Luke 1:8-10 “Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshippers were praying outside.”
In this opening chapter of Luke we are still in the Old Testament dispensation. It was a unique time in the history of the world and let us remind ourselves first of all about that.
1. THE OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND
i] Israel was the only people to whom God made himself savingly known.
The land of Israel was the one location in the world where you could meet with the living God. The Lord Jesus told the woman of Samaria that salvation was of the Jews, and exercised and serious-minded men and women all over the middle east recognized that fact during those years. Commander in chief Naaman of the land of Syria had caught leprosy, and he travelled to Israel to get help from God’s prophet Elisha. A high official in the Ethiopian government came all the way from Africa to Jerusalem to meet the Lord. Roman soldiers during their period of service in Israel sought and found the Lord. The Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem to meet the Lord’s king. Of all the nations of the earth it was Israel whom God loved, the land where he had made himself known. In Israel God raised up Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets. The Lord gave to them the covenants and the promises. He made himself accessible to their descendants, revealing to them his heart, his nature and his will. In Old Testament times if you wanted to know God then you had to read the five books of Moses, the writings and the prophets which revelation from God comprise the inspired Scriptures. Augustine heard children chanting the words, “Take and read! Take and read! Take and read!’ This is what God says to you about how you come to know him.
ii] The climactic purpose of the Old Testament was to prepare a people for the coming of the Messiah.
In the Scriptures God told them that one day the Messiah would come, and for thousands of years God was preparing them for his coming. The promise that he would come is in the Old Testament; the fulfillment of that promise is in the New Testament. Let me use this illustration; let’s imagine that you are taking your children to Florida. You prepare them for what they are going to experience by showing them pictures of palm trees, and dolphins in the bay, white sands, orange groves, Disneyworld and the Magic Kingdom. You promise them that some time in the future experiencing this reality is going to be theirs. They look at the pictures of what one day they are actually going to see and hear and touch and smell. That is how God dealt with the children of Israel. He prepared them during this time of their childhood for the coming of Christ by a series of great pictures. He gave them instructions for building a tabernacle, and then more permanently a temple. That temple was God’s home, his dwelling place, and at its heart was an inner sanctuary behind a vast curtain. It was called a ‘holy of holies’ (or the ‘most holy place’), in which there was an ark which was his seat, his royal throne. That building in all its design and in its every detail spoke to them about this enormous Colossus, Jesus Christ the Son of God who was going to come. Their hands were going to touch and handle him. Their ears would hear him speaking. A whole building was needed to express the extraordinary phenomenon who was going to appear in the world.
iii] It was only by sacrifices that sinners could approach God.
How could you approach the holy one of Israel? Could you just stroll up any time and pull the veil aside, step inside and say to him, “Abba, Father!” No. You never approached the temple without a sacrificial offering for your sins, a lamb, or a dove, or a goat, or a heifer, depending on the magnitude of your sin or some thank offering for mercies large or small that you’d received from God. There is something in the very nature of who God is in the very depths of his being that demands the shedding of blood for the remission of sins. Even when you brought a perfect spotless animal you weren’t allowed to sacrifice it yourself. I would remind you that Old Testament believers didn’t themselves cut the throat of the sacrificial lamb, though they’d so killed hundreds of lambs back on the farm. And they were also forbidden from taking the blood in a bowl behind the veil into the presence of God to sprinkle on the mercy seat. No way! You certainly brought the best animal from the flock, but you came only as far the first priest on duty at the side of the outside altar. You put your hand on the head of the lamb and then you passed it over to the priest. Only he could enter the holy place; only he could take the censer of incense and pour it on the altar of incense. Sinner go no further!
There is a fearful story of an outrageous royal defiance of this in 2 Chronicles 26 by the king of Judah, Uzziah. He had been a very great king but then we are told this, “after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the LORD his God, and entered the temple of the LORD to burn incense on the altar of incense. Azariah the priest with eighty other courageous priests of the LORD followed him in. They confronted him and said, ‘It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honoured by the LORD God.’ Uzziah, who had a censer in his hand ready to burn incense, became angry. While he was raging at the priests in their presence before the incense altar in the LORD’s temple, leprosy broke out on his forehead. When Azariah the chief priest and all the other priests looked at him, they saw that he had leprosy on his forehead, so they hurried him out. Indeed, he himself was eager to leave, because the LORD had afflicted him. King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died” (2 Chronicles 26:16-21).
iv] It was only by priests operating in the temple could sinners gain access to the Lord.
