How great is God’s love for us! There is much trouble in the world that this truth is sacrificed upon the altar of materialistic consumption and obsession with politics and money. Even if we have been delivered from such foolishness, our daily struggles in our homes and work can hide God’s mercy and love behind the clouds of our worry and frustration. Let us look at God’s love and nearness with a fresh eye. In the altar of incense before the veil we clearly have an invitation to draw near to our reconciled God and Father. In the half-shekel each Israelite paid to “redeem his soul,” we have a picture of the ransom our Lord Jesus paid for us with his own precious blood. The bronze laver shows that we are washed and sanctified, and that our Lord Jesus has obtained our definitive cleansing and our ongoing washing from sin’s daily contamination. God says, “Be washed and encouraged to draw near to me.” And then in the sweet-smelling perfume, we are taught that our souls and bodies are now anointed with the pleasing unction of the Holy Spirit, so that we are acceptable to God. We smell good to him, and our lives are pleasing to him through the Spirit’s uniting us to our Savior! With so many encouragements, let us build our lives afresh upon the rock of the gospel. Then, whatever difficulties through which we pass, we can do so rejoicing. We must rejoice, for the joy of the Lord is our strength. He does not make sad servants, and there is great joy and peace waiting for us at the end of our race. Let us run for the crown this week, laying aside worldly fears and entanglements, especially a bad attitude, a dry life empty of praise, and forgetfulness of the great things God has done for us in Christ.
The Altar of Incense: Come Boldly to the Throne of Grace (vv. 1-10)
1 "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."
The Beautiful Compliment of the Burnt Offering
Matching the construction materials and appearance of the ark of the covenant, but a little smaller, the altar of incense is the last piece of tabernacle furniture revealed to Moses on the mountain. Perhaps it was revealed last to show its close connection with the altar of burnt offering and the priestly ministry in the tabernacle – all the sacrifices and meditation before fruit in reconciliation and fellowship with the Lord through prayer and worship. The altar of incense was placed before the veil separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place, where the ark of the covenant was. The idea clearly being that at the altar, the priest drew near to God’s throne. He could not see God and his majesty, but he knew God was present and would hear his prayers. Morning and evening incense was to be burned upon the altar, matching the tending of the golden lampstand and also the evening sacrifice. Since God gave light to his people and forgave their sins, he is reconciled to us. He invites us to seek him. His light and mercy calls forth for our praise; his nearness testifies to his willingness to hear our prayers.
The altar of incense, then, was the beautiful compliment of the burnt offering –a reconciled God is a hearing and helping God. Because prayerful fellowship with God is a treasure to be guarded, no other incense could be burned upon the altar than what God approved (v. 9). He sets the terms of approach. We cannot offer him what we want but must draw near upon the path he reveals in his word. Once each year, on the Day of Atonement, the altar had to be purified by sprinkling with blood (v. 10). Even the sinner’s holy things are unworthy of God’s majesty and defiled by his sin. But considering that no other people in the world had any hope that God would favorably receive their prayers, this system of cleansing and intercession was mercy from heaven, light in the darkness.
The Beautiful Type and Fruit of Jesus’ Sacrifice
For 1,500 years, the Lord was preparing his church for the great day when the Altar would come down from heaven, our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the way to God; he has in our resurrected flesh pierced the veil, entered heaven for us, sat down at God’s right hand, and ever lives to make intercession for us. By him, we draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, looking not at a colorful veil but at God’s own glory in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). Of these blessings the altar of incense was a beautiful type. First, Jesus Christ’s sacrifice was availing and sufficient to reconcile us to God. There is no more veil between us and God, for he has torn it down by being torn for us on the cross. Our fellowship with the Three-in-One God is thus closer, more secure, and better understood than in Moses’ day. For not only has an all-sufficient sacrifice been made for sin that has put away sin (Heb. 9:26) and brought in everlasting righteousness (Dan. 9:24), but also the sacrifice rose from the dead! He rose for our justification, to testify that all our debt is paid in full (Rom. 4:25), that we are the blood-cleansed children of God and that God is satisfied with us through his beloved Son. And now, our Savior “lives to make intercession for us” (Heb. 7:25); he is the altar through whom we draw near to the Father.
