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What Goes Up, Will Come Down (Revelation 8:1-5)

March 1, 2015 Speaker: Bryce Morgan Series: Happy Ever After (Revelation)

Topic: Revelation Passage: Revelation 8:1–8:5

Happy Ever After

What Goes Up, Will Come Down
Revelation 8:1-5
(One Lord: No One Like You)
March 1st, 2015

 

I. John's Travel Journal

The island of Patmos. Small. Rocky. Barren. Because of its desolate conditions, the Roman authorities, at some point, decided it would make a wonderful prison island. Many criminals were banished to its shores...and at least one Apostle. The Apostle John tells us in the opening chapter of the Revelation that he “was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” (1:9). Banished like a criminal because he was speaking about Jesus, little could John have known that this place of confinement and condemnation, would become for him a place of visionary transport into landscapes of glory.

And what we have before us this morning, is, what we might call, John's travel journel. So turn if you will to Revelation 8. This is where we will pick up again with our ongoing study in this amazing book, looking specifically this moring at the first five verses of the chapter.

 

II. The Passage: “With the Prayers of the Saints” (8:1-5)

As we try to understand these verses and what God has for us in these verses, I think it's helpful to break this short passage into three smaller parts. Verses 1 and 2 focus on both “Silence and Seal”, verses 3 and 4, focus on both “Offering and Outcry”, and verse 5 focuses on both “Fire and Fury”.

 

A. Silence and Seal (8:1, 2)

With that breakdown in mind, let's begin by looking together at verses 1 and 2. This is what John tells us...

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.

So right away we are reminded of the fact that we are dropping into a narrative river that has already been flowing for several chapters now. Its headwaters are back in chapter 4, where John was transported, by means of a vision, into what was a symbolic representation of God's throneroom/heavely temple. It was there that John witnessed the Lamb, Jesus Christ, taking a scroll, sealed with seven seals, from the right hand of God. You may remember that, based on other clues from Revelation, this scroll represents the decree/plan of God to bring ultimate justice to the earth by unleashing His wrath on unrepentant sinners, and lavishing reward and rest on His people.

And as we learn from chapter 5, Jesus alone is worthy to open this scroll, that is, to execute God's plan for ultmate justice.

And the opening of this scroll began in chapter 6. But when we studied chapter 6, we realized that the events or realities symbolized by the first five seals were present realities for John's readers: conquest, violence, famine, and the many, many deaths connected with these awful realities, even today. The fifth seal also dealt with death, but this time, it focused on those who were killed because of their faith in Jesus.

The sixth seal fast-forwards the scene and, in 6:12-14, poetically describes the very end of the present age. But in order to reassure the seven churches to whom John wrote (and even later readers like us), chapter 7 revealed that God's people would be sealed and safe, not from the reality of suffering in this life, but from anything that might seem to theaten their destiny with God. Even though God's judgment is being poured out and will be poured on this world, because of Jesus, we are safe; we are secure in God's love, forever and ever!

So finally, after the interlude of chapter 7, we are brought to the opening of the seventh seal. If this scroll represents God's decree of both what has been and what will be in terms of ultimate justice, then I believe that, in some sense, the opening of the seventh seal represents another phase in the execution or implementation of the sixth seal. The seventh seal enables the whole scroll to be opened. And when it is finally opened, notice what John tells us. Instead of chaos and destruction...there is silence. But why? Well, once again, the OT prophets can help us here:

Be silent before the Lord GOD! For the day of the LORD is near; the LORD has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests. (Zephaniah 1:7)

Be silent, all flesh, before the LORD, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.
(Zechariah 2:13)

So this silence is both an indication that there is short interval of time before God acts again, AND a reminder that God himself is the holy King, coming forth in justice to punish and reclaim what is rightfully His. This silence must have been unnerving in light of what John had already seen. Think for a minute about what John saw-[moment of silence] See what I mean?

But notice how the seventh of seven seals gives way to another set of seven. This time John sees seven angels with seven trumpets. In light of the remainder of chapter 8, and chapter 9, we will talk more next week about the specifics of these trumpets. But's it's enough to mention now that these trumpets do announce and unleash a series of judgments.

 

B. Offering and Outcry (8:3, 4)

But before the trumpets are sounded, there is another work to do. Look at verses 3 and 4...

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.

Now remember where this scene is taking place. It is God's throneroom, but it's also the heavenly temple. You may recall that the Tent of Meeting, the portable temple of the wandering Hebrews, and the brick-and-mortar Temple that was finally built in Jerusalem, that both of them were representations of God's throneroom. And thus, all of the priestly rituals carried out in that temple were pictures of what it means and what it takes to come into the presence of the King of Heaven.

But in verses 3 and 4, John sees an angel coming to a heavenly altar of incense, just like the earthly one described in Exodus 30. And look at what he's carrying: a golden censer (which is just a kind of dish or vessel for incense). And as he sprinkles the incense on the hot coals of the altar, we also read that this incense is mixed with the prayers of the saints, the prayers of God's holy ones.

You may remember that we've seen this connection before in the Revealation: Listen to or look back at 5:8. This is what we read about the Lamb taking the scroll from God...

And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. (Revelation 5:8)

So in both passages, incense is connected with the prayers of God's people. This connection was made as far back as Psalm 141:2 when David wrote: Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!

