Historical setting:

The prophet Daniel received a vision about a great war, which sent him into mourning for three weeks, followed by a vision of the Son of God Himself. The interpretation of the vision was delayed while the angel Gabriel, who came to give Daniel insight and understanding,[1] together with Michael, “the great prince who protects [the Jewish] people,” struggled in a 21-day spiritual battle with the evil “prince of the Persian kingdom.” [2]

The vision, Daniel learned, was of “a time yet to come,”[3] a time described in “the Book of Truth.”[4] Daniel, as he was in the habit of doing,[5] wrote down the substance of what he saw on a scroll, but then he was told by Gabriel to “close up and seal the words of the scroll until the time of the end.”[6]

 

Immediately before the end times: Heavenly worship for who God is.

Revelation chapters 4 and 5 give us a picture of Heaven prior to the “righteous judgment” which comes in “the day of God’s wrath,”[7] or “the time of the end”[8] as Daniel called it—the final seven years before the Millennium. God is on His throne, and all Heaven’s occupants are worshiping Him.

The ardent worship around the throne of God is interrupted when “a mighty angel” notices that the One sitting on the throne is holding a scroll sealed with seven seals. The mighty angel blurts out in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?”

Is this Daniel’s scroll? Was it sealed with seven seals?

And who is this mighty angel? Who would recognize the significance of the scroll – that it is not just a run-of-the-mill scroll? Who would be so interested in the contents of this scroll as to interrupt Heaven’s chief activity, the worship of God? Who would be excited to see the end times begin? Would it not be Gabriel, who at various times interpreted Daniel’s visions?[9]

A quick search is made, but no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. The apostle John wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders came up with the answer: “See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”[10]

The One who is about to present himself to the unbelieving and rebellious world as the strong Lion of Judah is seen very differently by believers. He is known to the redeemed ones as the Lamb who was slain for their salvation. That salvation is not complete until we are saved from the very presence of sin.

 

Prayers about to be answered: Worship for God’s dealings with earth.

As the Lamb takes the scroll, the four living creatures and the 24 elders fall down before him, each holding a golden bowl of incense containing the prayers of the saints.

Here we need to be reminded of the layout of the throne room in Heaven. The Old Testament tabernacle and the temple of Solomon were patterned after the temple of God in heaven, which is also called “the tabernacle of Testimony.”[11] The tabernacle and Solomon’s temple each had two parts – a large holy place and a smaller Holy of Holies separated from the main sanctuary by a curtain. Inside the Holy of Holies was the ark of the covenant with the mercy seat as its lid. Directly in front of the ark, but outside the Holy of Holies and separated from it by the curtain, was the altar of incense.

(The altar of incense was so closely associated with the ark of the covenant, the place where God sits, that in Hebrews it is pictured as inside the Holy of Holies.[12] In the main sanctuary were three pieces of furniture: the altar of incense, the lampstand, and the table with consecrated bread on it. But the altar of incense was closer to the ark of the covenant, which was out of sight behind the curtain, than to the other pieces of furniture, which were in sight. What a reminder of how close God is to our prayers!)

The temple in heaven also has an altar of incense, but has no curtain hiding the presence of the One on the throne. The incense represents “the prayers of the saints,”[13] so we know that our prayers have top priority in God’s agenda. Our prayers are more important to Him than any other aspect of our worship.

The worship songs of the book of Revelation give us insight into what is foremost in the minds of those in the spiritual realm. First the four living creatures and the 24 elders sing, “Worthy is the Lamb to take the scroll and open its seals.” Then the angels also sing, “Worthy is the Lamb.” Then every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea picks up the refrain.[14] All are praying for the Lamb to open the seals and get the end times rolling. Rather than distracting from the worship of God, the mighty angel by his question has focused the worship directly on the Lamb and has intensified the desire in heaven and on earth for the end times to begin, for justice to be done, and for salvation to be fully accomplished.

At this point the rapture has not taken place, for immediately following the rapture there will be no believers “on earth”[15] worshiping the Lamb.

The Lamb begins opening the seals, and the “four horses of the apocalypse” gallop forth, bringing conquest, death, famine and destruction.[16]

 

Persecuted saints pray for justice:

With the opening of the fifth seal, we see persecuted Christians crying for God to judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge their blood. They are told to “wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.”

