Justice is one of the most basic, yet baffling, concepts to us. It’s basic because even a toddler knows, automatically cries out for justice when his brother steals his toy. We are all born justice warriors. And in that sense, justice is really, really basic. But it’s also baffling because most of us have a conflicting relationship with justice. We want it sometimes, and other times we don’t want it. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Christian or an atheist, you have some kind of conflicting relationship with justice.
Take, for example, one of the most famous atheists, Richard Dawkins. We shared this quote a couple of weeks ago. We’ll go back to it where he says:
“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
So, Dawkins believes there’s ultimately no such thing as justice. And yet he and others, other atheists, will at the very same time cry out for racial justice, social justice, economic justice, legal justice. Almost like the parent who convinces their kids that there’s a Santa Claus in order to induce good behavior. We know it doesn’t exist, but we’ll all end up killing each other off if we don’t act like it does exist. So, we need justice even though there is none — conflicting.
Christians, we have our own struggles with justice. For example, can you think of the last time you were reading through a psalm and you got to beautiful praise, passages that are bouncing with praise. Take for example Psalm 139,
“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.”
And we’re like, “Mmhmm. Yeah!” But then you keep reading in verse 19. The same psalmist goes on to say,
“Oh that she would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me! They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain.”
We don’t know what to do with that. We stop our Bible reading just short of that, or we begin to say ignorant things like, “Well, you know that’s Old Testament. We don’t pray things like that anymore.” And then we have to fly over passages where Jesus himself issues woes on people. Or Paul, 2 Timothy 4, issues a similar imprecatory prayer against Alexander the coppersmith.
“May he be judged for his deeds in opposing the gospel.”
Others do not know how to distinguish God-centered cries for justice from selfish, petty prayers for retaliation. So, a good question for us to wrestle with is: How do we pray grace for our enemies and justice for our enemies? This is a big question because the way we answer it will reveal a lot of what we believe about who God is and what it’s like to live in this world. And I believe Revelation 8 has a lot of help for us here. Revelation 8, and we’re just going to look at 1-5. We’re going to come back next week, Lord willing, and do the rest of 8 and 9 where all the trumpet judgments come forth. But to prepare for that, look at Revelation 8:1, page 1032 if you’re using a seat Bible.
“When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peels of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake.”
Chapter 8 is coming back to the seventh seal. The first six began in chapter 6, and then there was that pause in chapter 7 where believers were marked to ensure their protection. Now in chapter 8 we’ve come back to the finishing of the first six seals and then the preparing for the seventh seal, which will launch the seven trumpets. Now we’ll come back to explain some of that progression next week. But for today I want us just to see two key elements that prepare for justice here in these first five verses.
Number 1 is silence. Verse 1,
“When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.”
Now that’s a long silence. If you’re in a group, a large group of people, and there’s silence for more than say five seconds, some of us are getting very uncomfortable. Half an hour of silence. So why silence? Specifically, why silence before judgment? There are so many reasons we can talk about — liturgical reasons, theological, stylistic — all these different reasons. I want us to focus in on one and that is to direct our attention to the source and nature of justice. That this silence, among other purposes, directs our attention to the source and nature of justice.
First of all, the source of justice. In Exodus 14 the Israelites have come out of Egypt. They’re crossing the desert. They come up to the Red Sea, and Exodus 14 says they “lifted up their eyes.” And you can imagine the scene. They’re exhausted. They’re hot. They’re tired. They’re all looking down. And then all of a sudden, they lift up their eyes, and over the hills in the distance they can see Pharaoh and his horsemen and chariots coming toward them. They immediately, verse 10 of Exodus 14, feared greatly, cried out to the Lord, and then turned on Moses. What are you doing? Did you bring us out of Egypt so we could be killed in the wilderness, the desert? We could have died much more easily in Egypt if the plan was for us to die. Moses said to the people, verse 13,
“Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again.”
