The Incense Altar

Exodus 30:1-10

There is a striking typical illustration of the effectiveness of our great High Priest’s intercession furnished in Numbers 16. Korah and 250 Israelites rebelled against the LORD refusing to accept Aaron as their High Priest, claiming equal nearness to God for all Israel. They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them,

“You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?”

This was a fragrant intrusion into the High Priest’s office, and the honor and dignity of which no one was to take to himself since Aaron and his successors were called and consecrated by God. Korah and the men who followed him attempted to create a priestly order without divine sanction.

Moses warned the assembly of Israelites to move back from the tents of these wicked men. The ground under Korah the self-appointed worshipers split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed him, with his households and possessions. The Bibles says, “They went down alive into Sheol. And fire came down from the LORD and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense.”

Instead of fearing the LORD, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of killing the LORD’s people. We read in Numbers 16:41-49—

But when the assembly gathered in opposition to Moses and Aaron and turned towards the Tent of Meeting, suddenly the cloud covered it and the glory of the LORD appeared. Then Moses and Aaron went to the front of the Tent of Meeting, and the LORD said to Moses, “Get away from this assembly so that I can put an end to them at once.”

And they fell face down. Then Moses said to Aaron, “Take your censer and put incense in it, along with fire from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the LORD; the plague has started.” So Aaron did as Moses said, and ran into the midst of the assembly. The plague had already started among the people, but Aaron offered the incense and made atonement for them. He stood between the living and the dead, and the plague stopped. But 14,700 people died from the plague, in addition to those who had died because of Korah.

Folks, Aaron is an INTERCESSOR—an intermediate agent between individuals and God. He is the go-between, broker, interceder, mediator—the intermediary, who is able to pray and appease the wrath of HOLY GOD!

What a foreshadowing of the mediatorial intercession of Christ—standing between the living and dead— stopping the wrath of Almighty God against sinners who deserve to die.

Oh, sinner, do you realize that Christ stands between you and God and His almighty wrath. As a poor, lost, helpless, undone sinner, you came to the Cross of Calvary, laid your hand upon the Sacrifice, in faith as your Substitute, and received in Him forgiveness of sin.

A lot of people say, “Now that I am saved, I can go directly to God.” No, you can’t! You go to God through Christ! Jesus said in John 14:6—

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

There are two ALTARS connected with the Tabernacle that teach this truth—one is made of BRONZE, the other is GOLD. The BRONZE ALTAR is outside the Tent of the Meeting and the GOLDEN ALTAR is inside of it. The BRONZE ALTAR is for the forgiveness of sin, the GOLDEN ALTAR is for worship. Both ALTARS are indispensable in our salvation.

Exodus 30 is one of the outstanding worship chapters of the Bible. Today, we come to the INCENSE ALTAR—it is the place of prayer and worship. Exodus 30:1-5—

Make an altar of acacia wood for burning incense. It is to be square, a cubit long and a cubit wide, and two cubits high—its horns of one piece with it. Overlay the top and all the sides and the horns with pure gold, and make a gold moulding around it. Make two gold rings for the altar below the moulding—two on opposite sides—to hold the poles used to carry it. Make the poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold.

Yahweh’s instructions tell us that the INCENSE ALTAR was a small in size, yet its littleness does not diminish its significance!

Again, the ACACIA WOOD signifies the humanity of Christ and the GOLD His deity. Even this small furnishing of the Tabernacle had rings so that poles could be put through them. The rings and poles enabled the priests to carry the Incense Altar on their shoulders when transporting the Tabernacle from place to place. The point is that wherever you go take Christ with you!

As Aaron approached this altar, it foreshadowed Christians drawing near to God. Verse 6—

Put the altar in front of the curtain that is before the ark of the Testimony—before the atonement cover that is over the Testimony—where I will meet with you.

THE INCENSE ALTAR rested in front of the DIVIDING CURTAIN that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest carried it before the ARK OF THE TESTIMONY.