At this point the rapture still has not taken place, because the persecuted saints are described as “under the altar.”[17] Raptured saints will not be under anything! They will be on top of the world with delight! Being “under the altar” is a reminder that there is no daylight between their prayers and God Himself. Their prayers are getting God’s attention!

With the opening of the sixth seal, those prayers begin to be answered. A great earthquake moves every mountain and island from its place, and people everywhere call to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”[18] The final seven years have begun!

 

Flashback: Rapture

Revelation chapter 7 is a flashback to what happened in heaven between the fifth and sixth seals—144,000 Jews were sealed with the name of God the Father and the Lamb on their foreheads,[19] and the rapture took place.

How do we know that? First, an angel called out, “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.”[20] The great earthquake which moved every mountain and every island would certainly have harmed the land and the sea and the trees. And second, the saints “have come out of the great tribulation.”[21] We have been told very clearly in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[22] And with the sixth seal, the wrath of God has come, moving every mountain on earth from its place.

Note the first word out of the mouths of the raptured saints: Salvation!

“Salvation! To our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”[23] Their salvation is now complete. They are finally and forever saved from the presence of sin. Hallelujah! Glory to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!

 

Prayers for justice and mercy:

With the opening of the seventh seal, the altar of incense is front and centre. “Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.”[24]

What are God’s people praying for? Haven’t their prayers been answered now that they are in heaven?

Not all of them. Throughout the ages we have prayed for justice to be done. Our prayers for justice have been mixed with prayers for mercy, especially for our unsaved loved ones. “Lord, may they come to know You before it’s too late!” But we know that though God is longsuffering, His mercy has limits. “The wages of sin is death”[25] and wages must be paid. The justice that fell on Jesus at the cross will one day fall on those who reject Jesus, the gift of God, in whom is eternal life.

 

Prayers begin to be answered:

As the seven trumpets sound one by one, judgments fall on earth, and prayers for justice begin to be answered. How do we know this is in answer to prayer?

Watching these events unfold, John says, “I heard a voice coming from the horns of the golden altar that is before God… ‘Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates.’”[26] These angels then killed a third of mankind! In answer to prayer!

 

Prayers for the Jews:

For millennia, saints have been praying for the Jewish people. As Samuel said, “Far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you.”[27] David admonished us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. “May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.”[28]

This peace will come only when the Lord’s people turn to the Lord and serve Him with all their hearts, listen to Him and respond to His discipline. Then the Lord will fulfill His promise to Jeremiah: “I will surely gather them from all the lands where I banish them in my furious anger and great wrath; I will bring them back to this place and let them live in safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them…. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul.”[29]

So in Revelation 11:1 we see the altar again. “Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, and count the worshipers there.” Measure. Make sure they meet God’s standards. Count the worshipers. Separate those who know Jesus as their Messiah from those who, like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, refuse to acknowledge Him as their Messiah in spite of all the evidence.

The word ‘measure’ (metreo) is used in three places in the New Testament. Paul used it when he berated the Corinthians for measuring themselves by themselves.[30] It is used here in Revelation 11 when God wants to make sure His people measure up. Finally, it is used in Revelation 21 in the context of measuring the gates and walls of the Holy City.

Many are praying that the Jews will measure up so they can enter those gates and walls. Two witnesses are preaching and prophesying powerfully in Jerusalem for 1,260 days. In answer to the prayers of the saints the survivors of Jerusalem’s earthquake were scared into the Kingdom. They “were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.”[31]

 

More prayers answered.

Elsewhere on the planet few are responding in the same manner to God’s judgments. They dig in their heels, grit their teeth, curse God and refuse to repent.

For the greater part of seven years, though most people have not repented,[32] the gospel was still being proclaimed,[33] the temple in heaven was still open, and the ark with its mercy seat was still available to mankind.[34] People were being saved, but at the cost of tremendous persecution, requiring “patient endurance.” Many were killed for their faith.[35]

The saints find that more and more often their prayers for mercy are being replaced with prayers for justice. And God answers both those prayers.

The earth is harvested.[36] Before God declares all-out war on the earth, He calls His people home. An angel swings his sickle over the earth, and those saved during the day of God’s wrath are raptured.

