“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.” (Rev 8:3-4)
Over the last couple of days, we’ve been thinking through the question of how prayer relates to the complete sovereignty of God. If God is really in charge, why pray? Do our prayers really change anything (other than us and our wills)? We introduced the question on Day 19, and yesterday we looked at the example of Moses praying to God in Exodus 32.
Today, we’ll try to bring some more clarity to this question by looking at Revelation 8 (yep, you read that right – clarity by looking at the book of Revelation!).
Three times in Revelation, as the culminating moments in God’s eternal plans and purposes symbolically unfold, we read about ‘the prayers of the saints’ (Rev 5:8; 8:3; 8:4) rising before God together with a fragrant offering of incense. They’re strange passages, but remember, this is Revelation – using startling, mind-boggling imagery to lift our horizons and to make its point.
In these chapters, God’s plans and promises reach fulfillment – the crucified and risen Lord Jesus is praised and glorified, and the people he has saved are finally vindicated. We’re reading about climactic moments in all of history. But there, at the heart of it all, rising up to God as a pleasing offering, are the prayers of his people.
Clearly, nothing was ever going to stop this moment from being fulfilled. This is what God has planned all along. And yet the prayers of God’s people are mentioned here as a key element in the fulfilment of these plans. They rise before God as a pleasing offering, and as a key part of history reaching its climax.
Here’s what I think it means: in Revelation, God brings about the fulfillment of his eternal plans and purposes in response to the prayers of his people.
Could he have done it without the prayers of his people? Of course. But does he do it apart from the prayer of his people? No. In God’s sovereignty, and because he is a personal, relational God – our Father in heaven, no less – he graciously chooses to respond to the prayers of his people, and even to include them as part of his ultimate plans.
This, I think, is about the best we can do in capturing the Bible’s emphasis here. How does God’s sovereignty coexist with the reality that prayer actually changes things? Because God, in his sovereignty, chooses to unfold his plans in response to the prayers of his people.
Some have likened this to the way God works through the preaching of the gospel. God could have chosen any way (or hundreds of different ways) to save people. But in his providence, he’s chosen to save people through the gospel about Jesus being proclaimed by human messengers. Ordinary people like you and me get to be involved in God’s plans to save other people! Mind-blowing!!
Isn’t our heavenly Father gracious? Isn’t he good? He doesn’t just save us; he also invites us, encourages us, and even commands us to play a part in the spread of the gospel throughout the world. He calls us to pray. And he promises to hear, and to answer. So let’s get on with praying!
“It is God’s will through His wonderful grace, that the prayers of His saints should be one of the great principal means of carrying on the designs of Christ’s kingdom in the world. When God has something very great to accomplish for His church, it is His will that there should precede it the extraordinary prayers of His people.” (Jonathan Edwards)
Heavenly Father, forgive me for the times when I don’t pray as I should. Please help me to pray for the growth of the gospel in the world. Thank you that you so graciously include me, a sinner, in your kingdom. Thank you that you also invite me to pray for the spread of the gospel. In Jesus’ name. Amen.