In his book And the Place was Shaken, John Franklin tells the story of participating in a two-week evangelistic crusade in Mombasa, Kenya. God blessed their efforts tremendously, and people responded to the gospel en masse.
Franklin recalls one particular interaction. He and two colleagues were walking up to a particular village when they spotted several men sitting on the side of the road. One quickly rose and briskly walked toward them. He asked if they were the ones who had come to share God’s word. When Franklin confirmed that they were, the man responded, “We’ve heard that you’ve come, and we’ve heard of Jesus and his great power. Tell me, how does one become his follower? My friends and I want to know.”
Franklin and his colleagues shared the gospel with the men and, without hesitation, they replied, “Let’s pray.” Thinking that it was “too easy,” Franklin began to explain the gospel again. The first man replied, “I understood the first time. Let’s pray.”
During those two weeks, some thirty thousand people responded to the gospel. What was happening on the evangelistic ground was remarkable. But what was happening backstage was equally remarkable.
Several months earlier, churches in Mombasa had begun to meet regularly for prayer. When they learned that a group of foreigners was coming for a short-term missions trip, churches began committing to praying all night each day of those two weeks for the evangelistic efforts. Every night, a different church (or several churches) gathered for an all-night prayer session and God blessed the prayers of the saints in an incredible way.
Does prayer change things? This is the question that Reformed Christians perennially ask. We know that God is sovereign, and that God always accomplishes his purposes, so if God always accomplishes his purposes, is there a point in praying when God is going to act according to his will anyway?
There is a good deal of debate over that question. As we think about it, perhaps it is helpful to frame the question in another way: Does God use prayer to accomplish his purposes? To that, the Bible gives a resoundingly clear answer. One place we find that answer is in the text before us: Revelation 8:1–5.
Revelation was written at a time when Christians were undergoing tremendous persecution. Jewish persecution had persisted from the time that Saul of Tarsus had opposed the church, and while Rome had initially protected the church—or, more precisely, protected the interests of peace within the Empire—Emperor Nero had recently begun to target Christians in Rome, which had the potential of creating targets of Christians outside the capital city.
Christians had little recourse. Most Christians in the first century were poor, which meant that few of them held Roman citizenship. The Jewish persecutors could not be reasoned with. There was no human court of appeal for the persecuted minority. But there was a heavenly court of appeal. And the Christians fervently appealed that court through prayer.
John paints a picture of appealing Christians a little earlier in Revelation:
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. 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?” 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.
The answer to the prayers of the saints had been, “Wait. Be patient.” Our text shows us that those prayers would not remain unanswered forever, and it gives us great insight into God’s design for prayer and his purposes.
Violence on Earth
We begin our consideration of this text by looking at v. 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” (v. 5).
This is a violent scene. The thunder, lightning, and earthquake here represent the action of God from heaven against those who had oppressed his people. Divine action is unmistakable here, for throughout the Bible the appearance of God is attended by things like thunder, lightning, and earthquakes. The point of this vision is that God was about to step into history. And as you read what follows (the seven trumpets), we see that God was stepping into history to vindicate his persecuted people. Judgement time had arrived. Those who had long oppressed his people were about to receive their just deserts. The thunder and lightning and earthquake were a warning of the violent judgement to follow.
But here is the question: Why now? It had been nearly forty years since Jesus first prophesied this judgement. Why was it about to happen now? The answer is found in vv. 1–4.
Silence in Heaven
The scene opens with a strange sight in the book of Revelation: “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (v. 1). I say that this is strange because John’s vision has hardly been a silent film until this point. We have read (among other things) of thunder and lightning (4:5), loud weeping (5:4), robust singing (5:9), loud voices (5:12; 6:10, 16 7:2–3, 10), and the beating of horses’ hooves (6:2ff). The silence will be followed by more thunder and lightning and another earthquake (v. 5), before the sounding of trumpets (8:6ff). Silence therefore catches us off guard. It is so strange, in fact, that it immediately strikes us as significant.
The silence must be significant, but what exactly is its significance? Throughout the Bible, silence before God is a sign of awe at what he will do. For example, the psalmist urges, “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” (Psalm 46:10). Another psalmist writes, “From the heavens you uttered judgement; the earth feared and was still, when God arose to establish judgement, to save all the humble of the earth” (Psalm 76:8–9). Habakkuk urged, “The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Habakkuk 2:20).
