************ Sermon on Exodus 30:1-10 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on October 5, 2014
"The Altar of Incense"
I was telling my Catechism students about Jerusalem's garbage dump. It was a place of maggots, worms, decay, fire, smoke, and smells. If the wind blew in the wrong direction, all of Jerusalem was filled with the stench.
In the ancient world people lived close to their animals, sometimes sharing the same living space. The smells could not be escaped.
On account of this unpleasantness, incense was burned in the king's presence to mask the various odors and to pay tribute to his position. It is therefore not a surprise that incense was also burned before the one, true creator God in the tabernacle of Israel, which was His earthly throne room under the old covenant.
I remember reading somewhere that the sense of smell is more closely connected to memory than any other sense. Think for a moment about something that you love to smell. Is it fresh bread baking in the oven or perhaps bacon frying in a pan? Maybe it is the aroma of coffee or hot chocolate? Perhaps it is the smell of freshly cut grass or a puppy. Each of us can identify smells that bring us pleasure.
This evening, as we look at the altar of incense, we are reminded there is an aroma that pleases God.
I The Location and Construction of the Altar
A I want to start with a strange question: Where was the altar of incense located? I have a diagram here of the tabernacle (HOLD IT UP AND POINT OUT THE LOCATION OF THE DIFFERENT ITEMS). So, according to this diagram, the altar of incense was in the Holy Place.
I looked at Hebrews 9 as I was studying for this message. It contradicts my diagram:
(Heb 9:3-4) Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, (4) which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant.According to Hebrews, the golden altar of incense was in the Holy of Holies.
In our Bible reading God instructs Moses to "put the altar in front of the curtain that is before the ark of the Testimony" (Ex 30:6). This is God's plan for the tabernacle. So, when the tabernacle was actually set up for the first time, the altar of incense was put in front of the ark (Ex 40:26-28).
I looked up the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. According to Luke 1, regular priests – like Zechariah – were chosen by lot to go into the temple and burn incense (Lk 1:9). So, we know the altar of incense was in the inner courts of the Temple but not in the Holy of Holies because only the high-priest was allowed entrance into this most special of rooms.
So, I repeat, where was the altar of incense?
Let's go back to my diagram. Notice the location: just before the curtain. Leviticus calls it "the altar before the Lord" (Lev 16:12). The best explanation is to realize the altar stood so close to the Holy of Holies, just in front of the curtain, that it was considered to be part of this special room.
B Remember, worship is so important to God that He leaves nothing to the imagination and ingenuity of man. It is so important that God spelled out all the details of where and how He was to be worshiped. Therefore, in our Bible reading God revealed to Moses the blueprint for the altar of incense.
The material for the altar of incense was to be the same as the other furniture inside the tabernacle: acacia wood overlaid with gold. It was to be rather small (1.5 foot square and 3 foot high). Like the altar of burnt offering (Ex 27:1-2) it was to have horns. And like the altar of burnt offering, the table of the showbread, and the ark of the covenant, poles in gold rings were to be made for carrying it. The similarities stop there, however, for while the lampstand and the table illustrated God's work to provide His people with light, bread, and other necessities, the altar of incense represented what the Israelites offered unto the Lord.
I didn't read this tonight, but at the end of the chapter God even state the recipe for the incense. The holy mixture was made of an equal part of four precious spices mixed with salt and ground into powder. God further commanded the Israelites not to use the same formula outside the tabernacle to make perfume for their own consumption; otherwise, they were to be cut off from their people (Exodus 30:34-38). Do you hear the message: the worship of God is sacred. The worship of God is so sacred that nothing used in worship is to be used elsewhere. To quote the last sentence of our Bible reading, "It is most holy to the Lord" (Ex 30:10).
C God commanded Aaron to burn incense on the golden altar every morning and evening, the same time that the daily burnt offerings were made, the same time he tended the lamps of the golden lampstand. The incense was to be left burning continually throughout the day and night as a pleasing aroma to the Lord (Ex 30:7-8). Aaron was to make no other offering on this altar (Ex 30:9).
On the Day of Atonement the high priest was to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD – that is, the altar of incense – and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the Testimony, so that he will not die (Lev 16:12-13).
D Now, you need to realize there were two altars in the tabernacle: the altar of burnt offering and the altar of incense. The altar of burnt offering was in the outer courts right at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The altar of incense was in the Holy Place in front of the curtain blocking off the Holy of Holies.
The priest would fill his censer with live coals from the altar of burnt offering, sprinkle incense powder on them, and then carry the coals and incense to the altar of incense. Notice the order – from the altar of burnt offering to the altar of incense. This order is very significant. SHOW ON DIAGRAM. But more on this later.