Because of the efficacy, real worth and power, of our Savior’s intercession, our prayers are also spoken of as incense, a sweet smelling aroma that ascends heavenward (Ps. 141:1-2). This comes to clearest expression in John’s Revelation, where seeing a vision of the glory of God’s heavenly throne room, he also sees the Lord’s redeemed multitudes from every nation and language, a kingdom of priests, or royal priesthood, even as the altar of incense in the earthly tabernacle had a gold crown around its top. Through the powerful, worthy intercession of our blessed Savior, our prayers are worthy and accepted to God, with the intercessory help of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:26-27). They arise to God, are symbolically stored in golden vials or censors maintained by the attendance angels (Rev. 5:8). In these heavenly censers are the prayers of the saints, called odors or a sweet-smelling aroma. Later in John’s visions, these prayers are thrown back on the earth in the form of deliverances for God’s church and judgment upon God’s enemies (Rev. 8:3). And thus, Peter states that we are a kingdom of priests, God’s holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9). Like Jesus, our reign is marked by prayer and praise, not simply as devotions, but also as the holy offerings of sanctified hearts, praying for the Lord of hosts to deliver his bride and glorify his name on the earth. It is a strange kingdom, not at all like the worlds’ kingdoms, but it is the kingdom that is spreading to fill all things and bring down all the petty kingdoms of men (John 18:36; Dan. 2:44-45).
The Half-Shekel Offering: Our Soul’s Ransom Paid in Full (vv. 11-16)
11 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 12 "When you take the census of the children of Israel for their number, then every man shall give a ransom for himself to the LORD, when you number them, that there may be no plague among them when you number them. 13 "This is what everyone among those who are numbered shall give: half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary (a shekel is twenty gerahs). The half-shekel shall be an offering to the LORD. 14 "Everyone included among those who are numbered, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering to the LORD. 15 "The rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when you give an offering to the LORD, to make atonement for yourselves. 16 "And you shall take the atonement money of the children of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the children of Israel before the LORD, to make atonement for yourselves."
All Equally Guilt, All Pay the Same
It is assumed that a census of God’s people will sometimes be taken. David’s later fault in this was not in the census itself, but in his motives, likely a combination of pride, ambition, perhaps tinged with fear associated with his declining strength and inability to go to war. But the Lord knows all his sheep by name, and roll books and numbers reflects that he owns and knows each one of us. God’s numbering is also intended to reveal his faithfulness, for all growth is from him. The idea that God’s people should remain stagnant is a contradiction of his life and fruitfulness in us. If Israel increased in those dark days of types and shadows, we should expect for God’s word to grow and multiply in us (Acts 12:24; 19:20), our Savior to be fruitful in us (John 15:1-8; 2 Pet. 1:8), and the church to increase in size and vigor, as each one of us does his or her duty in living and speaking the word of God (Eph. 4:16).
When Israel was numbered, every man was to give a “ransom for his soul or life” in the form of half a shekel of silver. The rich were to give no more, the poor no less (v. 15). The implication is clear. All are equally guilty before the Lord. Riches cannot purchase salvation; poverty does not merit it. Since the ransom price was paid into tabernacle and later the temple treasury (v. 16), God was teaching his people to seek salvation solely through the sacrifice and priesthood he had ordained. Thus, each man had a vested interest in supporting the priesthood that labored for the salvation of his soul. Collective faithfulness in paying this ransom would preserve from the judgment of plague (v. 12) and be a memorial (v. 16) before the Lord. It was the nation’s way of saying – “we deserve to die because of our sins, and we recognize our debt before you. We give this money to the priests, so that they may keep up your royal court, worship, and atoning sacrifices. We are nothing without you. Everything we have is a gift from you. Save us from our sins.”
