22 The Lord said to Moses, 23 “Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh 500 shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, 250, and 250 of aromatic cane, 24 and 500 of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and a hin of olive oil. 25 And you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil. 26 With it you shall anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the testimony, 27 and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, 28 and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils and the basin and its stand. 29 You shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy. Whatever touches them will become holy. 30 You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. 31 And you shall say to the people of Israel, ‘This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations. 32 It shall not be poured on the body of an ordinary person, and you shall make no other like it in 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 The Lord said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), 35 and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy. 36 You shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you. It shall be most holy for you. 37 And the incense that you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves. It shall be for you holy to the Lord. 38 Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.”
I associate one of the most special churches in the world with the smell of skunks. That is a shocking thing to say, I know, but it is true. The first church I ever pastored was a small church in Jimtown, Oklahoma. I loved that church and love it still. I loved those people and love them still! Even so, when I picture that church mentally I immediately smell skunk.
Why? Because there were many, many Sundays when the sanctuary of that church smelled like skunk. A skunk would either get up under the sanctuary or had recently been around it. I do not know. Maybe it was a Baptist skunk. But the evidence of his presence was unmistakable.
Even so, and paradoxically, that church remains one of the sweetest “smelling” churches I have ever known, in a deeper sense. I am referring here to the faith, love, joy, and Christian witness of the people of Jimtown Baptist Church. Skunk or no skunk, the only aroma that really mattered was sweet and beautiful to be sure!
I have been in a few other churches, on the other hand, that smelled just fine…but did not smell right, if you know what I mean. I have been in churches that had beautiful facilities and if there were any skunks around them you sure could not tell. Even so, they did not “smell” right in the only sense that mattered. Something felt wrong. And, oftentimes, I would later discover that there were real problems in the church: infighting, conflict, etc.
In other words, when it comes to church there are things that smell worse than skunks.
Exodus 30 concludes with a fascinating section on the smells of worship. Specifically, the Lord gives instructions for sacred anointing oil and for sacred incense. But are described as having pleasing smells. Yet even here, the issue has less to do with the physical smell than the spiritual.
Worship is sacred and should reflect the holiness of God.
Verses 22-31 and verses 34 and 36 describe the anointing oil and the incense that was to be used in worship. As you read this, consider the many words that clearly link these elements to the holiness of worship before a holy God.
22 The Lord said to Moses, 23 “Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh 500 shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, 250, and 250 of aromatic cane, 24 and 500 of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and a hin of olive oil. 25 And you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil. 26 With it you shall anoint the tent of meeting and the ark of the testimony, 27 and the table and all its utensils, and the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense, 28 and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils and the basin and its stand. 29 You shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy. Whatever touches them will become holy. 30 You shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. 31 And you shall say to the people of Israel, ‘This shall be my holy anointing oil throughout your generations.
34 The Lord said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), 35 and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy. 36 You shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you. It shall be most holy for you.
Clearly, much more is happening here than a mere desire for something to smell good. Consider:
- the finest spices
- a sacred anointing oil
- a holy anointing oil
- consecrate them
- that they may be most holy
- consecrate them
- holy anointing oil
- pure frankincense
- most holy
Why these precious and fine ointments and spices? Why this emphasis on aromatic qualities? Because, like so many other details of tabernacle worship, the oil and the incense was intended to communicate that worship is a sacred and holy thing that is offered to a holy and righteous God.
Imagine, if you can imagine it, what tabernacle worship might at times smell like on a hot day. Imagine the thronging masses of people, the burning altar, the smell of cooking meat, the body sweat and odor, the smoke, the insects. Imagine the unpleasantness of such things.
Then see how God bathes the priests, the tent of meeting, and the sacred objects of worship in beautiful smelling oil and incense. My point is not that the oil and the incense was merely aesthetic, as if God simply wanted to offer relief from less pleasant smells. My point is rather that the smell of the place and objects of worship was to offer a symbolic statement of a deeper truth: that worship is sacred because God is holy.
With this understanding we can now ask a question without, I hope, risk of misunderstanding: how does your worship smell before God? I am not asking if you bathe before coming to church. I am asking whether or not your heart, your attitude, your disposition, your mind, and your focus are pleasing to God? Does your heart reflect the sacredness of worship? Where is your mind when you come to church?
There are smells that are more important than surface smells! Consider two examples.
