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No. 46: Concerning Colors, Architecture, and Sacraments

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 46
Copyright (c) 1996 Biblical Horizons
July, 1995

Color is inescapable, except for those who are color blind. In our church architecture, we either employ color schemes that are helpful to worship, or we employ color schemes that are not helpful. Of course, this assertion merely begs the question: What color schemes are most helpful.

God showed interest in colors when He appointed the rainbow as the sign of His covenant after the Flood. The seven colors are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and purple. The colors grey-blue (indigo), purple, and red are prominent, along with white and gold, in the Tabernacle He set up for His own house.

Now, the ecclesiastical colors in use today are not all that old, and there is reason to question them. For one thing, they shift with the seasons of the Church year, which is something not found in connection with the Old Creation calendar, and which thus has questionable support. My purpose in this essay is to attempt a reconstruction in this area. Of necessity, what I shall write here is tentative, but I hope it will be stimulating and help move us along in our consideration of this issue.

Architecturally, it is the center that is most important in the church sanctuary (the place where the sanctified, or holy ones, meet for worship with God). The ambience created by the colors on walls and ceiling are also important, but the center is most important, for there the eye is concentrated. Moreover, unless a congregation is very poor, it is always possible to decorate the center, even if one meets in a basement or garage. Thus, our concern in this essay will be with the center.

Theologically, our tradition says that we find in the center three things: Word, Sacrament, and Person. In order to do full justice to the color scheme I propose to find in the Bible, however, we shall have to address this triad to see if it is really appropriate.

Our tradition tells us that there are two and only two sacraments, that these were authorized by God as signs of His covenant, and that they are two of the same thing. We have to say, however, that the word “sacrament” is not found in the Bible, and that Baptism and the Supper are never grouped together as two objects in one category. It is surely proper to group them for some purposes, and to give them a common name, but we should be open to the possibility that for other purposes they should be kept separate. (Moreover, two other rites are appointed by God: unction for the sick and manual imposition for presbyters. These don’t apply to everyone, but they are special and miraculous acts of God, and thus are sacramental in some sense.)

At this point, I must build on material I have provided to readers of the Biblical Horizons newsletters in the past, and with which new readers will not be familiar. I ask an open mind, and a willingness to send for the earlier material if the reader wants to study the matter more fully.

Sequence and Objects in Worship

The three parts of worship are the Entrance, the Synaxis, and the Eucharist. The Entrance calls us in and restores us as a holy host through confession and absolution. The Synaxis gathers us together through song to hear the Word and to pray and offer ourselves and our gifts to God. The Eucharist sits us down at Christ’s meal, and sends us out to carry His charity to the world.

The Entrance focuses on persons, and thus on the Person of the Father. The Synaxis focuses on the Word, and thus on the Son. The Eucharist focuses on the gift of God, and thus on the Spirit.

But where does Baptism come in this scheme? It is part of the Entrance, and the sign of the Entrance, for by baptism we enter the kingdom.

Noting that the Pastor presides over the whole, we find the following elements:

Entrance – Baptism

Synaxis – Word

Eucharist – Communion

President – Pastor

Now, there is no particular reason why we need to have an altar-throne for each of these elements. The pastor does not need a throne-chair. The Bible does not need a pulpit; the pastor can preach peripatetically with Bible in hand. The baptismal basin does not need to sit on a pillar, and the bread and wine can be simply handed from the deacons to the pastor for prayer and distribution.

We do find, however, in the Tabernacle and Temple an altar-throne for the laver of cleansing, which was set on a pedestal, and for the bread and wine, which were set on the Table of Facebread. These altar-thrones carried symbolic meaning, but were also simply tables to hold up these objects. Thus, I do not think it violates any “regulative principle of worship” to have altar-thrones for these objects, and following out the logic of this, there is no problem with having such altar-throne for the Word and for the president of the congregation. Thus, it is appropriate to have the following:

Baptism – basin on pedestal

Word – Scriptures on pulpit

Eucharist – bread & wine on table

President – pastor on chair

I suggest that these four objects should be lined up across the center from liturgical south to liturgical north, from the congregation’s right to the congregation’s left. The Table of Facebread was on the north side of the Tabernacle, while the overseeing Lampstand was on the south, so that a movement from south to north is appropriate. Moreover, God’s throne is in the far north, we are told (Ps. 48:2; Is. 14:13; see Jordan, Through New Eyes, pp. 148ff.), and since the movement in worship is toward God, movement from south to north is appropriate. The pastor should conduct the Entrance from the , the Synaxis from the Pulpit, the sermon from the Chair, and the Eucharist from the Table. Given that the table is usually wider than the pulpit and baptismal pedestal, the chair from which the sermon is delivered would be in the center; and this is practical as well. On delivering sermons seated, see Luke 4:20. If this is impractical, the sermon can be delivered from the pulpit, and the chair placed behind the three objects to the rear.

