We’ve witnessed so much take place in the first seven chapters of Revelation. John is exiled on the island of Patmos because the Roman Empire and the Roman Emperor see him as a thorn in their flesh. John wasn’t visiting Patmos on vacation, neither was he there on a sabbatical to rest and recharge his batteries, but he tells us why he was on the island in Revelation 1:9.
9 I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. (Revelation 1:9 NIV)
In Revelation 2-3 we were introduced to seven churches in Asia Minor. Last week we learned that five of the seven churches were teetering on the brink of losing their Christian identity because of two reasons: Two of the churches had allowed the passion they once had for their Savior to grow cold. The other three churches were allowing false teachers to come in and mislead folks. We’ve read about testing, tribulation, and trials faced by each of the congregations.
In Revelation 5, we saw the Lamb of God, the only one worthy to take the scroll of history from God’s right hand, and begin to open the seals. In Revelation 6, we saw the Lamb break the first six seals. The first four, represented by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse brought about conquest, war, famine, and death. Bruce Waltke says,
Such disasters occurred in the tumults of the Roman Empire and may be expected to occur both now and immediately before the second coming. The seven churches were exhorted to put their confidence not in the peace and prosperity supposedly achieved by Roman rule, but in God and His promises of a new world. When catastrophes occurred, they were assured that the Lamb was still in control…Such judgments represent the chastening hand of God on a rebellious world. (Bruce Waltke, Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, pg. 2063)
With the breaking of the fifth seal we heard the prayers of the martyrs who asked, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” The breaking of the sixth seal brought about judgment upon the whole earth.
In Revelation 7, instead of witnessing the breaking of the seventh seal, we saw the sealing of the people of God on earth who were given a mark on their forehead. Then, in Revelation 7, the scene shifts our focus from an earthly perspective to a heavenly vision where John saw people from “every nation, tribe, people, and language” gathered around the throne of Almighty God in glorious worship. What a day that will be!
Today we have arrived at Revelation 8. The Lamb opens the seventh seal, but instead of immediately experiencing what follows from the opening of the seal we see something else taking place. Read along with me as we study the first five verses of this important chapter.
1When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. 3Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. 4The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand. 5Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Revelation 8:1-5 NIV)
Silence. Not a sound. Not a word. Nobody moves. The drama of the moment should cause those of us who live over 1900 years after the letter was first written to stop everything we are doing in anticipation of what is to come. This is not the first time that we hear silence in God’s Word.
In the prophets we find the repeated theme of silence when God is about to move in judgment upon those who oppress His people and those who stand in defiance of His will. We read about God preparing to judge the Babylonians in Habakkuk. In Habakkuk 2:20 we read,
20 But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” (Habakkuk 2:20 NIV)
God’s judgment is not limited to foreign nations. When God’s people turn to false gods and thumb their noses at His grace, then God will rise up and oppose His own people. We can read about this in Zephaniah 1:7-12.
7 Be silent before the Sovereign LORD, for the day of the LORD is near. The LORD has prepared a sacrifice; he has consecrated those he has invited. 8 On the day of the LORD’s sacrifice I will punish the princes and the king’s sons and all those clad in foreign clothes. 9 On that day I will punish all who avoid stepping on the threshold, who fill the temple of their gods with violence and deceit. 10 “On that day,” declares the LORD, “a cry will go up from the Fish Gate, wailing from the New Quarter, and a loud crash from the hills. 11 Wail, you who live in the market district; all your merchants will be wiped out, all who trade with silver will be ruined. 12 At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs, who think, ‘The LORD will do nothing, either good or bad.’ (Zephaniah 1:7-12 NIV)
In Zechariah we see that the time of judgment was over for Judah and it was time for restoration. In Zechariah 2:13, God calls all of humanity to be silent because He is coming to oppose those who oppose the restoration of Judah. Read along with me.
13 Be still before the LORD, all mankind, because he has roused himself from his holy dwelling. (Zechariah 2:13 NIV)
When we move deeper into Revelation 8 you will see that the silence of Revelation 8:1 follows the same idea of the silence we’ve just looked at in the prophets. God is preparing to rise up. The trumpets of judgment are handed to the angels, they place them at their lips, and fill their lungs, but before the trumpets of judgment blow there is silence for “about half an hour.”
Another angel appears, an angel who had a golden censer, and he stood at the altar. In Leviticus 10:1 we learn that “censers” were used in offering incense in worship. They were probably also used to carry live coals in the Tabernacle and Temple. The angel was given “much” incense to offer, but that is not all that he offered before the altar of God, he also offered the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne of God. The prayers of the “saints” are very important in this section of Scripture. My question, as I studied this chapter this week, was, “Who are the saints?” Are the “saints” the martyrs of Revelation 6? Turn there with me and let’s refresh our memories.