Almost everyone is surprised by the order the Tabernacle and its furnishings are presented in the Scriptures. But were not! For God is a God of order, and infallible wisdom marks all His handiwork— and most certainly the Bible!

We discovered with the COURTYARD and ITS GATE that Yahweh had a wonderful reason for giving the plans for the Tabernacle and its furnishings the way He did.

The LORD first describes the mode He would manifest Himself in Christ, and then He describes the mode of man’s approach to Him in Christ.

Therefore, everything leading up to the COURTYARD and ITS GATE is a picture of God coming to us in Christ. And everything thereafter is a picture of us going to God in Christ.

Of paramount significance is the fact that the LORD interrupted His instructions on the Tabernacle to detail the PRIESTLY GARMENTS and the CONSECRATION of the Priesthood. Only Aaron and his descendants could intercede for the people until Jesus. Now, Christ fulfills the two furnishings given in this chapter, the GOLDEN ALTAR OF INCENSE and BRONZE BASIN FOR WASHING. By His own blood, Yahweh has consecrated Him to fill the role of High Priest.

The primary application of the teaching of the holy vessels is to Christ Himself, but there is a secondary application to His people.

The two fundamental things prefigured in this ALTAR is WORSHIP and PRAYER. Each require that Christ as INTERCESSOR be appropriated by faith before acceptable prayer and worship can be offered to Yahweh.

Therefore, the priests are dressed and consecrated by the LORD in the sacred garments of salvation and service. People are depend upon the ordained priesthood as the means of going before the LORD. Verses 7-8—

Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so that incense will burn regularly before the LORD for the generations to come.

Notice the lighting of the LAMPS is linked with the GOLDEN ALTAR. Typically, this tells us that the gift and ministry of Christ’s Spirit—the HOLY SPIRIT—is linked with prayer and worship. We’ll see this connection shortly.

One third of our life is spend in sleep; but God never slumbers. Christ ever lives to make intercession for us. The burning of incense and the lamps in the Holy Place are a reminder of this wonderful truth.

Only incense was to be offered on this Altar, and only a certain kind of incense! I’ll focus on the worship aspect of this chapter, when we looked God’s formula for this incense and see how it relates to our worship of the LORD. Today, I want to focus on PRAYER.

This Altar speaks of PRAYER, and we know this because the Bible uses incense as a symbol of prayer. Psalm 141:2 says—

May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.

Luke’s Gospel reports that Zechariah, the priest, was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense at the time of prayer.

Remember everything about the Tabernacle is a copy of what is in Heaven and takes place there. Revelation 8:3 tells us—

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.

If INCENSE symbolizes PRAYER, what does the ALTAR picture? First, it typifies Christ, and secondly, the born again believer in Christ.

Did you ever looked through unfocused binoculars—everything looked blurred. But when you adjusted them, everything became sharp and clear. Well, that’s what Romans 8:33-34 does for the BRONZE and GOLDEN ALTARS. It brings them into focus—

Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? 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.

In Christ we find JUSTIFICATION and INTERCESSION. We first encounter Christ at the BRONZE ALTAR, where He suffers, enduring judgment, bowing His head beneath the awful fire of God’s wrath. Our sin is consumed by God’s holy, righteous, justice at the Cross. There we are justified by God and our condemnation is washed away in Christ’s blood. But even more blessed (if that is possible) is our encounter with Jesus at the INCENSE ALTAR.

Hebrews 9:1-4 sheds significant light on the ascended Christ making intercession for us—

Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant.

At first glance, it appears that John in Revelation and the author of Hebrews made a big mistake. They place the Golden Altar of Incense in the Most Holy Place before the Throne! Why did they locate it in the Most Holy Place? Because when they wrote, the DIVIDING CURTAIN had been torn from top to bottom at the death of Christ on the Cross. Jesus had ascended back to heaven, and Altar of Incense stands before the Throne of God today!