(Liturgical directions arise from the symbol that Jesus comes as lightning flashes from the east to the west, Matthew 24:27. Thus, the Church is said to face east in worship, looking for Christ to come into her midst. The other directions follow from this orientation. This orientation reverses the east-west orientation found in the Old Creation Tabernacle and Temple, as a sign that the Kingdom has come and we are now approaching from the other side, not the side of exile but the side of the Kingdom.)

The concept of moving from one side to the other in the order of worship can be related to the movement of the worshippers in Ezekiel 46:9.

In some traditions, the is put by a door, either the back door or a side door at the front. This is to point to the as the door into the church. While this is understandable, in fact the River Jordan ran through the center of the Land. The tribes who lived in the Trans-Jordan had to cross the Jordan before being officially in the Land. Similarly, in order to get permission to visit a country, one goes to the king at his central throne for permission, as the Magi went to Herod. Moreover, the Laver of Cleansing was in the Tabernacle courtyard, not by its door. From these considerations we see that the most appropriate place for the is near the center.

Vestment and Parament Colors

At this point, we are in a position to discuss the colors appropriate to each object. Traditionally, a colored cloth has been draped over pulpit, pastor, and table, along the lines of the colored cloths that were put over the Tabernacle furniture when it was carried. Even more to the point: Each of these objects actually represents persons. We are the thrones that hold up the Word, Eucharist, and Baptismal bowl. The Table of Facebread represented Israel as throne of that bread and wine. The Bronze Sea was put on the backs of twelve bulls, representing the twelve tribes holding up the celestial sea by their faithfulness.

Now, the priest in Israel was vested in a white robe, over which was placed a blue-grey colored garment. Similarly, the clergy in the Church are to be vested in a white alb (not a black robe), over which is placed a colored cloth. For simplicity’s sake, I suggest a simple stole. The stole is a strip of cloth hung around the back of the neck and falling on either side in the front. It represents the “easy yoke” of Christ, which the minister wears as he conducts worship.

Analogously, the Table, Pedestal, and Pulpit, being symbolic persons, may have a white linen cloth over them, and a smaller strip of colored cloth on top. The vestments on these objects are called paraments. Traditionally there is no parament on the baptismal pedestal, or , but I suggest that one belongs there as well.

But what colors should be used? At this point I refer the reader to my study, Behind the Scenes: Orientation in the Book of Revelation, for a full justification of what follows. The four horses that ride forth in Revelation 6 each represent the Church in one of her four capacities. Christ is the Rider on each.

The white horse signifies the conquest of the gospel. The bow of the covenant (rainbow) and the crown of rule are associated with it. White is the diamond of Naphtali, whose star-sign is the Virgin. White is also the clear jasper of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21, the virgin bride city.

The red horse signifies the scandal-strife that follows the gospel, when mother is set against daughter and father against son. A sword of division is associated with it. Red is the sardius stone of Reuben and the red jasper of Judah, the kingly tribes.

The black horse has to do with the sacraments: wine, oil, and bread. Black is the onyx stone of Joseph, lord of bread and wine in Genesis 39-50.

Finally, the green horse has to do with judgment. Green is the emerald stone of the Levites, who ministered death to the wicked and life to the righteous.

These four colors readily associate with the four vested objects in the center of the Christian worship setting. White has to do with Baptism, initiation, the conquest of persons. In fact, we usually put a white gown on the infant when baptized, signifying “her” marriage to Christ. Thus, I suggest vesting the in white. I suggest a table with white on white over it, and the bowl placed on top.

Red is the sword, and associated with the Word, I suggest. The Word read and preached is the sword of the King, of the Commander of the Host. Therefore, vest the pulpit in royal scarlet on white.

