Imbedding layer upon layer of truth is one thing that makes the Bible alive, allowing believers to gain new insight every time they read and study the Word. It’s the component of Scripture that allows us to read the same passage again and again without plumbing the depth of meaning it contains.
One Old Testament passage beautifully illustrates this concept but it does require engaging in a bit of symbolism to appreciate the full picture. While I think it is a mistake to take every phrase from the Old Testament and give it three symbolic meanings, it would be a bigger mistake to dismiss any alternate applications from so large a portion of Scripture. Various accounts do contain symbolism applicable to believers in any age, not just the Old Testament Israelis. The interpretations don’t change or contradict, but there is always more truth to be found.
With that in mind, the subject of incense in Exodus 30 becomes a pocket of gold.
The recipe and instructions for making incense found in verses 34-38 are specific and daunting: “Gather sweet spices—resin droplets, mollusk scent, galbanum, and pure frankincense—weighing out the same amounts of each. Using the usual techniques of the incense maker, refine it to produce a pure and holy incense. Beat some of it very fine and put some of it in front of the Ark of the Covenant, where I will meet with you in the Tabernacle. This incense is most holy. Never make this incense for yourselves. It is reserved for the Lord, and you must treat it as holy. Those who make it for their own enjoyment will be cut off from the community.” (NLT)
This incense was made to give off a sweet aroma when burned on the altar. In this we find an analogy of the New Testament Christian, who has been redeemed to enhance the testimony of Christ in the world. This analogy is substantiated in II Corinthians 2:14: “But thanks be to God, who made us his captives and leads us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now wherever we go he uses us to tell others about the Lord and to spread the Good News like a sweet perfume. Our lives are a fragrance presented by Christ to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those being saved and by those perishing. To those who are perishing we are a fearful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved we are a life-giving perfume.”
In other words, we are, or should be, a blessing and example to those who are already Christians while we represent the holiness of Christ to unbelievers.
A whiff of bread baking as we walk by Subway creates a hunger even if we just ate lunch. We would most likely describe this good smell as an aroma.
In contrast, we think of a bad smell, like an overflowing garbage can or a pair of sweaty tennis shoes, as an odor or stench. Once our spiritual life is lit at salvation, just as the incense is lit by the priest, a scent permeates the air, an aroma or an odor. As Christians, we don’t have the luxury of choosing whether or not we want to represent God; we become an image-bearer the moment we are born again. Our reputation exists. The only question is whether it’s good or bad.
We used to live in a really small Iowa town called Curlew and we would laugh as we said, “The good thing about living in a small town is we can’t go anywhere and not have an effect. The bad thing is we can’t go anywhere and not have an effect.” My children loved the family feel of that small community but they chafed at the fact that they could not get away with anything; someone was sure to tell us if they misbehaved.
You can’t contain a good smell. The Subway store managers would laugh if you were to say, “Hey, I’m fine with you baking your bread but I don’t want to smell it when I walk by.” It is impossible for them to bake bread without creating an aroma.
However, you can usually get rid of an odor if you try hard enough. You might have to throw away a pair of shoes, or fill up a garbage pit, but a stench is something you can eliminate. The incense of God is like the baking bread; the stench of sin can be remedied by repentance and confession.
The Old Testament incense was to be “blended as by the perfumer;” that is, handled by a professional. This was not an ordinary process. God spent several verses defining what the incense should be and He expected a professional Israeli perfumer to produce it.
We could say today that our goal in the Christian life is to become a seasoned Christian, a professional. II Timothy 2:14 admonishes all Christians to “Work hard so God can approve you. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth.” To determine right from wrong, to ascertain God’s will, to lead and influence others, we have to become professional Christians, diligent in Bible study, prayer, and other Christian disciplines.
This incense was to be burned on the altar in the tabernacle. Conversely, every Christian is designed to serve God in a holy, honorable way. Verse 36: “Beat some of it very fine,” can imply a behind the scenes effort; “put some before the testimony in the tent of meeting,” suggests a more public ministry, such as preaching or teaching. Christians will have different areas of expertise and service, but all Christians are required to serve God all the time.
“Never make this incense for yourselves.” (Exodus 30:37). In order to see the significance of this prohibition, we need to discuss the concept of incense versus perfume.
Perfume can come from organic sources or artificial compounds. Perfume stands alone (as when we spray it on before we leave home) or is used to enhance something else, such as laundry soap. Perfume contains these ideas: extra, luxury.
An apt analogy would read like this: A true Christian is born of God; there is no artificial facsimile for salvation. He or she never stands alone; the Savior is always with us, and we are always representing Him. We are used to enhance the world as we know it and the concept of righteousness is not a luxury, it is a necessity if we are to accurately portray a holy God.
Perfume also speaks of enticement and is often linked with inappropriate sexual innuendos. In contrast, a Christian is to adequately represent God’s holiness, always in a godly way, never using any even remotely sinful or improper methods.
The last few sentences of this passage are chilling: “It is reserved for the Lord, and you must treat it as holy. Those who make it for their own enjoyment will be cut off from the community.”
The implication is clear: those who live a godly life meet with Him in the tabernacle. There is a standard of holiness that God requires if we are going to fellowship with Him. Conversely, those who do not follow the rules are cut off from the community. The phrase “cut off” in Hebrew implies death.
It is unimaginable in our culture that the simple misuse of incense in worship would warrant the death penalty. Those who sin today are not generally struck by bolts of lightning. On the contrary, we are accustomed to seeing people exonerated and even praised for crimes far more severe.
Again, the apostle Paul reiterates this concept in Galatians 5:21, after a lengthy list of sinful habits (sexual immorality, idolatry, demonic activities, quarreling, jealousy, to name a few) “Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (NLT) He says it again in Ephesians 5:5-6, “You can be sure that no immoral, impure or greedy person will inherit the kingdom of Christ and of God. For a greedy person is really an idolater who worships the things of this world. Don’t be fooled by those who try to excuse these sins, for the terrible anger of God comes upon all those who disobey him.”
I’ve met Christians who claim to have a strong relationship with God while living a sinful lifestyle and I always ask myself, “Is that possible?”
Perhaps, but probably not. I don’t personally believe we can lose our salvation. We are still sinners after redemption takes place and even if we truly believe and love the Lord Jesus Christ, we sin. Based on I John 5:18 (“We know that those who have become part of God’s family do not make a practice of sinning, for God’s Son holds them securely, and the evil one cannot get his hands on them” NLT; emphasis added) there is reason to believe that a continual, habitual lifestyle of sin is an indication that we may not be born again. I sometimes wonder if we pray for restoration when we would be wiser to pray for salvation and I would caution anyone who is caught up in a sin strictly forbidden by Scripture to examine their heart.
I am grateful for the authority of Scripture, grateful that there are negative effects when we sin. Sin hurts, it diminishes, it maims, it kills. Sin brings broken hearts, empty pockets, disfigurement, and death. God is not unfair or unloving in His expectations.
Just the opposite is true. Prohibitions against sin provide a safeguard for us. When we embrace sin and ungodliness, we corrupt ourselves and destroy God’s testimony. But when we embrace holiness we preserve our lives. Following the rules benefits us even more than it glorifies Him.
The main truth we can take away from the making of incense is this: As believers, we are called to represent the holiness of God in the world. We are not the perfume of the earth; we don’t make corrupt things smell better, we don’t entice or lure. We are incense, a sweet aroma in a corrupt culture.
Praise God for this unique reminder tucked into the Old Testament.