Have you heard those words spoken over you? You are done being a slave to Pharaoh. You are done. You are done being a slave of alcohol. You’re finished. You’re never going to see that kind of bondage again. You’re done being a slave of people’s opinions. You’re done being a slave of porn. Then verse 14, Moses went on to say: “The Lord will fight for you, you have only to be” what? “silent.” Silence before judgement. This silence is proclaiming their expected dependency on the source of justice. In other words, they’re not screaming in fear. They’re not scheming in self-dependence. They’re silent. It doesn’t mean they’re passive. Verse 14 says the Lord said to Moses,
“Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward.”
Lift up your staff. Stretch it out over the sea. Divide it. Walk forward. Verse 18,
“And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh.”
So, the silence is clarifying the source of the justice. Let’s be real clear who is bringing about this justice. It’s not your frantic fears or schemes or military power — none of that. Silence accentuates the source of the justice.
But also, silence can clarify the character or the nature of the source of justice. Last week I was talking to the lady cutting my hair, and she was unusually willing to talk about anything. We were talking about God and we were talking about, church came up. She said, “I would never go to church.” And I said, “Why?” She began to describe a really sad experience for her growing up, from her perspective. She said, “My dad was oppressively religious. Would corner us kids in rooms and just shove what he believes down our throats. He scared me, intimidated and threatened.” And then she went on to describe, “My mom was not faithful to my dad and eventually left my dad.” As she’s describing this you can see, if we get any view of God from our parents — she has both a legalistic, oppressive vision of God and then this immoral, permissive on the other side, and all these experiences and conclusions she’s come to. And she even brought up of her own volition, she started to describe that “I’m messed up too.” And she shared her own sin. Her own sinfulness and her father’s, her mother’s, all getting in there and convoluting her view of who God is. So why would she ever want to go to church? We got to explore that.
But that leads us to one of the purposes of silence. Because silence, by the power of the Spirit, can cut off these voices of our experience and our culture and our own contamination and allow us for a moment to hear who God really is rather than our own caricature of God born out of a very broken experience.
One example, when God revealed his glory to Moses, he passed by, and he declared in Exodus 34:6,
“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord (so this is God telling us who He is) a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.’”
Notice if you unpack that, God is neither oppressive nor permissive. If God was void of anger, he would be a demonic slug. If God was void of anger toward wrong, reckless anger toward wrong, he would be a demonic slug. If God was quick to anger, he would be a devilish thug. But God is slow to anger. And notice, his righteous anger is all wrapped up in his mercy, his grace, his abounding love, and his faithfulness. What is God doing here? He is communicating that “my righteous anger is governed by and surrounded in my mercy and moderated by my love.” In that sense, God doesn’t get miffed, peeved, ticked off, irate. He doesn’t wake up on the wrong side of the bed. You don’t push his buttons, catch him on a bad day. God’s anger is so different from our anger. It’s purely righteous. Therefore, his love and his justice are inseparably intertwined, and they end up defining one another. Even a phrase like “slow to anger” is a beautiful description of who God really is. And so, the slowness to anger, that pause, that silence before justice is brought about communicates something about God’s nature.
When our kids were younger, growing up, my wife and I tried when raising them, my wife and I tried never to discipline immediately. There’s something about power in a pause. When they needed … I know this gives a lot of people the heebie jeebies just because they don’t understand biblical discipline. They have caricatures that are more like abuse. You see a mom in the grocery store. Kid keeps grabbing groceries off the shelf and throwing them in the cart. She turns around, whack! “You’re embarrassing me. You’re frustrating me. You’re an inconvenience.” That is more like abuse. And that’s why there’s a power in the pause. “Go sit on my bed and wait.” He needs that, I need that, so that the discipline is not merely reactive, out of frustration or personal inconvenience or humiliation. But the discipline flows out of deep love and what is right and best for this person. This power in a pause seems to be what Revelation 8:1 is illustrating, that all heaven is mute, so that no one will be confused about the source or the nature of justice. Zephaniah 1:7 says,
“Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is near.”
The second prep for justice is prayer. The first one is silence, second is prayer. Verse 2,
“Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with the golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.”
