By Nick Batzig
As a teenager, I would often burn incense in my bedroom and in my car. I was a hippy, and that’s what hippies do. Much to the chagrin of my parents and delight of my friends, I carried the aroma of that incense wherever I went. Little did I know then that incense played an immensely important role in the worship of God in redemptive history.
In the tabernacle and in the temple, God commanded the priests to make and to burn incense (i.e., oil mixed with spices) on the altar of incense (Exodus 30:1–10). It was a symbol of the prayers of the people of God rising up before His throne. It was also a symbol of the fragrant aroma of Christ covering all of the furniture and utensils in the temple, the most holy place, and the priest himself. It was an aroma that infused the place of worship and rose to the very throne room of heaven.
On account of the significance that incense had in the worship of God in old covenant Israel, we should not be surprised to find connections between old covenant worship rituals and the spiritual realities that we now have in Christ in the new covenant. For instance, in his Gospel account, the apostle John tells us that when Jesus was in the home of Martha, immediately after raising Lazarus from the dead, “Mary took a pound of perfume, pure and expensive nard, anointed Jesus’s feet, and wiped his feet with her hair,” anointing Jesus for His burial. John then makes the important observation that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3). Indeed, the aroma of Christ fills every place where the knowledge of His divine person and redeeming work is made known.
The apostle Paul further unfolded this truth when he told the believers in Corinth that God “always leads us in Christ’s triumphal procession and through us spreads the aroma of the knowledge of him in every place. For to God we are the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2Corinthians 2:14–16).
The knowledge of the death of Jesus Christ for the sins of His people gives off a spiritual fragrance. To those of us who have been saved, it is the sweetest and most wonderful aroma. For those who are perishing, it is a stench. As Christ followers, the aroma of Christ exudes from us to those we encounter in the world. It rises to the very throne room of heaven. “To God we are,” says the apostle, “the fragrance of Christ.” What a glorious thought that is as we live our lives in His worship and witness.