This past Thursday, the PCA started its 50 days of prayer. A prayer guide is published on the PCA's website, and in joining this call to prayer, we are joining with believers all over the world who are coordinating their prayer efforts. I strongly encourage you to get the prayer guides and to begin in the 50 days of prayer. And I thought it was appropriate to preach on the subject of prayer as one of our foundations series of sermons. I am convinced that apart from prayer, our churches will only succeed in worldly ways. They will not succeed in spiritual power. Prayer must be the bedrock foundation of what we do as a church, and so I am revisiting the topic of corporate prayer today.
I think most of us hugely underestimate the power of prayer and we hugely underestimate the extent to which prayer is essential to the church's victory. We who believe in God's sovereignty know that God needs nothing. He doesn't need our prayers. We know that He is not dependent upon us; we know that without Him we can do nothing; we know that He has guaranteed victory. But what we sometimes forget (or at least, what we sometimes are inconsistent in our actions on) is that God has ordained that victory will come through the efforts of Spirit filled people; through the prayers of spirit filled people, and when we do not war no battles are won; when we do not pray no blessings are received; when we do not work no dominion is achieved.
Now that is not saying that God is dependent upon us. Not at all. If He wanted, He could convert the world in the blink of an eye. But He has chosen not to. I have no question whatsoever about what God is able to do. What I want to convince you of this morning is about what God has chosen to do. He has chosen to make the advance of Christ's kingdom to rise and fall on the prayers and the faith of His saints. And you might inwardly recoil and say, "But that makes God's plan man centered. That sounds Arminian!" And I would respond that it is the very opposite of man-centeredness. If we can do nothing without Christ, who get's the glory when we do do something? Christ does. He worked in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure. If God ordains not only that a person will get saved at a particular time, but He also ordains that it will not happen without the prayers of believers; without the witness of an individual and without the love of a family member, who gets the credit? Christ does. He worked in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure. He stirred up the prayers and He orchestrated the circumstances that led to the conversion.
But let's turn that question around. Isn't it man-centered to sit back and use God's sovereignty as an excuse to disobey Him? I would have to say, "Yes!" Isn't it man-centered to abandon our responsibilities and let God pamper us? It is. It is man-centered to make God a servant rather than being servants ourselves. If God has commanded us to pray, it is a denial of His sovereign lordship when we do not pray. Is that not right?
Now most of you know this; most of you know that this is a foundation of our church. In fact, this is a sermon that I am pulling out of moth balls from five or six years ago at Trinity. But I thought that we do need to revisit this subject and demonstrate how prayer is essential if we really believe in the sovereignty of God.
You see, there is no question that God does it all from beginning to end, but God has chosen to make angelic beings significant in their actions; he has made humans significant in their actions or in their lack of actions. He has chosen to use creatures rather than making us irrelevant. It was God Himself who said, Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. It is God Himself who has said, you have not because you ask not. It was God Himself who said, How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? They can't. The means to the end are essential. God has ordained that our actions and our prayers are absolutely essential to the advance of the Gospel. John Calvin himself said, "Words fail to explain how necessary prayer is..." (Institutes)
Today I want to make the bold assertion that heaven waits for the church to pray in faith.1 Yes, you heard me right. Heaven waits for the church to pray. For that matter, God waits for the church to pray. Now I know your objections - Certainly God is stirring us up to prayer by making us smart under our conditions; by giving us a hunger for Him; by stirring our desires. But the bottom line is that we will not see action in Omaha until the church is stirred up to prayer. God is a God of order. He does things according to a plan. And your prayers are a part of that plan.
"All heaven waits with baited breath for saints on earth to pray" (v. 1)
This passage gives us a glimpse of what happens in heaven when there is a corporate prayer meeting on earth. The book of Revelation has already shown how the opening of the first six seals has been related to the prayers of the saints and the book goes on to show that the prayers of the saints precede and accompany the opening of the other movements of history as well. It is a phenomenally encouraging thing when you trace that theme through the book. But this chapter gives an awesome description of what happens in heaven when the whole church gathers for prayer. It starts by saying, When He opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half and hour. Many people have puzzled over "Why the silence? " After all, the opening of the seal indicates that God is ready to move. There is a new chapter of history opening up. You would expect a flurry of activity on the part of the angels the moment He opens that seal. But though the seal is opened, nothing happens. There is silence. We will see in a moment, that the silence is the wait of heaven for the prayers of the saints.
