One of the dangers we face, when describing the blessings of the life to come, is the danger of losing sight of what is central to every aspect of that life-the worship and service of the Triune God. The blessings enjoyed by the children of God in the new heavens and earth have their meaning only within the context of the worship and praise of God. True life for the child of God is first and foremost a life of worship. So it will be in the life to come.
One prominent way in which this is emphasized throughout the Scriptures is the promise of a Sabbath rest for the people of God. At the conclusion of His work of creation, God Himself rested from His creative labors and entered into the enjoyment of His handiwork (Gen. 2:2–3). That rest was not a state of inactivity but of active pleasure in the work of His hands and in the communion with His image-bearers with whom He covenanted. For their part, Adam and Eve were placed in a circumstance of peace and joy in fellowship with their God and with each other. All was in a state of peaceful harmony or shalom. The life of the covenant between God and humankind was to be a life of heartfelt service and praise. The dominion which Adam and Eve were to exercise over the creation, under God and in His service, was to be a life of worship, an unending and full-orbed offering of themselves in loving obedience to their Creator and Friend, the living.
Sin, however, radically broke these bonds of fellowship between God and His people. Rather than the whole creation being a temple in which God dwelt in harmony with His covenant children, it became a place of brokenness and disharmony. The Sabbath rest of God and the shalom of His people were disrupted. Human kind’s labor became a toilsome burden. The care over the creation assigned to God’s imagebearers degenerated into a state of sinful misuse and cultural development in the service of the creature rather than the Creator. Heaven and earth no longer sang in harmony to the praise of the Triune God.
Within this context, the Triune God’s work of redemption promised the restoration of fellowship between God and His covenant people. This restoration promised a renewal of rest and shalom in the relations between God and His people, and between His people and the creation under their care. The ordinance of the Sabbath among the people of Israel was a sign of this renewed fellowship and service. The rest promised Israel in the land that the Lord gave to her was only a prefigurement of that eternal rest that awaited her at the consummation of God’s saving purposes in Christ. Canaan was a type of the true promised land, the new heavens and earth wherein righteousness dwells. The writer of Hebrews emphasizes this theme throughout his epistle. Israel, though promised rest, never entered fully into the promise (Heb. 3:11,18). Joshua, an Old Testament type of the Savior, Jesus, was unable to bring God’s people into the rest promised her. “There remains therefore a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest, Jesus Christ, the Mediator of the new covenant, has Himself also rested from His works, as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall through following the same example of [Israel’s] disobedience” (Heb. 4:9–11 ).1 The peace, joy and rest that God’s Old Testament people enjoyed in their Sabbath day worship and festivals were only a foretaste of what God’s New Testament people enjoy in their Lord’s Day worship. However, even the Lord’s Day, in which the people of God gather for worship and praise, resting in the finished work of the crucified and risen Savior, remains a promissory note or pledge of the Sabbath rest that still awaits them. The worship of the Lord’s Day is but a foretaste of the eternal Sabbath yet to come, an emblem of eternal rest.