A couple thoughts. One, God is the source. In verse 2 the seven angels who stand before God “were given” seven trumpets. In verse 3 another angel “was given” a golden censer. These “givens” are what are called divine passives, meaning all that is happening here is flowing from God. God is unfolding his plan to bring about justice and everyone in heaven is united to carry out that design, that his name would be hallowed, that His kingdom would come, and his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. God is the source.
But notice also, prayer is the catalyst. In verse 3, the golden censer, which is an open-topped pan with a handle, kind of like a fancy shovel, different from the modern version that’s typically illustrated, more like this, which is a perforated cap on a chain. They didn’t use that until later. According to Leviticus 16, on the Day of Atonement, the priest put burning coals from the altar in the pan, and then put incense on top of the coals so that this cloud of incense might cover the mercy seat. And here in Revelation 8:4, notice the smoke of the incense rises with the prayers of all the saints (all the saints) on the golden altar before the throne of God. This incense pictures the rising of the prayers to God. A great example of that is Psalm 141:2. And then verse 5, the angel took the instrument of sacrifice and cast it out, and it became the instrument of judgement.
What does this all mean? God will bring about justice in response to the prayers of his people. God will bring about justice in response to the prayers of his people. This is massive. God hears, stores, and responds to our prayers.
Wednesday night we had a mission prayer meeting. We had a couple from a Muslim country share with us. And they told us, among other things, about a woman in their church (we’ll call her Amina) who had recently come to Christ out of Islam. And when she professed Christ to her family, her husband, determined to divorce her, took her to court. And when she declared in court that she was truly a Christian she (in that country Christians have no legal rights), so she immediately had zero legal rights. She came in with a husband, a house, kids, belongings, everything. She went out of that court with nothing but the clothes on her back. She lost everything. Just for a moment try to imagine the vulnerability that our brothers and sisters experience on a regular basis. In our country it’s hard to imagine. Yes, we have a broken justice system, but it is the best in the world compared to so many others. You can always cry out to somebody or get a court appointed attorney (who will pretend to help you), or there’s some avenue you can take, somebody you can call. But imagine being in a place where the entire legal system is set up against you. There is no one who will advocate for you. She publicly and joyfully said, “I would rather have Jesus with nothing then have everything without him.”
In Dawkins’, Richard Dawkins’ world, a world where there is no justice, now or ever, what would you say to her? I guess you would just say, “You’re a fool. Just be a Muslim. You live in a country where there’s no freedom of conscience. Just find your conscience or at least pretend to.” You see, Christians can’t do that. We worship with our consciences. That’s why wherever Christians go there is a spreading of freedom of conscience because that is such a huge thing before God. For good or bad, we believe in it.
What Revelation 8 is saying, that injustice, that cry in the night of a woman like Amina crying out, “God, how long?” Revelation 8 says that prayer will be heard. Jesus said in Luke 18:29-30,
“He said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time.’”
What he means by that even Amina experienced because the brothers and sisters, even though the church in that country is very small, her brothers and sisters in that church (I was talking to the couple Wednesday night after the service, they explained), they all took her in. She got tons of family. And even miraculously today she is with her children, which is just amazing.
He is saying, you will “receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” And this statement of Jesus in Luke 18 is at the end of the chapter that began with the parable of the persistent widow, which ends in Luke 18:7 with Jesus saying,
“‘And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?”
Revelation 8 is the answer to that, saying no. God answers every prayer of his people for justice. “How long, O Lord” has an answer. Every whisper in the dark, every agonizing, helpless cry for justice will be heard. And this is why it’s so important the next time you get off your knees or walk out of a prayer meeting thinking, “God, it doesn’t feel like my prayer went any higher than the ceiling.” God is saying, “No, I record, I hear, I store, I respond to every one of those prayers.”
Let’s go back to that question we asked at the beginning. Am I supposed to pray for grace or justice for my enemy and the enemies of God? Even the way we ask that question reveals our lack of understanding about it. When a Christian prays for justice, he is praying (this may help you, this helps me), he is praying a short-range and a long-range prayer.