And just as the smoke of incense rose up and filled the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, so too do the prayers of God's people rise up before the King and hang in the air around His throne. So from the hands of the twenty-four elders who represent the totality of God's old covenant and new covenant people, these prayers are eventually brought to and offered up before the throne.

 

C. Fire and Fury (8:5)

And look at what verse 5 of chapter 8 tells us about how this heavenly ritual concludes...

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.

Now wait a minute. What is happening here? Well, to make sense of these symbolic action, I think the beautiful imagery of this heavenly ritual should point us back to the petitions, to the outcry we heard back in chapter 6. Listen to or look at 6:9-11...

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. [10] They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” [11] Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

Do you see the connection? Just as the smoke rose from the altar, so now fiery coals fall from the altar. The prayers of God's people, crying out for justice before the King, are being answered in the judgments of the King, judgments that now fall upon a rebellious world.

I like the way the writer and pastor Eugene Peterson described this connection”

“Prayer is as much outer as inner. It is the most practical thing anyone can do. It is not mystical escape, it is historical engagement. Prayer participates in God's action. God gathers our cries and our praises, our petitions and intercessions, and uses them. The prayers that ascended to God now descend to earth”

And how do we know this falling fire is connected to God? Because there are all the classic signs of God's presence: thunder, rumblings, lightning, and an earthquake. Whether in poetic or literal description, the OT often describes the coming of God in this way. Do you remember what chapter 4, verse 5 told us about God's presence: From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder... What could 8:5 be telling us, if not that judgment from the very throne of God was now raining down on the earth?

 

III. To Pray and Not Lose Heart

Have you thought about prayer in this way? As a profound part of heaven's worship? As a sweet aroma rising up before God's throne? As a spark that lights the fires of justice? In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus himself taught us about the kind of prayer Revelation envisions:

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. [2] He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. [3] And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ [4] For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, [5] yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” [6] And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. [7] And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? [8] I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Do you see the same connection here between prayer, justice, and the end of the age? Couldn't we also say that God has given us Revelation 8:1-5 to the effect that [we] ought always to pray and not lose heart? Remember the original audience. Remember the first recipients of this letter. The seven churches of Asia Minor were suffering under the onslaught of false teaching, moral compromise, and pagan pressures toward idolatry and worship of the Roman Emperor. They needed to know that in the midst of that struggle, their prayers were heard. Their prayers mattered.

In light of all this, I think we need to let both of these passages, Luke 18 and Revelation 8, we need to let both drive us to our knees. Think with me about how these passages call us to prayer and to what kind of prayer they call us.

First, we find in both of these passages A Call to Persevering Prayer. The widow's example does not call us to annoy and frustrate God. It simply calls us to persist; to persevere.
In the same way, the opening verses of Revelation 8 remind us that there is a period of silence, of quietness, of inaction before “the prayers of the saints” are offered up before God. The heavenly temple does not operate on our schedule. The important thing is not the timing. The important thing is that our prayers are heard and are pleasing to God.

It's very, very easy to get discouraged when it comes to prayer. But through this parable and His revelation to John, Jesus is encouraging us to not give up. To pray, and keep praying.

But we are also reminded by these two passages that prayer should be a A Call for Regime Change. It is abundantly clear that these are prayers for justice. The answer to the plea, “How long?” in chapter 6 is seen here in chapter 8, as the fiery coals are poured toward earth. God has heard, and God will act.

How often do you prayer for justice? For ultimate justice? Yes, this is a corrective when we get stuck in praying only self-centered and shallow prayers. But you probably prayer for ultimate justice more than you think. Remember the daily prayer our Lord Jesus taught us... “Our Father, who is in heaven, may your name be revered as holy; may your kingdom come; may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9, 10) Think about it. That is not simply a prayer for God's reign to be established, but also that every other false throne and every false God be thrown down in the process.

That is a prayer against exploitation. That is a prayer against false religions. That is a prayer against greed and corruption. That is a prayer against domestic violence. That is a prayer against ISIS. That is a prayer against pornography. That is a prayer against the killing of the innocent, the killing of the unborn, the killing of God's people. That is a prayer against materialism and narcissism. That is a prayer against intellectual pride and hypocrisy and sweat shops and deadbeat dads. But it is first and foremost, not a prayer against, but a prayer for God's righteous reign. But because of sin, it is also a prayer for ultimate justice.

Brothers and sisters, that should be our daily prayer. And that daily prayer should guide us, each day, into the heart, into the purposes of God.

Lastly, I believe Revelation 8 is also a A Call for Grace-Inspired Gratefulness. Did you notice that at the heavenly altar (again a symbolic representation) the prayers of God's people are first mixed with heavenly incense? What might that mean? I think it's a simple reminder that our prayers are always imperfect. From the most consistent 'prayer warrior' to the struggling disciple who lacks any real passion for prayer, every petition and praise we offer up must be combined with grace. That fact shouldn't cause us to give up when it comes to prayer. It should instead inspire gratefulness.

And how is such grace possible? Because of the blood of the Lamb; because of the cross of Jesus. He is our Mediator. He is our High Priest. Just as their was a carefully prescribed recipe for the incense of the old covenant, so also is there only one kind of heavenly incense: the kind made from the death of Christ, His victory over death, and the love of God. That's what was given to the angel in verse 3.

Brothers and sisters, God has called us to pray. To pray for His kingdom, to pray for one another, to pray for those in our circle. May we do so in light of this beautiful vision. May we remember that we ought always to pray and not lose heart.

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