Incense

“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.

Repent

“But I have this complaint against you. You don’t love Me or each other as you did at first! Look how far you have fallen! Turn back to Me and do the works you did at first. If you don’t repent, I will come and remove your lampstand from its place among the churches.”
‭‭Revelation‬ ‭2:4-5‬ ‭NLT‬‬

How disappointed the Ephesians must have been to hear Jesus’ next words, just after the encouragement they had just received. To be accused of not loving Him as they should must have hit their hearts like an arrow. A frantic rush of soul-searching must have tumbled through their minds and emotions. And the criticism extended to include their lack of love for each other. Jesus said to them, “Look how far you have fallen!”. Oh dear. As I have said before, mankind generally has a tendency to lapse into a state of comfort, where reduced effort and complacency rule the days. It takes effort, considerable at times, to keep loving God and loving each other, sad though that is. And it looks as though this is what happened to the Ephesians. Jesus went on to remind them of the consequences of continuing as they had been doing; their “lampstand” would be removed from the list of churches. But with Jesus there is always a way back. He encouraged these early Christians to repent. He told them to “Turn back to Me and do the works you did at first”. That is what repentance is all about – it is a turning back from the wrong and sinful ways of life and returning to those that are God-ordained. We don’t know the outcome of Jesus’ impassioned appeal because Ephesus as it was in those days doesn’t exist anymore. It just consists of a number of ruins, including a cathedral that was active up until at least the 5th Century. But perhaps the message from Jesus produced the fruit of repentance and led onto greater things, but of which we have no record.

This message to the Ephesians is a timely warning to us pilgrims. It reminds us, as do the messages to the other churches, of the importance of staying close to Jesus, as we did when we first encountered him. At the point when we were saved. It reminds us to repent when we stray. Because stray we will unless we work hard to keep the faith.

Near where I live there are some “lampstands” being removed. A number of churches in the Church of Scotland denomination are having to close because their congregations have dwindled to the point that it is no longer viable to keep them open. And in some cases, the upkeep of old buildings, monuments to our rich Christian heritage, is no longer affordable. So sad. But Jesus said He would build His church, and He was very graphic in His teaching to His disciples in John 15. We read, ““Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned.” Jesus’s church will not be based on dwindling congregations in dusty old mausoleums, but instead will be a growing, vibrant, fruit-bearing, and dynamic group of His followers. Grafted into the Vine. Loving God and their fellow Christians. Doing the works of His service. Are we pilgrims such fruit-bearers? Or are we useless branches? Hmmm…

Dear Lord. We thank You for this timely message. We repent of the barren times when we have erred away from You and we ask for Your forgiveness. Please help us, Lord , we pray. Amen.

Honey From the Rock

“If My people would only listen to Me, 
if Israel would only follow My ways, 
how quickly I would subdue their enemies 
and turn My hand against their foes! 
Those who hate the Lord would cringe before Him, 
and their punishment would last for ever. 
But you would be fed with the finest of wheat; 
with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.
Psalms‬ ‭81:13-16‬ ‭NIVUK‬‬

What a wonderful and compassionate God He is! In spite of their rebellious and stubborn hearts, God continually reaches out to His people. The phrase “if My people” occurs several times in the Bible. And in particular in 2 Chronicle 7:14 God again used the phrase “if My people”. We read, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” He was consistent in His advice and appeals to His people, that if they followed His ways all would be well, but if they didn’t, then disasters would overtake them.

The same advice applies today. We see our political leaders diverging from God’s ways, embracing the advice of godless people and following their own deceitful wishes, and by so doing legislating wickedness into our statute books. And unintended consequences emerge, causing difficulties and misery to many. “If My people would only listen to Me” is advice that has been rejected. We see people around us in our communities, who too have rejected His ways, instead blindly following the paths of sin and wickedness that lead to a sticky end.

So we, as God’s people, pray. Seek His face. Repent of our sins. And all in the knowledge that God will truly hear us from Heaven. And we pray that He will have mercy on our nations, forgiving our national sins. But sadly those who hate God will one day discover their eternal punishment. We have to use every opportunity to introduce them, through Jesus, to our gracious God and help them follow His ways. There is no other solution to their otherwise terrible fate.

But to end on a positive, we read the lovely picture of enjoying the “finest of wheat” and “honey from the rock”. A picture of not just ordinary provision, but a banquet of plenty never before experienced. We get a picture of natural and spiritual provision directly from God, bringing a state of satisfaction almost unheard of and only dreamed about. In the eternal context of the previous verse, perhaps God is painting a picture of our Heavenly home. Providing a hint of the wonderful life we will have one day in His presence, a seat at His table of plenty.

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Being a Fool

“Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good!” Psalms‬ ‭53:1‬ ‭NLT‬‬

David, the Psalmist, is again in contemplative mode. In a zone of musings, as he thinks about what is going on about him. He is obviously much influenced by people around him, and he sees their hypocrisy, their lip service to God but in reality they deny Him, even His existence, with their thoughts and actions. And he concludes that they are “fools”. But if he is right, there are an awful lot of fools around us today. Nothing has changed from David’s day. Worse, though, there are many more who openly declare that there is no God. That everything happened by chance. Chemical reactions brought about carbon-based life. A Big Bang caused the universe to appear. And these people then sit back in a self-satisfied state of “knowledge”, not realising that they have talked themselves into being fully paid up members of the Society of Fools.

David draws the conclusion that without an open acceptance of God and His ways, the God-deniers, the atheists and agnostics of his day, are corrupt and evil in all they think and do. They adopt a life that is biased towards their own personal gain, selfishness being fuelled by an evil desire not held in check by the thought there is a God in Heaven looking on. Deep within us is a God-shaped hole that yearns and aches for Him to fill it. And today there will be those who, in spite of their God-denying, will try to fill their internal ache by doing good things for their society, perhaps helping out at a fund raising function, putting out their neighbour’s bins, visiting sick in hospital, or donating to a charity somewhere. 

But David’s musings remain in the zone of the foolishness of denying God, and the impact such denial will have on thoughts and actions, extending as they do into evil, and general corruption. Worldliness on a global scale.

So what about us. Christians can’t sit back and believe they have nothing to fear from Psalm 53. To the contrary, perhaps there is a wake up call here, for us to review and examine our hearts, bringing to the surface all that is God-denying. All that is evil and corrupt. And then bring it under the Blood of Jesus, in sorrowful and heart-felt repentance. Then the grace of God will flood over us once again. Praise His Name!