Let’s talk short-range first. We are praying, when we pray for justice, we are praying for God to bring justice on [blank], someone who wronged us, offending God. We’re praying for God to bring justice on this person in a way that he’s brought justice on me. How has he brought justice on me? Well, he took all the justice that I deserved and put it where? On Jesus! Because some of us have this warped view of grace because we have so watered-down grace, we think “Well grace is God just saying, ‘Hey everybody, there’s a get out of jail free card. I’m not worrying about justice today.’” Well no, God can’t do that. God can’t look the other way and pretend wrong doesn’t exist. Every speck of injustice must be made right. And so, if I’ve experienced grace it’s because the wrong man was made right only because the right man was made wrong. Jesus took the injustice, the judgment for the injustice that I deserved to bear. And that’s why Roman 3:26 says, God through Christ remains “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” It’s only because Christ absorbed the righteous anger of God that God could remain just, and I could be (the one who deserves to be condemned), I could be made right and receive grace. Jesus absorbed my punishment so I could experience grace. That’s why our short-range prayer is always “I want everyone to have that! I want everybody to have what I’ve experienced.”
And that’s why Paul could write in Romans 12:19, “loved ones,” after describing this mercy for eleven chapters. Chapter 12,
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God,” (Amina can love her persecutors and pray for their good without ignoring justice.) “for it is written, ‘vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’”
What does that mean? Short-range. Burning coals in the Bible are used to refer to purifying and refining. Short-range prayer.
“Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
But long-range, if that person we’re praying for refuses this offer of grace in Christ, those burning coals become Revelation 8, coals of judgement.
Our prayers are short-range praying that people would experience great justice just like we have in Christ. Long-range, if we refuse to respond to God’s mercy, the just payments of Christ, then the same man who wrote Romans 12 also wrote 2 Thessalonians 1, and they’re not contradicting each other.
“Since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”
That passage terrifies me. And you can’t say, “Well that’s Old Testament,” because it’s not. I read that, and I have so many questions I want to ask God, some of those we’re going to explore as we continue through Revelation.
But for today, can we practice two things? One, silence. Silence. There’s something about preparing for judgment through silence. As we saw at the beginning of chapter 8, knowing that God will bring short-range justice, we pray for revival ultimately knowing long-range justice. We live in a universe where every speck of injustice will be made right. That’s what gives hope to Christians. But as long as my mouth is working, my ears are not. What silence does, not just in Revelation 8 but also in relation to the gospel, there’s a vital role of silence in the justice brought about by the grace of God in Christ. Let me give you one example.
In Romans 1-3 Paul is arguing that all of us stand condemned before God. Whether we are religiously moral or obviously immoral, we’re all in the same place — level ground. We are under the wrath of God. And then his argument culminates in the middle of chapter 3 and he says in verse 19,
“Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”
You see silence before justice. Silence prepares us for justice. We stop excusing, stop explaining, stop expressing ourselves, and for the first time we listen. And amazingly, in Romans 3, silence allows us to hear that we have been heard. Silence allows us to hear that our cry has been heard, that God has remained just and is justifying through faith in Jesus. Like Israel next to the Red Sea, we stop crying, arguing, complaining.
“Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord.”
“The Lord will fight for you. You have only to keep silent.”
In a few minutes we want to remember how this came about. We’re going to pass around at Northwest and here at Taylors bread, cup, symbolizing the broken body and shed blood of Jesus. I would encourage you, if you are a believer in Jesus, please participate. If you’re not believing in Jesus, just pass it by. Don’t eat in a manner unworthy. And use this time to call out to Jesus. I believe he brings us together in these moments to speak to us in very specific ways from his Word.
We’re going to begin with a time of silence, that we would think about, first of all, asking our Father to allow us to hear the nature and source of justice, and that those voices from experience or our own imagination would be drowned out by the silence of humility in the presence of God. Also, for some of us who struggle with prayer, wondering “Does he even care?” Talk to him about that.
Are you willing to listen to what he says when he emphasizes here in Revelation 8 that the prayers of all the saints, not just George Muller, all the saints rise up?
I’m going to pray, and then we’ll have a time silence. And Northwest will participate, and we at Taylors will take the Lord’s Supper.