Formations 05.29.2022: Lavish Liturgy

Revelation 5

Think about how John describes worship in Revelation 4–5. The worshipers wear special clothing. They play musical instruments. They burn incense, symbolic of the prayers of the saints (5:8). They sing hymns. Most disturbing for some readers, they don’t just sing the old favorites. Rather, they sing “a new song” (v. 9) about Christ’s worthiness to rule the world! Their worship takes the form of a call and response: when the elders sing, all of creation responds with their own words of acclamation (vv. 11-13).

The worship in heaven involves sight (the rainbow, the flaming torches, and the sea of glass in chapter 4), sound (the hymns), and smell (the incense). It even involves the bodies of the worshipers, who cast their crowns before the throne (4:10) and prostrate themselves in humble praise (5:14).

Whatever else it might be, worship in heaven is not dry or boring!

I don’t know about you, but the mention of robes, incense, and liturgical calls and responses places an image in my mind that leans more toward the kind of worship I used to deride as “cold” and “wooden.”

That was (thankfully!) a long time ago. Since then, I’ve learned a little about Jewish worship practices and about two important Hebrew words: keva and kavanah. Keva means “fixity” and refers to the centuries-old traditions of Jewish worship: the prayers, the psalms, the gestures, etc. Kavanah means “spontaneity” and refers to inner devotion, the outpouring of our souls in utter abandon to the One who receives our praise. The two go together in Jewish thinking. In fact, keva can form a framework or structure within which kavanah is allowed free rein.

I’ve come to a place where I embrace this equilibrium. I’ve learned to appreciate how fixed traditions can help my inner devotion rather than stifling it. So when I read a passage like Revelation 4–5, I don’t get quite as nervous about the robes and the incense. To be honest, whatever your preferred style of worship, there’s something in Revelation 4–5 that will force you out of your comfort zone.

As with our previous passage from 1 Corinthians, not everyone may be familiar with this style of worship. Nor should we take it as our only blueprint for worship today; the New Testament offers many and diverse glimpses of how the first Christians worshiped God.

This passage does, though, reveal one universal trait of all authentic Christian worship: at the center is the Lamb. Whether we gravitate toward Corinth’s freewheeling, charismatic style or Patmos’s majestic, liturgical style, if our worship isn’t about Jesus, it counts for nothing.

Arnold J. Wolf, “Keva and Kavanah,” <>


• What principles of worship can we learn from this passage?
• How do you engage the senses in worship?
• This passage mentions elements of sight, sound, and scent. How might touch and taste also be parts of Christian worship?
• Why does God take delight in this kind of worship?

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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