“Then another angel with a gold incense burner came and stood at the altar. And a great amount of incense was given to him to mix with the prayers of God’s people as an offering on the gold altar before the throne. The smoke of the incense, mixed with the prayers of God’s holy people, ascended up to God from the altar where the angel had poured them out. Then the angel filled the incense burner with fire from the altar and threw it down upon the earth; and thunder crashed, lightning flashed, and there was a terrible earthquake.”
Revelation 8:3-5 NLT
In John’s vision, another angel appears. He was carrying a “gold incense burner”, which is a vessel usually ornately carved or adorned with a variety of designs, and punctuated with holes to allow the burning incense smoke or fumes to be released into the atmosphere. It would be suspended by a chain or cord, so that it could be carried around. The angel carrying it “came and stood at the altar”.
What is incense and what is it for? Incense is a fragrant oil or wax that, when heated or burnt, gives out a fragrant or pungent smell. In early Jewish liturgy, incense was burnt as a holy offering to God on a purpose built altar. Spiritually, incense is associated with prayer, symbolically rising into God’s presence as the incense smoke rises into the air. So the prayers of God’s people are considered to be an acceptable offering to Him, confirming that we must never neglect our prayer life. He thinks it is something special and pleasing.
The first mention of incense in the Bible was in Exodus 30, where the Lord gave instructions to Moses about the building of an incense altar. So in this picture in John’s vision, we see that incense was still being burnt in Heaven, this time on a gold altar located before God’s throne.
In the vision, John saw incense being given to the angel, who mixed it with the prayers of God’s “holy people”. That’s important. Incense is associated with holiness. Unholy and inappropriate prayers are unacceptable to God. Paul reminded his protégé, Timothy, of this. We read in 1 Timothy 2:8, “In every place of worship, I want men to pray with holy hands lifted up to God, free from anger and controversy.” In Psalm 141:2, we read, “Accept my prayer as incense offered to you, and my upraised hands as an evening offering.” Whatever our liturgy or theology, Biblically, there is an association between the act of lifting our hands and our holy prayers. Just by opening our hands in God’s presence, as we stretch them up to Heaven, bares our souls before our mighty Creator God, in an attitude of worship and service. And by so doing, our prayers somehow become as pleasing as incense before His throne.
As the scene in John’s vision rolled on, he wrote, “The smoke of the incense, mixed with the prayers of God’s holy people, ascended up to God from the altar where the angel had poured them out”. This had a dramatic impact. The holiness of the incense and the altar contrasted with the unholiness prevalent on the earth, and as a result, the angel filled the incense burner with fire from the altar and threw it to the earth resulting in thunder, lightning and a “terrible earthquake”.
For pilgrims everywhere the importance of holiness is non-negotiable. We read in 1 Peter 1:16, “But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.”” Believe it or not, there are some things that is impossible for God to do. One of these is that He is unable to accept or allow any form of unholiness in Heaven. Because God is perfectly holy, anyone or anything tainted by even the most infinitesimally small amount of unholiness will fail to gain entry into His presence. And that includes mankind, big time. Thankfully, through Jesus, we can attain that holiness, but we have a big responsibility in ensuring that we remain on the “Highway of Holiness”, as described in Isaiah 35:8. “And a great road will go through that once deserted land. It will be named the Highway of Holiness. Evil-minded people will never travel on it. It will be only for those who walk in God’s ways; fools will never walk there.” We cannot claim the righteousness that was gained for us by the death of Jesus, and then continue in our old sinful ways. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian church the following (Ephesians 4:21-24), “Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy.”
So we pilgrims turn our backs on our previous lives, tainted as they were by sin and all forms of unholiness. And we keep short accounts with God, confessing our sins with repentant hearts. We have a new nature through Jesus, truly holy. And that is what we must wear.
Dear Father God. Once again we thank You for Jesus, the Alpha and Omega of our faith. There is none other worthy of praise and worship. Amen.