Sabbath Reflection for August 8 (’14)
Text: Revelation 8:1-5
Believer or unbeliever, Revelation fascinates. When I was young, bored, and sitting in church—barely a believer if I was one at all—I would open to Revelation. Not only did I actually know where that one was, but also it was so weird. To a young kid who doesn’t care much about God, weird means “interesting.” So, while my father preached (yes, you read that right), I would read the end of the story.
Lions, tigers, bears….this book had it all and more. The fascination with this book has never left me. Thankfully, belief has replaced unbelief; lack of concern with seriousness; a cold heart with one that beats to learn more of the Scriptures, and when it comes to Revelation, it’s still weird. But that’s to be expected in what is called “apocalyptic” literature.
I wear a wedding ring, but I am not married to the ring. It’s a symbol of a deeper reality. Apocalyptic literature in the ancient world painted a picture using fantastic language of what could not be seen. While some ancients may have believed what they wrote was really how it was, generally, this is not the way they thought. There’s no indication John did either. In the same way my ring is a symbol of the deeper reality of my covenant oath to my wife, so John’s symbolic book points us to a deeper reality. In five short verses beginning chapter 8, John sees prayer at the end of the world, both the reality of God’s prayerful people, and the effects their prayer had. We all wonder if our prayers really matter to God. In these verses, John confirms they really do, and in three glorious ways.
First, in 8:3-5, John sees that history itself is filled with prayer: “…He was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints.” All the saints: all of us past, present, and future. Have you ever wondered if God was listening? If you are not united to Christ in faith, he does not hear you (Isaiah 59:1-2). However, in all other cases—despite your nagging sin—he does. Believe it. The picture John sees is of a God who treasures the prayers of his people. Every prayer—whether said with clarity or with groanings, whether from a heart that is convinced it is too vile and ugly for God to like it or from lips that praise God all day long—comes before “Our Father, who art in Heaven.” John sees the future, and the future is filled with our prayer.
Second, John also sees that (at least part of) the last judgment comes as a response to prayer, “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.” The “censer” sits by the altar before the throne of God; our prayers are collected here. Again, this is symbolic. I do not believe there is a giant bowl in Heaven where God stores our prayer. The truth is more glorious: he collects our prayers personally. More on this when we get to the Temple in a bit.
Here, John sees the angel take the censer filled with prayer and pour it upon the earth kick-starting judgment. Perhaps this is one reason Jesus doesn’t tell us to pray for financial health or wealth: he’s got bigger concerns. Instead, he commands us to pray for our bodies and souls to be cared for, and for evil to be kept far from us (Mt 6:5-14), “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts…lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil!” Are your prayers like this? Are your prayers filled with “Thy Kingdom come, Lord Jesus!” or do they sound more like a line from Dr. Phil or Oprah, filled with narcissism and self-esteem epi-shots? History is going to be filled with the prayers of God’s people, and those prayers will bring judgment upon the earth; they ignite God to action. What a beautiful truth, especially for Reformed people who believe in predestination and wonder how their prayers could ever matter! Even more so for Christians around the world being beheaded in Iraq by the terrorists of ISIS, or the persecuted church in China or Pakistan or anywhere else!
Third, John also sees that our prayers are rising freely before God, “…and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel” (Rev 8:4). It is not because of the angel that our prayers rise to God; it is the work of Christ. He is not mentioned in these verses, but he is everywhere in the chapters leading to these verses. The references alone could fill another blog entry. Read the previous 7 chapters; be amazed! Besides the previous fact that our prayers not only fill history but actually move history to its appointed end, we can be encouraged that what we say in faith to God is heard.
In 2 Corinthians 2:14, Paul says it is Christ who leads us in triumphal procession. It is almost the picture of a Temple priest leading a procession, but it is certainly a picture of a conqueror returning in victory. Moreover, Paul says that Jesus is leading us in this procession and “through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.” He continues with a captivating phrase, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved….” We stink to God, apparently. The smell is not our own, it is borrowed. Like everything else in the Christian life, it is borrowed through our union with Christ. We smell like Christ to God.
Do you think God likes you? I once heard Les Newsom ask this question. I admit I had never thought about it in those terms. Paul confronts us with the truth that God does love us, sure (we can all admit that), but more than this, God likes us. We’re good at talking about God loving us. It can be hard to think God likes you. My wife sometimes says, “I love you, but I don’t like you right now.” Well, what about God? Does he? Could he?
The Old Testament Temple had a specific arrangement of furniture. As you entered, you saw the Altar of Burnt Offering. You slaughtered your beast and atoned for your sins through the shedding of blood. Next, you washed and were cleansed in the Basin. Last, and immediately adjacent the Temple veil separating God’s presence from you, was the Altar of Incense. You were never allowed to shed blood upon this altar; it wasn’t needed here. Only incense. And the scent/smoke drifted around the veil into the Holy of Holies. In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul says we are the aroma of Christ. Christ has covered us in his blood, washed us and cleansed us, and now we enter the Holy of Holies with holy love and fear (Heb 10:19-25). The Temple veil has been torn in two (Mt 27:45-56), and now our prayers rise into the presence of God without hindrance.
Prayer and smoke/incense are intimately connected in Scripture (cf. Lk 1:10-12). The symbolism is meant to give us a double picture: the Lord loves the smell (so-to-speak) of our dependent prayer upon him. Second, he loves—even likes—us, and so actually enjoys when our prayers rise (like the smoke) to him. When believers prayed in the Temple, they were to picture their prayers smelling good to God because of their trust in the blood shed for them, and the cleansing God provided, and they were to trust their prayers were rising towards their God. He listened to them.
John says he is the same God with a better priest and a better sacrifice and cleansing for his people. He still listens.
Your prayers matter. Don’t fret the questions about how they can matter when God is sovereign. Maybe there’s an answer, but John points to something deeper. He points to the reality that your prayers matter because they will one day be shown to fill the timeline of history, usher in judgment, and that God really hears what we say when we pray for his kingdom to come.
Encouraged? I am.
“Heavenly Father, increase our heart to pray to you, trusting you. We know how good you are, yet fail to believe it far too often. Thank you for saving us in your perfect Lamb’s sacrifice. We thank you that you like us, love us, and accept our feeble prayers. Allow us deeper faith in you, and come soon in your kingdom. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”