(An article on prayer by Douglas F. Kelly)
The first nine verses of Revelation 8 show us how things can be different; things which seem to be beyond any human power any sort of mastery of the will, or quite beyond any worldly circumstances. God uses word images here to help us understand profound spiritual truth—He can intervene! God can change your situation! God can make it profoundly different!
These verses let us see what lies behind the obvious, what makes things happen in this world we live in. It is very much like we are attending a stage play. As we take our seats, the curtains are drawn. As the curtains draw back, we see the set and the actors. The beloved apostle John, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is drawing back the curtains which separate the unseen world from the visible world. He is showing us God’s way of ordering history, God’s way of determining what happens in our lives.
In one sense, we can say the Bible teaches us that prayer is like a highway running between two worlds. We inhabit a material world. God created it. But there is another world also, one we do not see with our physical eyes. Nonetheless, this other world — the spiritual world, the heavenly realm — is just as real and is even more powerful and significant than the world we do see. Revelation 8 shows us the connection between the spiritual world we do not see and the material world we inhabit. These two worlds are interconnected and what happens in one impacts the other.
If we see Revelation 8 as a stage play, there would be an upper scene and a lower scene. And the spotlight shifts between the two scenes.
The action begins in upper scene, heaven. The spotlight focuses on an angelic being opening a seal. Without going into the prophetic significance of this, we can say that God has the initiative in history, that God really is in control. Behind all of history is the throne of God. He has never relinquished His control.
But in verse three, the spotlight leaves heaven, focusing on this material realm you and I inhabit. We see Christians praying and their prayers are ascending before God. As far as God’s operation of the universe is concerned, the meeting of believers to pray in the name of Christ can be more powerful than transactions of the New York Stock Exchange, the movements of an army, the rising and falling of interest rates or the meeting of a legislature, or a parliament. Simple, ordinary, frail, weak men and women who every day have to ask Jesus to forgive them, make them clean and renew them are praying. Those praying may feel nothing, not one thing. But something important is about to happen. Watch out!
The spotlight suddenly shifts away from the earth and goes back up to the heavenly realm. As the believers’ prayers ascend to the Supreme Court of the universe, to the Lord and God who created all things out of nothing, something remarkable, something wonderful, something beautiful is happening.
An angel is adding a very special incense to the burning coals in a golden censor. We see him broadcasting the fragrant perfume as he walks around before the throne. The fragrance from the golden censor "perfumes" the saint’s prayers, causing them to be sweet smelling in the nostrils of God.
We are reminded of the golden censer the high priest used in Old Testament times. It was right beside the ark of the covenant which enshrined the law. The ark was covered by the mercy seat on which blood was sprinkled to "cover" the people’s sin until the Lamb of God should come and die on the Cross for their sins. In order to make the praises and the lives and the prayers and the worship of an imperfect and sinful, complaining, worrying, frail people acceptable to God, the high priest was to take coals from the altar of sacrifice, place them in the golden censer and sprinkle special incense on them. He would then walk around the holy place swinging the golden censer, wafting the fragrant incense over the mercy seat. This demonstrated that our worship does not smell good because of our sin. Because we are so frail and imperfect and bring so much dirt with us every time we worship, our prayers, our praise, our devotion, our reaching out to God in and of ourselves are not acceptable before the perfectly awesome, holy, pure God of God, Light of Light. So God commanded the high priest to do something to make the people’s praises "smell good" to Him, to make them acceptable.
Entrance Through the Wounds
A biographer of General Stonewall Jackson recounts a very moving scene which occurred the day before Jackson’s funeral. Very much a believer, Jackson had been accidentally shot by his own troops during the War Between the States. As his body lay in state, thousands and thousands of people filed by for a last look at this great southern general. Many threw flowers on his coffin as they passed silently by. Late in the day as the sun was sinking, the marshall gave orders to close the doors of the great chamber even as hundreds of people were still thronging to get in. As the big brass doors began to close, a rough bearded veteran in a tattered grey uniform began pushing his way to the front of the line. The marshall, at this abusive behavior, was about to push the man down the stone steps for his insolence. Suddenly, the grizzled veteran, with tears running down his cheeks raised high the stump of his arm and cried, "By this right arm which I gave for this country, I demand the privilege of one more time seeing the general under whom I served." The governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia standing nearby said to the marshall, "Let this veteran in. He has won entrance by his wounds."
Your prayers and mine cannot win entrance to God by our own wounds. But our prayers do win entrance to the very throne of God by the wounds of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Something happens to believers’ prayers when we pray to the Father in Jesus’ name. As our prayers reach heaven, it is as though angels sprinkle perfume on our prayers, making them smell good. They become delectable, delightful things which our heavenly Father is thrilled to receive.
But what is this incense? The incense, the perfume, the fragrance put onto our prayers is actually the merits, the worthiness of life and particularly the atoning death of Jesus in our place.
When we pray it is as though our prayers are taken through the wounds of Christ’s body. They are made acceptable, they are made beautiful, they are made fragrant, they are incensed, they are made things of power. This is what it means to pray in Jesus’ name. It is not just a ritual, not merely a form. It is more than that.
It is a way of saying, "Lord, hear me through the merits, through the worthiness, through the death, through the wounds of Your Son. Perfume my prayers as they pass through the holes in His hands and feet. Make them worthy. Cause all my worship and all my desires to serve Thee worthy through what He has done in my place."
Too often Christians are hindered from praying by the sense of their unworthiness. They believe God will not hear them because they are too imperfect. God’s Church is being robbed of tremendous power right now because His people feel too unworthy to continue persevering in prayer until they see the answer. Our culture is slipping and disintegrating because so many in the Church have been robbed of our prayer power. We know that our own worthiness is inadequate, so we don’t pray much.
Yes, we are imperfect. Yes, we are unworthy. Yes, we have sinned. But we do not pray in our own names. We pray in Jesus’ name. We stand on His merits. We plead His blood and righteousness. And our prayers go up through His wounds.
Your prayers, the prayers of every believer are perfumed, are incensed when they go to heaven. Something powerful happens to our prayers when they get to heaven because of what Jesus has done and is doing. The Epistle to the Hebrews shows Him continually interceding for us. That is Jesus’ primary work since His resurrection and Ascension. Jesus is concerned with taking the prayer of His people through Himself to the Father.
Fire On the Earth
Back at the theater, the spotlight leaves heaven where the prayers are being perfumed and shifts back to the earth. When the saints’ perfumed prayers reach heaven the angels are given authority to cast fire onto the earth.
There is powerful movement between the two worlds. Revelation 8 shows the burning up of ships, illustrating that prayers can turn the tide of battle. There is nothing of any concern, whether physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, whether in the realm of personal relationships—there is absolutely nothing that God’s people cannot take to Him in prayer through the wounds of Jesus.
Fire can be cast into this world against doors closed to the Gospel’s influence. Praying can bring down the fire to burn away those doors. Corruption and iniquity from the depths of a heart opposed to God can be purged away by the fire. God’s fire can fall into the heart of someone for whom we are praying, transforming that heart of stone into a heart of flesh.
What concerns and areas in your life need the fall of God’s fire? Where do you want to see the fire of God, the power of God, the changes of God to fall? You can take them to Him. You can join with other Christians to take them to the Father through Jesus. There is a highway between this world and heaven. Prayer is that highway.
God can make that fire fall. When saints pray, fire is cast into the earth. It all depends upon the worthiness of the Lamb who died for us though Him, in Him, with Him, our God. Lord, teach us to so pray!
This article originally appeared in the May, 1994 PCA Messenger.