Heavenly Worship and Prayer
Something amazing happens in Revelation 8. Actually, something amazing happens in every chapter of Revelation, but this one is really good! It appears as if John is describing a heavenly worship service which is similar to an Old Testament sacrifice. It’s been said by some biblical commentators that it would take about a half an hour for the priest to enter the temple, offer incense, and return. The sacrificial service has been described by Alfred Edersheim, a converted Jewish scholar of the nineteenth century. The priest would ascend the steps to the Holy Place, and one of his assistants would spread the coals on the golden altar. The other assistant would arrange the incense, and then the chief officiating priest would be left alone in the Holy Place, waiting for the signal from the president to burn the incense. When the president gave the command, the incense would be burned and all of the people would fall down before the Lord and spread their hands in silent prayer.
This sounds remarkably like the worship service described in Revelation 8! What we are seeing, it looks like, is the true heavenly worship of which the Old Testament worship was a copy (see the book of Hebrews). Just as Revelation seems to be speaking about the destruction of the Old Covenant and old heaven and earth, the earthly worship of the Old Testament, with its insufficient sacrifices, gives way to the heavenly worship of the New Covenant, with its perfect Sacrifice, perfect Priest, and perfect Temple.
All of this is worth meditating on further. But the really amazing thing about Revelation 8 is what it teaches us about prayer. We know from Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4 that the burning of the incense is related to the prayers of the saints. “Let my prayer be set forth in thy sight as the incense; and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice” (Psalm 141:2).
In Revelation 8, the incense of the angel is joined to the prayers of the human saints: heaven and earth are united. Together, the incense and the prayers are offered upon the golden altar which was before the throne and ascends to God Almighty. This is a powerful picture of our prayers. Although it may often seem as if your prayers are like a balloon that rises but gets trapped by the ceiling in your room, the truth is that the prayers of the faithful ascend into heaven, where they are heard.
Just in case weren’t not sure about this, we have a High Priest, Jesus Christ the Righteous, who serves at the altar day and night, petitioning the Father on our behalf, pleading His Body and Blood that we might be acceptable. We also have the Holy Spirit who interprets our dumb numb mumblings of tongue and presents them before the Father. And, it seems from this passage, we may have angels helping our prayers as well.
I find this tremendously encouraging, because I don’t always find it easy to pray. But being assured that my prayers ascend up God’s holy hill and actually make it to Him is an enormous encouragement to me today.
It gets better. In verse 5, when the angel takes the censer, filled with the prayers of the saints, and fills it with fire from the altar and throws it to earth, something amazing happens: there are noises, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake! And these are not just random phenomenon: we’ve seen them before. Where? Exodus 19, for one. When the children of Israel came to Mount Sinai after the Exodus, God made His covenant with them, that if they obeyed His commandments they would be His special treasure above all people, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (It was precisely because they broke this Covenant that Israel was often judged throughout the Old Testament and then finally in the first century).
On the third day, after the people had sanctified themselves, there were thundering and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain, and the sound of the trumpet was very loud. When God came down to man at Mount Sinai, He came with His Glory Cloud, which is manifested throughout the Bible as thunders, lightnings, trumpets blowing, earthquakes, and the voice of many waters. It is from the throne of God Himself that the lightnings, thunderings, and voices emanate (Revelation 4:5).
The noises, thunderings, lightnings, and earthquake of verse 5 seem to be the direct result of the prayers of the saints in verses 3 and 4. Those noises, thunderings, lightnings, and earthquake of verse 5 are the glory of God Himself, and He seems to be stirred up by the prayers of the saints. In this case, God seems to respond in judgment to the prayers of His saints, for the trumpets herald a judgment on the earth.
But if the prayers of God’s people are capable of playing a part in God’s judgment of Israel and the earth, then might it not also be the case that the prayers of God’s people might play a part in doing God’s will in other ways? The fact is that God responds to the prayers of His people. That is one of the most astounding facts in the universe: God responds to the prayers of His people!
None of us are in a position to determine how God will respond or when. But that isn’t our job. Our job is simply to pray. Like the angels and saints in heaven, we should praise and glorify God for His power and glory and love. We should thank Him because He has offered Himself to us through His Son in the New Covenant. We should consecrate ourselves by confessing our sins before Him, pleading the Body and Blood of Christ that we may be washed and equipped to wear the white robes of heaven. And we should make our requests known to God, that the peace of God which passes all understanding might guard our hearts and minds through Jesus Christ.
If you’ve been struggling with prayer lately, then here’s a new motivation for you. Consider how in Revelation 8, the One on the throne responds to the prayers of the saints. Consider how prayer lifts us up to heaven and joins heaven and earth together in doing God’s holy will. Don’t look at the things of the earth, which might distract you from prayer, but look instead to heaven, which is the destination of your prayers.
Prayer: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
Points for Meditation:
- The next time you are in a corporate worship service, remember that you are joining with heavenly worship.
- See your prayers today as a sweet-smelling sacrifice to God
Resolution: I resolve to pray today with renewed energy and wonder.
The Throne in Heaven by David Miles – Used by permission of the artist