Incense most holy

Revelation 5:1–10

Years ago I was on a management course and we were taught about the different types of managers. We were told a famous story that has been attributed to many people, including Napoleon and Frederick the Great.

The earliest known version was printed in a Berlin newspaper in January 1933.

German General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord described to the newspaper how he placed military officers into four classes. His reply has now become a classic.

“I divide my officers into four classes as follows: The clever, the industrious, the lazy, and the stupid. Each officer always possesses two of these qualities.

“Those who are clever and industrious I appoint to the General Staff. Use can under certain circumstances be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy qualifies for the highest leadership posts. He has the requisite nerves and the mental clarity for difficult decisions. But whoever is stupid and industrious must be got rid of, for he is too dangerous.”

It seems to me, and to all the people who use this story in management courses, that this is true not just for the German Army but for all people.

The Bible appears to agree with this for it is written in numerous places how highly we should value wisdom.

“So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do.” (Ephesians 5:15–17)

“그러므로 여러분은 어떻게 살아야 할 것인가를 조심스럽게 살피고 지혜 없는 사람이 아니라 지혜 있는 사람처럼 시간을 아끼십시오. 이 시대는 악합니다. 여러분은 어리석은 사람이 되지 말고 주님의 뜻이 무엇인지 이해하십시오.”

Of course, this is the same Bible that says “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.” (Colossians 3:23) The Bible praises industriousness, but it sees it as ‘for the Lord’ and allied with wisdom.

So I was wondering to myself last week, is there some Christian aspect to this? Would God likewise say that the Christian who is stupid and industrious is a danger to God’s work? Or would he say that the wise but lazy Christian is to become a leader?

Perhaps this thought came to me because for a few weeks we’ve talked about the importance of prayer. We’ve heard about prayer meetings that went on for 100 years. We’ve heard about all night prayer vigils. We’ve heard about revivals.

Perhaps God was suggesting to me that we should be wise how we respond to these messages and not enthusiastically misunderstand this call to prayer.

If we are going to do a lot of prayer, we need to know for example what prayer is.

We have already heard that one purpose of prayer is so that God can fill us with the power to tell others about Jesus. In our reading today we also learn something about prayer.

In heaven in front of God’s throne are four living beings and twenty-four elders. Verse eight says that they are holding “gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of God’s people”.

When we pray, there is an exchange. God’s power comes down, and our prayers are collected in gold bowls. If we don’t stop to understand we can make a mistake. This is not an exchange like the one you make with a shop. This isn’t a straightforward barter where you give 72 hours of prayer for every ten units of Holy Spirit power.

Let’s pause to think about this. There is a reason that our prayers (“the prayers of God’s people”) are likened to incense.

Let’s look at Luke’s Gospel, Chapter One.

John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, was in the temple. He was a priest and it was his turn to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. In verse 10 we read, “While the incense was being burned, a great crowd stood outside, praying.”

The burning of incense in the temple started way back in Moses’ time. In Exodus 30, for example, Aaron is given the job of burning fragrant incense on the altar. In verse nine they are warned, “Do not offer any unholy incense on this altar, or any burnt offerings, grain offerings, or liquid offerings.”

In verse 34 God gives Moses the recipe for this incense. God tells Moses how important it is in verse 36. “You must treat this incense as most holy.”

God repeats this instruction in verse 37. “It is reserved for the Lord, and you must treat it as holy.” In the next verse God adds a serious warning. “Anyone who makes incense like this for personal use will be cut off from the community.”

Our prayers are like incense. They are like the holy incense being burned in front of God.

What sort of prayers are being collected in gold bowls in front of God, where they give off a sweet fragrance?

Holy prayers offered by God’s people. Those are the prayers collected in gold bowls.

These prayers are a sacrifice on God’s altar in his sanctuary. These prayers must be the best we can offer. Like the incense, like the lambs that were offered.

There must be no blemish in our prayers. They must be our best prayers. We need to offer them with pure hearts. That doesn’t mean we wait until we are perfect before we pray. It means we are offering our prayers to please God, not for ourselves. That is the pure heart.

The prayers that God finds beautiful and fragrant are the prayers for his kingdom to come on earth. They are the prayers for his will to be done on earth. They are the prayers for his Holy Spirit power in us so that others can hear from us the good news about Jesus. They are prayers of repentance for our sins, and the sins of our fellow human beings.

What kind of prayers will stink to God and offend him? What kind of sacrifices does he reject? Look at Malachi 1:10

“How I wish one of you would shut the Temple doors so that these worthless sacrifices could not be offered! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, “and I will not accept your offerings.”

God is signifying that prayer should be offered with sincerity. Without hypocrisy and carnal lusts. The sacrifices acceptable to God are offered up in faith in Jesus, and with a view to his sacrifice. We do not trust in or depend upon the outward offering, as hypocrites and pagans do.

The prayers God wants are prayers from a sincere and pure heart that trusts in Jesus. There are no special words. There are no special postures. There are no special places.

Giving the world some of the love that belongs exclusively to God is deadly to our prayer life. We must deal with this and other sins with honest confession as we reject all wicked ways. God will enable us to do this by his grace and power.

Seen from outside, prayer is talking with God. Seen with spiritual eyes were are filling golden bowls with fragrant incense on his altar and he is filling us with Holy Spirit. Prayer is a wonderful exciting holy relationship. As we practise prayer we grow ever closer to God and he helps us become ever more holy. There is a new song to be sung on that day. A song about us.

“[Jesus] your blood has ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. And you have caused them to become a Kingdom of priests for our God. And they will reign on the earth.”

As the heavenly choirs sing about you, they will be holding gold bowls of your prayers.

Amen 아멘

About Pastor Simon

Pastor at Jinju International Christian Fellowship. Formerly of Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK. I am Simon Warner of Jinju Church. We speak English at Jinju Church, South Korea.
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