Heavenly Worship in Second Temple Judaism, Early Christianity, and Gnostic Sects: Part 3

Guest blogger, Stephen Huebscher
This is the third of five posts in this series.

B. CONCEPTIONS OF HEAVENLY WORSHIP IN EARLY CHRISTIANITY

Early Christian conceptions of heavenly worship drew heavily on the OT and, not surprisingly, show a similarity, though with some important differences.  Revelation and Hebrews are undoubtedly the most important NT books to gain an understanding of the heavenly liturgy and its significance for Christians on earth.

Revelation

Revelation 4—5 is the most comprehensive of all the worship scenes and hymns in the book.  It has a number of OT antecedents, including Exodus 19, Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1—2, and especially Daniel 7:9ff, which Beale argues is the primary interpretive lens John uses to understand the visions he has seen (Beale 315, 366-69). The fact that Isaiah 6 forms a part of the understanding of the heavenly throne room in Revelation is a striking contrast to the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice where this OT text is not even mentioned! (Davila 91). Rev. 4—5 presents a scene of heavenly worship around the throne of God, and in that sense is similar to what were later called the merkavah hymns in Jewish mystical texts of hekhalot literature.  David Aune correctly observes the connection between the heavenly worship scenes in Revelation and the divine council.  “The focus on the throne vision is God enthroned in his heavenly court surrounded by a variety of angelic beings or lesser deities (angels, archangels, seraphim, cherubim) who function as courtiers.  All such descriptions of God enthroned in the midst of his heavenly court are based on the ancient conception of the divine council or assembly found in Mesopotamia, Ugarit, and Phoenicia as well as in Israel” (Aune 277). Scholars have argued for a variety of sources for the liturgy portrayed here, ranging from Jewish synagogues to Christian churches.  However, I have been most persuaded by Beale’s arguments for a strong OT background for this passage (as well as the rest of the book), and I believe he is correct when he writes, “John intended the readers to see what is told of in the vision as a heavenly pattern that the church is to reflect in its worship rather than the other way around (just as the heavenly pattern of the tabernacle shown to Moses on the mountain was to be copied by Israel in the construction of their own tabernacle)” (Beale 312). Beale summarizes:

The concluding hymns of Rev. 4:11 and Rev. 5:9-13 bear out that this idea—that sovereignty in creation is the basis for sovereignty in judgment and redemption—is the main theme of the two chapters . . .” (Beale 369, italics original). One of the keys to seeing these chapters as a heavenly liturgical pattern for earthly worship comes at the end of chapter 5, where creatures on earth join the heavenly praise, and to which the elders add “Amen.”  Of the prayers of the saints that the elders hold in 5:8, the elders function as heavenly priests, according to Aune (356). The use of καινός (new) “associates Christ’s redemptive work with the beginning of a new creation . . .” (Beale 358).

In Revelation 6:9-11 (souls of the martyrs under the altar) Beale believes that the altar is to be identified with the throne of God, thereby showing divine protection (Beale 391-92). Although the importance of silence in Revelation 8:1-4 (silence in heaven) is probably to be found in Jewish writings, it may perhaps reflect “the practice of maintaining silence in the Jerusalem Temple while the priests went into the Holy Place to offer incense; it was during such a time that Zacharias had his vision of the archangel Gabriel” (James Roger Black, personal note).  Revelation 11:19 with its mention of the ark in heaven points to the “presence of God without a literal reappearance of the ark . . . which is expanded in 21:3, 22, where the establishment of the end-time temple is interpreted as God’s presence in the midst of his people” (Beale, Revelation, 619).

Revelation 19:9 mentions the wedding supper of the Lamb, which may be the (eschatological) wedding meal mentioned elsewhere in Scripture and Gnostic literature (Isa. 25:6-7; 65:13-17; Matt 22:1-10 = Gos. Thom. 64; Matt. 25:10; Luke 12:36; 14:8; Acts Thom. 4-5, 7, 13) (Aune, Revelation 17—22, 1032). If this is so, then it is the referent for Jesus’ statement at the Last Supper about drinking new wine in his Father’s kingdom (Matt 26:29; Mark 14:25; possibly Luke 22:18).  This, in turn, makes the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper an earthly type of the (future), heavenly worship. Other texts that could be added, though not specifically wedding texts, include Matt 8:11-12; Luke 13:28-29; 14:15; 22:28-30.

