Sunday 13 November 2011

Silence in Heaven (Revelation 8)


Millions of people across the United Kingdom observed a two-minute silence on Friday to mark the 93rd Armistice Day. Wikipedia defines “armistice” as a situation in a war where warring parties agree to stop fighting. The key aspect in an armistice is the fact that “all fighting ends with no one surrendering”.

Armistice Day commemorates the first armistice signed during World War I on 11 November which took effect at eleven o'clock in the morning—the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918. Since then, it has become an annual day of remembrance for all soldiers killed in the line of duty.

For many who lived through the war; for those who lost loved ones in the war; for those who continue to live with the ravages and scars of war - the two minutes of silence is a moment to grieve, to remember and to be thankful.

We open our study today from Revelation Chapter 8 with just such a moment.

Silence in heaven

When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.
Revelation 8:1

This silence is symbolic of the calm before the storm. What triggers the silence is the opening of the seventh seal. This picks up from Revelation 6 which we studied a couple of weeks ago, where Jesus opened six of the seven seals on the scroll which unleashes God’s final judgement on the earth. And here he opens the seventh, and “there was silence in heaven for about half and hour.”

Like the silence observed each year at Armistice Day, it doesn’t mean that the war has ended. It just means that fighting has stopped for the moment. The opening of the seventh seal is like Jesus hitting the pause button. It is a moment to reflect on what is going on: God is finally bringing all his purposes of judgement and salvation to pass. It is a moment to consider who it is we are dealing with: the Sovereign Lord who is Holy and True, who cannot tolerate sin and who will judge all who oppose his rule. It is a moment for us to evaluate our lives: what is our attitude towards this God. How do we respond to Jesus and his saving work on the cross?

In moments like these, it may be appropriate to cover our mouths; to be silent. To be careful with our words and actions before such a holy God. To listen to what he is speaking to us even now in his word. And to see what he is doing in our world and in our lives even today.

The prayers of the saints

And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. 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 the saints, on the golden altar before the throne.
Revelation 8:2-3

Notice that in verse 2, John sees “the” seven angels. He is referring to the same seven angels we met in Chapters 2 and 3: the seven angels of the seven churches to whom this book of Revelation is addressed. They stand before God, representing each church - and indeed, representing the whole church of God, such is the symbolic nature of the number seven - and they are given seven trumpets.

But then John’s focus turns to another angel in verse 3 who approaches God and stands at the altar. What he does next triggers an end to the silence. This angel stands at the altar to offers up the prayers of the saints.

The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, 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.
Revelation 8:4-5

A censer is a pot which is used to hold burning incense. Back in Asia, many homes have altars with small pots where joss-sticks are placed. Some of you will remember how smoky the whole house would be, as the smell and smoke of joss-sticks and incense would get into every room, into your clothes and maybe even make your eyes start to water. (Smoke got in your eyes. Whoawhoaawhoaaa.)

We read in verse 3 that this angel at the altar holds a hand-held censer and is given a lot of incense - meaning, he is creating a lot of smoke - and in the next verse, we see that this smoke rises up before God “together with the prayers of the saints.” This is Revelation’s symbolic picture of how our prayers reach God. They are carried by the angel, they rise up to heaven and they are presented right before God’s throne in heaven. The prayers you said this morning. The prayers we say together as a church. The prayers we say to God privately in our hearts. God hears every word. God hears every prayer.

Every one of them, that is, offered up in Jesus Christ. That’s the connection with the altar. You see, there are two types of altars in view here. The first is the altar of incense, producing the smoke and the pleasing smell of the incense before God (Also worth noting are “the golden bowls full of incense” held by the seven elders/angels before God’s throne in Chapter 5, verse 8, “which are the prayers of the saints”). But then we read in verse 5 that the angel fills his censer with “fire from the altar”. This is now talking about the second type of altar - the altar of sacrifice. That is, God’s accepts our prayers because they presented to him through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. His offering on the cross makes our offering acceptable. His death guarantees that our prayers are heard.

And what happens next is God’s answer to our prayers. The angels hurls the censer filled with fire taken from the altar unto the earth resulting in judgement: symbolised by the thunder, lightning and earthquake.

