READ : Revelation 8:1-5
The book of Revelation scares some people because it seems so hard to understand. But it’s all about the contrast between what seems to be important and what really is.
It was during the 1980s, and I was attending a conference in Atlanta on futurology. Scholars, pastors, and Christian leaders had gathered there to wait on God, to brainstorm about what was coming, and plan how God’s people could best serve his purpose in the years ahead.
We met in a hotel undergoing large-scale renovation. Everywhere we saw scaffolding, heavy canvas drapes; we heard jarring sounds of construction. The management was understandably apologetic. There were signs in the elevators that we couldn’t miss. They said, “Pardon our mess” or “Don’t knock this project. The contractor may be standing right beside you.” The sign that especially impressed me read like this: “When the dust settles, you’re going to see one gorgeous hotel.”
I’ve thought about that many times since. We cherish that kind of hope about Planet Earth, don’t we? Beyond the mess and muddle of our human history, the pain and turmoil, the sadness and conflict, we trust that God will yet fulfill his gracious purpose and we’ll see its beauty.
Of all the books in the Bible, this one we call “the Revelation” best kindles that hope. It lets us see “behind the scenes,” as it were, of earthly happenings. It gives us a glimpse, for our strong encouragement, of what is genuine and lasting, of how God is now at work in this world. It shows us, beyond all sham and facade, the way things really are. Let’s take a look today “behind the scenes.”
Think with me for a few moments about three momentous questions. First, who is Jesus of Nazareth? Second, what is human history all about? Third, what are the chief moving forces in this world, the powers that make things happen? You won’t find out about those things in the think-tanks of developed nations, or in high-level conferences, or on the Internet. But God has given us eyes to see them in this book we call “the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
WHO IS JESUS?
First, then, who is Jesus? People have been asking that for 2000 years. And still today, in 2001, they ask it of no other figure in centuries past in the same way. Does anyone say in our time, “Who is Alexander the Great?” or “Who is Julius Caesar?” They don’t even ask, “Who is Muhammed?” or Buddha or Confucius. But books are written every week, it seems, about the real identity of Jesus.
Is he what his enemies branded him: troublemaker, deceiver of the people, madman, agent of the devil? Is he what succeeding ages have claimed, often making him over in their own image: pale Galilean, wandering teacher, helpless victim, wild-eyed apocalyptic?
Does he belong in a list – with anyone else?
Here’s what John, on rocky Patmos, was given to see:
I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.
That’s who Jesus is – the exalted One, overwhelming in majesty and splendor. He was crucified but is now forever alive and holds all the keys of destiny. Yet he comes in compassion to encourage the heart of his lonely, imprisoned servant. Behold him, the mighty and the merciful, the Lamb who was slain and the Lord of all!
WHAT IS HISTORY?
Second Question: What is history all about? Is it an endless cycle of returning events, going nowhere? Is it a testimony to human greatness: “glory to Man in the highest for man is the measure of things”? Or is it simply a chance sequence of events, random happenings with no meaning and no goal?
Here’s what John saw about history:
Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.”
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
What is the scroll here? It’s the book of destiny, the secret purpose of the Almighty, his plan for the fullness of the times. No one in earth or heaven can figure it out, or usher in its fulfillment. No one is worthy to open its seals, to unlock its mystery, none but the Lamb who was slain. When he takes the scroll, all heaven celebrates. He is able; he is worthy.
History, we learn, is really his story, his track in time. Jesus, crucified and risen, is the great initiator, launching each new era, bringing God’s design to fulfillment.
Now he is opening the seals, one by one. After the first comes a white horse, the judgment of war and conquest. After the second, a red horse, the curse of civil conflict, ethnic strife. How much our world knows of that! After the third, a black horse, sign of famine. After the fourth, a pale green one, warning of pestilence. After the fifth, the martyrs cry “How long?” After the sixth, comes cosmic upheaval, the sealing of God’s servants, and a glimpse of their future.
For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Now the Lamb is about to open the seventh, the final seal. What unimaginable events will follow that? We’ll see
THE POWER BEHIND THE THRONE
Third Question: What are the moving forces in the world, the powers that make things happen? Listen:
When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.
Another angel with a golden censer came and stood at the altar; he was given a great quantity of incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar that is 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.
When the Lamb opens the seventh seal, we read, there is silence in heaven. Hushed are the sounds of praise, the harps, the songs of innumerable angels. Why? Apparently, it is so that something else can be heard. There it is, a strange sound: like murmuring, like music, sometimes like a cry. It’s the sound of prayer.
“Whose prayers?” we ask. They are the prayers of “all the saints.” Remember the psalmist’s musing? “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?” He believed that God had numbered his tossings and stored up his tears. And will not God treasure and preserve our prayers as well? Yes! No heartfelt prayer is ever lost. All the prayers of all the saints are there, before God’s throne.
What are they, these gathered prayers? They are songs of joy, some of them, shouts of praise. They are also sighs of lament and agonizing questions. They are appeals for bread, forgiveness and deliverance. Best of all, they are pleas for God’s name to be honored, for his reign to arrive, for his will to be done here on earth.
The angel has them all in his censer, mixed with incense. All the prayers are then offered up to God on the fire of the altar, and are received by him. Then the angel takes the censer, fills it with the altar fire and hurls it on the earth. And suddenly, there are peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. All heaven breaks loose!
There’s our answer. What are the moving forces in the world that shape history, that make things happen? They are the prayers of the saints and the fire of God – our prayers and God’s tremendous works. Not the military machines, not the multi-national corporations, not the world leaders or the wonders of technology. The powers Jesus uses to shake history and mold the future are the heartfelt prayers of God’s people. The persons, then, who count most in the scheme of things in this world are the praying ones, often obscure and unknown, sometimes despised and suffering.
By prayer the Spirit comes in power upon the disciples; by prayer Satan falls like lightning from heaven; by prayer the gospel thunders through clouds of darkness. All things by prayer.
Prayer is unseen power, seed sown on the heart of God, sure of a harvest. Prayer is water building up behind the dam, with mounting pressure, awaiting release. Prayer is prized in heaven, powerful on earth, feared in hell.
That’s the vision. That’s the view behind the scenes: Jesus as the exalted Savior and Lord, history as his story, moving at his initiative, the prayers of the saints and the fire of God’s Spirit as the secret of his reign.
Now we’ve seen it, friends. What will we do about it? We’ve seen who Jesus is. Will we follow him, serve him, love him with love undying? We’ve seen what history means. Will we trust in history’s Lord and move with his purpose? We’ve seen how prayer prevails. Will we live in the light of that vision and give ourselves to kingdom praying? Will we give to prayer a central, strategic, dominant place in our lives, trusting that no heartfelt appeal to God is ever lost?
Will you join the ranks of such people? Will you be one of those praying ones through whom God works his wonders? It’s time, friends. After Jesus told a marvelous little story about persevering in prayer and not losing heart, he asked this question, “Yet, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” Yes, will he find this kind of faith in his people, the eager trust that won’t stop praying? Here’s my ambition: if I’m still around, I want him to find it in me. What about you?
Lord, thank you for letting us see behind the scenes. Let us be obedient to the heavenly vision, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.