You, like many others, have probably wondered from time to time whether worship in heaven will be traditional or contemporary. Unfortunately, the book of Revelation is not as helpful in this matter as we might expect. Indeed, based upon the earliest recorded signing in heaven in Revelation, it looks like neither side of the worship wars can claim a certain victory. The “traditional worship” faction can claim that the singing of the four living creatures (Rev. 4:8) was certainly based upon using an old-timey song from the days of Isaiah (6:3), while the “contemporary worship” clique could just as adamantly argue that Rev. 4:8 is a praise song and belongs to their style.
While vying for a clear victory in the worship wars, but groups may have just overlooked what was truly thought-provoking about this first hymn, its emphasis upon the holiness of God. John of Revelation shares with Luke, the major author of the New Testament, a marked preference for holiness rather than love. Had it been the choice of the contemporary North American church [rather than God’s choice], we would have chosen to nurture and encourage congregations plagued with persecution and assimilation by eulogizing the love of God.
While the book of Revelation does have the term “agape” and its cognates half-a-dozen times, the term “holy” and its cognates occur over two-dozen times. What might lie behind this contrast. One possible explanation could be the fact that John’s audience needs to hear more about a holy and transcendent God who stands above it all and who is in control of history, rather than a God whose temperament is described in these lyrics, “My God and I go in the field together; We walk and talk as good friends should and do; We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter; My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue. We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter.” The crisis going on in John’s congregations needs a God who can crush “the mother of whores” (Rev. 17:5) and toss the oppressor state and its religious leaders into burning hell forever (Rev. 19:20) rather than a God whose voice rings with laughter and who is “holding hands” with Christians in “the meadow’s hue.”
Given the situation of these 7 congregations, it was also imperative for these Asian believers to be reminded first and foremost that they themselves were saints, set apart as the unique property of God. While it will be almost incomprehensible for some North American believers to grasp this, but being told you are loved by God may not always be the most crucial truth to be told in all circumstances. It seemed far more important to the prophet John (so also to Paul) to tell followers of Christ that they were “set apart,” saints, than that they were “beloved.”
In Revelation Jesus himself is described as “holy” (Rev. 3:7), and God is called holy both by the four living creatures and by the martyrs under the altar (Rev. 6:10). Three times the city of Jerusalem is modified by the term “holy” (Rev. 21:2, 10; 22:19). Significantly the term “saints” occurs more times in Revelation than any other book in the New Testament, and this term seems to be the term of choice for those who are willing to follow the Lamb wherever he leads. Even though the word Christian had been around for two generations, no one in Revelation is called a Christian.
The correct side in the current worship wars probably will not be revealed until heaven. In the meantime, it might just be the case that when God’s people are in a crucible that challenges their faithfulness more than their longevity, that the terms of choice to describe God and his people will resonate more clearly with the concept of holiness rather than love. If John were present today, he just might say, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”