Though this is a mere sketch of this theme in the Scriptures, it serves as a reminder of what will characterize the life to come. That life will be one wholly devoted to the worship and service of God, an unending Sabbath of peaceful rest and joyful praise. The disruption and brokenness in the relationship between God and His people will be ended. All toil and burdensome labor will give way to peaceful fellowship with God and His people. The life of God’s people will be one of unending, glad-hearted worship. In the book of Revelation, the visions of the life of the redeemed people of God are full of the imagery of worship and praise. What the prophet Isaiah glimpsed in a vision of the Lord seated upon His throne, surrounded by the seraphim and the host of heaven who unceasingly declare His holiness, john witnessed again and again in his visions of heaven. In Revelation 4, he describes the throne of God in heaven as surrounded by twenty-four elders and the four living creatures. Representing the whole company of the people of God and every living creature, this heavenly assembly falls down before God in worship, saying: “Worthy art Thou, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for Thou didst create all things, and because of Thy will they existed, and were created” (v. 11). An equally vivid picture of the worship of God is given in Revelation 19: “And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude and as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty peals of thunder, saying, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready’” (vv. 6–7). When the new Jerusalem descends from heaven to earth, the whole creation will become a dwelling place for God in fellowship with His people. There will be no temple there, for the Lord God Himself and the Lamb will be in the midst of the people (Rev. 22:22). The sanctuary in which God dwells and in which He is served and worshiped will be the new heavens and earth. There is real danger of falling into speculation regarding the nature of this creation-temple worship that will characterize the life of the redeemed in the new heavens and earth. However, this worship will include the two facets that characterize the worship of God among the people of God already now. In the Scriptures, the worship of God includes not only the worship of the culture but also the worship of the whole of life. God’s people assemble at specific times and places for official worship. They gather on the Sabbath or the Lord’s day for the purpose of entering the sanctuary of God’s presence, to offer corporate sacrifice of thanksgiving to Him. Such worship includes elements like singing His praise, offering thank offerings, prayer, the reading and hearing of His Word. In obedience to God’s command and in gratitude for His saving work, God’s people come together in worship to acknowledge the Triune God’s worthiness to receive the thankful praise of all creation.
However, this does not exhaust the worship or service of the people of God. In the two tables of the law, commanding love for God and for neighbor, the life of God’s people is described as a life of worship. As a royal priesthood in union with Christ, the people of God respond to God’s mercy and grace by offering their selves wholly to God (Rom. 12:1). No legitimate activity of life—whether in marriage, family, business, play, friendship, education and politics can escape the claims of Christ’s kingship. In fellowship with Christ, the second Adam and obedient servant of the Lord, the redeemed of God are renewed unto the service of their Creator in every area of life. Though we are not told in the Scriptures the details of what life as worship in the new creation will mean, certainly those who live and reign with Christ forever will find that the diversity and complexity of their worship of God will be no less, but more rich, in the life to come. Every legitimate activity of (new) creaturely life will be included within the life of worship of God’s people.
This answers in part a frequent puzzlement regarding the life to come. In the form of a question, the puzzlement is this: will the people of God not become weary, perhaps even bored, in a life that has no end. It is difficult to imagine a life of worship, whether in the narrow or broad sense, that never concludes but ceaselessly continues. In a creation that has no night (Rev. 22:25) and God is perpetually praised, will not God’s people find the ways and means to serve God ultimately limited and eventually so familiar as to become contemptible?
Admittedly, this question, though sometimes asked, is difficult to answer. We lack the imagination necessary to grasp with any adequacy the richness and splendor of the life to come. There is so much we do not know about the worship of God’s people in the new creation. However, if the Sabbath rest of God’s people in the new creation, far from being an inactive and listless passing of time, is full activity in the worship of God, we have the beginning of an answer to this puzzle. In our present experience, we know what it is for time to pass with painful slowness. No parent traveling a distance with children on vacation is unaware of the common lament, “Are we there yet?” Sometimes time seems to come to a halt, and the movement of the clock seems imperceptible. On the other hand, who has not known the experience of the rapid passage of time? When we are engaged in an activity that exhilirates, time seems, as we say, “to fly by.” We almost lose track of its passing altogether. If we allow our imaginations some freedom, what child of God cannot imagine something of what it will be in the life to come to glorify God and enjoy Him forever? No child of God who has experienced something of the joy unspeakable and full of glory that comes with knowing Christ and worshiping God, fears that the life to come will end in boredom or tiresome repetition. Though the language is poetic and somewhat general, the hymn-writer expressed it well—“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, we’ve no less days to sing His praise.” The inexhaustible glory and splendor of their God will be more than enough to fuel the praise of God’s people in the life to come.2
A RICH INHERITANCE
Consistent with our argument that the life of the redeemed in the new creation will be rich and diverse, one of the descriptions in the book of Revelation speaks of the rich inheritance that awaits God’s people. In Revelation 21, John’s vision of the new heaven and earth includes a vision of the nations walking together by the light that is the Lamb. The nations will walk together and, the vision adds, “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (v. 24). According to this vision, the new creation will be enriched by the presence of all the nations and the reception of the glory of the kings of the peoples. The rich diversity of peoples, together with the works and accomplishments of those who have been among the leaders of the nations, will contribute significantly to the glory and splendor of the new heaven and earth.
