The Altar of Incense, The Savor, and The Savior (Exodus 30:1-10, 34-38)

Praise the Lord, everybody! Pastor D.M. Richardson back this week with an instructional message on The Altar of Incense, The Savor, and The Savior” from Exodus 30:1-10. 34-38. This message talks about how the Israelites were to build the Altar of Incense and what they were to offer upon it. The altar would be rather short in height and small, but it was to be made of acacia wood, overlain with gold, with poles on both its sides that were made of wood and overlain with gold, also. The square altar would have horns on it, horns that were to bear the blood of the sin offering once a year (no more than that). The Altar of Incense, then, was to symbolize the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus, whose life and shed blood would bring the sacrifice and savor together: He would give His life, and it would be a “sweet-smelling aroma” to His Father. As such, we today are to be the sacrifices to God that are a “sweet-smelling aroma.” In Scripture, we discover that the prayers of the saints are incense to the Lord (Revelation 5:8; 8:3, 4). The prayers of the righteous, who have sacrificed their hearts and bodies, are pleasing to the Lord.

You can find the sermon and worship music for this Sunday below.

There’s more to say, but I’ll reserve it for another time. Just know that I love you, am praying for you, and that we here at The Essential Church are here to minister to you in whatever way we can. Contact us at essentialpastor@gmail.com with questions, comments/thoughts, and even prayer requests.

We thank God for His sacrifice and salvation, and we thank you for your love, prayers, and continued support. May the Lord bless you and keep you until next time.

-Pastor D.M. Richardson,

The Essential Church

World Wide Web

Note: the Altar of Incense image on the post above comes from the following source information: By Ori229 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8756128

Note: the two videos above provide a concert video version and a version with lyrics only. Select based on your preference, or watch both if you prefer.

Timna_Tabernacle_Incense_altar
By Ori229 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8756128

Message: 

Scripture passage: Exodus 30: 1-10, 34-38

“You shall make an altar to burn incense on; you shall make it of acacia wood. 2 A cubit shall be its length and a cubit its width—it shall be square—and two cubits shall be its height. Its horns shall be of one piece with it. 3 And you shall overlay its top, its sides all around, and its horns with pure gold; and you shall make for it a molding of gold all around. 4 Two gold rings you shall make for it, under the molding on both its sides. You shall place them on its two sides, and they will be holders for the poles with which to bear it. 5 You shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 6 And you shall put it before the veil that is before the ark of the Testimony, before the mercy seat that is over the Testimony, where I will meet with you.

7 “Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every morning; when he tends the lamps, he shall burn incense on it. 8 And when Aaron lights the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense on it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. 9 You shall not offer strange incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering; nor shall you pour a drink offering on it. 10 And Aaron shall make atonement upon its horns once a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonement; once a year he shall make atonement upon it throughout your generations. It is most holy to the Lord.”

34 And the Lord said to Moses: “Take sweet spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, and pure frankincense with these sweet spices; there shall be equal amounts of each. 35 You shall make of these an incense, a compound according to the art of the perfumer, salted, pure, and holy. 36 And you shall beat some of it very fine, and put some of it before the Testimony in the tabernacle of meeting where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. 37 But as for the incense which you shall make, you shall not make any for yourselves, according to its composition. It shall be to you holy for the Lord. 38 Whoever makes any like it, to smell it, he shall be cut off from his people.”

We’ve studied the ransom money or atonement money here in Exodus 30, a required price to be paid by all those Israelites aged 20 and up (the adults) to prevent the Lord from killing them by way of a plague whenever a census was taken to number the people. The ransom money was to be paid for the service of the temple, and it was a sign that points to Christ as the ransom that “paid the debt” for our sins. This week, the Lord wants us to stay in Exodus 30 and study the Altar of Incense. So here we are. You’ll notice that we have placed a feature image and picture within the sermon post this week. Yes, we want you to get a good idea about the Altar of Incense and something akin to what the priests would’ve encountered as they went into the temple to perform their priestly duties.

Now, we read of the Altar of Incense, how it is to be built and how the incense is to be made that will give the fragrance or sweet perfume scent from the Altar. The Altar must first be built of acacia wood or what some translations such as the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and King James Version (or KJV) call “shittim wood.” Acacia wood came from an acacia tree, wood found in abundance in the Sinai desert and Jordan Valley. Acacia wood was known for its strength and durability. Acacia wood didn’t wear out easily, which made it ideal for long distances, especially if you had to use an object or item for a number of years.  Acacia was used to build the Ark of the Covenant and its poles, the Table of Showbread (the bread of the priests) and its poles, the brazen altar and its poles, and here in Exodus 30, the Altar of Incense and its poles. All the temple furniture, including the altars and their poles, were all to be built of acacia wood according to Exodus 37, where we read that the temple furniture was built as the Lord requested it here in Exodus 30. Acacia wood was considered to be decay-resistant and was made of waste substances that were a turnoff to insects of any kind. The waste substances gave off an offensive smell to the insects, which kept them from eating away the wood. In other words, the durability factor and the turnoff to insects made acacia wood a must-have for the Israelites, who needed the altar to remain for some time.

