A Response to Prayer – Rev 8:5

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. – Revelation 8:5 ESV

The first 5 verses of chapter 8 seem to mark a turning point in John’s vision. It starts with a brief time of quiet anticipation in the normally praise filled heaven. Following this is the introduction of 7 angels with trumpets who will occupy the next portion of the vision. An 8th angel then comes before the altar first seen in Rev. 6:9; the altar over the soul’s of the martyrs asking about judgement. This 8th angel offers incense at the altar, mixed with the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8), and the smoke rises up before God. Following this, the 8th angel takes fire from the altar and throws it onto the earth, resulting in fireworks and the sounding of the 7 trumpets.

So what does all this mean? Like much of Revelation there are many answers to that question. But it seems to me like the prayers of the saints, in particular those under the altar asking about the coming judgement of their killers, are being answered. After the prayers of the saints are offered to God, fire is poured out on the earth, and judgement begins.

Does God answer prayer? Yes he does; in his time. The martyrs had earlier been told that the judgement would come in the right time (Rev. 6:11), and that time had now come. Don’t be discouraged if your prayer is not answered when you think it should. Be content in knowing that if you are praying according to his will (1 John 5:14), that he will answer in the appropriate time.

The Prayers of the Saints – Rev 5:8

And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. – Revelation 5:8 ESV

In the midst of the throne room described in the previous chapter we see a sealed scroll in God’s hand and a Lamb, Jesus, who is worthy to open the scroll. When the Lamb takes the scroll the heavenly host fall down before him in worship, holding harps and bowls of incense. I suspect this may be where we derive the imagery of harps in heaven.

But more interesting to me are the bowls of incense. This is one of the times in Revelation where we are specifically told what an image or symbol means. The incense is the prayers that we offer up to God. Incense was offered to God daily in the Old Testament Tabernacle and Temple, just outside the Most Holy Place where God dwelled. The picture here is of our prayers to God accomplishing the same purpose, they are a fragrant offering to God. God delights in our prayer, in the time we spend with him. As incense burned continuously before the Lord in the Tabernacle (Ex 30:7-8), so we should offer up our prayer continuously before the Lord. May the sweet smell of our prayers fill the throne room in heaven.

Powerful and Effective Prayer – James 5:16

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. – James 5:16 NIV

This is really a quite remarkable verse. Many of us have the attitude toward prayer that it is a good thing for us to do; and we pray periodically, or maybe even regularly. But do we really expect it to make a difference? James tells us that prayer is powerful and effective, following that by the example of Elijah praying for the rain to quit and later to return; and it did.

But before getting to carried away with what prayer can do for you, take note of a couple of things. Within the context of this passage the prayer talked about is prayer offered for others, not self. And the prayer is coming from a righteous person, not just from anyone. But if I am striving for personal holiness (1 Pet 1:16), and I am praying for others, I should expect that my prayer would be effective; that it will make a real difference in people’s lives. What a privilege God has granted us, to help direct his activity on the earth.

Seeking God’s Direction – Acts 13:2

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” – Acts 13:2 NIV

Antioch was the home of the first known, predominately Gentile church. While it is not explicitly stated here, it would appear that the church leadership is seeking direction from God as they worship and fast. I suspect that this could very well be connected with God’s earlier calling of Paul (Acts 9:15) to proclaim Christ to the Gentiles. God responds to them in some fashion, making clear that Saul (Paul) and Barnabas are to be sent off to proclaim the gospel. So they fasted, prayed, laid hands on them, and sent them off. And thus the first intentional missionaries are sent out.

While I do not expect that there are many Apostle Pauls waiting to be sent out from among us, this church at Antioch does set a good example of how to seek God’s direction. They worshipped, bowing down before their sovereign Lord; fasted, denying themselves and any outside distractions; and prayed, seeking God’s direction. And I suspect that it was not just for a few minutes on Sunday. I wonder what would happen if the church today was to do that? Or for us as individual believers?

Unexpected Answered Prayer – Acts 12:15

“You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.” – Acts 12:15 NIV

I have always found this verse amusing, maybe in part because I identify with it. Peter is in prison and the church is praying for him. An angel appears and busts him out of jail. But when Peter shows up at the prayer meeting going on for his release, the folks praying for him are slow to believe their prayers have been answered, instead assuming the worst. How many times am I surprised when God answers my prayers? But why should I be? Didn’t he promise that if I asked appropriately he would respond?

Prayer, A Wonderful Privilege – Matthew 6:5-15

Prayer!  What a wonderful, and often underutilized, privilege we have.  The creator and ruler of the universe essentially has an open door policy for his children.  We can come before our Abba (daddy) anytime we want, talking, listening and just spending time with him.  Good luck trying that with any human ruler that you might be under.

So why don’t we take better advantage of this privilege he has given us?  I suspect fear is a part of it; it is God we are trying to talk to after all; and he seems distant and remote.  But feelings of inadequacy also get in the way; we don’t know how to pray, or what to pray about. “I don’t know how” is the most common excuse I hear for not praying.