In Genesis 8, the flood waters subside and Noah makes an altar and offer sacrifice to God.
20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”
Moses writes that the Lord “smelled” the aroma, was pleased, and promised never again to destroy the earth with a flood. But I ask you: was the pleasing aroma really the cooking flesh of dead animals, or the cry of faith of Noah’s heart? Clearly it was Noah’s heart because elsewhere we see that the condition of the hearts of God’s people can nullify their nice smelling offerings. We see this, for instance, in our second example. In Leviticus 26 God warns His children what will happen if they turn from Him.
27 “But if in spite of this you will not listen to me, but walk contrary to me, 28 then I will walk contrary to you in fury, and I myself will discipline you sevenfold for your sins. 29 You shall eat the flesh of your sons, and you shall eat the flesh of your daughters. 30 And I will destroy your high places and cut down your incense altars and cast your dead bodies upon the dead bodies of your idols, and my soul will abhor you. 31 And I will lay your cities waste and will make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not smell your pleasing aromas. 32 And I myself will devastate the land, so that your enemies who settle in it shall be appalled at it. 33 And I will scatter you among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword after you, and your land shall be a desolation, and your cities shall be a waste.
“I will not smell your pleasing aromas.” That is, the externals of your worship will not blind me to the internal realities of your hearts! Mere ritual is not what pleases God. A heart of faith and love for God please God.
It is a serious thing to treat worship as commonplace.
Because worship is sacred, it should not be treated as ordinary, as commonplace. In our text, the Lord offers dire warnings concerning both the oil and the incense.
32 It shall not be poured on the body of an ordinary person, and you shall make no other like it in 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.’”
37 And the incense that you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves. It shall be for you holy to the Lord. 38 Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.”
What is telling is that these warnings are attached to the specific sin of treating the sacred things as ordinary things, as treating the oil and incense as if they are just like anything else. The twice-repeated punishment refers to offenders in this area as being “cut off.” Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton has offered some helpful background information.
According to v. 33, anybody who tries to duplicate this recipe or misuses it by pouring it on a layperson “shall be cut off from his people” (wĕnikrat mēʿammāyw). According to Milgrom…there are in Genesis—Numbers nineteen cases of violations for which the perpetrator is “cut off.” The only one in Genesis is for neglecting circumcision (Gen. 17: 14). The other three in Exodus are (1) for eating leavened bread during the Unleavened Bread Festival (12: 15, 19); (2) duplicating and misusing sanctuary incense (30: 38); (3) working on the Sabbath (31: 14b). The remaining fourteen are in Leviticus and Numbers. This language does not occur outside of Genesis– Numbers.
“Cutting off” a person is a metaphor borrowed from the felling of trees, as in Jer. 11: 19, what Jeremiah’s enemies would like to do to him, “Let us destroy the tree and its fruit; let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be remembered no more.” Since such sins (all the nineteen counted by Milgrom) are sins against God, it is God who cuts off. That can mean immediate death, premature death, the death of one’s descendants, or even banishment and ostracism.
But why would such a chilling punishment be meted out for the particular offense of normalizing the sacred? Is it not because God knows that when we lose a sense of the sacred we will eventually turn from Him, that when we see standing before a holy God in worship as the same kind of thing as brushing our teeth that we will soon embrace a diminished view of Him, a view that is unworthy of worship?
Calvin Miller has argued that “in recent years much of our worship as exemplified in megachurch ‘entertainment evangelism’ has become so ‘lite’ that Jesus is trivialized as a congenial host who smiles a lot.”
Yes, it is this trivialization of worship that these threatened punishments are guarding against. It is an awesome thing to stand before a great and mighty God! God, and the things of God, matter and should not be treated as cheap things or parlor tricks!
The late Fred Craddock, that great preacher and teacher of preachers, once told a story about an uncomfortable situation that happened at a football game.
I was at a high school football game one night in our town, and there was a lull in the action while they were taking out some of the bodies and putting in other bodies. A woman sitting three or four rows up above in the stands yelled down, “Fred! I was telling my friend here of what you said in that sermon Sunday and that story you were telling, and I’ve forgotten the punch line of it. Would you tell her how that story went?” I had preached in her church the Sunday before and, in the context of prayer and music and singing and reading of scripture and praise, I had shared a word. She wanted me to yell it up several rows over popcorn and hot dogs and beer. I said, “I’m sorry, I cannot.”
