The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. (Revelation 8.4)
Our Prayers Are Timeless
When I’m privileged to worship in “high churches” (Roman, Eastern, along with some Anglican and Lutheran congregations), their use of incense always moves me. Beyond its aesthetic beauty, watching the incense rise and disperse fills me with reassurance. More than anything, the lingering speaks to me—the sense that what has been offered up remains perceptibly present in fragrance lacing the air, even though the smoke can no longer be seen. Incense, in many ways, is the most fitting metaphor for prayer, as both represent transformation from natural limitation to eternal possibilities. Like incense, our prayers begin as concretely shaped requests. When we ignite them with faith, it’s unnecessary that they be visibly or audibly evident to be perceived. After we pray, all we have to know is now that our prayers have been delivered, God knows our needs.
Incense in worship brings to mind the vision John of Patmos describes in Revelation. He’s transported into a supernal throne room, where the redeemed gather to pay homage to their Creator. After everyone is assembled, they wait in silence for “about half an hour.” (Revelation 8.1) Trumpets are given to seven angels, who will herald judgment against the unrighteous. Before the fireworks commence, however, John writes: “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 prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.” (v3-4) The ethereal imagery may cause us to miss what John’s trying to show us. Our prayers are timeless. They carry no expiration date. They can’t be forgot. They won’t be ignored. The prayers of all God’s people—from every era, location, and walk of life—rise up before God, where they linger.
Our Breath Is Eternal
Our prayers are timeless because they rise on our breath, and our breath is eternal. Genesis 2.7 tells us, “God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Two distinctions separate humanity, male and female, from the rest of nature: we are handcrafted to reflect God’s image on Earth and God’s presence in us is manifested in our breath. Every other life form is spoken into existence and brought to life by God’s command. But He breathes His life into us, and we become living beings. Every breath we take expresses God’s divinity. Since human speech is articulated by divine breath, our words and prayers become living things that cannot die. That’s why extreme caution is required in everything we say; once we speak, our words can never be taken back. That’s also why we pray with confidence, knowing our prayers remain forever alive because they’re spoken with the breath of life.
Once we understand this, our faith comes alive. We realize prayer functions exclusively in the realm of the divine, where natural limitations serve no purpose and what appears impossible can be done. We see this exemplified in a rather odd incident reported in Matthew 21. It’s the last week of Jesus’s natural life. He’s under tremendous pressure and divides His time between suburban Bethany, where He stays with friends, and Jerusalem, where His enemies wait to destroy Him. The morning after His triumphal entry, Jesus returns to Jerusalem before breakfast. He spots a fig tree and finding no fruit on it, He curses the tree: “May you never bear fruit again!” (v19) The disciples are flummoxed when the tree shrivels up. “How did that happen?” they ask. Jesus tells them, “If you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (v21-22)
The passage ends there, without the disciples asking the obvious follow-up question: “If we believe what? We can curse barren trees when we’re hungry? We can topple mountains that impede our progress?” But if we listen carefully to Christ’s statement, we realize He’s stressing belief in the power of our words and the breath that enables them. He speaks to the tree. He tells us, “You can say to this mountain.” And He sums it up: “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” Faith that ignites prayer is belief in the eternal breath that lifts our prayers. It’s not essential to visualize disappointments withering or obstacles vanishing in front of us. How such things can—and will—happen exceeds imagination. Faith is simply trusting in the power of our prayers to reach God despite all natural evidence opposing what we ask of Him. Because we speak our prayers with His breath, our requests will be heard and answered. That’s what we must believe. Anything beyond that—how He’ll answer, when the answer will come, what it will mean, and so on—is no more than conjecture on our part, and therefore unreliable. Faith in prayer precludes prediction.
By breathing His life into us, God literally inspired us. Our breath is His Spirit. When we believe our requests rise on eternal breath, we pray in the Spirit. This opens a life-changing view not only of prayers we say on our own behalf, but also those we say for others—and those said for us. And it’s essential we uphold one another in prayer, presenting each other’s needs to God. In Ephesians 6.18, Paul says, “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”
I need your prayers always. You need mine always. There will be times when my faith in prayer weakens—when I run out of breath, as it were. There will be times when you do the same. But in our times of struggle we find strength in knowing someone somewhere is praying for us. Someone is breathing eternal life into our requests. Someone is offering up timeless prayers for us that rise before God like incense. Someone is mustering the faith to see that God knows our needs. Paul nailed it. With this in mind, let us be alert and always keep on praying in the Spirit for all the Lord’s people.
We pray for one another, believing the eternal breath that lifts our requests to God transforms them into timeless prayers that linger before Him.