But the question might come up, "Why does he say it was "for about half and hour"? And I think Alfred Edersheim has the best explanation of this. He says that it is because of the patterning relationship of the earthly temple with the heavenly temple. Let me explain. Verse 3 speaks of the golden censer representing the prayers of Christ, being offered up with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar. Here's how it happened on earth. The congregation would gather outside the holy place waiting for the priest to enter into the holy place to prepare for worship. Milton Terry and Edersheim both point out that it was about half an hour to accomplish all this. And verse 1 alludes to silence for about half an hour. Edersheim says, "Slowly the incensing priest and his assistants ascended the steps to the Holy Place, preceded by the two priests who had formerly dressed the altar and the candlestick, and who now removed the vessels they had left behind, and, worshipping, withdrew. Next, one of the assistants reverently spread the coals on the golden altar; the other arranged the incense; and then the chief officiating priest was left alone within the Holy Place, to await the signal of the president before burning the incense... It is this most solemn period, when throughout the vast Temple buildings deep silence rested on the worshipping multitude, while within the sanctuary itself the priest laid the incense on the golden altar, and the cloud of odours rose up before the Lord, which serves as the image of heavenly things..." When the cloud of incense rose up over the curtain, God's people began to pray.
Now here is the point. Having silence on earth before the prayer meeting was understandable. What is amazing is the silence in heaven. Verse 1 says, When He opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. That is an amazing statement when you realize the enormous activity, noise and undulating power from the throne of God. Heaven is usually described in Revelation as being abuzz with activity. Let's take a small sampling. Look at 4:5 which is in the middle of a description of God's throne room: And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices. It was not silent. It was the noise of activity. Look at verses 8-11: And the four living creatures, each having six wings, were full of eyes around and within. And they do not rest day or night, saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!" Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying: "You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created. And you could go on through the book and find noises like the beating of wings, or the sound of mighty rushing waters. But during the preparation time before the temple's prayer meeting began, all was hushed and completely silent in heaven. They are waiting. Heaven is waiting on the corporate prayers of the church. They are waiting not for one or two prayers to ascend. The prayers of individuals ascend to God night and day says Revelation. But they are waiting for the whole body of Christ to unite in prayer. Corporate prayer is given special significance in Scripture that individual prayer does not have. Psalm 76 says that Israel's battles were won in the temple. There He broke the arrows of the bow, the shield and sword of battle. It was in the house of prayer that the definitive difference was made in Israel's battles.
Now don't get me wrong. God honors the prayers of individuals. He gives even greater power to the corporate prayers of local churches. But God has chosen to unleash all the powers of heaven when the church as a whole rises up to pray. And statistics bear out this theological truth. In cities where the church as a whole has gathered for prayer, they have seen crime plummet after such meetings and conversions of unbelievers have skyrocketed after such unified prayer. Heaven is waiting. Verse 1 is an enormously significant statement. As Graham Kendrik's song says, "All heaven waits with baited breath for saints on earth to pray." Before Omaha's strongholds will be torn down, the church must come together in prayer even as Israel came together at least seven times a year in united prayer. We must take corporate prayer seriously. How long will heaven have to wait until Omaha as a whole unites in prayer and until the church as a whole takes the national days of prayer and the world days of prayer seriously? At least let our denomination unite in prayer.
"Majestic angels ready stand with swords of fiery blade" (v. 2-3)
But Kendrick's song not only says that "all heaven waits with baited breath for saints on earth to pray," but it goes on to say, "majestic angels ready stand with swords of fiery blade." If you long for the angelic battle trumpets to sound, then you must take corporate prayer seriously. Verse 2 says, And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. Again, the angels are eager and ready to advance into war, but nothing happens. They are given trumpets and are ready to sound their trumpets, but no sound comes forth until verse 6 - after the prayer meeting. Verse 4 shows the eagerness of the angels to answer prayer. An angel was right there when the prayers were offered. He was involved in some way in bringing the message to the throne of God. Majestic angels read stand with swords of fiery blade. I've often wondered how frequently angels are disappointed that the signal for battle could not be given because the church was not in prayer?
