The prophetic scene recorded in Revelation 8:2-6 comes between the seven seals and the seven trumpets. What are we supposed to learn from it?
In the passage to which you refer, John sees seven angels with seven trumpets and another angel burning incense on the altar, adding it to the prayers of the saints, and taking fire from a censer and casting it to the earth. The result is thunders, flashes of light, and an earthquake. In order to understand this vision we will examine other scenes in Revelation that also deal with
sanctuary theology. Then I will comment on the vision and its significance.
1. Sanctuary Scene: The references to the altar of incense, the censer, the burning of incense, and the angel indicate that a ritual activity is taking place in the holy place of the heavenly sanctuary. Revelation’s visions are often introduced by a scene from the heavenly sanctuary. Before the messages to the seven churches, Jesus appears dressed as a high priest in the holy place (1:12-20). The throne scene, which emphasizes the role of the Lamb (chaps. 4, 5), introduces the seven seals. The seven trumpets are introduced by the vision of the altar of incense (8:2-6). Before the vision of the cosmic conflict (chaps. 12–14), John sees the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary and the ark of the testimony, which contains the Decalogue (11:19). The seven plagues are preceded by a vision announcing that the services in the sanctuary have ended (15:5-8). In the last two chapters of the book (21, 22) the use of sanctuary/temple images increases. God descends to permanently dwell among His people in New Jerusalem.
2. Content of the Vision: The passage you mention introduces the trumpets as a distinct vision and separates it from the vision of the seven seals. When the trumpets begin to sound, Christ is still mediating for us in the heavenly sanctuary—ministering in the holy place. The fact that burning incense in the holy place was primarily the responsibility of the high priest (Ex. 30:7, 8) suggests that the angel John saw probably represents Jesus as our mediator. He takes the prayers of the saints, contaminated by sin, and cleanses them through an atoning incense, the cleansing of Christ (cf. Num. 16:46, 47).
The passage mentions another aspect of the mediation of Jesus: the judgments of God against the wicked world. The coals used to burn the incense, thus creating a cloud of smoke that ascends to God, are also a symbol of judgment (e.g., Gen. 19:24). Some of the coals were removed from the altar of incense and placed in the censer to facilitate throwing them to the earth (cf. Ezek. 10:2). Thunders, lightning, and earthquakes usually occur when God manifests His presence in judgment (cf. Isa. 29:6). The period of the trumpets is primarily the time during which Christ still performs the daily services on behalf of His people, and also the time during which God’s judgments against the wicked occur within the flow of history. Both are mediated through Christ.
3. Significance of the Sanctuary Scenes: These sanctuary scenes were intentionally placed where they are in the book in order to communicate a message. First, they reveal that God rules the world from His heavenly temple. This center of divine command is where Christ went after His ascension; and from there God influences and directs the cosmic struggle between good and evil on the planet. Second, these scenes point to the two aspects of Christ’s heavenly ministry: His daily work of reconciliation, and the annual service represented by the Day of Atonement. We see Jesus mediating for us in the holy place, but we also see the drama of the book moving to His work in the Most Holy Place, and finally to the moment when His high-priestly work ends. Finally, we see God’s tabernacle descending from heaven to our planet. Revelation is a book about Christ’s work in the heavenly sanctuary.