Our Altar of Incense
Let us go back in time about fifteen hundred years before Christ when the Lord directed Moses while on Mount Sinai to make Him a sanctuary. There is a detailed description of that sanctuary in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Hebrews 9:1-5: “Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shew bread; which is called the sanctuary. And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all; Which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; And over it the cherubim of glory shadowing the mercy seat; of which we cannot now speak particularly.” Here is pictured a seemingly strange structure with unusual articles of furniture. It functioned until its services met their fulfilment in the death of Christ on Calvary.
The sanctuary had two apartments or rooms separated by a veil. The first was called the Holy; and the second, the Most Holy. In the Holy, a priest officiated daily, ministering for the benefit of himself and his people. In the Most Holy, the High Priest ministered during the solemn Day of Atonement once a year.
What was the service like in the first part of the sanctuary? For a moment, let’s follow a story of a boy who committed the sin of lying to his parents. He felt sorry and condemned by the moral law (Exodus 20:16) for the commandment pronounces the death sentence against the sinner: “For the wages of sin is death.” Romans 6:23. Feeling his unworthiness and sinfulness, his conscience compelled him to see the priest. This is exactly why the sanctuary was erected. It was the receptacle for sin. He understood fully that an animal, such as a lamb, must be brought to the sanctuary for slaughter in order to satisfy the claims of the law. This lamb must be “without blemish, a male of the first year: ye shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats.” Exodus 12:5. It was a perfect sacrifice, without any defilement, representing the Son of God—the Lamb of God–who would come to die for the human race as man’s innocent substitute. On picking out the lamb, the boy probably felt great heart anguish that such an innocent, calm, and beautiful creature had to die because of his sin. But sin is horrible in the sight of God and must be dealt with through a sacrifice.
Once the boy and the lamb reached the courtyard of the sanctuary, he was assisted by the priest. He examined the animal to make sure it was worthy of the sacrifice. Not one defect was allowed on the animal, for Christ, whom it symbolized, is perfect. Today we, too, must bring perfect offerings to God. Placing his hands upon the live animal for a moment, the boy confessed his known sin. This act signified that he was a sinner worthy of death, but the guilt was transferred to the lamb, and it was to die instead of the boy. In other words, the lamb was his substitute. Then with his own hand he took the life of the animal. It must have been heart-rending to look into the eyes of the dumb animal and slay it. But “without shedding of blood is no remission.” Hebrews 9:22.
The blood of the lamb, representing the forfeited life of the sinner whose guilt the animal bore, was carried by the priest into the sanctuary. Here he sprinkled the blood before the veil, thus symbolically bringing the sins of the boy to the ark containing God’s law which had been transgressed. The above steps represent just one phase of the ministration in the sanctuary.
The offering of incense
Besides working with the sinner, the priest himself had the task of offering incense. In his daily ministration, the offering of incense brought him more directly into God’s presence than any other phase of his work. Facing the veil, behind which was the ark in the Most Holy, the priest offered incense before the Lord in the Holy place. As the incense floated over the veil to the Most Holy place, the priest looked by faith to the mercy seat covering the ark. Even today, we can by faith look into the Most Holy place in heaven where Christ is ministering as our High Priest. No longer do we need the incense, for it symbolized our prayers as it was burnt in the sanctuary on earth. Just as the sanctuary service ended at the cross, so did the incense and its altar. Our prayers, however, go directly to Christ. We can read about Christ’s priestly service in Hebrews 8:2: “A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man.” Let us earnestly look toward heaven with the eye of faith and direct our prayers to Christ, for it is through Him, by faith, that we can approach God the Almighty.
Just as the priest offered incense with the prayers of the sinners morning and evening, even today we can worship God in the morning and evening, but again incense is unnecessary. David exclaimed in Psalm 55:17, “Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and He shall hear my voice.” Through faith we offer our petitions to God, who hears our very whispers. It is truly wonderful and amazing that God, who is immeasurably far from us, is still so close that He can hear the humblest sinner.
The time of morning and evening worship is to be held sacred, for it is a precious privilege that must not be neglected. God looks with great pleasure upon those who love Him, bow for forgiveness of sin, and offer up words of praise and thankfulness. God’s blessings are certainly worth asking for, especially in the time of the end in which we are
living. Do not ever think that the time you spend in prayer is wasted and cannot be recalled. It will consciously and unconsciously shape your character and give you strength to overcome the evil one.
Each morning let us come together in our families for worship to begin the day. “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” is the promise of Christ (Matthew 18:20). This will unite and fortify the family and hinder Satan in his work of causing estrangement and lack of love. It is within the family that he unleashes his fury to destroy the faithful. How often have we heard that a family that prays together stays together! It is very true!