Acacia wood was so important to the Lord that He declared it one of the freewill offerings that the Israelites could give to the work effort in Exodus 35:24, where it says that those who wanted to bring acacia wood brought it, along with goats’ hair, red skins of rams, badger skins, onyx stones, oil, and linens of purple, scarlet, and blue in Exodus 35:20-29. Yes, the children of Israel were commanded to bring a freewill offering, a volunteer offering of their own choosing. They were commanded to offer something of their own volition to the Lord.

The altar, built of acacia wood, would be used to burn incense. Burning incense was the purpose of this Altar of Incense (it was appropriately named). The goal of the Altar mentioned here was to burn a sweet-smelling fragrance or perfume. The Altar of Incense was to have a length of 1 cubit, a width of 1 cubit, and a height of 2 cubits – so it was to be more tall than to be long and wide. The Altar of Incense was to be in the shape of a square, but somewhat tall. As for the measurements of 1 cubit and 2 cubits, we can figure out just how long, wide, and tall the Altar of Incense would be today. A cubit works out in today’s measurements to 1.5 feet. So, taking this measurement into account, the Altar of Incense would’ve had dimensions of 1.5 feet long, 1.5 feet wide, and 3 feet tall; in inches, this would convert to 18 inches long, 18 inches wide, and 36 inches tall. To put this into perspective in terms of a person, most 2-year-olds, on average, are about 34.5 inches tall according to 2017 standards. If the Altar of Incense was to be 36 inches tall, then it would’ve been slightly taller than your average 2-year-old!

The end of verse 2 says that the horns (plural) of the altar would be built into it; they would not be a separate attachment, a detachable piece, but instead, part of the Altar of Incense. It’s interesting that horns would be added to the altar, and the reason why it fascinates may be more curious than you’d imagine. We’ll get into the horns in a minute, but what the Lord tells Moses and the Israelites to do is to place gold over the acacia wood of the altar, the horns, and even the sides of the Altar of Incense. In verse 4, there are to be two gold rings on the sides of the Altar, and these two gold rings would serve as the positions for the poles. The poles were to also be made of acacia wood and overladen with gold, as verse 5 says. What we see is that acacia wood and gold are the main building materials of the Altar of Incense.

In verse 6, the Lord tells Moses to “put it before the veil that is before the Ark of the Testimony, before the mercy seat (over the Ark of the Covenant). Now, to get an idea of exactly where this location was in the Temple, keep in mind that the Ark of the Testimony is another name for “the Ark of the Covenant.” So the mercy seat, already over the Ark of the Covenant, was to have the Altar of Incense placed “before the Ark,” in front of the Ark of the Covenant. The mercy seat is where the Lord met with the priests, and the Altar of Incense would be in front of the Mercy Seat, which was over the Ark of the Covenant. In other words, the sweet-smelling Altar of Incense, yes, a place where incense would be offered, would be the first marker or sign of the interaction of God and man. The sweet aroma, the sweet-smelling incense, would help Israel access the mercy of God (typified by the “mercy seat”), would make it possible.

In verses 7-10, the Lord gave specific instructions regarding what to do with the Altar of Incense: “Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every morning; when he tends the lamps, he shall burn incense on it,” the Lord says in verse 7. Aaron, as high priest, was to burn incense every morning “when he tends the lamps.” Apparently, part of the duties of Aaron was to tend to the lamps, to make sure the lamps were lit. The incense was to be burned every morning. In verse 8, Aaron was to light the lamps “at twilight,” showing that morning and evening, the incense was to be burned. Morning and evening reminds us of the “evening and morning” designations in Genesis 1 at the creation event. “There was evening and morning, the first day,” “evening and morning the second day,” and so on. “Evening and morning” was a phrase used to designate a creation day because this was the designation of a day when it came to observing the Sabbath: Friday evening was the start of the Sabbath, not Saturday morning. Jesus’ body was taken off the Cross before the start of the Sabbath, which means His body was removed before sunset.