I am saying that you stood at that place near the altar, but you went no further. Even the king of Judah could go no further. The priest or levite alone made sacrifice and entered the outer room of the Temple on your behalf, but even he wasn’t allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. The High Priest alone, and only for a brief time on one day in the year, could enter the inner sanctuary of the throne room of God. So the nearest point sinners like you and me could get to God’s presence was the edge of the great altar in the courtyard outside the temple, and no nearer; the priests did all the rest.
How different it was when Jesus Christ finally appeared as the true dwelling place of God tabernacling amongst men. People could come right up to him, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, very bad people and also righteous people. When he was a child poor shepherds came to him and also wise, rich and powerful magi bowed down before him. Even people possessed with demons could come up to him. If you want to know God you must come to him through his Son Jesus Christ. He is the door who said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.”
So God designed a temple and it spoke of the Lord’s presence in the midst of his people. Where there is a temple there must be priests, and so God also constituted a priesthood to operate in the temple, thousands of priests across the centuries. So many were needed because the importance of Jesus Christ our great high Priest needed to be underlined. There was a time when judges became significant in Israel, but the judges were never as important as the prophets and priests. There was never a time when the priests were unimportant. Maybe there were altogether one million priests covering fifteen centuries and this multitude declare to us the overwhelming importance of the last priest appointed by God, the Lord Jesus. They were mere types; he was the climactic glorious anti-type.
The temple was furnished in accordance to a blueprint that God gave to Moses, and all the furniture of the temple pointed to Christ. There was the table of showbread – Christ is the bread of life; the great lampstand shining away – Christ is the light of the world; the altar – Christ on Golgotha making atonement for our sins. Then there were the sacrifices – behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, but preeminently there were the priests making everything work. All these ceremonies and structures and officials pointed forward to Christ. That is the background to this first chapter of Luke.
2. GODLY ZECHARIAH
So here is godly Zechariah, and he is a priest, one of the 18,000 priests in Israel at this time, the descendants of Aaron of the tribe of Levi. Zechariah belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; he was Zechariah Abijah. In the first book of Chronicles chapter 24 you there a listing of the divisions of the priests. There are twenty-four divisions amongst the priests listed very particularly in verses seven to eighteen? In verse ten is the one division to whom Zechariah and his family belonged, the eighth division of Abijah? What does that mean? It means that these 18,000 priests were all separated into twenty-four categories so that the particular division to which they belonged would on duty in the temple for just half a month or two weeks every year.
Even then there would be 350 men belonging to such a division as the one called Abijah’s, far too many for all of them to work in the temple during those two weeks. So what happened? How did they decide which men in this division would have the privilege of going to the house of the Lord? They actually drew lots (we are told this by Luke in verse nine) so that they knew the appointment was not man’s but the choice of God. The result was that a handful of men were sent to Jerusalem. The Mishnah actually mentions five priests out of the 350, serving for the two weeks inside the temple, three of them looking after the lamp and the showbread while the other two served at the altar of incense. This group of men left their homes to live in Jerusalem for two weeks in the priests’ accommodation to work in the temple. Then at the end of each service, morning and evening, Zechariah and his four friends would come out of the temple and stand on the top of the steps facing the praying people who had gathered in silence around the altar. There they would say the benediction, either together or one of them as their spokesman would speak these words to all the people; “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face towards you and give you peace” (Nums. 6:24-26).