God has not forgotten the prayers of the martyrs that have been ringing down through the centuries: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”

The answer comes with action. An angel comes out of the temple in heaven with a sharp sickle in his hand. Another angel comes from the altar of incense. He is in charge of the fire – the fire of justice. With a loud voice the angel commands the angel with the sickle to gather the earth’s grapes and throw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. A great river of blood then flows from outside Jerusalem to the Gulf of Aqaba.[37]

As seven angels pour out seven plagues on the earth, the temple in Heaven fills with “smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were completed.”[38] Mercy is no longer available. Nobody is saved during the final judgments.

 

Praise for answered prayers.
As the bowls are poured out and the plagues fall, we hear a song coming out of heaven, the song of the martyrs.
“Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty.
Just and true are your ways, King of the ages.”[39]

 

An angel is more specific:
“You are just in these judgments,
you who are and who were, the Holy One,
because you have so judged;
for they have shed the blood of your saints and prophets,
and you have given them blood to drink
as they deserve.”
And I heard the altar [the praying saints] respond:
“Yes, Lord God Almighty, true and just are your judgments.”[40]

 

Our prayers are answered. We don’t see the altar in Revelation again. But during the wedding supper of the Lamb, the song continues to ring out:
“Hallelujah!
Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
for true and just are his judgments.
He has condemned the great prostitute
who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.
He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.
Hallelujah!”[41]

 

The Hallelujahs here are the first Hallelujahs in the New Testament, and they are for judgment executed. The first Hallelujah in the Old Testament was also for judgment executed. The psalmist said,

“I will sing to the Lord all my life;

I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the Lord.

But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more.

Praise the Lord, my soul.

Hallelujah!”[42]

 

God built into our hearts a deep desire for justice to be done. Our hearts long for justice. Let’s praise the Lord every time we see justice meted out.

Let’s also respond to the fast approaching return of Jesus as Paul and John did. The apostle Paul ended his letter to the Corinthians with the words, “Come, O Lord.”[43] John closed the book of Revelation with a prayer for the return of Christ:

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” …

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.[44]

For 2000 years Christ-followers have been praying for Jesus to come for His Bride, the Church. As this world gets more corrupt and persecution increases to the level of “great tribulation,” this prayer becomes even more frequent and fervent.

The word in Aramaic is maranatha, meaning variously:
(1) “Our Lord, come” (a prayer).
(2) “Our Lord is come” (a declaration of the Incarnation: Jesus is God come in the flesh).
(3) “Our Lord is coming” (a declaration that Jesus is returning for His Bride, the Church).

What should be our response today? Pray for the Lord’s return. Declare the gospel—that Jesus is God come in the flesh. And declare the urgent message—both a warning and a blessed hope—that Jesus is returning soon. Be ready!

 

Footnotes


[1] Daniel 9:21-22

[2] Daniel chapter 10 and 12:1

[3] Daniel 10:14

[4] Daniel 10:21

[5] Daniel 7:1

[6] Daniel 12:4. See also 8:26.

[7] Romans 2:5

[8] Daniel 12:4

[9] Daniel 8:15-27; 9:1-3, 20-27; chapters 10-12

[10] Rev. 5:3-5

[11] Rev. 15:5

[12] Hebrews 9:3-4

[13] Rev.5:8

[14] Rev. 5:9-14

[15] Rev. 5:13

[16] Rev. 6:1-8

[17] Rev. 6:9-11

[18] Rev. 6:12-17.

[19] Rev. 14:1

[20] Rev.  7:3

[21] Rev. 7:14

[22] 1 Thessalonians 5:9

[23] Rev. 7:10. Many translations insert a word such as “belongs” between “salvation” and “to our God,” but there is no word there in the original. I have merely used the punctuation which is used in the next worship song (v.12).

[24] Rev. 8:3-5

[25] Romans 6:23

[26] Rev. 9:13, emphasis added.

[27] 1 Sam. 12:23

[28] Psalm 122:6-7

[29] Jer. 32:37-41

[30] 2 Cor. 10:12

[31] Rev. 11:13

[32] Rev. 9:20

[33] Rev. 14:6

[34] Rev. 11:19

[35] Rev. 14:12-13

[36] Rev. 14:14-16

[37] Rev. 14:17-20. 1,600 stadia is about 180 miles, or 300 km.

[38] Rev. 15:8, emphasis added.

[39] Rev. chapter 15, especially v. 3.

[40] Rev. 16:5-7

[41] Rev. 19:1-3

[42] Psalm 104:33-35. See margin.

[43] 1 Corinthians 16:22

[44] Revelation 22:17, 20

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