I’ll be honest with you. I have heard profanity in the street, and I have read profanity on public restroom walls, but I know of no profanity lower than screaming over hot dogs and beer the word that was nestled in the sanctuary.
Perhaps one might accuse Craddock of being too prickly in this, but I understand what he is saying. While the truths of God must be voiced in the streets to all people, they should not be treated as parlor tricks to be flippantly pantomimed before a snickering crowd. The sacredness of the things of God ought to be honored and it is a serious thing to treat the things of God as filler between plays on the football field.
We must be careful on the one hand that we do not smuggle legalism in under the guise of “keeping worship sacred.” Again, the primary point is not the externals. It is the heart. On the other hand, can it really be denied that our church age needs to regain a sense of the sacred, a sense of the holy?
There are countless ways that we might treat the sacred oil and incense as commonplace, to keep with the imagery of our text. Perhaps it is best to say that each follower of Jesus in each situation must ask himself or herself whether or not he or she is doing this. The motivation of your heart and the intention of your heart will largely determine whether or not you have flippantly desacralized what is holy. In short, we might say that any time the things of God are reduced to commodities or cheapened into gimmicks or used for means other than the ultimate goal of the glory of God we have desacralized the sacred. We might say that whenever the things of Christ are degraded into a punch line or isolated from the greater tapestry of divine truth that we have desacralized the sacred.
It is a serious thing to treat worship as commonplace.
The oil and incense of tabernacle worship are types of the deeper offerings of the heart.
As always, however, we must ask how passages that describe physical aspects of corporate worship that were not prescribed in the New Testament apply to the people of God today. Sometimes such applications can seem tricky. However, in the case of the anointing oil and the incense, there is within scripture itself numerous allusions to how these elements should be understood on a deeper level. And this, we hasten to add, makes sense, for even when such elements were originally prescribed, the issue was never the element itself so much as the truth about God and man that it pointed to.
We can see this, for instance, in the way that Psalm 133 alludes to Exodus 30 but uses the consecrating oil as a symbol for unity and love among God’s people.
1 Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! 2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! 3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.
We would be right to say, then, that the oil of Exodus 30, the application and aroma of which pleases God and sets apart worship as sacred as holy, is evident for us whenever we love one another and are united together in the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our oil is our unity. The unity of God’s people is a pleasing aroma before Him!
So, too, is prayer, which is likened on many occasions in scripture to incense. Consider, for instance, Psalm 141.
2 Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!
How do we burn the sacred worship incense before God today? We do so when we pray! A direct parallel between incense and prayer is made likewise in Revelation 5.
8 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
So, too, Revelation 8:
3 And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, 4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.
Now we begin to see how we honor the divine truth of Exodus 30 in the church. Love, unity, prayer, and worship, all emanating from the redeemed and sincere hearts of the people of God, are our oil and incense! But there is one more application we dare not miss. I am speaking here of the sacred anointing oil of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Just such a connection was drawn in the beautiful scene in Luke 7 in which a woman anointed Jesus with ointment and tears.
36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Here we find not only another application of these ancient elements but also an indictment of those who are so fixated on the externals that they miss the point of such applications. A contrite and repentant woman anoints Jesus with ointment and tears. They are expressions of her heart of repentance and faith. And Jesus acknowledges and blesses her offering. It is as if He is saying, “Yes, you have understood. You see the point of sacred oil and incense. You understand that what I seek—what I have always sought!—is an offering of the heart, an offering of love and faith and repentance.”
Church, we are still called to bring the sacred oil and the sacred incense, yet now we know that we are to bring it not in the symbols of its physical trappings but rather in the realities of our hearts. The oil and incense of love, of unity, of prayer, of repentance, and of faith. The word of God still stands: these are still needed, not in physical types, but in spiritual realities.
How does your heart smell before a holy God? What kind of worship are you offering Him? Have you made of worship a cheap thing, a commonplace thing? Have you approached it and Him flippantly, casually, negligently?
Come to the Lord God of heaven and earth in repentance and faith. Love the Father and love the Son. Love, too, the bride, His church.
Pour the oil. Light the incense. Let your heart be a pleasing aroma to God most high.
 Hamilton, Victor P.. Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Kindle Locations 16081-16090). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Calvin Miller, The Path of Celtic Prayer: An Ancient Way to Everyday Joy (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2007), p.42.
 Fed B. Craddock, Craddock Stories. (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001), p.42.