Christ Jesus Paid our Ransom in Full
But coin will not ransom our souls from death. God’s justice accepts payment only in like kind. The soul that sins must die, unless the debt of iniquity is paid in full. Cheap grace and universalism aside, God cannot leave the guilty unpunished; “just and righteous” are as much his name as “love and mercy” (Ex. 34:5-6). Our sins make us liable to the payment of the insult done to his holiness and justice, for he made us to know and serve him. And thus, our Savior’s sacrifice comes to our deliverance. He “became sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21) in order to pay the ransom price – his precious blood for our polluted blood, his sinless life for our corrupted one. It is wonderful beyond our ability to conceive that such a ransom was conceived in the wisdom and mercy of God, and that such a one as the Holy Son of God should willingly pray that price for us. Again and again, his sacrifice is spoken of as a ransom. “He gave his life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). He “gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6). He redeemed us from the curse of the law by the payment of his own blood as a ransom price (Gal. 3:13; 4:5). The price he paid was himself – the righteous one for the wicked – in order to bring us to God (Tit. 2:14). The idea of price and payment is at the heart of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Moderns do not like this, especially in the church, for ransom through blood faces us with the enormous gravity of our sins, and preaching sin and judgment does not sell. But the Lord Jesus has not adopted our marketing schemes. His concern when he came was not to offer sentimentality to redeem us; he had to pay the coin of his own life, the price of his own blood, in order to deliver our guilty souls from death and judgment. He “made his soul an offering for our sins” (Isa. 53:10). We can never, never understand even a small part of his love until we accept the main part of God’s plan of redemption. We sinned. A curse came to us. Our souls must be ransomed or perish eternally. Jesus Christ offered his blood for ours. Yes, substitutionary atonement and redemption by paying the ransom price for our deliverance commits us to very particular views of the cross, but the alternative leaves us with no cross at all, no ransom for our souls, other than a potential one that must be completed by our act of will or faith. This is not a legitimate ransom; it is to dance with the devil and offer to God the same willfulness that brought upon us the curse in the first place – not submitting to the word of God but finding life and salvation on our own terms.
The Bronze Laver: Wash and Draw Near (vv. 17-21)
17 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 18 "You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base also of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tabernacle of meeting and the altar. And you shall put water in it, 19 "for Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet in water from it. 20 "When they go into the tabernacle of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn an offering made by fire to the LORD, they shall wash with water, lest they die. 21 "So they shall wash their hands and their feet, lest they die. And it shall be a statute forever to them -- to him and his descendants throughout their generations."
Before the Burnt Offering; Wash before Entering
Situated in the outer court of the tabernacle between the altar for burnt offering and the entrance to the tabernacle, stood the comparatively non-descript brass basin for washing. Before offering the sacrifice or going into the tabernacle, Aaron and his sons had to wash their hands and feet. They were already consecrated, but the secondary washing bore witness to the fact that they (and we!) easily contract defilement in the course of daily life. God’s servants must wash before serving him – offering sacrifice, refreshing the bread, trimming the lamps, offering incense. It is life or death that God’s servants be clean, or they cannot offer acceptable sacrifices and prayers for his people. And when they leave the tabernacle, they must wash again. Death is the consequence for unwashed priests. It did not matter that the priests might not think their hands or feet dirty or that they had already washed at home. In the church, God’s dwelling place, is the place where they must wash, for it is there that we find by his grace cleansing for our sins and fitness to serve him.
Wash Daily through Faith in Christ, Repentance
The washing of the priest’s hands and feet was a reminder that they were doing holy work and standing upon holy ground. They were already consecrated, set apart to office, and “holy to the Lord,” but they contracted ongoing defilement by their sinful nature and actual transgressions. Plus, they needed to be reminded constantly that the God whom they serve is holy. He hates sin with the whole weight of his holy and just nature. That he would allow sinners to serve him at all is a testimony to his grace, and his grace must not degenerate into presumption and license but lead to greater reverence and faithfulness to seek cleansing. And this is exactly the lesson that our Savior’s kingdom of priests must learn. Like the disciples in the upper room, we are clean through faith in his word (John 13:10-11; 15:3). Thus, Peter’s request for a full bath, i.e., definitive cleansing and regeneration, was misplaced, for he already had this. He needed ongoing cleansing, as well as the example of humility.