In Scripture you find that angelic warfare is directly related to our own warfare in prayer. In Daniel we see that the angels warred for the 21 days that Daniel prayed. There is a very real sense in which Majestic angels ready stand with swords of fiery blade. But you will not find their trumpet blast to advance the cause of the kingdom until you come to prayer.
All heaven waits. But it is not a discouraged wait. It is an expectant wait. The angels know God's purposes and plans will be accomplished. The angels know that God's people will be stirred up. I do not want you to be motivated by guilt. Guilt is a lousy motivator. I want the Spirit of God to take these words and grip your hearts with an enthusiasm and excitement about the power of prayer. James tells us that the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. What this passage says is that corporate prayer avails even more. It is energized with God's blessing and purpose. And if you can once see the incredible power and blessing that corporate prayer appropriates, I believe it will transform our dull, dry prayer meetings into meetings with faith, encouragement, vitality, enthusiasm, energy all wrought by the power of His Spirit. Away with the dull monotony of faithless prayer meetings. When we gather, let us gather with faith and unction because we serve a great God.
"Astounding power awaits a word from God's resplendent throne. But God awaits our pray'r of faith that cries 'Your will be done.'" (v. 4)
The third point is also from the hymn of Kendrick and Rolinson. It goes on to say, "Astounding power awaits a word from God's resplendent throne. But God awaits our pray'r of faith that cries ‘Your will be done.'" Isn't that the message of verse 4? The text says, And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel's hand. Astounding power. It is not just the power of the angels that is unleashed in this chapter, but the power of God Himself. And while God continues to uphold all things by the Word of His power, there are some things that God has chosen to unleash only at the request of the church. God could have acted before this time, but He chose to wait for the prayers of the saints. He wanted to reinforce the importance of prayer in our minds and in our hearts. "Astounding power awaits a word from God's resplendent throne. But God awaits our pray'r of faith that cries ‘Your will be done.'" What more than this do you need to stir up your heart to lay hold of corporate prayer?
"Come blend your prayers with Jesus' own before the Father's throne" (vv. 4-5a)
Some might think, there is no use in praying since Christ prays, and the Father always hears the Son. I'm not really needed. I'm redundant. But Hebrews 2:12-13 indicates that Christ has chosen to pray in and through the congregation, his body; He has chosen to sing in and through the congregation. Jesus says, in the midst of the congregation I will sing praise to You. The very next verse speaks of Christ's faith in the midst of the brethren. And His faith binds up our weak faith like iron binds a broken stick. Kendrik's song says, "Come blend your prayers with Jesus' own before the Father's throne." And that's our fourth point. It is not Christ's prayers as a substitute for our own, but Christ's prayers making ours acceptable. Verse 4 says, the smoke of the incense [that's the symbol of the prayers of Christ. So it says, "the smoke of the incense], with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel's hand. Do not think that Christ's intercession makes your prayer irrelevant. His intercession is blended with yours and makes yours acceptable; makes yours powerful.
Think of the power of Christ's prayers and realize the privilege of your own being bound with His. If you knew someone with the Midas touch - where every investment he ever made turned to proverbial gold, wouldn't you want to invest where he invests? If your investments were linked with his, you would become as rich as he was. Well, think of the power of Christ's prayers and what they avail. This passage says that ours can be linked with His.
Let me ask you this: What more could God do to make your prayers be significant? What more could He do to stir you up to the glory of doing what is impossible, of being involved in that which God alone can do? Why do you wait to pray? He has given the Spirit to make prayer possible. He has given the Son of God to make our prayers acceptable. He has given promises to encourage prayer. He has given faith to make prayer certain. God has made prayer a royal privilege and to fail to come to corporate prayer is to fail to enter into the highest calling that it is possible for sinful men to achieve. Do not let anything come into the way of prayer. Do not let anything deviate you from that which God loves and honors. Pray even if your schedule is busy. God awaits your prayer of faith. Pray even if Satan opposes. If God is in you who can be against you? Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world and there is no reason why each and every one of you cannot join with the church of Jesus Christ to pray.