II The Altar and Prayer
A Why did God command an altar of incense in His worship? What is the purpose or meaning? To answer this question let me quote four passages:
(Ps 141:2) May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.Do you hear what these passages are saying? The incense was a symbol of the prayers and intercession of the people going up to God.
(Luke 1:10) And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
(Rev 5:8) And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
(Rev 8:3-4) 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. (4) The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand.
The ascending smoke symbolizing that what was offered on the altar of incense went up to God, much as our prayers go up to Him. Being set outside the curtain, the priest would see the smoke penetrate the curtain into the Holy of Holies even though he could not see past the curtain. In the same way, we know our prayers enter heaven itself even though we cannot yet see into that place.
B Now, remember, the incense was a fragrant offering. Meaning what? Meaning that the prayers of God's people are a sweet smelling fragrance to God. Meaning that God loves prayer. Meaning that God loves to hear our prayers. Meaning that God want His people to pray.
Do you remember why Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves in the temple? Legalists say this was done because the temple was being used as a place of business. But that is NOT what Jesus said.
(Mt 21:13) "It is written," he said to them, "'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a 'den of robbers.'"The temple was meant to be a house of prayer for all nations (Is 56:7). But the buying and selling was standing in the way.
The temple, if you remember, was divided into different courts: the court of the priests, the court of the men, the court of the women, the court of the gentiles. The buying and selling was being done in the court of the gentiles. The result was that there was little or no room for the gentiles to pray. So what did Jesus do? Jesus drove out those who were buying and selling in the temple area so His house could again be a house of prayer for all nations.
I repeat what I said earlier: God loves prayer. God loves the prayers of His people. The altar of incense is a reminder of how important prayer is to God.
C In this life and on this earth our prayers are anything but perfect. Often, they are selfish and self-centered. Often, our concern is our name, our kingdom, our will, our power, and our glory. This was just as true in the Old Testament as it is today.
So, do you know what happened once a year with the altar of incense? Once a year on the Day of Atonement the high priest was to make atonement for the altar by sprinkling bull's and goat's blood on the altar's horns in order to cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the Israelites (Ex 30:10; cf Lev 16:18-19).
Similarly, our prayers need to be sanctified by the blood of Christ.
III The Altar and Christ
A Earlier, I said it is significant that live coals were taken from the altar of burnt offering and carried to the altar of incense. Notice the order – from the altar of burnt offering to the altar of incense.
So, what is the significance? Prayers and incense go up to God as a pleasing aroma because sacrifice for sins has already taken place. This means God is pleased with our prayers and loves our prayers and wants our prayers because they are scented with the righteous sacrifice of Christ. Or, to put it another way, the body and blood of Christ offered on the cross makes our prayers acceptable to God.
I can put it even more strongly: prayers can only be offered by people who have been forgiven. Think about this. Think through the implications. To come to God in prayer we need to have an awareness of our sin. To come to God in prayer we need to confess our sin and repent of our sin. To come to God in prayer we need to first have the joy of salvation.
B We don't have an altar of incense in this building. Do you know why? It is Jesus Who is now our altar of incense. Jesus is our Intercessor and Mediator before God the Father. For instance, just before He was betrayed and sentenced to death, Jesus interceded for His disciples and all believers, asking God to guard them from evil and sanctify them by His Word (John 17:1-26). Today, Jesus still is our high priest at the Father's side, interceding for God's people:
(Rom 8:34) Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. (cf Heb 4:14,15; 7:25; 9:24; 1Jn 2:1,2 )
C Remember, too, only authorized incense could be offered on the altar (Ex 30:9). Aaron was to make no other offering on this altar. Here is a reminder of how jealous and zealous God is about His worship.
In the New Testament authorized prayer is prayer that is offered in the name of Jesus. When we pray in Jesus' name, we are praying based on the work He has done and not on our own merit. It is in His powerful name that we are saved and baptized, and in His name we live, speak, act, and pray.
To that end, let me say something about the National Day of Prayer. More than one person has asked me why we no longer observe this day. The reason is that the White House has turned it into a day of interfaith prayer – Christians praying with Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, Hare Krishnas, and so on. The Lord hates the prayers of all those who do not approach Him in Christ Jesus in the same way as He hated and forbade unauthorized fire on the altar of incense. Here is a reminder we need to be zealous to protect the purity of worship and prayer, offering only what God commands.
The altar of incense in the tabernacle reminded the Israelites that prayer must play a central role in the life of God's people. In Christ, that continues to be true today.
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