New Horizons

The Heavenly Pattern of Worship

Peter J. Wallace

Most discussions of worship today focus on style: contemporary or traditional? But while the church has been fighting over worship style, she seems to have forgotten what worship is all about. As our theology of worship has disappeared, it is perhaps not surprising that our practice of worship has become so fragmented.

The theology of worship is perhaps best expressed in the practice of worship. So let us consider the practice of Christian worship from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem.

Worship in the Old Testament

Worship in Eden was simple. Adam and Eve heard the word of God, responded with faith and obedience, and partook of the tree of life. At least, that was the way it was supposed to be. But instead, they listened to the serpent and partook of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The first corporate worship detailed in the Scriptures was that of the assembly of Israel at Mt. Sinai. Exodus 19–23 recounts the establishment of the covenant between God and his people, and chapter 24 describes the worship service in which Israel ratified the covenant. The basic pattern is very simple:

  1. Israel offers burnt offerings and peace offerings (Ex. 24:4–6).
  2. Moses reads the Book of the Covenant to the people (24:7a).
  3. The people respond in faith and obedience (24:7b–8).
  4. Israel (through its representatives) partakes of the peace offerings with God (24:9–11).

Every worship service in Scripture fits this basic pattern. The one that is presented in greatest detail is the service at the dedication of the temple in 2 Chronicles 5–7. It follows the same pattern as the one in Exodus 24:

  1. Solomon assembles Israel for worship (2 Chron. 5:2–5).
  2. Sin is dealt with through burnt offerings (5:6).
  3. Israel enters God's presence through the priests (5:7–10).
  4. A psalm of praise is sung (5:11–14).
  5. The word of God is proclaimed by Solomon (6:1–11).
  6. Solomon's prays a prayer of intercession (6:12–42).
  7. Fire consumes the sacrifices; glory fills the temple (7:1–2).
  8. A psalm of praise is sung (7:3).
  9. Israel partakes of the peace offerings (7:4–9).
  10. Israel departs in peace (7:10).

The Old Testament pattern of worship has a clear theological shape: (1) The people of God enter into his presence, but only after sin has been removed. (2) The word of God is proclaimed, reminding his people of what he has done for their redemption and calling upon them to live as his people. (3) God's people respond to his word with faith and obedience, asking him to continue to do what he has promised. (4) In a covenant meal, the people of God partake of the benefits of the sacrifice, and then go forth in peace.

The pattern of Old Testament worship is important for us today. Moses was instructed to build the tabernacle according to the pattern that he saw on the mountain (Heb. 8:5; Ex. 25:40). The fulfillment of this pattern is found in Christ (Heb. 7–10). Christian worship, then, participates in the glorious, heavenly pattern that Moses saw and followed. But where do we see that heavenly worship?

Worship in the New Testament

Some have argued that New Testament worship followed the pattern of the synagogue, but this misconstrues the purpose of the synagogue. Before the temple was destroyed in a.d. 70, the synagogue was not considered a place of worship, since worship required a sacrifice. Synagogues were Sabbath schools, designed to prepare people for temple worship.

Jesus and the apostles regularly visited both the temple and the synagogue, but never spoke of the synagogue as "worship." In John 4, when the Samaritan woman at the well asks whether she should worship at Mt. Gerizim or in Jerusalem, Jesus does not reply, "You may worship at any synagogue you like!" He states that, prior to his coming, there was only one place for true worship—at Jerusalem ("Salvation is from the Jews")—but his coming changes all that (John 4:21–23).

The apostles describe the church as the true temple (1 Cor. 3:16–17; 1 Pet. 2:5) and utilize the language of the Old Testament peace offerings in the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 10:18; Heb. 13:10). The preaching and the prayers of the synagogue seem to have influenced apostolic worship, but the book that speaks most about worship in the New Testament (Revelation) lays it out in the pattern of a temple worship service.