Now you’re probably saying, “But I never prayed for that! I asked God for a sunny day, or for my favourite singer to win on X-Factor.” The prayer that is in view here is the one we heard a couple of weeks ago in Chapter 6 at the opening of the fifth seal. There the souls under the altar - those who died in their witness to the gospel - cry out to God, “How long!”

How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?
Revelation 6:10

Remember God’s response to this prayer: Patience.

Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were 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.
Revelation 6:11

God is infinitely more patient than we are. In the face of evil and unjust suffering, God holds back his righteous judgement. More specifically, here in the face of the death of Christians for the sake of the gospel, God is also patient.

Now, the kingdom of God advances not through military conquest, neither through human ingenuity and never through coercion or manipulation - but only through the testimony of the good news; the proclamation of Jesus’ death on the cross. But God knows that speaking this news gets us into trouble. People will reject the gospel and they will reject those who hold to the gospel to the extent, that some will lose their lives simply for speaking and holding to the gospel. God knows this. He has even ordained it.

I wonder if we are honest enough about this in our evangelism. I wonder if we are clear enough about this to our missionaries. God tells the souls under the altar to wait until the number of their fellows brothers who were to be killed as they were had been completed. The gospel is carried into the world through our speaking, but also through our suffering.

God response with mercy and patience in the face of evil and unjust suffering - even the suffering and death of faithful Christians in service to the gospel. He holds back his righteous judgement back in Chapter 6.

But here in Chapter 8, judgement finally comes.

For the rest of the chapter, this judgement is symbolised by four trumpets - and that is very significant. The trumpets announce God’s judgement - similar to a call to war (as we saw this week at Rock Fellowship as Gideon blew his trumpet to assemble the troops). Also, the seven trumpet ought to remind us of Jericho, when seven priests blew seven trumpets as they marched around the city seven times for seven days. God destroyed the walls of Jericho, not Israel. All they did was do a bit of walking - round and round - every day (Joshua 6). Or trumpets also signalled the God’s presence as God spoke the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai in Exodus 19 - “The sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him” (Exodus (19:19).

But here in Revelation, the trumpets are symbolic of God’s warning. Revelation 8 is God’s warning to us of certain judgement to come. And the remarkable thing Revelation does with these four trumpets is to warn us of a future certainty by pointing back to a past reality - specifically, the reality of the plagues in the Exodus.

Fire from heaven

Then the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to sound them.
Revelation 8:6-7

Like the seven seals, when the first four seals were subdivided from the rest - where we got the four horsemen; so here with the seven trumpets, the first four trumpets can similarly be grouped together.

These four trumpets in Chapter 8 bear a striking resemblance to four of the plagues in Egypt at the time of the Exodus. The first is the plague of hail and fire in Exodus 9. The second and third trumpets correspond to Exodus 7, when the Nile river was changed to blood. The fourth trumpet is the plague of darkness recorded in Exodus 10.

But let’s look closer at each of the first four trumpets, beginning with the first:

The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down upon the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.
Revelation 8:7

The hail and fire is thrown down to the earth, very much like the first angel at the altar who threw the golden censer filled with fire unto the earth. So, there’s a connection there. Yet at the time, there is also a connection with the previous chapters 6 and 7.

Last week in Chapter 7, we read of God’s instruction to the angels to hold back the four winds of judgement - to keep them from harming the earth “or … any tree”. But here, any such restriction has been lifted. “A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up.”

Why a third? Some suggest a connection to the famine in Chapter 6. The destruction of a third, and not all of the vegetation means there is a lack of food resulting in a rise in the price of food. Interesting, the account of the hail and fire in Exodus 9 (some manuscripts even add the word “trumpets” making Exodus 9:23 read, “The LORD sent fire, hail and trumpets”) also includes a description of partial destruction of the food source: “The flax and barley were destroyed... the wheat and spolt however, were not destroyed”, Exodus 9:31).

More likely however, the one-third destruction formula found here represents partial judgement, as this formula is repeated in all four of the trumpets in Chapter 8 - one third of the earth, one-third of the trees, one-third of the sea, one-third of the waters, one-third of the sun, moon and stars. The one-third formula is Revelation’s way of saying: This is just a fraction of the judgement to come. It will get much worse than even this.