A deep, glossy black is the color associated with the sacraments, and so vest the table in black over white. We should get over our negative associations with the color black, because the glossy black onyx stone of Joseph is a beautiful color. (Moreover, bread in the ancient world was usually dark, because daily bread was often baked directly on coals.)

Finally, green is the color of Levi, so vest the pastor in green. If the reader finds the association with death in Revelation’s green horse strange, remember that the gospel is death and mortification of sin, and an entrance into martyrdom. Remember that the sword of the Word, wielded by the minister, “divides soul and spirit, joints and marrow” according to Hebrews 4:12, and this language refers to sacrifice. Finally, consider that the slain souls under the altar in the fifth seal are probably those slain by the green horse Rider in the fourth seal: martyrs.

An alternative to this green might be the blue-gray worn by the High Priest over his linen undergarments. The chair might be upholstered in green, and the minister stoled with blue. This would carry forth the idea that the horse (chair) is green, while the rider is the minister.

With these four colors fixed, we can ask about the other four: purple and yellow, orange and blue. I suggest the following. As regards yellow and orange, these colors will be displayed if the baptismal basin and the bread tray on the Table are of gold or bronze. As the laver of cleansing and the bronze sea were of bronze, I suggest bronze for the baptismal basin; thus orange. As the table of facebread was of gold, I suggest gold (or gold surfacing) for the bread-trays; thus yellow. As regards purple, this color will be displayed if the wine on the Table is placed in a crystal decanter. As regards blue, the walls of the Tabernacle were a light blue-gray color (a warp of white linen and a woof of blue-gray wool), and so I suggest a light blue-gray for the base color of the walls of the Church, reminiscent of the sky-canopy around the Church in her bridal house. Since the walls of Tabernacle and Temple were decorated with cherubim and flower-blossoms, the walls and ceiling need not be devoid of other painted representations in other colors.

What about the Church year? There is no indication in the Bible that color schemes varied with the ecclesiastical year of the Old Creation, so I submit that there is no reason to vary them according to whatever Church year is employed.

Creation as Foundation

Now, since this essay is speculative, let me add a further dimension. The four fundamental elements of earth, air, water, and fire correspond to the four states of matter (creation): solid, gas, liquid, and plasma or energy. They are also found in the Bible, by implication, in Genesis 1, the first four days; to wit:

Day 1: water

Day 2: air

Day 3: earth

Day 4: fire

The colors are derivable from this scheme. White clearly goes with water, and black with earth. Since the plants created on Day 3 were only bread and fruit plants, the black earth is the foundation for bread and wine, and a black parament can be seen as the appropriate foundation for the bread and wine on the Table.

Air is not red, but in the chiastic structure of Genesis 1, Day 2 corresponds with Day 6, the day animals and humanity were created. It is the blood of animals and of Jesus Christ that signifies the Kingdom, and thus red can be associated with air. The Word is sounded forth in the air, so the Pulpit can be associated with air and with the color red.

There remains green, which properly would go with the plants made on the second half of Day 3. But here again, there is a theological association between the green plants of Day 3 and the astral bodies of Day 4. The astral bodies are the heavenly rulers, and the plants are the earthly subjects. Both signify the people of God, in two dimensions. Thus, the minister, representing God, is fire, while as representative of the congregation, he is a green plant. Thus, green can be seen as his particular color.

With the green would be the blue-gray of the sky, and of incense smoke, that is characteristic of the Tabernacle, and which can be associated with the fourth day.

We should also note that the order in Genesis 1 is the order of worship:

Day 1: water, baptism, Entrance;

Day 2: air, proclamation, Synaxis;

Day 3: earth, food, Eucharist;

all presided over by the blue-gray of the canopy-pastor, enthroned on the green chair of the congregation as plants.


I have wrestled with the question of color schemes for twenty years, ever since reading the French Reformed liturgist Richard Paquier’s Dynamics of Worship, which makes a bold foray into this topic. Not until I began my study of Revelation, and investigated the four horses in depth, did I feel I had finally uncovered Biblical principles for color in worship. In this essay, I have offered the fruits of my reflections. May these ruminations encourage others to pursue the matter, and either reinforce or correct my suggestions.