On that one day when someone had drawn a marker out of a box which contained the names of all the able-bodied men of the division of Abijah it would be a rare cry to hear your name or the name “Zechariah!” shouted out. What a thrill for old Zechariah to be chosen, finally to go to the city of David from the hill country of Judea where he and Elizabeth lived to take his part in these temple rituals. Had he thought that his time had gone for it to happen to him? Usually just once in a man’s entire lifetime would he be on duty in the temple. What a special occasion it would be for him; what an unrepeatable honour. It was a time that God had appointed for him to finally go to Jerusalem. The whole searching of the supervisor’s fingers amongst the hundreds of pieces of wood in the box and his selection of this one piece with Zechariah’s name on it was all directed by God. The Lord had chosen him to come to the temple this year. Of course, Zechariah himself had no idea that God was going to speak to him with some wonderful news. He simply was walking in the ways of God’s dealings with men. When I was exercised about my soul’s salvation in 1954 I would walk along the road to the gathering of the people of God in a building called Tabernacle in Hengoed with anticipation and eagerness. I was always there, three times every Lord’s Day but at that time I would wonder whether this was the occasion God would speak to me, and in one service it happened. My heart was strangely moved under the preaching and I had the assurance that Christ had died even for me. Do you think like that? “O Lord speak to me this Sunday. O Lord meet with me, save me and help me today!” We meet with God every single Sunday, and everyone is invited; do you who come today cry to God that he would deal with you and save you?
i] It was only via the temple’s two altars that sinners could approach God.
We are told that the particular duty that these priests were given consisted of entering the Holy Place in the temple and burning incense. The worshippers all remained in the court outside the temple (see verse ten); they could go no further than the great external altar, and even when Zechariah was off duty even he could go no further than that altar, but now Zechariah Abijah could actually “go into the temple of the Lord” (v.9). So do you realize that there were two altars, the vast altar of brass outside in the courtyard for consuming the animal sacrifice, and the so-called altar of gold for burning incense inside the temple. The two altars are linked together in this way; an appointed priest is in charge of them both on our behalf; on the great altar the sacrifice for our sin was made; full atonement was accomplished and the smoke of the holocaust ascended up to heaven, and the effect of that was to obtain mercy for us worshippers who had acknowledged our sins. Then in the person of a priest we could enter into God’s presence in God’s home, his temple. All believing repentant sinners who had put our hands on the head of the spotless sacrifice could finally speak familiarly to God. Both altars are telling us of the work of Jesus Christ; on the cross of Golgotha he offered his blood and died to cleanse us from the guilt of sin; now in the presence of God in heaven our great High Priest intercedes for us. The man Christ Jesus couldn’t have entered heaven on our behalf if he had not first made atonement for our sins on earth.
The two altars were also linked together be design. The altar of incense was much smaller than the altar of brass. It was two cubits high, and one cubit wide (almost three feet high by a foot and a half wide). Outside in the court the altar of brass was three cubits high and five cubits square. But more important than their respective sizes is the fact that they were both in identical proportion to the place where they were housed. The brass altar of burnt-offering was five cubits square within a courtyard which was fifty cubits wide. The gold altar of incense was one cubit square within the Holy Place which was ten cubits wide. So the width of each square altar was proportionately a tenth of the width of the part of the temple complex in which they were placed. This proportion was designed to emphasize the connection between them; in the courtyard we see the sacrifice of Jesus on earth; in the Holy Place we see the effects of the same sacrifice in the presence of God in heaven.
The altar of incense was made of acacia wood, had two rings of gold to transport it and it was overlaid with gold. It had a horn in each corner, just as the brass altar did. Also the altar of incense had a crown of gold which speaks of the exaltation of the Crucified One, and the supremacy of the Sacrificed One. We see Jesus crowned with glory and honour (Hebrews 2:9).
Where exactly inside the temple was the altar of incense situated? According to Exodus chapter thirty and the sixth verse the altar of incense was placed right in front of the veil that separated the holy place from the holy of holies. In other words it was as close to the presence of God as it could be. No other piece in the holy place was as close to God as this altar. In all the world only the High Priest on one day in a year was nearer to God than Zechariah was for these two weeks. So on this altar incense was burned each morning and each evening perpetually. There were, incidentally, other activities which were also co-ordinated morning and evening, a lamb was offered twice a day for the sins of the whole people. There were no windows into the holy place and so lamps were lit, any wicks were trimmed and oil was poured into the lamp’s reservoirs each morning and evening, but most important of all this incense was burnt every morning and evening and the appointed priests alone were permitted to do these things.
Now see something else, that the principal element in the altar was gold – it was crowned with gold, and then this, that one of the main elements of the incense composition poured onto the flames of the altar giving it such fragrance was frankincense, and finally that the main element in the oil of consecration, which was sprinkled on everything, including the altar of incense was myrrh. It was not without significance that we discover the same three elements, gold, frankincense and myrrh, appearing in Matthew’s narrative of the incarnation of the Messiah. I am saying to you that this is another confirmation that it is the Lord Jesus Christ’s ministry and sacrifice that are being pictured here in the temple.