Jesus is the One who brings us into the presence of God the Father. He is in heaven making intercession for us. It was wonderful for the Israelites to know that their High Priest was in the Tabernacle, at the Altar of Incense, praying for them. It is wonderful for us to know that Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, is praying for us.

Did you know that Christ does not pray for the world? That is right! Jesus said in John 17:9—

I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.

Listen again to Revelation 8:3—

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.

What prayers reach the Throne of God? THE PRAYERS OF THE SAINTS! You say, “Why doesn’t Jesus pray for the world?” He died for the world. And the Holy Spirit is making the offer of Christ real to people so they can receive Him or reject Him. When we receive Jesus, the Holy Spirit not only enters our life, but also helps us to pray. Romans 8:26-27 offers this insight into prayer—

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.

The person without Christ and the Holy Spirit is powerless in prayer! God hears prayers because of who Christ is and what He did for us on the Cross.

From the same throne, as King, Christ dispenses His Spirit to all who believe, while as Priest He intercedes for them. The Spirit acts for Christ, taking only of His things. They both act with one consent, Christ as the administrator, the Spirit as his agent. Christ intercedes for us as our advocate in heaven, according to the provisions of the everlasting covenant. The Holy Spirit works upon our minds and hearts, enlightening and stimulating, and thus determining our desires ‘according to the will of God,’ as our advocate within us.

The work of the one is complementary to that of the other, and together Christ and the Spirit form a complete whole to offer intercessor prayer on our behalf.

Every unsaved person alike lacks the Holy Spirit; some are weaker in faith, knowledge, and experience, than others—but all are spiritually powerless! Unregenerate persons have no spiritual strength, are ignorant of their weakness, do not go to Christ for strength, nor derive any from Him, and hence can perform nothing that is spiritually good—even prayer!

Leviticus and Numbers tell us that the FIRE laid on the INCENSE ALTAR was taken from the BRONZE ALTAR, where the sin offering had been consumed. There was, therefore, a very intimate connection between the two altars. Without the fire from the BRONZE ALTAR, there could be no acceptable offering of incense before God. In other words, without the appropriation of Christ’s atonement, there is no acceptable prayer.

Without the Incense Altar, there is no acceptable place to burn the incense! Outside of Christ, a person cannot offer an acceptable and pleasing prayer to God! Knowing that in a few hours, He would open the way into the Most Holy Place on the Cross, Jesus gave to His disciples the NT’s prerogative and perquisite of prayer in John 16:24—

Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

The use of Jesus Christ’s NAME for intercessory purposes was new to the disciples, since it was only after His ascension that His Name is employed in prayer. Other than for this privilege combined with faith, there are no other rules laid down in the NT for the one who asks of God.

Only priests can pray today—and every true believer in Christ is a priest.

There is a great deal of sentimental rubbish that a person can lead any sort of sinful life he pleases, reject Christ, and then in time of trouble pray! Perhaps when a loved one is in the hospital, this reprobate can get on his knees before God and expect an answer. Movies have scenes like this, and some sentimental preachers talk about such things happening but God says He does not answer prayers like this.

Let us be very careful about this! The Altar of Incense is where priests minister. The only prayer a sinner can pray is “God be merciful to me, a sinner—I repent—forgive me—I receive Christ.” God will hear and answer that prayer when it is offered to Him by faith!

Notice that INCENSE was to be upon the Altar in morning and evening. As God’s holy and royal priesthood, we also are to perpetually burn incense before the LORD. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, the apostle instructs every Christian—

Pray continually [Pray without ceasing!]

When the High Priest went inside the Holy Place and offered incense on the Altar, he spend some time in the Tabernacle. That incense stayed upon his garments and when he came outside, the people could smell him. You might say that he was wearing the right kind of fragrance.

God was touching all the sense of His people. They saw the beautiful priestly garments with the gold plate on his head, reading HOLINESS UNTO THE LORD. They heard the bells jingle as he walked reminding them to be holy. And they smelled the aroma of the fragrant incense of prayer upon him!

