Note: This article is part of a series.
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. (Revelation 8:5, ESV)
The book of Revelation communicates God’s truth to us via pictures. The pictures are drawn from the symbolism of the Old Testament. The symbols had meaning to the original recipients in the first century. Because they communicate timeless truths, the symbols also have meaning to believers living in our world today.
Revelation gives us many significant images of the church. In Revelation 8, we see the church as the praying assembly of God’s people, whose prayers have a dramatic impact on what is happening on earth. When we look at the chaos and division in our world today, it is easy to become overwhelmed. The problems seem too great. The church seems too insignificant. Revelation shows us another perspective. In Christ, the church as it exists in the world today has a power at its disposal that is greater than any force at work in the world. We need to be reminded of what God does through the prayers of His people.
As the vision of Revelation unfolds in chapter 8, we move from the cycle of seven seals to the cycle of seven trumpets. John sees a great angel before the altar with a golden censer. The angel has incense to offer on the golden altar before the throne of God (v. 3). The vision uses the imagery of the tabernacle and temple. The angel is like the priest who offered incense on the golden altar morning and evening each day. The Bible ties this incense to the prayers of God’s people. For example, Zacharias was offering incense in the temple while the people prayed outside in Luke 1, and Peter and John went up to the temple at the “hour of prayer” in Acts 3. The fragrant smoke of the burning incense rising up in a cloud was a picture of the prayers of God’s people going up before Him. Revelation 8:4 tells us that the “smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints rose before God from the hand of the angel” (ESV).
This all seems pretty straightforward until what happens next in John’s vision. The angel takes the censer of incense and hurls it down to the earth where there are “peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightening, and an earthquake.” These are common manifestations of the presence of God (see Exodus 19 for an example). These signs lead to the blowing of the trumpets and a series of plague-like judgments that bring partial destruction on various parts of creation. It is clear in the text that these judgments come in response to the prayers of God’s people. It is a powerful picture of God’s perspective on our prayers. Our prayers on earth come up before God in heaven and result in dynamic manifestations of God’s power on the earth.
The picture is one of the awesome power of prayer. Our prayers are not powerful in and of themselves. But God ordains to use them in powerful ways. In this picture, He comes near to the earth for judgment in response to the prayers of “all the saints.” James tells us that “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:13, NKJ). In the face of persecution, the disciples prayed for boldness. Acts 4:31 says, “And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness” (NKJ). The message is consistent. God’s people pray and God acts in powerful ways in our experience on earth. Here is the great power that God unleashes in His church. We tend to think nothing is happening. God says otherwise.
Specifically notice that in the 8th chapter of Revelation, God’s response to the prayers of His saints is judgment. Not complete judgment, but partial judgment. In verse 7, a third of the earth and a third of the trees are burned up. In verse 8, a third of the sea become blood. This continues throughout the chapter. Partial judgment means there is still time to repent. The end has not come. God is graciously warning the people that the final judgment is coming and that now is the day of salvation. I wonder if we realize that when we see global pandemics killing hundreds of thousands, riots in the streets, or nuclear-armed powers engaged in a border dispute, we are seeing warning shots being fired over our heads, reminding us that God is not going to withhold His judgment forever and that we ought to seek Him now while we have time.
The church has a key role to play in our society. We have the potential to be agents of racial reconciliation, to care for the poor and marginalized, and to promote love and humility between warring tribes. But we have an even greater and more powerful potential and that is to be agents of prayer. Prayer changes things on earth. Prayer brings God’s presence near. Prayer moves God’s plan along. Prayer brings the judgments that have the power to awaken the spiritually dead. Prayer is the one thing you and I must not neglect. Jesus, the Lamb of God, who rolls out God’s eternal plan for the world, makes the prayers of His people efficacious. So pray and expect God to shake the ground.