Then there was something else which was quite non-negotiable, and that is that the only incense acceptable was the one whose formula was prescribed by God. Today there is a huge competition between different manufacturers of fragrances. Iola and I were taken into an American pharmacist last week while our hosts were getting something, and so we helped ourselves to the samples of all the perfumes and after-shaves on display coming away smelling like a flower patch. All the big stars launch their own perfumes, don’t they? Yet we discover that God insisted that one fragrance alone be used in the temple, and that in the temple alone it was to be found. There was to be no competition between the different divisions of priests as to who might win the fragrance of the year competition.
The incense was produced through a combination of selected spices. In Exodus chapter thirty and in verses thirty-four to thirty-seven you can read about the divine formula for this incense, and maybe you would like to turn to this passage; “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Take fragrant spices – gum resin, onycha and galbanum – and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the LORD.’”
The gum resin was the sap of a tree and this sap was dried and beaten fine. The onycha was a shellfish from the Red Sea, which gave off a strong odour when it was burned. The galbanum was a resin from plants. These three substances were mixed with frankincense, which is also a resin from a tree. It is unclear whether these four elements were mixed in equal parts. This passage is a bit like a recipe a woman gives you which has all the ingredients and a rough proportion of how much she uses but we don’t have the exact combination of the ingredients so that admirers cannot make it exactly as she does. At any rate, this whole compound was then to be mixed with salt. The wood on the altar was kept alight probably by the levites but Zechariah had the task of carefully pouring onto the golden altar this special sacred incense and immediately sweet smelling smoke filled the air.
ii] Prayer was the chief symbol of the altar of incense.
So what was the significance of the golden altar? By it the holy place and the holy of holies behind the curtain were made fragrant; the garments of the priests were impregnated with the fragrance. In the Old Testament, incense is identified with prayer: in Psalm 141:2 the psalmist prays, “May my prayer be set before you as incense.” Luke tells us in our text that the people outside the temple around the altar were at that moment all standing in silent intercession as Zechariah poured the incense on the golden altar. Their prayers ascended to heaven just as the fragrance soared up to fill the place and overflow into the temple’s courts.
Now we know that Zechariah was a prayerful man. We don’t merely infer that from the fact that he was upright in the sight of God and a prayerless man cannot be an upright man. We know it from the words of God’s messenger to Zechariah, “Your prayer has been heard” (v.13). He was a man of prayer; he took prayer very seriously, and Zechariah Abijah knew that these swirling clouds of incense filling the holy place represented his own prayers to God. He longed for God’s name to be glorified in Israel, that the Lord would restore to them the years the locusts of unbelief and godlessness had destroyed. His own peculiar longing was that his wife would conceive and that she and he would become parents, and with true submission and seriousness he himself prayed. When Zechariah stood in front of the curtain of the temple and at the side of the altar and watched the clouds of incense ascending up to the heights of the temple – “my prayers are heard in heaven by God,” he said. First he had brought his sacrifice for his sin to the great altar and then his prayers and worship could come to God.
In the book of Revelation chapter five and verse eight the living beings and the elders fell before the throne of the Lamb. They have in their hands golden bowls full of incense and we are told that these stood for ‘the prayers of the saints’. Again in Revelation chapter eight and verse three we are told of an angel standing at the altar with a golden censer; John says “there was given to him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne; and the smoke of the incense which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God out of the angel’s hand.” That is the picture of what Zechariah was doing here, and that is what we must bear in mind when we see him pouring the incense onto the flames of the altar and the fragrant smoke going up and up and up to heaven. These sweet odours which ascend to the Father are the prayers of his children.
iii] The altar of incense also spoke of the intercession of Christ.