"And as the incense clouds ascend God's holy fire rains down." (v. 5)
One of Kendrick's verses says, "And as the incense clouds ascend God's holy fire rains down." That is the message of verse 5: those prayers resulted in the silence ending and heaven beginning to move earth in redemptive judgments. Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and threw it to the earth. And there were noises, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake. Do you see what is being said? The censer of prayer fired by the coals of grace from the altar of Christ's sacrifice are thrown to the earth and those gracious prayers produce noises, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake. What an awesome display was unleashed by the power of corporate prayer. Can you see that I am not uttering hyperbole. This is the Word of a God who cannot lie. There is power in corporate prayer. There is history changing power in prayer. Patrick Johnstone in his book, Operation World, comments briefly on this passage in his introduction. He says:
The seventh seal, the final one, is unusual! Why was their silence in heaven for half-an-hour? It was not just for dramatic effect, or the silence before the storm. It was because God would not act until His people prayed. Once their prayers had risen to the throne, God poured out the fire from the altar upon the earth. The fire of the Spirit comes in answer to prayer (Acts 1:4,14; Acts 2:1-8), but so does the fire of judgment!...
The implications are immense. Do you realize that prayer may have brought about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? This was judgment on a nation that had resisted Christianity and killed those who responded to the gospel message; and it was also redemptive, for never before have Afghans been so exposed and open to the gospel as today. Is it possible that mighty intercession for China stirred up Communism and the Cultural Revolution to turn an unresponsive nation into one of the most astonishing areas of Christian expansion the world has ever seen? Can it be that the Sahelian famines and Latin American revolutions may be the means of gospel breakthroughs long prayed for? It is a solemn thing to intercede for the nations of the world!
Let us mobilize prayer! We can tip the scales of history. Christians can be the controlling factor in the unfolding drama of today's world - let us not allow ourselves to be chased around by the enemy, but let us go up at once and take the kingdoms of this world for Jesus (Numb. 13:30; Dan. 7:18) - He is delighted to give them to us (Dan. 7:22 and 27; Luke 12:32).
In practical terms, may these truths make our prayer lives as individuals, and in prayer meetings, outward-looking, Satan-shaking, captive-releasing, kingdom taking, revival-giving, Christ-glorifying power channels for God!
"In step with heaven's armies march to conquer and to reign!" (vv. 6ff)
And that is where I want to end this morning: with point VI: "In step with heaven's armies march to conquer and to reign!" Verse 6 says, So the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound. Many have been frightened by these seven trumpet judgments through chapter 11, but they are judgments on God's enemies, and they result in the advancement of His cause. As trumpet after trumpet sounds with new regiments of soldiers, Satan's kingdom takes hit, after hit, after hit. As the last trumpet sounds it says, there were loud voices in heaven, saying, "The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever! Chapter 12 speaks of the birth of Christ and His being caught up to heaven and the anger of Satan who persecutes the church. But as the church prays, they find victory after victory even during those first two bloody centuries. It says, Then I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, "Now salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down. And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death. That is the key to successful prayer life and successful witnessing: they did not love their lives to the death. That is devotion to witnessing! That is devotion to praying!
Those who are willing to lose their lives will find Christ's resurrection life being lived through them. But those who live this life to themselves find that nothing they do has significance for eternity. Do you want your life to count? Then you will have to count the cost of this kind of prayer life. It will cost you your pride; it will cost you your time, comfort and convenience. There will be times you will agonize in prayer and have to persevere until God's purposes are birthed. It will cost you backlash from Satan's kingdom. I don't want you to be fooled into this prayer being easy. Warfare has its casualties and its pains. There can be backlash from Satan. But what a glorious privilege to have the kind of significant life that Satan finds it worthwhile attacking.
I have included in your sermon outline a form that can be filled out committing yourself to prayer in various areas. If God's Spirit is stirring up your heart in any of these areas of prayer, sign on, let me know and we will begin. Don't wait: commit yourself now. I intend to be in this for the long haul. I hope that is your desire as well. This is a passage which says that prayer is essential and prayer is powerful. But it is also a sober reminder that all heaven waits for such prayer. May we become a people filled with the unction of the Holy Spirit to pray. Amen.
Note: the wording for the six points of the sermon is taken from the song, "All Heaven Waits" by Graham Kendrick and Chris Rolinson. Used by permission. Copyright © 1986 Thankyou Music. CCLI License #439371 ↩