The judgement of the first trumpet is poured out specifically on the earth (as opposed to the sea and waters in trumpets 2 and 3). Looking at Exodus 9 and the plague of hail, fire and trumpets, we get additional insight into the purpose of this plague and judgement.

For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.
Exodus 9:15-16

The plague announces God’s judgement over the earth, yes, but more so, God’s sovereign authority over the earth - “that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth,” is what God says to Pharaoh, King of Egypt. However, when Moses finally spread his hands towards the LORD “and the thunder and hail stopped, and the rain no longer poured down on the land (literally, earth),” Pharaoh sinned again. He hardened his heart against God.

The first trumpet is God establishing is his authority over his creation in judgement over those who continually reject his authority.

Sea turned to blood

The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.
Revelation 8:8-9

A popular interpretation of this bit involves a meteorite crashing into earth from space - the huge mountain in verse 8 - polluting the sea water and killing all the dinosaurs - hence the death of the “living creatures in the sea” in verse 9. Or another theory suggests that this is talking about a volcano erupting red hot lava - turning the sea “into blood”.

Again, it is worth considering that these symbols build on the rich imagery already found in the Old Testament. In Exodus Chapter 7, Moses is commanded by God to strike the River Nile with his staff and “it will be changed into blood” (Exodus 7:17). Also the prophet Jeremiah pronounces God’s judgement on Babylon, described in Chapter 51 as a “destroying mountain”, which God would reduce to a “burnt mountain” (Jeremiah 51:25). (Revelation itself makes this connection to Babylon in Chapter 18 where an angel picks up a large boulder, throws it into the sea and then says, “With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again.” - Revelation 18:21).

In both cases, God is pouring out judgement on proud and powerful nations which oppose God’s rule and oppress God’s people - Egypt in Exodus, and Babylon in Jeremiah.

Furthermore, this judgement is poured out upon “the sea”. The sea is consistently pictured in Revelation as a symbol of rebellion. We saw that back in Revelation Chapter 4 where God sits in judgement on his throne and before him is the sea. At the end of Revelation when John sees the new heaven and the new earth, he writes, “there was no longer any sea” - God has vanquished all opposition and rivals to his authority.

The second trumpet is God’s judgement on kingdoms which use their power to reject and rival God’s kingdom. The picture of the huge mountain being thrown into the sea is symbolic of God destroying all such opposition - powerful as they may seem. Again, as we saw earlier in God’s encounter with Pharaoh, he raised Egypt up precisely for the purpose of demonstrating his power.


The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.
Revelation 8:10-11

At first glance, the third trumpet is very similar to the second. This judgement also involves a large object falling from the sky into “the waters”. But while Trumpet No. 2 focuses on powerful opposition against God, Trumpet 3 is about the those who practice idolatry, turning away from God. That is the symbolism of behind the “bitterness”, the poisoning of the waters and the name “Wormwood”.

Wormwood is not codename for some super secret meteor about crash into planet earth. It is the name of a plant native to Asia, Europe and northern Africa, which is bitter-tasting and produces a poisonous extract. It is this bitterness that becomes symbolic of God’s judgement.

The LORD said, “It is because they have forsaken my law, which I set before them; they have not obeyed me or followed my law. Instead, they have followed the stubbornness of their hearts; they have followed the Baals, as their fathers taught them.” Therefore, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “See, I will make this people eat bitter food (wormwood) and drink poisoned water.
Jeremiah 29:13-15

The same word occurs in Deuteronomy, this time describing the actions of the people of God turning away from God to worship idols.

Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison (wormwood).
Deuteronomy 29:18

Interestingly, when we look at Exodus 7 again at the poisoning of the waters of River Nile, we see there God’s judgement, but also Pharoah’s response to this judgement.

Pharaoh’s heart became hard; he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said. Instead, he turned and went into his palace, and did not take even this to heart. And all the Egyptians dug along the Nile to get drinking water, because they could not drink the water of the river.
Exodus 7:22-24

The third trumpet is a judgement on stubborn and unrepentant hearts that continue to rebel against God to pursue false gods. The bitterness of this judgement, indicated by the name Wormwood, and the poisoning of the drinking waters is symbolic of internal nature of this punishment.