Since the language of this vision does not elaborate upon the meaning of this inheritance of God’s people, we are left to surmise what it might mean. It has been suggested plausibly that this language means that the new creation will receive all of the appropriate fruits of human culture and development that have been produced throughout the course of history. Every legitimate and excellent fruit of human culture will be carried into and contribute to the splendor of life in the new creation. Rather than the new creation being a kind of radically new beginning, in which the excellent and noble products of humankind’s fulfillment of the cultural mandate are wholly discarded—the new creation will benefit from, and be immensely enriched by, its receiving of these fruits of human cultural development. Far from being an empty and desolate place, the new creation will be supplied with the sanctified fruits of human culture. Nothing of the diversity of the nations and peoples, their cultural products, languages, arts, sciences, literature, and technology—so far as these are good and excellent will be lost upon life in the new creation. Life in the new creation will not be a kind a “starting over,” but a perfected continuation of the new humanity’s stewardship of all of life in the service of God.
Though some have argued that this reading of John’s vision is speculative and unwarranted,3 the language of Revelation 21:24 can hardly be read in any other way.4 Furthermore, the alternative-denying that life in the new creation will be enriched by the presence of these fruits of human culture—seems unlikely and problematic. Life in the new creation is not a simple representation of all things—a simple going back to the way things were at the beginning. Rather, life in the new creation will be a restoration of all things involving the removal of every sinful impurity and the retaining of all that is holy and good.5 Were the new creation to exclude the diversity of the nations and the glory of the kings of the earth, it would be impoverished rather than enriched. The new creation would be historically regressive and reactionary, rather than progressive. To express the point more concretely, were the music of Bach and Beethoven, the painting of Rembrandt, the writing of Shakespeare, the discoveries of science, altogether lost, would not life in the new creation be the, poorer for it?
According to the language of the Scriptures, life in the new creation i will be rich in every way, in blessings, in worship, in service, and in a rich inheritance. Though we can only imaginatively contemplate what all of this will mean, one thing is sure: the life to come will be far more complex and diverse than has often been thought.
1 For a summary of the biblical typology of the land of Canaan and the new earth, see Patrick Fairbarn, Typology of Scripture (1845–47) New York Funk and Wagnals, 1900), I:329–61
2 I am assuming here that time as a I succession of moments will continue to characterize the life of God’s creatures in the new creation. Only God is by nature eternal, transcending the limitations of created time. Though in popular piety some Christians have the strange (and unorthodox) idea that “time will be no more” in the final state, this would be a serious denial of the difference between God as Creator and the creation. For a recent discussion of this issue, see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 172–3, 1162.
3 E.g. Schilder, Christ and Culture.
4 For examples of interpreters who read the passage in this way, see: G. B. Caird, A Commentery on the Revelation of St. John the Divine, (Harper’s New Testament Commentanes; 1; New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 280; A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 285–6; Hendrikus Berkhof, Christ the Meaning of History, 188–92; A. Kuyper, De Gemeene Gratie (Amsterdam: Hover & Wormser, 1902), 1:454–94; and Al Wolters, Creation Regained (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 57–71. H. Berkhof (p. 191) translates the following representative quote from Kuyper (De Gemeene Gratie I): “If an endless field of human knowledge and of human ability is now being formed by all that takes place in order to make the visible world and material nature subject to us, and if we know that this dominion of ours over nature will be complete in eternity, we may conclude that the knowledge and dominion we have gained over nature here can and will be of continued significance, even in the kingdom of glory.”
5 See Al Wolters, Creation Regained, 63, to whom I am indebted for this language.
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.