The heart of Revelation (chapters 13 and 14) shows that worship is a dominant issue in the great controversy. The Greek word for worship used in the Book of Revelation is proskuneo which means to bow down before one who is superior. Satan, in his effort to elevate himself above God, seeks the worship that only God deserves by making images that reflect his principles and character and imposing them through deceit or coercion. God, in contrast, is worthy of worship because of His infinite knowledge, power, creativity, and character of love; He only prohibits worship of others because it leads to grief and destruction.

On the “devil’s side” of the great controversy in Revelation is false, blasphemous worship—“All the world marveled after the beast. So they worshiped the dragon…and they worshiped the beast.” “And he...causes the earth and those who dwell therein to worship the first beast whose deadly wound was healed…He had power to give life to the image of the beast…and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed.” (Revelation 13:3,4,12,15). Meanwhile, on God’s side the 144,000 are shown worshiping “before the throne,” and then giving the three angels' messages which include the command, “Fear God and give glory to Him…and worship Him who made heaven and earth.” They also give the fearful warning, “If anyone worships the beast…he also shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God” (Revelation 14:7,9,10). Thus the issue of true and false worship is literally a life and death matter.

The beast from the earth will set up an image and try to force all people to worship it. This is reminiscent of the image king Nebuchadnezzar set up in ancient Babylon, and a review of that story in Daniel chapter three reveals some of the elements of false worship.

First of all, Nebuchadnezzar’s new religion required the worship of a created god rather than God the Creator. “Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold” (Daniel 3:1). The Ten Commandments strictly forbid the worship of anything created. The first commandment (“You shall have no other gods before me” Exodus 20:3) forbids the worship of any "god" created by the true God, including the sun or other heavenly bodies, animals, plants, bodies of water, geographical features or intelligent beings such as angels or people. The second commandment (“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of shall not bow down to them nor serve them” Exodus 20:4,5) forbids the worship of anything made by man, whether the worship is of the object itself or of something or someone (including God) represented by the object.[1]

Nebuchadnezzar’s image was set up in rebellion against God. God had revealed in a dream an image made of four metals that showed that there would be a succession of kingdoms, which would ultimately be destroyed by the true God of heaven. Nebuchadnezzar, refusing to accept the fact that his kingdom would ever pass away, created his image all of gold. He said nothing about the true God, even though he had previously acknowledged that He is “the God of gods and the Lord of kings” (Daniel 2:47). Thus a second element of false worship is that it involves disobedience to God and to His word.[2]

The important officials who were called to worship the image had no personal relationship with the god/image. “King Nebuchadnezzar sent word to gather together the satraps, the administrators, the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates, and all the officials of the province, to come to the dedication of the image” (Daniel 3:2). This was the first time they had ever seen the god, but they still bowed down and worshiped it during the ceremony. This is a third element of false worship—it is not dependent on a personal relationship with God that includes the daily prayers, Bible study and fellowship that true Christians have. Instead it has its basis in the worship experience or ceremony itself.[3]

A fourth element of false worship is that music or other sensory input is used to create an emotional atmosphere and experience. “At the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, you shall fall down and worship the gold image” (Daniel 3:4,5). The emotions of reverence, gratitude and love which should come about from the presence of the Holy Spirit are brought about by music and spectacle.[4]

A fifth characteristic is the absence of teaching. The true worship of the children of Israel included instruction about God and His plan of salvation through the sacrifices and symbols of the sanctuary that foreshadowed the sacrifice of Christ. At the dedication of Nebuchadnezzar’s image there was no teaching about the new god, his character, his deeds or his plans for mankind—the only instruction had to do with the required worship behavior of the people. True Christian worship always involves teaching and revelation that edifies the worshipers. “Whenever you come together each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification” (1 Corinthians 14:26). The sermons of Peter and Paul acknowledged the hopelessly sinful nature of man, the offer of salvation through the life, sacrifice, resurrection and mediation of Christ, and the necessity of holiness through faith. False worship avoids the subject of sin and repentance, and even if there is a focus on the Cross of Christ, it is a general or emotional appeal that does not touch the pet sins of the worshipers.

A particularly repugnant element of false worship is that it involves threats. “And whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace” (Daniel 3:6). Much worship today includes the underlying threat that God is ready to throw those who do not please Him into ever-burning fire. Preachers vividly portray the terrors of the time of trouble, which can supposedly be avoided by being ready for the “rapture” now. And of course the death decree will be the dominant feature of the worship of the image of the beast.

In summary, false worship is directed toward the creation rather than the Creator, allows or includes disobedience to God’s word, does not require a personal relationship with God, is primarily an emotional experience enhanced by sensory input such as music and spectacle, avoids the subject of personal sin, and includes an overt or implied threat of punishment or death for those who do not worship in the prescribed manner. Unfortunately, it is not just pagans who offer false worship; these characteristics can even come to dominate “Christian” worship.

Continue to next section: WHAT TRUE WORSHIP IS AND IS NOT

[1] Paul emphasized this in Romans 1. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness… although they knew God, they did not glorify Him…[they] worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” Romans 1:18-25.

[2] Rebellious worship is the heart of Satan’s desire. He was willing to give up the whole world if only Jesus would bow down and worship him—“If you will worship before me all will be yours” (Luke 4:5-8).

[3] Eternal life is based upon a personal relationship with Jesus—“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” John 17:3. In the judgment many who claimed to be filled with the power of God will be rejected because they did not know God (Matthew 7:22,23).

[4] This kind of emotional worship was characteristic of the worship of the golden calf (Exodus 31:1-6, 17-19) and of the priests of Baal (1 Kings18:26-29).