In the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew, we find Jesus most extensive teachings on how to pray.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This, then, is how you should pray:

       “‘Our Father in heaven,
       hallowed be your name,
       your kingdom come,
       your will be done,
              on earth as it is in heaven.
       Give us today our daily bread.
       And forgive us our debts,
              as we also have forgiven our debtors.
       And lead us not into temptation,
              but deliver us from the evil one.’

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Matthew 6:5-15 NIV

The first thing Jesus tells us is that prayer is something personal between me and my Father.  In Jesus day it was common for some to look for public occasions to pray.  The more people who heard you the better.  I do believe there is a time and place for public prayer.  But these people were praying to draw attention to themselves.  Prayer should be directed to God, not to those who are listening, and not to get others to think more highly of you.

Jesus tells us instead, to find a private place where you can commune with God.  Get away from any distractions.  And be where you can be yourself without worrying about how others might be looking at you.  Falling on your face in front of a crowd is something that most of us will avoid, but may feel led to when it is just me and God.  Speaking aloud can also enhance intimate prayer, so long as there is no one else around to hear you.

Jesus also counsels us about our language.  When you listen to some pray in public, do you ever notice that they sound totally different than when they are just talking to you?  Sometimes it is in the vocabulary they use, and sometimes the whole tone changes.  And that would make sense if God cared about all that; but why would he?  He knows us better than we know ourselves.  I doubt that he will be impressed when we try and use our churchy words and voice when we talk with him.  Just be yourself instead.  He already knows what you need, and just wants to hear from you as his beloved child, not as a supplicant before his king.

And then Jesus gives us a sample, or model, prayer.  And that sample can be a good guide when you are alone in your private place communing with your maker.

  • Offer up praise to God, worship him, honor him as Lord and God.
  • Seek his will for yourself, your family, the church you are a part of, the world around you.
  • Let him know what needs you have, as well as of others you are aware of.
  • Seek forgiveness for your wrongs.
  • Express forgiveness for those who have wronged you, even if they are not interested in it.
  • Seek help in your daily life, desiring to please God in what you do.
There is little in this world more rewarding than spending quality time with Abba.  That is how you will develop an intimate relationship with him.  Be like Enoch, and commune so closely with God that the transition into eternity will be seamless.

Miracles: Impossible, or to be Expected?

So what about miracles?  Are miracles only currently unexplained natural phenomenon, or hoaxes?  Or can it be that there really is such a thing as a miracle?  And what does their reality, or lack thereof, say about the existence of God.

First of all, just what is a miracle?  The dictionary defines the term in multiple ways, from “an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause” to “a wonder; marvel”.  For the purposes of this blog, it is safe to ignore the second dictionary definition and focus in on some variation of the first.  A miracle is the result of an action of God affecting the natural realm.  Given that definition, a miracle may not even be noticed by us, especially if it has the appearances of a natural event, like rainfall, or the absence of some event, like an accident that was prevented.  Those kinds of miracles are impossible for us to pick out with any certainty, and are generally not identified as miracles by most.  More generally we limit miracles to those things for which we have no explanation, apart from God’s action, and which are highly uncommon.  The signs and wonders performed by Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament are examples of what many will identify as miracles.

So are miracles possible?  I believe the answer to this question is largely the same as your answer to the question of God’s existence.  If you doubt the existence of God, then it is doubtful you would believe miracles are possible, since there is no God to perform them.  On the other hand, if you believe there is a God, who created the universe, then the thought of his interacting with his creation should not be that surprising; although there are some who do accept the existence of a god who created the universe but is not involved with it, and thus do not accept the possibility of miracles.

On the surface then, it would appear that miracles could be used as a proof for the existence of God.  And indeed, one of the terms used in the New Testament for miracles is signs.  John 20:30-31 in particular demonstrate the use of that term and its purpose.

“Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

According to John, the purpose for the signs that he recorded was to point a person into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, the son of God.   In fact, I believe that most miracles have a similar purpose; to point people to their creator.  I don’t see God intervening in the world solely for my physical benefit.  God is not like a vending machine where I can drop in a pray and out pops a miracle.  Finding a front row parking spot in a crowded lot is not a miracle; it is a fortuitous circumstance.

I cannot recall seeing a miracle similar to what the gospel writers record God doing through Jesus.  And so it is tempting to say I have never seen a miracle.  But is that really the case?  I am instructed to pray to God.  A certain portion of that prayer is concerned with thanksgiving and praise.  But prayer also includes asking for direction, for provision, for forgiveness.  And when I pray, at least when I pray appropriately, I am promised that God will respond.  If God responds by helping me to understand his word, by bringing comfort to one in distress, or by healing one that the doctors have given up on; is that not a miracle as well?

Too often today, skeptics respond to talk of miracles in one of two ways.  Either they will accept that something unusual has indeed occurred, but it only appears to be a miracle because we have not discovered the scientific explanation for it.  Or that the miracle did not actually occur and is a hoax, a misunderstanding, or a coincidence.  And they will usually follow that up with a demand to see a miracle performed in a setting where it can be independently verified and validated; similar to the Pharisees of Jesus day (Matthew 12:38).  Those men would not have been convinced if Jesus had levitated them 6 feet off the ground and then flew them over the Jordan river and dropped them on the other side.  And the skeptics of today would be just as unconvinced.

