"You shall put this altar in front of the veil that is near the ark of the testimony, in front of the mercy seat that is over the ark of the testimony, where I will meet with you.Exodus 30:6(NASB)
Exodus is the sequel to Genesis and continues God's story of redemption through the Seed of Abraham, by bringing the children of Israel into centre stage. We read how the prophet Moses is prepared to challenge Pharaoh to let God's people go. We hear how he led the Israelites across the Red Sea, following that first Passover meal when the angel of death slew all the first-born in Egypt.
We read of God's protection and provision in the wilderness, the establishment of the Mosaic covenant, and the construction of the tabernacle together with its measurements, furnishings, structure, and courtyard. We are told about the service of the Levitical priesthood, the garments they were to wear, and the consecration of Aaron the high priest, and his sons.
The Law of Moses was far more extensive than the 10 moral commandments with which we are all so familiar. Integral in 'The Law' was the civil law that governed their lives and many ceremonial laws which detailed the construction and function of the tabernacle, the rituals of the priesthood, sacrificial offerings, and feast days. Like every other aspect of the Law, the alter of incense pointed to a special aspect of the Lord Jesus.
Once Moses had received instructions concerning the offering of the daily sacrifices at the end of chapter 29, the next section concerns the function of the golden alter where incense was offered to the Lord. This alter was to be made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold. The marriage of these two materials clearly pointed to the hypostatic union (the combination of divine and human natures in the single person of Christ), for the wood represented His humanity while the gold spoke of His deity. No doubt God chose acacia wood because it is a long-lasting and durable material, which also speaks of Christ's incorruptibility, sinlessness, and perfect humanity.
The alter of incense was placed directly in front of the veil, beyond which was the most Holy Place where the sacred Ark of the Covenant was to remain, hidden from view. Elsewhere, we are told that the alter had four horns and year by year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would apply blood from an unblemished, sacrificed animal, onto the four horns to cover the sin of the people for one more year. The high priest would sprinkle the blood with his finger seven times: "In front of the mercy-seat." This pointed forward to the blood of Christ which was shed as the purchase price for the sin of the world, and remains the full and final sacrifice for sin and the only sin-offering acceptable to the Father.
Incense speaks of the effectual prayers of the righteous, which represent a sweet-smelling savour ascending to the Lord. In Psalm 151, we read: "May my prayer be set before You as incense, and the raising of my hands as the evening offering." In Revelation we read of golden bowls being filled with incense: "Which are the prayers of the saints... and the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand."
The most beautiful 'picture' of prayer as a sweet fragrance ascending to God, is Christ's own ministry of intercession. While on earth, we have a peep into His amazing prayer life where he said and did only those things He heard from the Father and gave everything over to Him in prayer, which glorified His Father in heaven. Today, we know that the ministry of Christ Jesus is continuous intercession, for He is at the right hand of the Father: "And ever lives to make intercession for us (the Church)."
The flame on this alter, which was to be kept burning day and night, is an elegant reminder of Christ's ministry of unceasing prayer and intercession, for He is the one and only Mediator between God and man and His intercession prompts God's people towards continuous prayer and ongoing fellowship with the Father. We are all called to pray on all occasions: "Pray without ceasing... devote yourselves to prayer and be alert and thankful when you pray."
Jesus opened the Scriptures to His disciples following His Resurrection, showing how He was the central figure to which the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms pointed. I wonder whether He spoke to them how the golden altar was such a beautiful picture of Himself? Let us seek to read God's Word and remember that Christ is the Person to Whom the whole of Scripture points, and that there is no other name given among men, whereby we must be saved.
Heavenly Father, thank You for the Scriptures and the amazing way they all point to Christ, Who is the one and only way to God, and that by faith in the redemptive power of His shed blood on the Cross, we may receive forgiveness of sin and life everlasting. Thank You that Christ ever lives to make intercession for His people and I pray that I too may learn to pray without ceasing, to give thanks in all things, and to love You with all my heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, for Your goodness and grace. Thank You, in Jesus' name, AMEN.