Of course Zechariah didn’t know that. He was not aware that his action in pouring the incense onto the golden altar was predicting the glories of the exalted interceding Christ, that Zechariah was not serving himself but actually encouraging us when he was pouring the incense on the altar. The youngest Christian in the kingdom of God can understand more of what Zechariah was doing than that priest himself. We today know that the golden altar speaks of the intercession of Christ. Paul asks in Romans 8:34: “Who is he that condemns? It is Christ that died – more than that – who is raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” The one who was numbered with the transgressors in the outer courtyard now intercedes for the transgressors in the Holy Place (Isaiah 53:12). This is our “great high priest who has passed into the heavens” (Hebrews 4:14). He is no longer a mere man on earth, subject to weakness and to death. This is no sinning priest as every priest in the Old Testament was, needing to make a sacrifice for his own sins as well as for all the worshippers. Today we gather in the name of our interceding sinless Son of God who is powerful enough to save to the uttermost those who come to God by him. He has focused all the efficacy of his finished work on the cross upon his continued work in heaven. There is in the presence of God a perpetual incense in every generation for all his people. It is the man Christ Jesus with his glorified wounds for our sins pleading our eternal peace with God.
There he lives for us, a real man who once lived on this earth and was tempted in all points like we are, yet without sin. So Jesus understands what it means when a cup is given to us by God and is not taken away so that we have to drink it – the cup of loss, the cup of bereavement, the cup of loneliness, the cup of unrequited love. Jesus knows how painful it is to drink a bitter cup and this makes him so sympathetic and merciful in hearing our prayers when we are close to breaking under the pressures of life. The fragrance of that compassion fills heaven. The angels breathe it in and they say to one another, “Sympathy, sympathy, sympathy. Mercy, mercy, mercy.” The one who will not break the bruised reed is in the midst of the throne above. The one who will not quench the smoking flax is our interceding High Priest in heaven. Michael Bruce was not twenty one when he wrote these words because he died in 1767 aged 21.
“In every pang that rends the heart
The Man of Sorrows had a part.
He sympathizes with our grief
And to the sufferer sends relief.”
Jesus is a tender King-Priest combining both those offices in his own person. His garments smell of this sweet fragrance (Psalm 45:8), and he constantly intercedes for us within the veil. If any of us sin, we have this beautiful loving advocate with God the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He has taken himself to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of frankincense (Song 4:6) in order to be the intercessor that his church needs until the day breaks and the shadows flee away. And then, for all eternity, Christ’s church will be kept secure through his intercession.
Jesus our great High Priest prays for us to maintain our faith so that nothing would destroy it or separate us from his love. He who prayed for Peter that his faith would not fail when Satan put him in the griddle and shook him up and down and back and fore like wheat – he is the one who prays for us; “Father, there is a student in Aberystwyth just now whose faith is being terribly tried. Keep her Father so that she does not collapse under the strain.”
How differently our heavenly Advocate prays for us compared to the lawyers that men employ to represent them in court. The barristers who will be speaking up in trials all over the world tomorrow will try to minimize the seriousness of their client’s crimes. They will make as many excuses as possible for him. They will blame his family, his friends, his education or lack of it, his work conditions, his genetic make up, the culture in which he lives. Though he has perpetrated an enormous crime he will be made out to be a victim who deserves our sympathy not our condemnation. The Christian’s Advocate in heaven does not plead for us like that. He is Jesus Christ the righteous, and he will never minimize our sins. He will never pass our blame onto others. He knows all about us, of course, and he takes every factor into consideration, yes, but he can admit the very worst about us to God. “Yes he was cruel to those who trusted him. He acted in a shameful manner and caused them considerable pain,” he will say. “But Father,” he will plead, “my shed blood on Golgotha is sufficient to atone for all that this sinner has done.” “Amen,” says the Father who is totally satisfied with the work that Jesus has one for us. The High Priest in heaven does not have to plead our alleged merits. He does not have to point out to his Father all the good things we have done in our lives because the basis of our forgiveness is not our merit. It is his great sacrifice. Jesus has gone through the altar of sacrifice, and now he is at the place of fragrant intercession at God’s right hand there pleading for us.
This is our great High Priest, not one of the order of Abijah or descended from any of the sons of Aaron but a sinless compassionate High Priest who can save to the utmost those who come to God by him seeing he ever lives to pray for them. Go to God in Jesus’ name, and in the name of no one else, and find mercy from him and grace to help you, and never stop crying to him until you know in your heart that he has heard and answered your prayers.
29th April 2007 GEOFF THOMAS