For those who already believe in God, or who are receptive to that belief; miracles indeed are a sign pointing to God.  But to those who have chosen not to believe, no miracle will likely be sufficient to convince them.  I am convinced that much of what are called miracles today are not really miracles.  But I am also convinced that God will intervene in this world, when appropriate, to point people towards him, and to respond to the prayer of his people.

God’s Will: Rejoice, Pray and Give Thanks – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

The above passage is from Paul’s concluding remarks in his first letter to the Thessalonian church, and it is sometimes easy to just race past it to finish up the letter.  But I believe that is a big mistake.  These three tiny verses have some very practical application in our daily lives, especially if we want to follow God’s desire concerning our character. Three simple directives that will make such a big difference in who we are.

Rejoice always!  I am sure you have know people who always seemed positive, who always see the good, who brighten your day whenever you encounter them.  God wants me to be one of those people.  Not one who is wearing a mask and just pretending to rejoice.  But one who just does.  To have a heart that is always rejoicing in the Lord.

Pray continually!  This sounds impossible; and it is if you limit prayer to something that requires you to close your eyes, bow your head, and tell God what you want him to do for you.  But prayer is so much more than that.  Think of prayer simply as talking to God, without all of the ritual that we so often seem to wrap around it.  There is generally no need to bow your head, although there may be a time for that.  Closing your eyes can be useful when you need to block out other distractions, but would normally be a bad idea, especially if you are driving.  Prayer should not be limited to making requests, treating God like a giant vending machine in the sky.  Just talk to him, like you do your closest friend.  That is how you will get to know him best.

Give thanks in all circumstances!  It is easy to be thankful when everything is going just right.  It is quite another thing to be thankful when your life seems to be the subject of a country western song; dog died, wife ran away, and the truck is broke.  Hardly a day goes by that I don’t find something that is hard to be thankful for.  But fortunately we are not being instructed to be thankful for those things that happen to us.  Instead we are just told to be thankful while we are going through those trying circumstances.  Be thankful that we have a God who cares about us.  Be thankful for what the trials can produce in our lives.

This is God’s will for you.  There are a lot of things that I might identify as being God’s will for me, including some things that are specific for my life and not necessarily for others.  But for all of us who are ‘in Christ Jesus’, who have a relationship with him, he wants us always to have a spirit of joy and thanksgiving, and to stay in constant contact with him.  After all, we have been invited to be a part of God’s plan for eternity and to enter into fellowship with our creator.  Why would I not be filled with joy and thanksgiving?

Acts 2:42 Groups

I have grown most during those times in my life when I have been a part of a close knit group of committed believers.  Most of the more significant steps on my spiritual journey were made in step with a handful of others who walked with me along the way.  I remember and cherish those times and those people.

But all too often my fellowship within the body of Christ has been more superficial and casual.  I seldom develop close relationships with others; even though I crave them.  I willingly and freely share surface chatter; while struggling to share anything that is below the surface.  Far too often I flounder along on a solitary spiritual journey that never seems to go very far.  I freely admit that it is my own fault; but it is a problem none-the-less.

This summer, while hiking through Oregon, I was challenged to leave my comfort zone, to trust God, and work to develop a greater sense of intimacy and commitment within the church where I serve.  The Small Group ministry that Kitsap Lake Baptist is beginning had its genesis somewhere north of Crater Lake with God impressing Acts 2:42 on my mind.  Hours, and miles, were spent on this passage and on how to bring something like it to life within the body of believers I am a part of.

Since returning from the trail I have spent many hours with our pastor and a small group of other like minded believers in taking that dream and developing a ministry to implement it within the life of the church.  Our Acts 2:42 Groups ministry has taken shape over the past five months and is now, at least on paper, compete.  Enlisting and training small group leaders will be on going during the next couple of months, with a launch currently scheduled for April 1st.  This is an exciting time for me, and I am eagerly looking forward to seeing it change my own life as well as others who make up the body of Christ.  And the health of the body will not lag behind the health of its members.

Acts 2:42 Groups are not Bible studies; although they do include Bible study.  They are not prayer meetings; although prayer is an integral part of them.  They are not just an opportunity to fellowship; although intimate fellowship is an intentional activity with the groups.  Following the Acts 2:42 model, our Acts 2:42 groups will be devoted to the Apostles teaching (Bible study), the fellowship (development of unity and intimacy), the breaking of bread (social activities), and prayer (uniting together in prayer).  Acts 2:42 Groups will also work to develop a sense of accountability between group members, and work together on mission projects.

How will we know if our Acts 2:42 Groups are a success?  If we find Acts 2:46-47 happening; the church praising God and worshiping, hanging out together, having a good reputation in our community, and growing from those who want what we have; then we will have done well.