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed. (Revelation 6:9-11 NIV)
Could these faithful folks be the saints of Revelation 8? Or, could the saints refer to godly men and women of times past who weren’t necessarily martyred? Folks like Abraham, Moses, Ruth, David, Elijah, and many others. Well, let’s take a look at the word “saint” to see whose prayers are being heard by God. The Greek word for “saint,” is “a[gioj” (hagios) and it means, “to be set apart, consecrated to God, or holy.” The word is used 229 times in the Greek New Testament and the vast majority of the time it is translated “holy.” (161 times) Let me show you a few of the places where the word is found.
While Paul was on trial before King Agrippa he spoke about his life before he came to Christ and how he treated the “saints.” In Acts 26:9-11 Paul says,
9“I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. 11Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them. (Acts 26:9-11 NIV)
Paul was writing to the folks in Rome about how they were to treat one another when he wrote these words in Romans 12. The word for “saint” is translated “people” in this instance.
9Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. (Romans 12:9-13 NIV)
The last example I want to show you is found in 1 Corinthians 6:1. Evidently there was some trouble going on at the Corinthian Christian Church and instead of working it out amongst themselves, or going to the Elders, they were going to civil court. This was detrimental to the work of God because unbelievers were watching Christians fight things out in court. Let’s read the Scripture together and see if we can figure out who the “saints” are.
1If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? 2Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? 3Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! 4Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church! (1 Corinthians 6:1-4 NIV)
Paul says that the church should appoint as judges in these kind of matters even men of “little account’ in the church rather than go to civil court. Even these brothers are “saints” of God.
We could go on and on, remember the word occurs some 229 times in the New Testament, but I feel confident that by now you are getting a feel for whose prayers were being offered up before God in Revelation 8. The prayers of Revelation 8 are the prayers of God’s people. Special people? You better believe it, but not special because of their status in society or their accomplishments in the marketplace, but special because they have been set apart by God. They are His people! We are His people! He hears our prayers! He doesn’t just hear the prayers of those like Moses, Paul, Mother Theresa, Max Lucado, Beth Moore, or Billy Graham—He hears the prayers of the least among us, those that can’t get anybody else’s attention are heard by the Father. Let me give you an example of what I am talking about.
In Genesis a promise was made to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. Only problem was that Abraham and his wife didn’t have any children. Compounding the problem was the fact that they were beyond their child-bearing years. Abraham and Sarah tried to help God out. Sarah had a servant girl named Hagar who was an Egyptian. She told her husband to sleep with Hagar so they could have a child. When Hagar got pregnant things turned bad around the house. We read in Genesis16:6-13.
6Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her. 7 The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” “I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered. 9 Then the angel of the LORD told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.” 11 The angel of the LORD also said to her: “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery. 12 He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” 13She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:6-13 NIV)
Hagar was an Egyptian. She was a servant girl. She was a nobody. While nobody else saw her, God saw her. That’s not the end of the story though. Hagar did go back and submit to Sarah just like God told her to. Hagar had her baby, a little boy named Ishmael, and Sarah’s mistreatment of Hagar got even worse. Finally, Sarah told Abraham to get rid of Hagar and the boy. Turn to Genesis 21:14 and let’s read together.
14Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob. 17God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. 20God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. (Genesis 21:14-20 NIV)
“God was with the boy.” What a comfort to an Egyptian servant girl. God sees. God hears. He doesn’t just hear the cries or prayers of those whom the world would label as “saints,” but He hears the cries and prayers of all of His people.
This past week I took a tour through the Bible and I found so many different people praying. I found Abraham’s servant praying for a wife for Isaac. I saw Hannah laying on the altar and pouring her heart out before the Lord. I saw King David kneeling at the bed of his little boy pleading with God for the boy’s life. I found the mighty King Solomon praying, “Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence.” (2 Chronicles 6:19 NIV) I ran into Ezra weeping over his own sin and the sins of his people as they had turned their backs on God. When King Darius set forth the decree that everyone in the land had to bow down to his false idol, I found Daniel, a young man devoted to God, going into his room and “asking God for help.” I ran into a prophetess named Anna, eighty-four years old and yet filled with passion for God. Luke says that she never left the Temple. She had devoted herself to worshipping God, to fasting and prayer. Her prayers were answered when she saw Mary carrying her little baby, Jesus, to the Temple. I heard the prayers of the Church while Peter was still in prison. Paul and Silas were in lock down, but their hearts were overflowing with prayer as they were singing hymns to God. Early in the morning I stumbled on Jesus sitting in a lonely place. What was He doing? He was praying.
God’s people are people of prayer. In moments of victory we pray and give thanks. In moments of sorrow we pray and ask God for comfort. In times of trials and tribulation we pray and ask God to deliver us from the hands of our accusers and tormenters. In moments of bewilderment and confusion we pray and ask God for guidance and clarity. God’s people pray. What happens when God’s people pray? Great question. Let me take you back to Revelation 8. Read with me from Revelation 8:4-5.
4The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel’s hand. 5Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Revelation 8:4-5 NIV)
The prayers of those who were suffering under Roman persecution, those who were coming out of their troubles, their prayers were offered up to God and He answered. Oh how He answered! Prayers go up and the fire came down.