John's vision follows the same pattern that we have seen from Moses and Solomon:

1. Assembling for Worship (Rev. 4:1–11): The heavenly hosts worship God as they assemble to praise him. The echo of 2 Chronicles 5:2–5 is quite strong as the expanding circles of persons extend from the king's closest advisors to the entire assembly of the people of God.

2. The Sin Offering (Rev. 5:1–7): John weeps because no one is worthy to open the scroll. The scroll contains the purposes of God for history. Redemptive history can continue only through a sacrifice. Only the Lamb of God who was slain is worthy to proclaim the purposes of God for his people.

3. Entering God's Presence (Rev. 5:8): The people of God now come before him through their representatives, the twenty-four elders.

4. Psalm of Praise (Rev. 5:9–14): The people of God declare the praises of the Lamb for the great redemption that he has wrought.

The next four items—

5. Reading the Word of God and Preaching It,

6. The Prayer of the Covenant Community,

7. Fire Consuming the Sacrifices and Glory Filling the Temple, and

8. The Psalm of Praise

repeat themselves five times. The same order may be observed in each pattern of "sevens" in the book of Revelation:

(a) Rev. 6:1–8:5— The seven seals proclaim the word of God (concluding with the praises and prayers of the saints and fire from the heavenly altar).

(b) Rev. 8:6–11:19—The seven trumpets proclaim the word of God (concluding with the prayers of the saints and lightning and thunder from the heavenly temple).

(c) Rev. 12:1–15:8—The seven signs proclaim the word of God (concluding with the song of Moses and of the Lamb and the glory of the Lord filling the heavenly temple).

(d) Rev. 16:1–21—The seven bowls proclaim the word of God (concluding with fire from heaven; the people are silent because no one can enter the heavenly temple).

(e) Rev. 17:1–19:5—The fall of Babylon proclaims the word of God (concluding with the praises of the saints).

9. The Peace Offering (Rev. 19:6–10, 17–21): Invitations are issued to the two suppers: the wedding supper of the Lamb (for the saints) and "the great supper of God" (for the vultures). One is a supper of blessing; the other is a supper of cursing (remember the two meals/trees in Eden).

10. Benediction (Rev. 20, 21–22): The devil and those who follow him are cursed, while Christ's people are blessed.

In other words, the book of Revelation portrays us as living in the midst of heavenly worship. The heavenly worship service began when Jesus (our great High Priest) entered the Holy of Holies, and it will not end until the final judgment, when we will enter the blessedness of eternal life in Christ. In a very real sense, we live in the middle of God's sermon—as he proclaims his purposes for history.

Our Worship Today

Our worship each Lord's Day partakes of this heavenly worship. In our worship, we come into the presence of God through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (just try coming to God apart from Jesus!). As we hear the Word read and preached, we are reminded of how God has been faithful to his promises, and we are called to persevere in faith until the end. Our prayers ascend as sweet incense to the heavenly throne as we ask God to continue to be faithful to his promises. He answers us by sending fire on the earth—namely, the Holy Spirit, who brings blessing to his people and judgment to his enemies through the prayers of the saints. We partake of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the Lord's Supper, the covenant meal that fulfills all the peace offerings of the Old Testament. And our worship concludes with God's blessing—God's promise that he will send us forth with his peace.

We then may go back into the world for the next week, remembering that even as we live in the midst of this crooked and perverse generation, our true identity is in the heavenly Jerusalem. All of life is an act of worship because all of history participates in the heavenly worship.

Postscript

I did not invent this pattern of worship. You can actually find the same basic pattern reflected in almost every liturgy of the Christian church from the second century through the seventeenth century. It is especially clear in the Reformed and Lutheran churches, which utilized this pattern in their reformation of worship (see Bard Thompson's Liturgies of the Western Church).

It is my observation that where this pattern of worship is found, the debates about "style" become muted. When our pattern of worship is conformed to the heavenly pattern, the result is that our lives are conformed to the heavenly pattern as we lift up our hearts to the Lord.

The author, an OP minister, pastors a PCA church in Granger, Ind. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2007.

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