The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night.
Revelation 8:12

The fourth trumpet is one of the reasons why the symbols in Revelation are unlikely to be sequential. For one thing, the sun, moon and stars were destroyed back in Chapter 6 at the opening at the sixth seal, and yet here we find only one third of the sun, moon and stars affected by judgement. Having said that, both symbols in Chapters 6 and 8 have a common theme: God is de-creating the world. He is reversing the order of the universe leaving it to descend into chaos.

Instead of a sequential order of events, Revelation presents us with repeated patterns building on a common theme - each time, reinforcing the point that God is sovereign over his creation; each time, bringing home the message that Jesus will bring all of God’s purposes for judgement and salvation to completion through his work on the cross.

The judgement brought by the fourth trumpet is darkness. “A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night”. Again the account in Exodus sheds light on the purpose of this judgement.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.
Exodus 10:21-22

Notice that the Israelites had light while the Egyptians were covered with darkness - “darkness that can be felt”. It was so dark that they couldn’t even see one another (Exodus 10:23) such that everyone had to stay home for three days. The darkness here is equated with blindness - the inability to perceive your environment and surroundings. The plague of darkness in Exodus 10 ends with God causing a deeper form of darkness, blindness and ignorance to fall on the heart of Pharaoh, such that he could no longer perceive God’s presence or grace.

But the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was not willing to let them go. Pharaoh said to Moses, “Get out of my sight! Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die.” “Just as you say,” Moses replied, “I will never appear before you again.”
Exodus 10:27-29

I find this to be very scary passage - even though there’s no blood or sickness or even death. For me, to read in verse 27 of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, making him stubborn in his rebellion. And then to hear Pharaoh’s words telling Moses to leave his sight, with Moses simply saying, “I will never appear before you again”. And then for Moses to comply with his request - that is scary. Pharaoh gets specifically what he asks for - judgement from God.

This week, one of our friends at Rock said that her colleague wanted to teach her how to swear. He was feeling frustrated with a work situation and for him, swearing and cursing was a way of releasing stress. He was puzzled why this Christian girl refused to say any of the words he was trying to teach her.

I can only guess what it was he tried to teach her, but I think that much of it have been offensive to God. When we use God’s name in vain, when we talk about hell flippantly, when we foolishly refer to judgement as something trivial - much of this talk is foolish and ignorant. We think nothing of offending others. We think nothing of offending a holy God.

Compared to course joking and cursing, Pharaoh’s request is actually quite mild. “Get out of my sight.” That’s all he said. He didn’t want to see Moses anymore. Yet he had seen the plagues. He had seen first-hand the power of God and the judgement of God. This was not an innocent request. Pharaoh was fed up. He didn’t want to deal with God or with Moses anymore.

“Get out of my sight!” Pharoah said. “So as you say,” Moses agreed. He didn’t want to deal with Moses anymore. He didn’t want to hear God’s word anymore. In effect, Pharaoh wanted to separate himself from any trace of God. And finally, God complied. The darkness is symbolic of God pulling his presence away from Pharaoh.

What if God took you at your word? The things you said to him. The things you said about him. What if God dealt with you according to your words. The bible says one day he will. We will not be able to stand - our words will condemn us. We will have no defence - our guilt will be plain before us. Unless we take God at his word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
John 1:1-3

Jesus is God’s word in the darkness, speaking to us and calling us into his marvellous light. He is the light of men - leading us to God. He is the light of life - showing himself as God. God sends Jesus as a light shining “in the darkness”. He wants us to respond. He wants us to see Jesus and come into his presence.

Yet as John writes in verse 3, “the darkness has not understood it.” Sometimes we see this light and turn away. Like Pharaoh, we say, “Get out of my sight”.

The fourth trumpet is a judgement of darkness. God pulls back the light of his salvation and grace. It is only partial: One third of the sun; one third of the moon and stars. Meaning: God is still merciful. There are still moments to respond to God’s grace.

The trumpets are warnings. The question is: have we taken heed of these warnings?