Think of the countless believers who suffered every kind of hardship under the evil Empire, the Roman Empire. Emperor Nero used Christians to light his gardens. He tied them to long poles, covered them with pitch, and lit them on fire. He would use for entertainment in the Roman Coliseum. The people who filled the Coliseum watched Christians being torn apart by lions simply for their enjoyment. Yet, the faithful continued to pray, the faithful continued to pour their hearts out to God, and at the right time God answered. Where is the mighty Roman Empire today? It is no more, yet the Word of God, the Kingdom of God stands! Will Durant wrote,
There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians scorned or oppressed by a succession of Emperors bearing all trials with a fierce tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while the enemy is generating chaos. Fighting the sword with the Word, brutality with hope, and at last defeating the strongest state that the world had ever known. Caesar and Christ had met in the arena and Christ had won! (Will Durant)
The story continues throughout history. God is Sovereign and He is the Sovereign Judge of those who desire evil over good, who desire their own will over His Divine will. For those who choose this path God will not remain silent forever.
Benigno Aquino was the boy wonder of Philippine politics — mayor of a large town at twenty-two, governor of a province at twenty-eight, and at thirty-five he was elected senator, the youngest ever. He was excited about the possibility of being President until he unexpectedly ended up in jail. How he ended up in jail could be traced straight to the heart on one man—President Ferdinand Marcos and his insatiable greed for power.
Marcos saw Benigno Aquino as a threat to his power so he had him arrested. Half a year went by before Aquino was even questioned or confronted with the trumped up charge of murder. A carefully planned military court sentenced him to death, but the real reason for his sentence was President Ferdinand Marcos’ desire to get rid of threat. In 1973 Marcos’ two term limit as President would expire and his tenure as President would be over — Marcos would be finished, done! In his sneaky, twisted way, Marcos declared martial law and took total control of the Philippines.
After 8 years in prison, Aquino was released so that he could undergo triple-bypass surgery. American President Jimmy Carter was instrumental in gaining Aquino’s release and making it possible for him to come to the United States and undergo surgery. After Aquino recuperated he took a teaching fellowship at Harvard University. While he found himself in the throes of such inner-turmoil, Aquino surrendered his life to Christ and began to pray for God’s will in his life. As Aquino began to grow closer to the Lord his faith kept prodding him to go back to his country even though Marcos would not allow him back into the Philippines.
On August 21, 1983 Benigno Aquino boarded a jet and headed to Manilla. He tried to keep his flight a secret, but when he boarded the plane he was swamped with journalists. When the jet landed in Manilla the people saw a blue van pull up and soldiers carrying automatic weapons circled the plane. Three soldiers entered the plane looking for Aquino. When they found him they led Aquino to the front of the plane. They slammed the door shut behind them and a soldier stood so that no one could see through the window. A few seconds later shots rang out and Benigno Aquino lay dead on the floor. The military later said that Communist-gunmen did it, but everyone knew who had Benigno Aquino assassinated—it was Ferdinand Marcos.
You may think, “What a waste.” How could God have led him back to the Philippines simply to be killed. There is more to the story. Christians in the nation were called to prayer and Marcos sent out the troops. Cardinal Jaime Sin called the people to pray and to meet the troops with food and water.
Unrest began to stir in Marcos’ military as a group of soldiers who called themselves the Reform Group planned to withdraw support from Marcos. The Minister of Defense, Juan Ponce Enrile, could no longer support the twisted President so he and General Fidel Ramos held a press conference at 6:30 PM in the evening at Aquinaldo over the Catholic air waves. At 9:00 PM that night Cardinal Sin’s voice came over the air waves as he ordered all nuns into their chapels where they were to pray for God’s deliverance of the Philippines. Then he spoke to all Christians, “Go to Camp Crame and Camp Aquinaldo. Lend your support to Enrile and Ramos. Protect them and bring them food; they have nothing to eat.” Within thirty minutes two million people were on the streets. They were unarmed, listening to their radios, reading Scripture, praying, and singing through the long night.
The next day Marcos sent his troops with their tanks and trucks. As the military began their trip to Camp Aquinaldo the people in the little villages lined the streets. Some were holding crosses and others were offering flowers. The soldiers did not know what to do, these people threw nothing but prayers and flowers to the soldiers. One General told the people, “We don’t want to kill civilians, our quarrel is with Enrile and Ramos.” The closer the tanks came to the Camp, the more people were there to meet them. No one threw rocks, fired a gun, or hurled insults at the soldiers.
By Monday morning there were dozens of such tanks on the streets all around the military camps, stopped not by anti-tank missiles but by the bodies of praying Filippinos. Young soldiers sprawled on top of their beached vehicles eating food offered by the people who had stopped them.
On Tuesday, Marcos fled the country and the people of God, who stood by the side of justice and rights for all of God’s people claimed the victory for God. Two and one half years after Benigno Aquino was killed, his wife Cory became President. The revolution, a God ordained overthrow of evil, malice, greed, and godlessness, became a reality for the people of the Philippines.
God hears the prayers of His people and He will not remain silent. The prayers of the saints in the Philippines were heard and the prayers of God’s saints in all places and at all times will be heard. Won’t you cry out to Him this morning?