How should a morning or evening worship be conducted? There is no hard and fast rule, but I would like to offer a few suggestions as guidelines.
- During worship there must be a feeling of sacredness and reverence, arising from a sense that God’s presence is in our midst. Anything that may distract from the sacredness, such as a playful pet, should be put in another room. How often it has happened within households that an animal will jump and make unnecessary noise just as prayer is being offered! This causes the mind to focus on the animal and the needed blessing is lost.
- Preceding the reading of God’s word, there should be a moment of silent prayer. This will help prepare the heart for the vital truths that will be read. Each one participating should close his eyes and ask the Lord for a blessing.
- The reading of the Bible should be clear, and a short discussion can be helpful in including everyone. For instance, one text can be analyzed and reflected upon. It is easier, especially for the children, to retain one text than the reading of many verses or chapters.
- Whenever possible, a song or songs sung in praise to God will refresh the family. Songs and musical instruments can bring sunshine and happiness to our hearts.
As the increasing frequency of the signs of the times spoken of by Christ in Matthew 24 forecast His soon return, prayer must become our stronghold to prepare us for eternity. “But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer.” 1 Peter 4:7.
Secret prayer will be the secret of our spiritual power. It will strengthen the Christian to fight the battles of life successfully. It will give victory upon victory over Satan’s temptations. The conflict is fast coming to a close, and only the Christian who sincerely prays to God will have eternal life. If prayer is neglected, ruin will surely follow. One cannot afford to overlook this essential part of preparation.
The temptations of Satan are skillfully and cunningly devised to ensnare his victims. His chief object is to deceive and cause us to fall away from the Biblical path that Christ walked as our Example. Realizing that he has a very short time to carry out his plans, Satan is that much fiercer. As we come closer to the end of this world’s history, he will work “overtime” and even, if possible, try to deceive the very strongest Christians. The remnant people who keep the commandments of God and have the faith of Jesus are the chief objects of his wrath (Revelation 12:17; 14:12). Isn’t it time to heed the voice of God, “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”? Matthew 26:41. It will be only through God’s help that we can stand through the many trials and temptations of today. God will cooperate with His children as long as they depend fully on Him and are led by His Spirit.
Prayer is the means of linking our weak arms with the Almighty’s arm of strength. The connection must be solid, for when it is weak in one spot, there is the possibility of being lost. Christ must become a special Friend with whom we can talk freely without any reservations. During our secret prayers, the heart can be opened as to a true friend. Nothing should be hidden or covered up. Our deepest emotions can be expressed without fear or shame. God asks us to come as we are and present our needs, anxieties, and problems. How often we neglect to commune with God personally! How often this has resulted in sinning! Do you desire to overcome and resist temptation? I am sure you want your name to be written in the book of life. This very moment, as you read this and desire a closer walk with God, close your eyes and pray as if Christ were to come in the next hour!
When He walked on the earth, Jesus was often in prayer to His Father to sustain Him through the dark hours of temptation. Often He prayed alone where no human ear could hear. “And when He had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, He was there alone.” Matthew 14:23. He knew the power of the enemy but more importantly, the power of direct communion with His Father. The whole plan of salvation would have been jeopardized if Christ had yielded to even one temptation. Yes, you and I would have been eternally lost!
Prayer was a daily occurrence for Christ. Not spasmodically, or once a week, but every day His petitions ascended to His Father’s throne. Christ is still our great Example. Our lives are to be patterned after His, so we ought to pray as He prayed.
A humble, sincere prayer will do so much for the soul, giving comfort and joy and assurance of Christ’s presence. Talking with Him can often lead to tears of happiness because of the hope we have through Christ!
How earnest and persevering our requests should be! Every penitent, contrite soul who does not cling to any known sin will be heard.
“Pray in your closet, and as you go about your daily labor, let your heart be often uplifted to God. It was thus that Enoch walked with God. These silent prayers rise like precious incense before the throne of grace. Satan cannot overcome him whose heart is thus stayed upon God. …
“Let the soul be drawn out and upward, that God may grant us a breath of the heavenly atmosphere. We may keep so near to God that in every unexpected trial our thoughts will turn to Him as naturally as the flower turns to the sun.” –E.G. White, Steps to Christ, pp. 98 – 100.
The time is approaching when Jesus, our High Priest, will leave the heavenly sanctuary and come as King of kings to this earth. He will then give eternal life to those who have cherished their altar of incense. Is your altar burning today?