Both aspects of our Savior’s cleansing work are thus highlighted by the brass basin. Before we draw near to God, we must be definitively cleansed and consecrated to stand before him at all. God does not hear sinners (John 9:31). We must be washed, as the high priest was, sprinkled with blood, and made fit to serve God. Even so, we need daily cleansing. Do we not all feel that as holy and consecrated as our Savior had made us, that we think, say, and do much that somehow brings down fresh defilement upon us? That our words, O, simply our words, when their filth is brought to our consciences by the Holy Spirit, are sufficient to crush us under the weight of their pollution, as Isaiah felt so keenly. What are we to do when we fall those “seven times?” How does the Lord raise us up again and make us fit to offer prayers and sacrifices? Through the brass basin of our Savior’s blood. It was shed once for all, but its virtue lasts for all time. This is one reason he was raised from the dead. He – the living Savior – is the propitiation for our sins – not a dead sacrifice, but a raised Savior, a Satan crushing, sin removing Savior, an interceding Savior who advocates for us before the throne of God (1 John 1:9-2:2).
Nothing is more health-giving for us than to learn the virtue and liberating grace of daily drawing near to God in Jesus’ name and washing ourselves in his blood. This we do by faith, for no new sacrifice is required. Such a perfect and complete sacrifice the Lord of glory made, that “by one offering, he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Heb. 10:14). “Perfected” stresses the once-for-all nature and efficacy of his death for us; “being made” brings to the forefront that he inwardly cleanses us progressively by applying the virtue and power of his once-for-all sacrifice to our consciences by the Holy Spirit. And thus, if we would wash in that brass basin of Jesus Christ, we must come with hearts humbled by our sins. Each faithful and mature disciple will make daily confession of his sins, which implies that we are judging ourselves (1 Cor. 11:31) by the light of Scripture. The world tells us we are fools for “chastening ourselves every morning,” but faith teaches a very different lesson. It is not that we fear losing justifying righteousness, but we crave deeper fellowship and power. Sin cannot cast us out of God’s favor, but it absolutely robs us of the joy and strength of our Savior in which we grow through obedience (John 15:9-11). So, let us come and wash, and be cleansed, because God is faithful and keeps his promises.
The Anointing Oil and Incense: Sweet-Smelling to God (vv. 22-38)
22 Moreover the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 23 "Also take for yourself quality spices -- five hundred shekels of liquid myrrh, half as much sweet-smelling cinnamon (two hundred and fifty shekels), two hundred and fifty shekels of sweet-smelling cane, 24 "five hundred shekels of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and a hin of olive oil. 25 "And you shall make from these a holy anointing oil, an ointment compounded according to the art of the perfumer. It shall be a holy anointing oil. 26 "With it you shall anoint the tabernacle of meeting and the ark of the Testimony; 27 "the table and all its utensils, the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense; 28 "the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the laver and its base. 29 "You shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy; whatever touches them must be holy. 30 "And you shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister to Me as priests. 31 "And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: 'This shall be a holy anointing oil to Me throughout your generations. 32 'It shall not be poured on man's flesh; nor shall you make any other like it, according to its composition. It is holy, and it shall be holy to you. 33 'Whoever compounds any like it, or whoever puts any of it on an outsider, shall be cut off from his people.'" 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."
Everything Sweet Smelling, No Common Perfume
The tabernacle was a beautiful place, a palace fit for a king – bright colors, tapestry and artwork, wood carving, golden furniture, ornately clothed attendants – but it stank. Blood covered everything. And thus, the Lord ordered a special perfume to be compounded, almost forty pounds’ worth, of mostly four ingredients: cinnamon, myrrh, cassia, and balsa gum. Along with other sweet spices (v. 34), with olive oil as the base, the perfume was sprinkled on everything: the tabernacle, the ark of the covenant, the altar of burnt offering and all its tools, the brass basin with its foundation, Aaron and his sons (vv. 25-30). The fruit of sacrificial blood is sweet smelling to the Lord: his peace and favor, his righteousness and grace. Those who minister in blood must be sweet, worthy of his majesty. And this particular perfume was to be used in no other place – not sold as a tabernacle souvenir to visitors or any other use. This perfume was God’s smell. It was a gift of his grace and the fruit of his favor obtained through the priesthood, sacrifice, and worship of God’s people. Anointed therewith, his people were holy and sweet smelling to him – burning animals do not smell sweet, and the stench of our sin was covered with the aroma of his grace.
