to John while he was exiled on the Isle of Patmos (see Rev. 1:9ff.) Notice how John sees three groups of people involved in the worship there. It will be good for our worship to remind ourselves of the three groups.

1. God. You'll find all three persons of the Trinity here in this time of worship. God the Father is on the throne (see 4:2-3). Notice the description to show his majesty and holiness. Then in chapter 5:6 the Lamb comes into view. This is obviously Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity. He is the Messiah, the lamb who was slain. And don't miss the fact that the Holy Spirit is here too. In chapter 4:5 he is referred to as the "seven spirits of God," or the "sevenfold Spirit of God." Remember that in the Bible seven symbolizes fullness, completion, or perfection. In addition John says he was "in the Spirit" (1:10 and 4:2) when he was able to see this. So, all three persons of the Trinity are involved in our worship, though they are unseen.

2. Further information in this passage tells us that the second participant in worship is the crowd of angels. They are dominant in this scene. In Rev. 4:6-8 the four mysterious living creatures represent the spiritual beings we call angels, who are always worshiping the King around the throne. Perhaps these four are the leaders or arch-angels. You see them again in 5:8. In 5:11 John describes the crowd of them as virtually unlimited! If you look ahead you'll see them again in 7:11. Yes, angels are involved in worship!

3. The third group participating in worship is represented by the 24 elders around the throne. This is the church of all ages (twelve tribes plus twelve apostles), the church of both the Old and the New Testament. You'll find them in 4:4, 5:8, and chapter 7 where they are the crowd with white robes and holding palm branches (v. 9). So the third group is the one we would most expect, saints of all ages. Some members of that group are already in heaven because they have died. Others of that group are sitting in your congregation today.

When we look around us in church on Sunday morning we see only a fraction of this big group. We see those still living on earth and sitting in these pews. We must learn to look with the eyes of faith and see the Trinity, the hosts of angels, and the church triumphant also participating with us.

Anyone Else?

Are those the only three groups—the Trinity, the hosts of angels, and gathered believers today? Is there anybody else around you in worship?

There may be (and ought to be) others very near us who are not able to fully participate. Try to notice the variety around you. Maybe some are not yet believers. Perhaps they are not fully members of the church. In 1 Corinthians 14:16 Paul talks about "one who finds himself among those who do not understand." Who are they? Perhaps they are formally members of the congregation but have resisted a full understanding of the faith. Perhaps they are children and youth who have not yet made a commitment. Perhaps they are seekers who have come out of a sense of personal need. Perhaps they are those who have fallen away and now are looking to God again. Only the Lord knows the inner circumstances and the reasons that have brought them to church today.

Paul tells us to think very hospitably about them. Our worship must be welcoming to them. We must be concerned about the message it will communicate to them, and we hope it will stir in their hearts the desire for true worship. It is important that we receive them hospitably and set before them an example of worship that can be used by the Holy Spirit to open their hearts to become full participants.

Tips for Discussion Leaders

As you begin to lead this discussion remind yourself that your time is limited so it is important to remain focused on the key ideas. Try to draw all the members of the group into the discussion.

Your main purpose in this discussion is to open up the minds and hearts of all to recognize that there is much that does not meet the physical eye in a public worship service. Try to help each other to catch a better glimpse of God's presence and the way in which it is expressed, of the glorious participation of angels with us, and of a sensitivity to those who may be on the fringe of understanding, or beyond it altogether.

Encourage the group to look at your order of service and ask some questions about how it communicates, expresses, or overlooks the presence of the unseen participants. Your aim is not so much to arrive at answers as to stimulate discussion and thought.

Discussion Starters

1. Look at the songs that you have sung in the past few services. Which songs expressed a consciousness of the presence of the Triune God? How did they express it? Were all three persons of the Trinity represented? Do you think our worship would change at all if we were fully conscious of the Triune God participating with us?

2. At which points in the worship service last Sunday morning (for example) did you speak/sing directly to God? At which points did God speak directly to you? Do you think that was clearly understood?

3. Identify those parts of the worship service in which you spoke directly to God. Were you conscious of it? How could that awareness be improved?

4. Which songs carried an awareness of worshiping angels? Did the awareness of angels show up in any other way? Do you think that's important? Is there anything for us to learn from angels and their worship?

5. Are your worship services understandable or inviting to those who are not already mature believers? Would someone "who does not understand" (for whatever reason) feel welcomed if they came to your worship service? Try to walk through your worship service imagining that you have never been there before and are not a regular worshiper. What would be unintelligible to you? What would seem strange? How could that be improved?

You may find it helpful to spend some time here discussing how to balance the need for hospitality toward seekers with the need for further nurture that mature believers have.

Further Reading
David Peterson, "Worship in the Revelation to John," Engaging with God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), pp. 261-279.     

Harry Boonstra, "Worshiping with Aliens and Angels: Reflections on Hospitality in Church," Reformed Worship.

Bible Study: Lesson 3
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