On Earth as in Heaven: The Origins of Orthodox Worship

On Earth as in Heaven: The Origins of Orthodox Worship

While it is true that Orthodox worship serves as a fulfillment of old covenant worship—being fulfilled in and through the risen Christ—the ultimate parallel or comparison that should be drawn is between the Orthodox worship on earth and that which exists in eternity (or, in “heaven”).

It is easy to discern the type-fulfillment relationships between the old covenant shadows and the new covenant fulfillment. For example, the seven-branched candelabras of the temple and those of an Orthodox altar; the budded rod of Aaron and the budded Cross from which the priestly blessing is given; the ark of the covenant in the most holy place of the temple and the tabernacle and “Mary of the Sign” iconography in the apse of a traditional Orthodox church building; etc.

However, what both the worship of the old covenant and that of the new share most in common is that they are both patterned after the worship which occurs in the throne room of the Lord in eternity. As with the prayer of the Lord, we worship “on earth as it is in heaven.” It would seem apparent, then, that anyone who desires to worship the Lord properly (and we know that worship is serious business, as Nadab and Abihu exemplify, cf. Lev. 10:1-3) should desire to worship the Lord as it is done in heaven.

While many of the Church’s worship traditions have been handed down through apostolic tradition, we are given a few visions of heavenly worship throughout the holy scriptures.

The vision of Isaiah (Isa. 6:1-7) comes immediately to mind, as we see a picture of the Lord’s throne room, complete with the smoke of burning incense, the antiphonal praise of the seraphim (“Holy, holy, holy, Lord Sabaoth,” which is of course a part of the Eucharistic liturgy in the Orthodox Church), a set of doors (like the royal doors of an Orthodox iconostasis), and a type of the Eucharist itself in the coals taken by tongs from the fiery altar and being placed upon Isaiah’s lips (just as a priest or deacon will place the Eucharist in the mouth of a communicant with the spoon). In fact, a priest quotes the very words of the seraphim in this vision when they partake of the Eucharist (or when they give it to the communicants), saying: “Behold, this has touched thy lips, and will take away thine iniquities, and will purge off thy sins.”

This timeless, heavenly worship takes place “at all times and at every hour” as the liturgy proclaims, and our worship on earth is an apocalyptic (the timeless reality being brought into the finite present) participation in that same worship. In a similar manner, our partaking of the Eucharist is the same bread as shared by the apostles in the upper room, which in turn was the same Wedding Feast of the Lamb as seen in John’s ApocalypseThis is why our icons of the Mystical Supper are not pictures of the upper room in first century Palestine, but are instead an image of the yet-to-come Great Feast in eternity.

As just mentioned, the Apocalypse or “Revelation” to the apostle John gives us another window into heavenly worship. In chapter 4, the throne room of the Lord is again described, and in a similar manner to Isaiah: a great throne of the Lord (Rev. 4:2-3), surrounded by 24 smaller thrones and presbyters (perhaps symbolic of the totality of God’s people in both the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the new covenant, cf. Rev. 4:4), and seven lamps of fire (just as the seven-branched candelabra in both the temple and upon an Orthodox altar, cf. Rev. 4:5), which are the seven Archangels.

This symbolism and the connection between both angels and deacons is made more apparent in the apostolic practice of having but seven deacons to a local church (to a bishop), the entry/exit of a deacon through the “angel’s doors” of later Orthodox church buildings, and the description of the deacon (and first martyr of the Church) Saint Stephen, who had “the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). Saint Irenaeus also connects the seven candles with the seven heavens (cf. 1-2 Enoch), as well as the seven Archangels (cf. Tobit 12:15) of those heavens.

Just as with Isaiah’s vision, the antiphonal chanting of the angels is the same in John’s vision: “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Sabaoth!” (Rev. 4:8). There is also liturgical movement (processions), prostrations (bowing before the Lord), and offerings being given, not to mention the burning of incense by the angels (who are typified by deacons and priests here on earth, cf. Rev. 5:8). Anyone remotely familiar with Orthodox worship will inescapably draw comparisons between the worship that takes place in heaven, and that which occurs here on earth; and this is by design, of course.

I think it is safe to say, therefore, that if one desires to worship the Lord “on earth as it is in heaven,” this should be done with all of the above elements involved: the processions, the bowing, the antiphonal chanting, the offering of incense, the reception of the Eucharist, the seven-branched candles, the altar, the thrones, etc. These are all elements which exist both in heaven and here on earth in Orthodox worship.

Orthodox worship is not the result of centuries of paganization or “corruption” in the Christian community, but is instead a very conscious imaging of heavenly worship here on earth. As the Church became more and more “free” through the efforts of the emperor Saint Constantine the Great, beginning to build its own houses of worship, this emphasis became all the more clear.


  1. Kenneth E. Hines says

    Thanks for this wonderful post! This passage from Revelation along with Hebrews 12:18-29 is what first led me to liturgical worship and eventually to become Orthodox over 20 years ago. Hebrews 12:18ff. is worth quoting:

    “For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: ‘And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.’ And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.’)

    But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel. See that you do not refuse Him who speaks. For if they did not escape who refused Him who spoke on earth, much more shall we not escape if we turn away from Him who speaks from heaven, whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, ‘Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.’ Now this, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.”

  2. JLW says

    Malachi 1:11 For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same My Name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto My Name, and a Pure Offering: for My Name shall be great among the heathen, saith the Lord of hosts. KJV
    From an Anglican.

  3. Deacon Emil says

    I really enjoy the posts discussing OT temple worship and Orthodox worship. Thank you. You mentioned the “seven-branched candelabras”, the menorah, which has great symbolism, but I only see these in Russian Orthodox Churches. I’ve been in several Greek Orthodox Churches, but I’ve never seen the menorah, and the recent pictures taken of our canonical hierarchs standing behind the altar at the High Throne (during the recent gathering in Istanbul), shows that even the Ecumenical Patriarch hasn’t got a menorah set up, but only has 2 candles sitting on the altar table. Why do you think are there some churches that have the menorah, while others do not?

    • Gabe Martini says

      Thanks for your comments!

      You’re right that the seven branched candelabra or vigil lamp is not universally used today, and I think this is more a recent circumstance. It’s not necessarily something related to a particular church, however, as they are found in Greek, Antiochian, Serbian, and every other type of Orthodox parish or cathedral.

      This isn’t something necessary for the right-celebration of Orthodox worship, but I think both the symbolism and religious antiquity it preserves is reason enough to continue it as a spiritual, decorative, and instructive practice. And since it is common enough throughout Orthodox history, and even in churches today, I thought it worth mentioning.

  4. Just some guy says

    Great post as always, Gabe! There was just one thing I noticed that I thought I might disagree on. You mentioned that icons of the mystical supper are not representations of first century Palestine. That sounded wrong to me, but I double-checked, just to make sure. I found very many icons in the “Byzantine” style that looked exactly like all the icons and frescoes I had seen before — unless you are referring specifically to the icon that lies behind the altar, or sometimes beneath Christ in Judgement on the iconostasis. These are two different kinds of icons, though, and so it should be noted that we do portray the last supper in one kind of icon, representing the upper room in first century Palestine.

  5. Rev. Raymond Payne says

    I am not Orthodox but my paternal grandmother was, and as a child I attended services with her in Denver. Before we would enter the sanctuary she would always remind me that we were stepping out of this world and into heaven as we worshipped. I am now a United Methodist pastor but I always seek to help my congregation experience something of heaven whenever we gather to worship. Thank you for your excellent post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *