The Prayers of the Saints
Topic: Prayer Passage: Revelation 8:1–5
Let’s do some history trivia for a minute. In the next few seconds, list in your mind some major events that changed the world. What would you list? Alexander the Great conquering the Persian empire? The Pax Romana? Gutenberg inventing the printing press? Without doubt, some of you listed the Protestant Reformation. The French Revolution? Maybe the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand that spawned World War I. Maybe the Wright brothers first flight in 1903. World War II, the US Civil Rights Movement, the birth of the internet, the end of the Cold War, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
On we could go. These are major events that changed the world, that changed the course of history— sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But I wonder if any of us would list the moments you spend in prayer? What if I told you that one of the most world-changing events you can participate in are the moments you spend in prayer? What if I told you that, working through your prayers, God will change the world forever? What if I showed you where God talks about prayer like that? In the first few verses of Revelation 8, we learn that God intends to use your prayers to establish his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Through the prayers of the saints, God will work to end evil and change the world forever.
Let’s see it together from 8:1-5. Listen to God’s word…
1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2 Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. 3 And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. 5 Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake
Last Sunday, we looked at a brief pause between seal number six and seal number seven. God had many words of assurance for his people. They need not worry in tribulation. He has sealed them. He will preserve them through tribulation. He will finally comfort them in his presence. Now we come to the anticipated seventh seal.
Remember that Jesus holds a scroll in his hands. That scroll contains God’s plan to bring history to its climax in the new heavens and new earth. But it’s sealed with seven seals. Only Jesus can break the seals. Only Jesus conquered by laying down his life as a Lamb. So, one by one, Jesus breaks the seals to reveal and enact God’s plan.
The first four seals pictured God’s smaller judgments throughout history. At seal five we heard the prayers of the martyrs beneath the altar. Seal number six came as one answer to their prayers—God will judge the enemies of his people. Now, with seal seven, we expect God to show up. With the last seal broken, the scroll should now open. So, we expect God to reveal his final judgments.
The Seventh Seal and Silence in Heaven
The revelation of those judgments will come. Some of them start in verse 7. However, before God reveals those final judgments, John observes “silence in heaven for about half an hour.” What is this silence about? Why does it come?
God has prepared us for the moment he arrives in judgment, and then we get silence. A few places in the Old Testament develop a similar picture. Habakkuk 2:20 is one of them. It says, “the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” Zephaniah 1:7 is another: “Be silent before the Lord GOD! For the day of the LORD is near…” Zechariah 2:13 is another: “Be silent, all flesh, before the LORD, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.”
In all of these, God is about to judge; and there’s a call for silence. It is a silence filled with reverence and awe before God’s majesty and unstoppable power. Compare it to the awe-filled silence you experience after a thunderclap rattles the walls of your house. In that moment you’re reminded of how small you really are. This silence is the calm before the storm of God’s judgment falls.
That moment of silence, though, also allows something else to happen. It allows the prayers of God’s people to ascend like sweet incense. All heaven pauses in silence before God’s majesty; and in doing so, God depicts the significance of his people’s prayers. God uses this moment of silence to reveal that your prayers play a crucial role in the unfolding drama of redemptive history.
Seven Angels with Seven Trumpets
That’s huge! And there’s more to say about that and what it means for your prayer life. But we first need to discuss these seven angels with seven trumpets. Verse 2, “Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.” Like the seven seals, the seven trumpets bring another seven judgments. That’s what chapters 8-9 are about: four judgments against the natural world, two against rebellious humanity, followed by a seventh that brings us to the end once again.
A few things to note, though. In the Old Testament, trumpet blasts sometimes called people to worship.[i] At other times, they called people to war.[ii] But a few times, trumpets called people to wail in the face of approaching danger. We saw this a few months ago in Joel 2:1, “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming.” That’s how these trumpets will function as well. The nature of their trumpet blasts eventually stands out in verse 13: “Woe, woe, woe, to those who dwell on the earth, at the blasts of the other trumpets…” These trumpets will bring woes and wailing.
Something else to recall is the story of Jericho in Joshua 6. God worked in mercy to save Rahab and her family. She heard of the Lord’s name and put her faith in him. But God also judged others in the city of Jericho for their rebellion. God worked to replace their rebel kingdom with his own kingdom. But, if you remember, part of that plan included seven priests with seven trumpets, marching around the city seven days blowing the trumpets. On the seventh day with the seventh trumpet blast God devoted the city to destruction. He replaced the rebel kingdom with his kingdom.
In Revelation, angels often serve in a priestly manner. What do you think it conveys when seven priest-like angels are handed seven trumpets? It anticipates God replacing all rebel kingdoms with his own kingdom. It anticipates the rebellious city of man crumbling before the kingdom of God. Some will be like Rahab and receive mercy from the Lord. Some will escape by placing their trust in the Lord and his goodness in Christ. But for those who reject God’s ways—they can expect God to destroy them in judgment. The fullness of his judgment will fall at the seventh trumpet.
The Prayers of the Saints
That’s what we can expect when the trumpets begin to sound. For now, these angels hold off, though. They observe the silence; and in that silence we see the importance of your prayers, the prayers of the saints.
In verse 3, another angel enters the picture. He too serves in a priest-like role in God’s heavenly temple. He stands before the altar, which is the same altar we saw in 6:9. Remember that? John saw “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God.” They gave their lives as a sacrifice to serve the gospel’s advance. We also heard them praying: “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev 6:10).
This angel comes and stands before that same altar with a golden censer. In the Old Testament a censer was used to burn incense before the Lord. So also here: the angel receives “much incense,” it says, “to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne…” Why “much incense”? Because it’s the prayers of all the saints. The martyrs under the altar represent the prayers of some of the saints. But as we saw in 7:9, God has an innumerable multitude from all nations and tribes and peoples and languages. Their prayers—your prayers—belong to this heavenly vision.
The angel gets much incense to offer with the prayers because they are many. Verse 4 says that “the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.” What’s the picture? The picture is that your prayers ascend before God as a holy act of worship. Your prayers ascend before God like a pleasing aroma. Your prayers do not hit a ceiling, so to speak. Every prayer offered in faith comes before the very throne of God. Do you think of your prayers that way?
The idea isn’t foreign to the Old Testament. In Psalm 141, David lays before the Lord his own sinful tendencies—the way he speaks, the way he’s tempted by the delicacies of the wicked. David also asks the Lord to judge his enemies, those who are trying to thwart God’s purpose in him. You’ve likely prayed things like this. But listen to the way David describes those prayers: “O LORD, I call upon you; hasten to me! Give ear to my voice when I call to you! Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!”
When the saints pray, it rises like sweet incense before the Lord. But that’s not all. Notice what the prayers accomplish in verse 5: “Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.” What’s going on?
One clue is Ezekiel 10:2. There we find another vision of an angel scattering burning coals over the city as a sign of God’s judgment. By throwing fire from the altar on the earth, John is seeing a vision of God’s coming judgment.
Another clue is that this picture of thunder, rumblings, lightning, and an earthquake also appears at the seventh trumpet and the seventh bowl. And the context in both places expand on what’s happening. 11:15 gets very specific: at the seventh trumpet, the voices in heaven declare, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ…” Meaning, the thunder, rumblings, lightning, and earthquake are associated with God showing up to establish his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
What does that mean for verse 5, then? It means this: through the prayers of the saints, God establishes his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Why else did Jesus ask us to pray that way: “Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Let your kingdom come. Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Not only do your prayers rise before God like incense; they become the very means God uses to finish his will on earth.
God Working through Your Prayers
Do you view prayer this way? John’s vision must shape the way we view our prayers. Prayer is God’s ordained means to accomplish his will on earth, including his judgment of evildoers. Your prayers serve an awesome place in God’s purpose.
God isn’t dependent on your prayers. But he inspires prayer to advance his purpose. Prayer is how God chooses to work out his purposes through our expressed dependence on him. The future state will finally come on earth through the prayers of God’s people. Does that astonish you?
We don’t deserve such a privilege like prayer. Once we were cut off and estranged from God. Our sins made a separation between us and God. But now, through the redeeming work of the Lamb, we have free access to the throne of grace. Through Jesus’ blood, you get the Spirit of adoption who cries Abba! from within. Through Jesus’ blood, God grants you the privilege of prayer, of interacting with your Father as he makes his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. If you belong to the Lamb, your prayers rise like incense before the Lord, and they will serve to bring God’s kingdom on earth.
In a few minutes, I want us to pray together. We’ll break up in clusters of three to five, and we’re going to let our prayers rise to the Lord like sweet incense. Before doing so, though, let me leave you with a few takeaways.
