Exodus 30:1-10. “You shall make an altar on which to burn incense; you shall make it of acacia wood. 2 A cubit shall be its length, and a cubit its breadth. It shall be square, and two cubits shall be its height. Its horns shall be of one piece with it. 3 You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top and around its sides and its horns. And you shall make a molding of gold around it. …6 And you shall put it in front of the veil that is above the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is above the testimony, where I will meet with you. 7 And Aaron shall burn fragrant incense on it. Every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall burn it, 8 and when Aaron sets up the lamps at twilight, he shall burn it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations. 9 You shall not offer unauthorized incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering, and you shall not pour a drink offering on it. 10 Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year. With the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the Lord.”
Moses is still on the mountain and the instructions for the tabernacle and the priests keep coming. The mercy seat, the bread of the presence, the lampstand, the tent itself, the veil, the altar, the courtyard, all of these things picturing Mt. Sinai, picturing the meeting of heaven and earth. God and man. Christ.
Earlier God told Moses to build a large bronze altar for the courtyard. There God would meet the Hebrews as they offered sacrifices. Here in Exodus 30 God asks for another altar to be built. An altar of incense. Twice a day incense would be offered to God in the Holy Place right in front of the veil. Smoke would fill the room. Forever.
But this altar is very different from the bronze altar outside. It is not an altar for sacrifices. No burnt offering, or grain offering, or drink offering will be made upon this altar. It’s for incense only. Why? Because this altar is not about making atonement. It’s about what happens because of atonement.
Exodus 30:10. Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year. With the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the Lord.
Here’s what’s happening. Once a year on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) the priest would offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people on the bronze altar in the courtyard. Then the priest would take some of the blood and bring it into the Holy Place and put it on the horns of the altar of incense. Why? To make atonement for it. To keep it holy. The blood from the bronze altar cleansed the altar of incense. And then, after this cleansing, the altar of incense could function again for another year.
But what is the function of the altar of incense? Good question, and Exodus doesn’t spell it out. But in scripture incense seems to always be connected to prayer. To living life in front of God (which is what prayer is).
Psalm 141:2. Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!
Luke 1:10. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.
Revelation 5:8. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
Praise God for this second altar!
Imagine if there was only the bronze altar. Only a place to offer blood sacrifices to God. Only sacrifices for sin. Only substitution. Only the constant reminder of our sinfulness. What if that was your life? Constant repeated repentance without regeneration? Forgiveness without new life?
But union with Christ moves us beyond substitution. Beyond forgiveness. Yes, we are forgiven by the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross. Praise God! That is the picture of the bronze altar. A lamb offered in our place.
But that is not the end. There’s another altar! The altar of incense now cleansed by the atoning blood. The offering of our cleansed lives to God in joyful worship. A sweet smelling aroma to God. The fragrance of a life captured by God. Shared with Christ. Lived before God, the veil removed. Purified by the blood and now pouring out to God in holiness, love, and faith.
Mulan lights the incense and then chooses to live her life for others….hmmm…
In Christ we have the imputation of his holiness (the bronze altar) but also we participate in his holiness (the altar of incense). At the altar of incense, the priest would stand before God and by the blood of the atonement offer sweet smelling incense to God. The incense of our lives. The fragrance of our worship of God.
To pray is to live your life before God in his presence. God hears our prayers because we holy are in Christ. We are united with the atoning crucifixion of Christ and also with the life giving aroma of his resurrection. Christ our priest offers both – his atoning life FOR our life, and his life lived THROUGH us for our God.
“To live is Christ” unites us to the atoning death of Christ, but beyond this to the joy filled fragrant life of Christ meant to be lived out each day as a sweet smelling aroma to God. That’s good news.
2 Corinthians 2:14-15. 14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God.
Will you let the truth of your forgiveness and salvation by the atoning work of Christ allow you to pour out your life to God today as a fragrance of the knowledge of God?