Looking Above A Series on the Revelation of Jesus Christ Revelation 5:8 “Elders and Prayer”

In our last article, we considered the responsibility of elders in teaching, taking note that it was an elder who directed John to the Lion of the Tribe of Judah—the Lamb slain—as the One who has prevailed and is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals (Revelation 5:5).

In this article we want to consider the role of the elders in prayer, taking as our basis Revelation 5:8, “Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.”

The elders have in their hands golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. God has given us the interpretation of the golden bowls of incense: they are the prayers of the saints.

But why are the prayers of the saints pictured in terms of incense? The imagery comes from the Old Testament tabernacle, and specifically from the altar of incense that stood in the Holy Place just before the Holy of Holies. You can read about that in Exodus 30:1-10. Sweet incense was to be burned upon the altar every morning and evening, arising before God as a perpetual incense, a pleasing aroma to Him. Like the perpetual incense that ascended before the Lord from the altar, so the prayers of the saints are to ascend before the Lord perpetually, morning and evening.

We find the Apostle Paul doing exactly that in the New Testament. He prays for the churches perpetually. Continually his prayers arise as a sweet aroma to the Lord morning and evening, day and night. He says to the Romans, “without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers” (Romans 1:9). He says to the Corinthians, “I thank my God always concerning you…” (1 Corinthians 1:4). He says to the Ephesians, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you always in my prayers…” (Ephesians 1:16). He says to the Philippians, “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy…” (Philippians 1:3-4). He says to the Colossians, “We give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you…” (Colossians 1:3). He says to the Thessalonians, “We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers” (I Thessalonians 1:2).

Are you getting the point? As the incense from the altar of incense arose continually before God, so the prayers of the saints are to arise continually before God, and that by virtue of our union with Christ. Even as Christ “makes intercession for us” (Romans 8:34), so we are called to “be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Even as Christ “ever lives to intercede for us” (Hebrews 7:25), so we are called to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17).

The prayers of the saints are portrayed in terms of incense to impress upon us the fact that the saints are to be always in prayer.
But why is the incense—the prayers of the saints—carried in golden bowls? What is the significance of that? The golden bowls tell us that the prayers of the saints are precious in God’s sight. They arise like incense—a sweet aroma—before Him and are precious in His sight. Made of precious metal, the golden bowls full of incense indicate that the prayers of the saints are precious in God’s sight.
And why are they precious in His sight? The prayers of the saints are pictured to us here in terms of golden bowls full of incense, and they are directly related to the opening of the seven seals. Revelation 5:8 leaves us with the distinct impression that the prayers of the saints of God are in some sense responsible for the loosing of the seven seals. Those seals are opened not only in response to the prayers of God’s people; they are opened because of the prayers of God’s people. The saints pray, and the seals are opened.

What is the significance of that? Remember what the scroll, sealed with its seven seals, represents: it represents the history of redemption!

In other words, your prayers set in motion the history of redemption. You pray, and the history of redemption progresses.

Now of course God is sovereign; it is His will that is carried out; He not only ordains the times in which His people pray, He also ordains the prayers themselves. But do not let the sovereignty of God over prayer lead you to miss the point. He has chosen the prayers of the saints as the very means by which He sets in motion the history of redemption!

Indeed, there is power in prayer! How does James put it? “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit” (James 5:16-18). The heavens were shut up, refusing to send rain on the earth for three and a half years—and that by the prayer of one man! The heavens were opened again, giving rain, causing the earth to produce fruit—and that by the prayer of one man! Again, God is sovereign. He moved Elijah to pray, and through the prayers of Elijah, God worked His purposes. God is sovereign, but He uses prayer as the means by which He accomplishes His purposes, even the progression of the history of redemption.

The prayers of the saints, then, are intricately bound up with the loosing of the seven seals, even setting in motion the loosing of those seven seals. The prayers of the saints set in motion the history of redemption. There is power in prayer!

Not convinced? Then consider Revelation 8:1-6. Again, you have the prayers of the saints pictured in terms of incense. This time they are intricately bound up with the sounding of the seven trumpets, once again setting in motion the sounding of those seven trumpets. What are those trumpet blasts, but the warnings of God to an unrepentant and unbelieving world? The prayers of God’s people are bound up with the sounding of the seven trumpets, sending forth God’s warnings to the world. There is power in prayer!

Still not convinced? Then consider Revelation 15-16, where the seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God are poured out upon the earth. Those same golden bowls, symbolizing the prayers of God’s people in Revelation 5:8, are now equated with the wrath of God upon the wicked in Revelation 15 and 16. Are you getting the point? The prayers of the saints are intricately bound up with the seven bowls of God’s wrath, even setting in motion the pouring out of that wrath! There is power in prayer!

Three times the book of Revelation connects the prayers of God’s people with the history of redemption! Three times the book of Revelation connects the prayers of God’s people with the pouring out of His wrath and judgment! Three times the book of Revelation connects the prayers of God’s people with the redemption of His people! The prayers of the saints are connected with the loosing of the seven seals in chapters 4-7! The prayers of the saints are connected with the sounding of the seven trumpets in chapters 8-11! The prayers of the saints are connected with the pouring out of the seven bowls of wrath in chapters 15-16! Indeed, there is power in prayer!

God has chosen the prayers of His people as the means by which seals are opened, trumpets are sounded, and bowls are poured out. You pray, and seals are being opened. You pray, and trumpets are being sounded. You pray, and bowls are being poured out. You pray, and God’s kingdom advances! His kingdom comes not by sword, not by political rule, not by cultural transformation, but by prayer!
To be sure, we are not permitted to pray for God’s wrath to fall upon our enemies. We pray for their salvation. Remember Christ’s prayer on the cross, “Father, forgive them!” Remember the prayer of the first martyr, “Father, forgive them.” We pray for our enemies. But we pray for them, knowing full well that God uses such prayer either to bring about their salvation, or to set in motion His wrath upon them. Prayer advances the kingdom, even to the day of consummation.

In that connection, I want you to notice one last thing. Notice who holds the golden bowls of incense. Notice who holds the prayers of the saints. The twenty-four elders.

The elders of the church must be in prayer for the congregation. The undershepherds of the church must be in prayer for the flock. James reminds us, “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him” (James 5:14). It is not only the minister that must be visiting and praying, but the elders as well! Elders, you must be praying for the flock. You must be visiting them, and you must be praying for them. As one preacher has put it: prayerless elders are an abomination, and a scandal to the office of elder!

But even as the elders of the church must be in prayer for the congregation, so the congregation must be in prayer for the elders. Why? Because the elders carry a great weight; they have been entrusted with the keys of the kingdom, and whatever they bind on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever they loose on earth is loosed in heaven. It is an awesome task entrusted to the elders. They need the prayers of the saints. Even as a prayerless elder is an abomination and a scandal to the office, so the prayerless saint is an abomination and a scandal to the name Christian.

It is by prayer, both the prayers of the elders, and the prayers of the saints, that the kingdom of God advances. Those prayers set in motion the loosing of the seven seals. Those prayers set in motion the sounding of the seven trumpets. Those prayers set in motion the pouring out of the seven bowls. Those seals are being opened from the time of Christ’s first coming to the time of His return. Those trumpets are being sounded from the time of Christ’s first coming to the time of His return. Those bowls are being poured out from the time of Christ’s first coming to the time of His return.

God works in and through the prayers of the saints. God’s people are a praying people. Are you among them?!

Rev. Brian Vos is the pastor of the Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan. He also is the President of the Board of Reformed Fellowship.

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