When C.H. Spurgeon was asked about his ministry fruitfulness, he responded that it was due to the prayers of his people. Later, during one of their weekly prayer services, he said,
It fills my heart with gladness to see so many hundreds of persons gathered together at what is sometimes wicked described as, ‘only a prayer meeting.’ It is good for us to draw nigh unto God in prayer, and specially good to make up a great congregation for such a purpose. We have attended little prayer meetings of four or five, and we have been glad to be there, for we had the promise of our Lord’s presence; but our minds are grieved to see so little attention given to united prayer by many of our churches. We have longed to see great numbers of God’s people coming up to pray, and now we enjoy this sight…. How could we expect a blessing if we were too idle to ask for it? How could we look for Pentecost if we never met with one accord, in one place, to wait upon the Lord? Brethren, we shall never see much change for the better in our churches in general till the prayer meeting occupies a higher place in the esteem of Christians.*
I’ve read these words several times since I first read them in the early 2000s. And after last week’s prayer gathering, I thought of them again. I was so encouraged when I left that I prayed more on the drive home. And I prayed more in bed after everyone else was asleep.
Yet, I cannot count how many times, like Spurgeon, I’ve heard someone say, “It’s only a prayer meeting.” Implied are thoughts like, What’s the big deal? What good can it really accomplish? Why waste my time when there are so many others things I could be doing? Why go when I’m so tired from the week? Why make my kids suffer through that? We may find Spurgeon’s answer biting: “How could we expect a blessing if we were too idle to ask for it?”
Rather than linger on that answer, I want to point your attention to a passage in Revelation 8. Here, we see the enormous privilege of prayer and the sobering realities of what is brings about in the world. I hope that by mediating on this passage, you will be encouraged to pray.
Let me quickly set the context for you. In Revelation, the apostle John has been given a vision of the spiritual realities of heaven and earth. Christ has come to earth, died for the sins of his people, been raised back to life again, and now John sees him opening the seals of the scroll of history. John sees what Mark calls the beginnings of the birth pangs, signaling the end of the world. Christ has broken the first four seals and set war, death, famine, and pestilence upon the earth in judgment against sin. Suffering we ourselves see this very day. Then Jesus opens the fifth seal and John gets a glimpse of the souls of the Christian martyrs under the altar of God crying out for the vindication of the cause of truth and the blood they had shed. The sixth seal is opened and the final hour begins to be unleashed. Then John is given a vision of those who will endure God’s wrath—his people. He first sees the perfectly numbered totality of God’s people, sealed by God on the earth so they are preserved for his own. Then he sees them in the final triumphant state in heaven as an uncountable multitude from every nation serving God in security and joy for ever and ever.
This brings us to chapter 8. There we read,
When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 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. 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. Now the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to blow them (Rev 8:1–6, ESV).
No Prayer Lost
Do you see what has happened to the prayers of the saints? They have been stored up on this golden altar before God (8:3). Have you ever wondered where your prayers go? Have you ever wondered what God does with them, if he is even listening to them? Here is part of the answer to those questions. The prayers of his people go onto the altar before his throne. None of them are lost. None is wasted or pointless. God assures us that our prayers are not without purpose. He assures us that when we pray, something is happening, we are getting through. Our prayers do not fall on deaf ears, but reach the very ear of God.
Prayers Made Perfect
Notice also language that should be familiar to us from Pastor Greg’s sermon series through Leviticus. We see talk of altars, censers, incense—temple language. Just outside the large curtain that set-apart the most holy place from the rest of the temple, was the holy place.And in that holy place was the altar of incense. Every morning and evening, a priest would enter and pour incense over the burning coals on that altar. As he poured that incense over the coals, a fragrant cloud of smoke would ascend to heaven. As the incense wafted up, the priest would step back and pray.
The point of this was to illustrate that their prayers were pleasing, acceptable, satisfying to God.
But, how were the prayers of sinful people pleasing to God? It was only because they were made that way when accompanied by the incense, he himself had supplied. God made their prayers acceptable. This is the imagery that stands behind Revelation 8. Notice also that our prayers do not make it to the altar of their own accord, but are accompanied by “much incense” (8:3).
The incense does not just go up with the prayers. It goes in favor of, or on behalf of the prayers. In other words, this incense, enhances their prayers, beautifies them, secures their pleasing quality before God. But it is not the angel who does this. Did you see that in v. 3, the angel was given the incense to mix with the prayers? God himself who has made these prayers pleasing and acceptable. How does he do this?We are not told exactly in this passage. But incense is always associated with sacrifice in the Old Testament. And in heaven there is only one sacrifice—the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. It is his sacrifice for his people that makes prayers offered in his name acceptable to God.
Prayer Brings God’s Power
The prayers of God’s people have been piled on the altar. Previously, the martyred saints asked, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev 6:10). Here, we see that when the time is right, God does something with these prayers. He sends an angel to mingle heavenly incense with these prayers. Then comes verse 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.”
These great events: thunder, sounds, lightening, earthquake all represent the action of God from heaven on the world as the scroll of the end of the age begins to open and the seven trumpets and the seven bowls are poured out. They represent the beginnings of the out-pouring of his final wrath against sin. And the nearly unbelievable, unmistakable point of this passage is that the prayers of the saints help bring this about. When Christ commanded us to pray, “Your kingdom come,” he intended to answer that prayer. The prayers of the Church are one of the instruments God uses to usher in the end of the world with great divine judgments.
This is staggering to comprehend! In the mystery of providence, God has ordained both the ends and the means by which those ends are brought about. That is, he has ordained the completion of his plan. And he has ordained that our prayers be the means by which that plan is brought about. This is the privilege we have been granted in Christ. We can understand how the poet George Herbert can call prayer “reversed thunder”; powerful petitions that come back to earth with the unending power of God himself.
God Answers Prayer
As we move from the greater to the lesser, I think we can rightly say that while this passage specifically has the end of the world in view, the implications of this passage are far more reaching. That is to say, if the prayers of God’s people are used to bring about something as significant as God’s final judgment on sin, then it is no difficult thing to see how the prayers of the saints are used to bring about smaller things as well—the eradication of cancer cells in a human body; the provision of money for missionaries; or, the salvation of our loved ones.
On this last thought, I’m reminded of a joyous time in high school. My family attended church together when I young for several years. Then we left for another church, coming back to that first church when I was in high school. When we were there the first time, one of my friends had a dad who wouldn’t come to church. What I didn’t know was that the men of our church prayed incessantly for that man. And five years later when we rolled back up to that church and began attending, my dad nudged me and said with tears in his eyes, “Do you know who that is? That’s your friend’s dad.” It was the man he’d prayed for, now a professing believer, faithfully worshiping with his family. I had forgotten all about the situation, but my dad hadn’t. And he quietly praised God for answering so many of his prayers.
It’s easy to lose heart when it comes to prayer. It takes mental focus and spiritual energy. It takes tome to get away from the push and pull of other obligations. It can even seem like a waste of time with other, “practical” steps can seem more important or helpful. Not every answer is dramatic. Not every want is good for us in God’s perfect wisdom.
But prayer should never be taken lightly. Nor should we give up in prayer. Whether it’s at home together, God wants us to pray. And he delights to act according to our prayers. May we never again say, “It’s only a prayer meeting.”
*C.H. Spurgeon, Only a Prayer Meeting, reprint (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2022), 7.
Note: This article was also posted on the Providence Bible Fellowship Blog.