Hebrews. Hebrews 8—10 has a lengthy discussion of the application of Jeremiah 31 and the new covenant to the situation of Christians.  In it, the author repeatedly makes distinctions between the earthly “tent” of the Mosaic worship and the true, heavenly “tent” that Christ has entered to make atonement for sins once for all.  For our purposes, two observations by Attridge will suffice.  “The basic image with which our author operates is that of a paradigmatic sanctuary, probably with two parts, in heaven” (Attridge 223).  “The interior reality that the heavenly temple symbolizes is not a principle or virtue generally available to humankind, but a relationship made possible by Christ” (Attridge 224). Although the author of Hebrews makes much use of liturgical language, the application to Christians generally does not put a lot of emphasis on ritual act, but rather on prayer, public praise, and service (e.g., Hebr. 13:15).

Hebrews 12.22-23

You, however, have approached Mount Zion and a city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem; and myriads of angles in festive gathering and an assembly of firstborn who are inscribed in heaven; and a judge, God of all, and spirits of the righteous who have been perfected. [This passage uses language that draws on the picture of the cosmic mountain in the OT and ANE (which is where God convenes the divine council), divine theophanies, and visions of the celestial court.  This text shows human Christians participating with heavenly beings in a festival gathering, which, by definition, has liturgical overtones.] (Attridge 371, 374-75).

Other NT. In other NT texts, the cosmology and population of heaven is usually very similar to that found in OT texts. For instance, Paul’s statement “I charge you, in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels,” (1 Tim 5.21) should be probably be understood as a divine council scene.  The differences in heaven are both cosmological and liturgical.  Cosmologically, Christ has been highly exalted.  The liturgical implication is that he therefore receives worship.  In other words, Christ now becomes the focal point of heavenly worship.  Unlike some of the DSS and later hekhalot texts, no angels, not even exalted ones, ever receive worship in heaven.  A second cosmological difference is that whereas OT Israelites would pray to the Name in the Jerusalem temple and God would hear in heaven, now Christians are to pray to Jesus in heaven, and the Father will hear them (e.g., 1 Kings 8; John 14:13-14). “Name” was still used as a reference to Jesus in some of the NT texts (Acts 5:41; 3 John 7). Other names or titles for Jesus include Law, Covenant, Beginning, and Day (Daniélou, 147-63).

The present identity of Christians is often referred to in the same terms used of celestial beings: sons of God, children of God, children of the Most High, saints/holy ones, stars, etc. The future identity of Christians seems to be celestial beings, and some texts seem to state that Christians will be on par with or part of God’s divine council (DC).

Some texts show joint human/angelic worship (e.g., Hebr 12:22-23), just as some OT texts show joint human/angelic combat (e.g., Judges 5:20 “the stars fought with Sisera”). This joint worship makes sense when we understand that God is present among worshipers, and that members of the heavenly host are present with him.  The fact that God is present accounts for the emphasis on the proper way of worshiping God.

The worship of angels in Colossae that Paul opposed “may represent a cultic practice of visionary ascent and deification,” a practice which has connections with the mystical views both in Jewish and Gnostic sects. (Perkins, 167)

This last quotation in this post is from Justin Martyr, and early Christian writer.

Justin, Apol. I, 65-66. On the day which is called Sun-day, all . . . gather in the same place.  Then the Memoirs of the Apostles or the Writings of the Prophets are read . . . .  The president speaks. . . .  Then we rise all together and pray (Deiss 25). [Basil some years later comments on his understanding of standing in prayer, which scholars believe to be reflected in the forgoing quotation from Justin. “We stand up when we pray, on the first day of the week (i.e., Sunday)… also because that day itself seems in some fashion to be an image of the world to come” (Deiss 25). This becomes significant when we realize that the phrase “stand before” is often used with the liturgical sense of “serve” in biblical and Jewish texts of angelic messengers who serve God.]

CONTINUITY AND DIFFERENCE BETWEEN OT & NT

There is a lot of continuity and overlap between OT and NT on this issue. The biggest difference is that the OT has a mysterious “second Yahweh” figure, whereas Jesus is part of the equation in the NT. Stay tuned for Part 4.

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