Worship is not us performing for God, but a reenactment of God’s work for us. Everything about the eternal worship into which Isaiah and John enter is initiated by God, provided for by God, and shaped by his covenant relationship with his people. God is the primary actor. All of the actions of the worshipers are in response to God’s work and actually a reenactment of God’s covenantal work.
One of the oldest hymns still sung today is what has come to be called the Gloria Patri: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”
This ancient hymn captures three eras of worship: as it was in the beginning—the worship of Old Testament Israel, as it is now—the worship of New Testament Christianity, and worship in the world without end—the worship of heaven. In one sense separating worship into these three eras emphasizes their discontinuity; yet while there are certainly discontinuities between the worship of Israel and the NT church, for example, there are also important continuities, and where we find an emphasis on the continuity is in that little phrase, “and ever shall be.”
Yet Christians have long wrestled with the continuities and discontinuities of worship, and confusion in this area has often led to problems with theology and practice of worship. The solution is found in our focus in this essay: worship in the world without end. Understanding properly how worship as it was in the beginning and worship as it is now relate to worship in the world without end helps us to recognize what shall ever be, the center of true worship and, consequently, the purpose of what we do as we gather for worship now.
Scripture presents us with two extended descriptions of the worship of the world without end that provide the foundation for our discussion, notably one set in the context of worship in the Old Testament and the other set in the context of worship in the New Testament. In both cases, these descriptions of heavenly worship were presented during a time of problems with earthly worship, revealing the fact that problems with our worship now are corrected when we bring our worship into proper relationship with the worship of the world without end.
This was true for the nation of Israel; during Solomon’s reign and especially following the divided kingdom, God’s people forsook the pure worship of God and began first to fall into syncretistic worship, and eventually full blow idolatry. Even noble kings in the southern kingdom, such as Uzziah, approached worship presumptuously and not according to God’s explicit command by entering into the sanctuary though he had no right to do so.
It is no coincidence that the death of Uzziah is the very context for the prophet Isaiah’s vision of heavenly worship in Isaiah 6. In a way, this was God reminding Isaiah of the true reality upon which pure earthly worship was supposed to be based. God called Isaiah up into the heavenly temple itself, where he “saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (v. 1). Surrounding God were seraphim singing the Trisagion hymn (“thrice holy”),
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
The whole earth is full of his glory!
The sight of God in all of his holiness and splendor caused Isaiah to recognize his own sin and unworthiness to draw near to the presence of God in his temple, what Uzziah should have known before entering the earthly temple as he did. Thus, Isaiah confessed his sin before the Lord: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (v. 5)!
Yet God did not simply expel Isaiah from the temple due to his impurity; rather, God provided means of atonement. One of the seraphim took a burning coal from the altar and placed it on Isaiah’s lips, proclaiming, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”