The Altar in Heaven — Revelation 8:3-5

3 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. 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,[a] flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.

We see from this passage —

God receives the prayers of His persecuted church as they pray and answers them according to His plan!

I. When God acts in judgment, we know the time to the answer our prayers has arrived. vs. 3

We view God’s work in space and time retrospectively. We cannot foresee how God will work. By looking up to God in our need, we anticipate His action, however. After He acts, we recognize what He has done and this encourages us to trust Him for more. Waiting for answers to our prayers is an exercise in perseverance. Isaiah 40 has meaningful words to persecuted Christians! 

28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30 Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
31 but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint. [ESV]


II. Angels have unseen ministries that assist us as believers. vs. 4

We ought not to get caught up in the ministry of Angels in the Revelation. It is enough for us to know they are sent by God, we cannot see them, but they serve us. 

Hebrews 1:13-14 gives us a hint only into Angels existence and ministries —

13 …to which of the angels has he ever said, “Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?
14 Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?

The angel in Revelation 8:3 is identified as another angel (Greek allos — another of the same rank as the seven, but different from the particular group of seven angels previously mentioned). It is not the Lord Jesus under the symbolism of an angel. It is an Incense altarangel who has the task of presenting the prayers to the Lord for their fulfillment at the proper time in John’s vision.

The altar in heaven is the heavenly model of the incense altar, which was in the Tabernacle in the wilderness and Temples in Jerusalem. There is no altar of sacrifice in heaven. It was at Calvary. Only the incense altar is there. It is the place where the prayers of God’s people were symbolically offered in the Tabernacle.


III. The effectual, fervent prayer of the righteous is heard in heaven!

Andrew_MurraySome prayers are not answered during a believer’s lifetime on earth. This passage would have encouraged first century believers in Asia Minor to pray without ceasing! 

Andrew Murray (1828-1917), Dutch Reformed South African pastor, said that his family had lived under the showers of answered prayers of their forebears for generations. Family reunions had met year after year and prayed for the next generation to walk in God’s ways. They ended each reunion with the singing of their family hymn — “O God of Bethel.” 

1 O God of Bethel, by whose hand
thy people still are fed,
who through this weary pilgrimage
hast all our fathers led;

2 Our vows, our prayers, we now present
before thy throne of grace;
God of our fathers, be the God
of their succeeding race. (see Doddridge, 1736; below.)

The Murray family testifies —

We are very highly privileged in being heirs to the prayers of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, but we should in turn pray for our children. They may change their names by marriage or go to the ends of the earth, but they cannot escape the mark placed upon them, for in their veins flows the blood of generations of praying ancestors. (see Choy below.)


IV. Prayer does change things, but it is prayer according to the will of God! vs. 5

The golden censor is a bowl that was used in the OT temple worship. (See it pictured at the right on the Incense Altar.) Burning coals would be placed on it and incense would be burned and before the Lord. Fire PanIncense symbolizes the prayers of the saints in the Scriptures (cf. Rev. 5:8). All of the prayers for vengeance and vindication which have been prayed by the suffering church on earth are now about to be answered. The angel takes the place of the priest in the temple and offers up the prayers of God’s people in John’s vision.

Note that the incense was added to the prayers of saints, and that it was given to the angel. Here again we have passive voice with implied Divine agency. William Hendriksen connects the incense to the intercession of Christ —

Are we stretching the meaning of the symbol when we draw the conclusion that this incense that is given to the angel represents our Savior’s intercession in heaven for His persecuted Church on earth? (see Hendriksen, p. 117, below.)


R. C. Sproul, used an effective illustration of what Rev. 8:3 teaches, though he did not use it in connection with this passage. He said the story originated from Ambrose, Bishop of Milan.

One morning a little girl appeared before the servant that managed the household. She said she had picked “flowers” for her father. The servant saw some flowers from the garden, but mostly weeds were there mixed in with a few beautiful flowers. The servant offered to present the daughter’s flowers to her father. She readily agreed, not wishing to disturb her father at work.

The servant then took the little girl’s “flowers” to the table in the hall before the master of the house’s office. On that table was a vase with fresh flowers picked by the servants from the garden. He laid the little girl’s flowers out on that table and carefully removed the weeds. Then, he took some flowers from the vase and mixed them into hers. He presented the flowers to her father in her name.

This is a good example of how Christ’s intercession works together with saints’ prayers!


All of the judgments to follow in the book of Revelation are as a result of the prayers of the saints. God’s sovereignty and the prayers of the saints work together in the plan of God. Eugene Peterson puts it poetically —

The prayers which had ascended, unremarked by the journalists of the day, returned with immense force in George Herbert’s phrase, as “reversed thunder.” Prayer reenters history with incalculable effects. Our earth is shaken daily by it.

My wife and sat in our den one evening, and all of sudden, there was a grinding noise in the distance. She asked if that were a train coming. (We live about 200 feet from the main line between Columbia and Augusta.) I said, “No wait for it.” We sat as the shaking of our house from one in to the other arrived in small ripples just a few seconds later. “It’s an earthquake.” Sure enough, I pulled up an app on my phone and a 4.2 scale earthquake had occurred in the western part of Edgefield County, SC.

I don’t know about you, but I want to see the earthshaking presence of God visit our world in answer to prayer!

We must not stop praying! The delay of an answer is not a denial. If we stop praying, we might not recognize the answer when it comes, but the answer will come!

The Trumpets next time.


Notes

Choy, Lena. (2000). Andrew Murray: The Authorized Biography. Ft. Washington, PA: CLC Publications. Kindle Edition.

Doddridge, P. (1736). Hymn “O God of Bethel.” From Hymns Ancient and Modern. Accessed 21 May 2020 from https://hymnary.org/text/o_god_of_bethel_by_whose_hand

Hendriksen, W. (1939). More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Piper, J. (1994). “The Prayers of the Saints and the End of the World” Blog post. Accessed 21 May 2020 from https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/the-prayers-of-the-saints-and-the-end-of-the-world

Ramsey, J. B. (1873). The spiritual kingdom : an exposition of the first eleven chapters of the book of Revelation. Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication. Available from archive.org since it is in the public domain.

Sartelle, J. (2020). “Do Your Prayers Shake the Earth?” Blogpost in Tabeltalk magazine. Accessed 17 May 2020 from https://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/do-your-prayers-shake-earth/

© 2020 C. Richard Barbare All Rights Reserved

 

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