Foundations of Biblical Worship

The similarities of heavenly worship between Isaiah’s vision and John’s vision reveal that this is eternal worship, the reality of heavenly worship as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. The heavenly worship of John’s vision, coming as it does after the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, does elevate the Lamb who was slain in a way absent in Isaiah’s vision, but nevertheless even the atonement provided Isaiah was based upon the sinless Servant who was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. The core and essence of heavenly worship in both cases is the same.

“Glory 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 New Testament 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 a proper understanding of the foundations of biblical worship.

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.

Isaiah 6

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 6:1–13. 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” (verse 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” (verse 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 goal 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.” Now Isaiah was welcome in the presence of God by the means God himself had provided.

Standing accepted in God’s presence, Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord giving him a message, to which Isaiah willingly offered obedience, and God sent Isaiah forth with that message of both exhortation and promised blessing to the nation of Israel. Later, Isaiah’s message to the people of Israel reveals that if they submit to God’s exhortation and commit themselves to him, then “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all people’s a rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined” (Isaiah 25:6). God displays his acceptance of forgiven sinners through a celebratory feast.

This reality of heavenly worship contained a theological pattern that should have provided a corrective for the syncretistic and idolatrous worship of God’s people:

God reveals himself and calls his people to worship
God’s people acknowledge and confess their need for forgiveness
God provides atonement
God speaks his Word
God’s people respond with commitment
God hosts a celebratory feast

Isaiah’s vision and message from God were supposed to correct the idolatrous worship of his people, but, of course, the hard-hearted people did not listen, and thus they never experienced the full blessings God had promised to them if they repented.


In the book of Revelation, God granted the apostle John a similar glimpse into the temple of heaven. As with Isaiah during the reign of King Uzziah, it is no accident that this vision of heavenly worship came at a time when worship on earth was in chaos; even a noble church like the one in Ephesus had lost its first love, and many Christians like those in Laodicea had become lukewarm.

In John’s vision, like Isaiah’s vision, heavenly worship contains a theological pattern that should inform and correct earthly Christian worship. It begins with a Call to Worship: “Come up here” (chapter 4 verse 1), followed by a vision of God himself and angels singing the Trisagion hymn (verse 8) and hymns of praise for creation (verse 11).

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