The word for “twilight” here is opse, meaning “late” or “evening.” The nation of Israel was to do this as “a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.” The burning of incense was to continue forever among the people of Israel, from one generation to another, all the way into perpetuity. In verse 9, the Lord forbids offering any animal sacrifices on the Altar of Incense: “you shall not offer strange incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering, nor shall you pour a drink offering on it.” They were to offer nothing on the Altar of Incense but the burned incense consecrated to the Lord, no animal sacrifices allowed. The Altar of Incense was an Altar of sweet-smelling perfume, a sweet odor, a refreshing scent. Only the sweet-smelling perfume consecrated to the Lord would emanate from the Altar of Incense. There were altars designed for animal sacrifices, but the Altar of Incense was not one of them.

In verse 10, the Lord gives Aaron a unique task: though incense would be offered on the Altar of Incense every morning and evening when he would light the lamps, Aaron was to also “make atonement” upon the horns of the altar. He’s where we start to see what the built-in horns around the Altar of Incense are all about: “And Aaron shall make atonement upon its horns once a year with the blood of the sin offering of atonement; once a year he shall make atonement upon it throughout your generations. It is most holy to the Lord.” The horns were to be atoned for but only once a year. Similar to the priest going into the Holy of Holies once a year, the priest was to consecrate the horns of the altar with some blood from the sin offering. He was to take some of the blood from the sin offering and place it on the horns, all of the horns, around the altar, but only once a year (only one day a year). Notice that the blood would come from a real sin offering, but it would be dabbled on the horns around the altar. The offering of the animal was to be symbolized here, rather than actually carried out on the Altar of Incense.

The symbolism of the animal sacrifices, as represented by the small blood applied to the horns of the altar, and the incense burned on the altar, shows that the symbolic sacrifice produced a sweet-smelling aroma to the Lord. In Genesis 8, after the Flood waters recede, Noah takes some of each animal that comes out the Ark and sacrifices them on an altar to the Lord. Genesis 8:21 says “And the Lord smelled a soothing aroma.” Other sacrifices in the Old Testament were said to give “a sweet aroma” to the Lord. In Exodus 29:18, the offering of an entire ram as a burnt offering was said to be “a sweet aroma, an offering made by fire to the Lord.” In Leviticus 3 for the peace offering, if a goat is sacrificed, the fat around the entrails and apart from the entrails as well as other parts are to be offered to the Lord by fire as “a sweet aroma” (see Leviticus 3:16). In Leviticus 6:21, the grain offering that is given is to be mixed in a pan with oil with half of it baked in the morning and the other half in the evening. The baked grain is to be offered as a whole “for a sweet aroma to the Lord.”

In Numbers 15:3, the Lord gave instructions “to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering…to make a sweet aroma to the Lord.” In Numbers 15:7, the Lord talks about offering one-third of a hin of wine “as a sweet aroma to the Lord.” In Ezra 6, King Darius issues a decree that the Jews be allowed to rebuild the temple in a region outside of the King’s domain, and that the Jews be given whatever they need to accomplish the task: 9 And whatever they need—young bulls, rams, and lambs for the burnt offerings of the God of heaven, wheat, salt, wine, and oil, according to the request of the priests who are in Jerusalem—let it be given them day by day without fail, 10 that they may offer sacrifices of sweet aroma to the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king and his sons,” Darius said in the decree in Ezra 6:9-10.

In Psalm 66, David says the same when he tells the Lord that he will offer sacrifices to Him: ”
I will go into Your house with burnt offerings;
I will pay You my vows,
14 Which my lips have uttered
And my mouth has spoken when I was in trouble.
15 I will offer You burnt sacrifices of fat animals,
With the sweet aroma of rams;
I will offer bulls with goats. Selah

So yes, the sweet aroma of burned incense at the Altar of Incense was designed to show the divine reception of the animal sacrifices (which were symbolic on the Altar of Incense): that is, that God accepted the offering, that it was sweet-smelling and pleasant to the Lord’s “nostrils.”

And yet, Jesus is a better sacrifice than these; Jesus is the sacrifice to which all of these animal sacrifices point to as greater than they. As Hebrews 7:27 says, He “does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.” Hebrews 9:24-26 says, “24 For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; 25 not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another— 26 He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.”

Jesus is the true sin sacrifice, the sin offering that, once offered, never need be repeated. He is superior to the animal sacrifices, He is the symbolic sacrifice to which the absence of the sacrifice here on the Altar of Incense points. John sees Jesus in the gospel that bears his name and says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” In 1 John 2:2, John says “and He is the propitiation for our sins, and not our sins only, but the sins of the whole world,” referring to His giving Himself for sin as a sin offering – and the Father’s pleasure with the sacrifice of His Son. When the Lord Jesus came up out of the water at His baptism, God the Father sounded from heaven with the words, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” Jesus was not just a sin sacrifice, but a well-pleasing sacrifice.