Anointed in our Savior with the Spirit
Our Savior offered a sweet-smelling sacrifice to God, not because he was bathed in perfume but because he was the worthy Lamb of God. But even he was set apart by the true holy oil, the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit, their full complement and filling (John 4:34). He has the true “oil of gladness” (Ps. 45:7), and it was through this “oil” that he offered himself to God (Heb. 9:14) and by the Spirit that was raised from the dead (Rom. 8:11). Thus, our Savior was anointed with the heavenly oil, the personal presence and power of the Holy Spirit. By faith in him, we are anointed with the Spirit, partake of his quickening and sealing work, his illuminating and sanctifying power (John 3:1-8; 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13-18; 1 Pet. 1:2). It is by the Spirit of holiness inwardly interceding for us that our prayers are acceptable to God (Rom. 8:26-27). Nothing was acceptable to God in the old tabernacle unless consecrated and perfumed; we have the true perfume, God’s own indwelling presence by the Spirit. It is the Spirit who cleanses us in the blood of Christ (Ezek. 36:27), applies the virtue of his sacrifice to each believer, takes away our rotten corruption and gives us a new and living heart. It is the Spirit that makes us fit servants of God, able to stand before him as washed and sweet-smelling priests and kings, all through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. He took our stench upon himself that he might sprinkle us with his perfumes of grace and righteousness.
Our Lives a Fragrant Offering to God
And we are now brought near to God in Jesus Christ, so closely, that clothed with his righteousness as our white robes, cleansed and sprinkled with his blood, and sharing in the perfume of his Spirit, we can offer not animals but our lives and bodies as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1-2). We can now offer the sacrifices of praises with thanksgiving (Heb. 13:15), spiritual sacrifices, as Peter described them (1 Pet. 2:5). The glory of Jesus Christ is revealed in that he has brought many sons and daughters to God; he has made of the criminally guilty a purified kingdom of priests, so that we offer to God sacrifices of praise and obedience day and night. And perhaps we should be more stirred to this holy work if we remembered what a pleasing thing such perfume is to God. He did not want a stinky tabernacle, and he does not want his children to lead lives of sin. Sin is the great, offensive stench to him. How easily we tolerate and even approve the smell that nauseates him!
And shall such be true of us who profess to know and love the Savior? That after accomplishing such a great salvation, after bringing us near to God so that we are already raised and seated with him, that we should wallow in sin’s filth or withhold the joyful service of praise and obedience of which our Savior is so worthy? Perish the thought! Perish our low and carnal aims, our low sense of the great things God has done for us in Christ! God has anointed us with the oil of gladness, and we smell good to him. Let us praise and adore him for his grace, consecrate a portion of each day to pray and serve him before his majestic throne, and offer our lives to him as a living sacrifice. This is the only thing we can do. Such grace must be received and bear fruit in rich love, thanksgiving, obedience, and joy!
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. Why was the altar of incense placed in front of the veil?
2. In what way is the altar of incense connected to the burnt offering?
3. What does the altar of incense teaches us about our Savior’s mediation?
4. In what ways are the saints’ prayers incense to God and what does he do with them?
5. Why did rich and poor pay the same ransom?
6. Why was the ransom given toward the maintenance of the tabernacle and priests?
7. In what sense is Jesus’ blood a ransom?
8. How is understanding Christ’s love tied to understanding his blood as the ransom price for our souls?
9. What two aspects of Christ’s work does the brass laver set forth?
10. What is our brass basin?
11. Why so much perfume? Why an exclusive fragrance?
12. How are we anointed? What is the perfume that makes us pleasing to God?
13. What are the sacrifices we are to offer to God? See Romans 12:1-2, Hebrews 13:15, and 1 Peter 2:9.