When you walk by do people say, “My, doesn’t she smell good!” “Doesn’t he smell good?” The trouble with many saints today is that they are not wearing the right kind of after-shave or perfume. The right perfume is PRAYER! Let your prayers ascend before God as sweet incense, and it will permeate your garments—if you spend time in prayer.

Exodus 30:9 makes it absolutely clear that this altar was NOT for sacrifice—

Do not offer on this altar any other incense or any burnt offering or grain offering, and do not pour a drink offering on it.

Since the fire came from BRONZE ALTAR that consumed the sin offering that sent up a pleasing aroma to the LORD, there only remains the sweet smelling incense of prayer to be offered to the LORD on these coals. It would be paramount to crucifying Christ anew to offer any sacrifice on this altar. Exceedingly fragrant must have been its aroma, telling of the acceptability and preciousness of Christ’s intercessions for His brethren.

Verse 10—

Once a year Aaron shall make atonement on its horns. This annual atonement must be made with the blood of the atoning sin offering for the generations to come. It is most holy to the LORD.

Intercession and the incense received their value completely and exclusively from the blood shed at BRONZE ALTAR at the entrance of the Tabernacle. Everything rests upon the blood of the Cross, the death and the resurrection of Christ. Had Christ not made ATONEMENT for us, He could not make intercession for us.

The HORNS of the ALTAR symbolize POWER. Christ has intercessory power with God on our behalf because of His shed blood.

But what about the believer, who has never gets beyond the BRONZE ALTAR? Yes, many have experienced the power of God’s grace, but some never reach the GOLDEN ALTAR. They hope to reach it when they die; but it is their privilege to be at it NOW!

They have entered into the power and reality of true priestly worship. Yet, they do not enjoy their privilege! They are dressed by God in the PRIESTLY GARMENTS of salvation and service, but never offer the INCENSE.

This Altar typifies a position of wondrous blessedness. There we enjoy the reality and power of Christ’s intercession. Hebrews 9:24 states—

For Christ did not enter a man made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.

Little wonder Hebrew 4:16 urges—

Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Like Aaron and his sons, we too have been introduced by sprinkled blood into the sanctuary —a sanctuary of priestly service and worship.

Like Aaron at the time of Korah’s rebellion, we, the royal priesthood, now stand before God and the rebellious sinner deserving of death. If we fail to take our stand in prayer, our lost friends might perish!

One of the most remarkable intercessory prayers of the Bible is recorded in Exodus 32:10-14. Moses prayed for the people in spite of the fact that God had said, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” Moses fervently interceded for the people, and then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster He had threatened.

Even Samuel said to the rebellious Israelites—

As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you (1 Samuel 12:23).

Do you have an earthly friend, who needs to know the Savior? Are you praying for that friend? You might well be the only one who stands between the wrath of God and your friend—between heaven and hell! Are you making intercession for your friend?

Folks, as a Christian you have direct access to God. You can make the difference. Look again at the horns of the altar sprinkled with blood. There is power in the blood and there is power in intercessory prayer!

You hold the highest office of the believer—Priesthood! And the highest responsibility of this office is intercessory prayer!

The importance of intercessory prayer is seen with Moses, Aaron and Hur when Israel was locked in warfare with the Amalekites. While Joshua and the Israelites fought against the Amalekites in the valley below, Moses interceded on the mountain top. Israel won the victory as Moses with the help of Aaron and Hur, prevailed in intercessory prayer symbolized by the staff of God that Moses held above his head. Might each of us who knows Jesus Christ as Savior be faithful in interceding for the needs of others.

Can you take your stand and commit yourself to intercessory prayer for your friend who needs to win the battle against the forces that seek to destroy his or her soul. If so, you can whole heartily I want you leave today with the smell of incense on your garments!

SPRAY—AIR FRESHENER—on the way out!

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