When we read of silence in our text, therefore, we should think of the host of heaven standing in awed silence of what is about to happen. And what is about to happen? As we have seen, God is about to pour out his judgement on those who have oppressed his people. But notice God’s motivation in unleashing his judgement.
Supplication in Heaven
Verses 2–4 are significant because they show us the basis of God’s awe-inspiring judgement.
Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. 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, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.
Observe carefully the logic of the text before us. Seven angels are handed seven trumpets. The trumpets, as we see from 8:6ff, are the instruments of God’s judgement. These angels were preparing to carry out God’s judgement on those who had oppressed his people. But notice the basis on which they do so: “the prayers of all the saints.” As the eighth angels offers “the prayers of all the saints” on the golden altar, the judging angels are sent out with their trumpets to carry out God’s judgement.
Pause for a brief moment to observe that the angels were set to act in response to “the prayers of all the saints.” The violent judgement that was unleashed against the oppressors of God’s people was in response to the prayers of God’s people. But notice exactly that: the prayers of God’s people.
The text does not speak of “the prayers of the saint,” or even of “the prayers of the saints,” but “the prayers of all the saints.” There is a deliberate corporate focus highlighted here. God certainly hears the prayers of individual Christians, but here the text highlights God’s answer to corporate prayers.
In the text before us, the corporate prayers of God’s people are offered before him on a golden altar, and as prayer is added to prayer, his wrath, as it were, is stored up to be released at just the right moment. It is as if the prayers are being offered until they reach a critical mass—and then judgement flows.
Lessons from Our Text
So, to come back to the perennial question, had the prayers of all the saints changed things? Depending on what you mean and how you look at it, different people might answer that question differently. But did God use the prayers of his people to accomplish his purposes? Absolutely!
God planned to save masses of people in Mombasa, Kenya during John Franklin’s short-term missions trip there. Did the prayers of his people change things? Answer that how you will. Did he use the prayers of his people in accomplishing his purposes? There can be no doubt about it. As the prayers of all the saints were lifted to him night after night, offered to him as if incense on a golden altar before his throne, he graciously moved to produce gospel fruit in the lives of thousands.
What lessons might we draw from our brief consideration of this text?
First, Christian, pray! Ralph Bass comments on this text of Scripture and concludes, “As you can see, the Bible makes the prayers of the saints out to be a big thing in God’s eyes.” Don’t minimise the significance that prayer carries in God’s eyes. Hear the exhortation of Jesus, who taught his disciples “that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
Second, Christian, pray with other Christians! I don’t mean to suggest that the more voices pray the clearer God hears. One of the lessons we learn from Elijah’s encounter with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18) is that the God of the Bible does not need to be roused. He hears and is capable of responding to the prayer of one righteous man as much as he is to a gathered crowd of Christians. And yet, throughout the Bible, God most often chooses to move when his people pray together. (And let’s remember that, even at Mount Carmel, when Elijah thought he was alone, there were seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal!)
Our text seems to hint at something of a critical mass that is lifted before God answers—almost as if God is waiting for the right amount of prayers to be answered before he answers. As I have said, I am not suggesting that this is how God always works, but it certainly seems to be how he worked in this text, and most often in Scripture he responds to the corporate prayers of his people.
Third, Christian, pray with the church. Again, the text highlights not the prayers of a saint, or even the prayers of the saints, but the prayers of all the saints. There is no better time to pray than when the church gathers for prayer. God is pleased to hear the prayers of individual Christians, and of small groups of Christians, but never underestimate the power of praying with the church. Perhaps you prefer small group prayer. Perhaps you are too self-conscious to pray before the church. At the very least, pray silently as prayers are lifted, knowing that God is pleased to use the prayers of all the saints in fulfilling his purposes.
John Franklin experienced the power of God first hand in response to the prayers of the churches, and he concluded, “The greatest workings of God come by corporate prayer, and we will not see the power of God in sufficient measure to transform the world until we pray together.”
Do you want to see the raw power of God unleashed on earth? Then will you pray? Will you pray with the saints? Will you pray with all the saints?