According to Scripture, Jesus is the sweet-smelling sacrifice, whose giving of His life produces a sweet-smelling aroma in the nostrils of God.  In Ephesians 5:1-2, Paul tells the Ephesians to “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. 2 And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” Jesus gave Himself to God, and the sacrifice was “a sweet-smelling aroma,” showing the continuity between the sacrifice of rams, goats, bulls, and lambs in the Old Testament with the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus is the one sacrifice given that took away sin completely.

When we look at the Altar of Incense, we should see Jesus…and we do. We see the Lord represented there by the horns built into the altar, the horns that are to be dabbled with blood. There was no animal sacrifice to be laid upon the Altar of Incense because it represented something greater than animal sacrifices; it represented the divine sacrifice, the once-for-all sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ on behalf of sinful humanity, a sacrifice the Lord Jesus made to God His Father, a sacrifice whose offering produced a sweet-smelling savor, a sweet-smelling aroma, before God. Yes, the sweet-smelling savor, the sweet-smelling aroma, is the Savior, the Savior of the world, the one who died to save us all. Yes, the savor is the Savior.

And yet, while the sweet aroma referred to the scent of the offerings of grain and animals before the Lord, the sweet aroma also represented the people themselves. The Lord saw the Israelites as a sweet-smelling sacrifice of their own and calls the nation this when He vows to bring them out of the captive lands they’re in to the land of Israel in Ezekiel 20:41-42: “41 I will accept you as a sweet aroma when I bring you out from the peoples and gather you out of the countries where you have been scattered; and I will be hallowed in you before the Gentiles. 42 Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I bring you into the land of Israel, into the country for which I raised My hand in an oath to give to your fathers.” The Israelites would also be an offering to the Lord, a remnant, a sweet-smelling sacrifice to the Lord who freed them from those captive lands. In the New Testament, the Body of Christ, believers, are referred to as sweet-smelling aroma in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16: 14 Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. 15 For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things? In 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, as we just read, we are “the fragrance of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15), “an aroma of death” to the ungodly and an aroma of life for those who believe.

And in the same way that the Israelites are a sweet aroma, so are the children of God today. As such, we are to live as spiritual sacrifices before the Lord. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service,” the apostle Paul says in Romans 12:1. The point of the animal being symbolized by the blood of the sin offering on the Altar of Incense, instead of the actual animal sacrifice itself, is to show that there would be one to come who would be the atoning sacrifice, the propitiation, the appeasing sacrifice, for all the sins of humanity. That one is Jesus Christ. Now that He has come and has saved those of us who have believed, we are to live holy unto the Lord, do what He commands, walk worthy of our calling, live a life of one who has surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We are to present our bodies, to give ourselves, as living sacrifices to God, which, as Paul says, “is your reasonable service” or, as some translations say, is our reasonable act of worship. “And be not conformed to this world,” Paul says, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” In other words, you have to renew your mind on the things of God, in the Word of God, so that you do not conform or shape yourself by the thinking of this world, by the customs of this world. Be in the world but not of the world. Meditate on the goodness of the Lord and His desire for your life. Talk to Him, pray to Him, abstain from the very appearance of evil. There’s so much we can say here, but time will not permit it.

Have you ever wondered about the magi, or the wise men, who visit Jesus when He was a baby in Matthew 2? We read that they brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus, but have you ever stopped to think about why those specific gifts were brought to Jesus? Some say that the frankincense and myrrh and gold were the best of what the magi could bring. But the gold, frankincense, and myrrh can be found here in the Altar of Incense. The myrrh is often considered to be the same as the galbanum mentioned here in Exodus 30, and the gold and frankincense are specifically mentioned. But why would they bring these three gifts? Something suggests to me that they did so because of more than just “bringing their best” to God; I suggest to you that they brought these gifts to show their understanding of the Old Testament.

Remember the magi coming to worship Jesus because “we have seen His Star in the East, and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:2)? They knew that there’d be a star in the sky to signify His birth, and it’s likely they got this from reading about the “Star out of Jacob” in Numbers 24:17. How’d they know about the star as Gentiles unless somehow, they’d read the Old Testament? Perhaps there could’ve been some astronomy claims in place, but they knew Jesus as God, that He was the King of the Jews. How’d they know that if they hadn’t read God’s special revelation, the Scriptures, the Old Testament in their day? And, if they’d read the Old Testament or the Torah, they would’ve known about the sacrifices, that gold was needed along with frankincense and myrrh. Yes, the frankincense and myrrh were anointing spices used on Jesus’ body in His burial, but they were also used as the fragrance of the Altar of Incense. The symbolic sacrifice and the incense would meet together in Christ, who would not only be the sacrifice whose blood would be shed but would also be “the sweet-smelling aroma” before God. And the Magi, if they read the Old Testament, would’ve known this. There’s more to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh than what commentators past and present have said.

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