One, prayer is necessary to your perseverance in tribulation. Think of the bigger picture. The seven seals have painted a picture of tribulation. Conflict, bloodshed, economic hardship, death, persecution as the gospel advances. Nevertheless, we need not lose heart. Jesus reigns. He’s in control. He will keep us through it all—that was chapter 7. But what do we find before, during, and after tribulation? Prayer.
In 5:8, as the heavenly hosts worship the Lamb, John sees the golden bowls of incense which contain the prayers of the saints. Then, during tribulation, we hear the prayers of the saints under the altar. Then, at the end of tribulation, their prayers are finally answered as the Lord’s kingdom comes. What do I take away from that? Prayer saturates the lives of God’s people throughout tribulation. When we walked through the book of Acts together, how often we saw the saints devoting themselves to prayer. A while back, Ben took us through a bazillion texts on the importance of prayer. Hebrews talked about our access to the throne of grace in time of need; and—you won’t be surprised—tribulation is a time of need! Great need! This may be another opportunity to think about your patterns of prayer and consider seeking the Lord more earnestly.
Two, bring your deepest hurts and longings to the Lord. Remember the prayers of the martyrs in 6:10. “How long, O Lord, before you avenge our blood!” There is deep hurt in that prayer. We don’t have to guess what happened to some of them. We were already told in 2:13 what they did to Antipas—those belonging to the kingdom of the Beast murdered him. We don’t have to guess what’s behind the prayers of the saints throughout history who cry, “How long, O Lord?” We read about it in Scripture and we ourselves experience it: wicked rulers prospering, the most vulnerable murdered, the truth traded for lies, the poor oppressed, brothers and sisters abused. Whatever deep hurts persist, bring them to the Lord. They have a place before his throne.
Same with our deepest longings. Do you want the New Jerusalem? Greg and Diane’s daughter had a major surgery. Dale had another CT scan. I long for the day of no more crying and no more pain. From time to time, my daughter will share how this world is a scary place sometimes. I long for the day when, as Zechariah says, children will play in the streets without fear. I long for the day when there’s no more Goodbyes. Turn these longings into prayers for God’s kingdom to come on earth.
Finally, rest assured that, in Christ, the Lord hears your prayers. Even if there’s a delayed answer, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t heard them. In 6:11, God hears the prayers of the martyrs. But the full answer will not come for them until the Day of judgment. So also with us: some of our prayers will not be answered fully until God returns to make the world right. But the delay doesn’t mean he’s ignoring our prayers.
This vision pictures our prayers rising before the Lord like incense. This vision pictures our prayers stored in censers for a special purpose. This vision shows God moving angels to do mighty things with your prayers. That should give us confidence to keep praying. I don’t know about you, but I need a vision like this.
I was telling my care-group guys about this a while back—there are days when I’m just discouraged in my praying. I get to points where I feel like I’m just talking to a ceiling: “Come on, Lord! I’m crying to you, but I don’t see anything happening!” Then other thoughts settle in like, “What’s the point? It’s not like it’ll make a difference. Maybe there’s a better use of my time.” Wrong! I need this vision. We need this vision.
We need to see that God will use your prayers to change the world forever. Again, he doesn’t need our prayers to change the world. It’s also good to clarify that God’s work in Christ is the ultimate reason the world will change. The point here is that God chooses to include you and me in his changing of the world through Christ. Every prayer you make in faith through Christ—God has a purpose for that prayer. God has a design for that prayer in his plans, along with millions more. He means for all of them to work toward the consummation of his kingdom on earth.
So don’t lose heart in prayer. As our Lord once asked his disciples, “Will not God give justice for his elect, who cry to him day and night?” God will act, beloved.
On that note, let’s pray together as a church. I’d like us to break into groups of four or five, and pray together for the next ten minutes or so. Toward the end of your worship guide, you will notice a short prayer guide. It has a few Scriptures to help you pray. And as you pray, consider how those prayers ascend to the Lord like sweet incense.
If you’re not a Christian, don’t feel pressure to participate. If you’re a member of Redeemer, spend this time welcoming and talking with our non-Christian friends about questions they may have, and point them to the risen Christ, who secures our access to God. Trey will then lead us in the Lord’s Supper.
[i] E.g., Lev 23:24; 25:9; Num 10:10.
[ii] E.g., Num 10:9; 31:6; Josh 6:5.