The fulfilment of the ages

As I watched, I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice: “Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels!”
Revelation 8:13

We will look at the final three trumpets next week in Chapter 9. For now, chapter 8 simply ends with a clear warning: it will get worse - much, much worse, in fact. “Woe! Woe! Woe!” says the eagle flying midair in a loud voice, almost as if to say, “You think this is bad? Wait till you get a load of Chapter 9!” While the first four trumpets are judgements poured out on creation (earth, sea, water, sun, moon and stars), the last three are poured out on people; the last three trumpets are personal.

But again, the trumpets symbolise warnings. They warn us to take God’s judgement seriously and the question is: Have we heard these warnings?

Now by warnings, I don’t mean speculation. Revelation is often a book used to speculate on world events: some try to predict which kingdom is symbolised by the burning mountain; some try to predict dates when a meteor will crash into earth’s atmosphere and then point to the falling star in Trumpet Number 3 and say that’s Wormwood.

But notice that while Revelation does point forward to future events it also points backwards. It keeps saying, “This has happened before.” The first four trumpets correspond to four of the plagues in Egypt. Even the name Wormwood is used again and again in the Old Testament to symbolised God’s judgement on idolatry and false worship. Meaning: the way to take God’s future judgement seriously is to take the bible seriously. We must be careful not to treat the Old Testament like fairy tales - only to be taught to kids in Sunday School but having no relevance to Christians today. Referring to the Exodus, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians:

These things happened to them as examples and were written as warnings for us on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come. So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!
1 Corinthians 10:11-12

Do you hear what Paul says? These are warnings... for us. Today. On whom the fulfilment of the ages has come - meaning: it was always meant for us, who now understand Jesus and his death on the cross as the fulfilment of all God’s promises in the bible.

How does Chapter 8 begin again? With Jesus opening the seventh and final seal. The cross is the key. It is the only way we can understand salvation. It is the only way we take seriously God’s judgement.

And what happens when Jesus unlocks the final seal? Silence. It is an armistice. The war is still ongoing, but when we come to the cross, we find peace and we receive protection. On the cross, Jesus took my punishment on himself. On the cross, Jesus took God’s judgement on himself.

The cross is God’s declaration of peace to rebels like us - rebels who have rejected him, who have denied his authority, who have turned out backs on him. Did you know that Jesus was killed as a rebel? The cross was a political statement - a capital punishment invented to warn off all potential rebels - This is what we do to terrorists. Jesus’ body was hung on a pole to make that statement. The cross was invented a warning of sure and certain punishment.

Except Jesus was not a rebel. He was innocent. Yet when false accusations were made against him, he did not say a word. The bible says all this was in accordance to God’s will.

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.
Isaiah 53:10

Why would God do this? Why would God punish his own Son for my sin? One, to show me my sin. I look to the cross and I see just how serious my sin is against God. Two, to show me his love. I look to the cross and see his wounds, his scars - I receive peace and forgiveness.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
Isaiah 53:5

By his wounds we are healed. The violent death of the Son of God results in peace between rebels and God. This is God’s love for us.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:8

We have looked at some pretty horrible pictures of judgement today and I do apologise if I have freaked you out. It is a scary passage. Yet friends, as scary as the pictures we have seen in Revelation 8 have been - and I must contend, that as a Christian, I do believe in the certainty of these events - they are real and they will happen; still, as terrifying as these four trumpets truly are, I want you to see God’s full and final judgement on our sin not in these trumpets but on the cross of Jesus Christ.

The cross is God’s warning to us: Judgement has already come. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s message to the world: Either your punishment and death was dealt with on the cross. Or you are filling up for yourselves judgement that will be poured out on that last and final day when Jesus returns as King and Judge.

The key is the cross. The cross is turning point of history; the turning point of judgement and salvation. There we see God’s punishment for our sin. There we see God’s forgiveness for our sin. There we God’s love for us through his Son.

At the cross, God demonstrate His love for us
While we were sinners Jesus came to die
So by His blood We could be justified.

So be not ashamed of the cross,
It bring salvation to all who believe,
God is revealed, Guilt is removed
forgiveness can now be received.

So be not ashamed of the cross.
Tell of its power to all who will hear.
Great is our joy, glory is ours
From death we can now be set free.
(“At the cross” by Bryson Smith and Philip Percival)

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