I am enjoying the peace the Spirit brings when spending time in his word, worship and prayer. But how often do I leave that place when one minute later I take on a selfish attitude? Whether judgmental words or subtle arrogance toward anyone getting in my way, sometimes the beauty of the Lord’s presence so markedly contrasts with the ugliness of the world it makes me that much more grumpy.
Why didn’t the fragrance of God’s fellowship linger? After all, the Lord lives in my heart all the time, not just when I’m praying. His fragrance should linger—just like the sweet incense that priests would offer in the Jewish tabernacle. Twice a day the priests would enter the inner court to burn incense on the golden altar, imbuing the room with thick, perfumed smoke (Exodus 30:7). That’s what Zachariah was doing when Gabriel announced the birth of John (Luke 1:9). The smoky fragrance settled into the beard and skin and saturated their heavy robes. When they emerged from the Holy Place, anyone they met would also experience the pleasant perfume.
The incense represented the prayers of the saints that God receives in heaven (Revelation 5:8; 3:3), as well as the sweet communion where the Lord met with his people (Exodus 30:1, 6). Not so sweet in the courtyard outside where they made sacrifices for sin. Imagine the reek of carcasses in the desert heat, the priests’ sticky blood-soaked clothing and open-toed sandals in blood-soaked dirt, the rot of disposed entrails and fat. No wonder they had to wash their hands and feet in the laver before a sacrifice (Exodus 30:20). Jewish sanitation laws were far more hygienic than those of heathen worship, but the stink of dead flesh that characterized our fallen nature was unavoidable. When a priest emerged from the Holy Place, he marked a stark contrast between the aroma of life and the stench of death.
Perhaps Paul had these temple smells in mind when he described the fragrance of Christ’s message that he brought to the mission field. He contrasted the “odor from death to death” for those who are perishing against the “aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved.” It’s the “fragrance of the knowledge of him through us in every place,” Paul said (2 Corinthians 2:14-15)—the fragrance of truth in the presence of Christ’s Spirit.
Back to the original question. When we spend time with the Lord in his spiritual Holy Place, shouldn’t Jesus’ aroma of life, kindness, truth and justice linger in our attitude, behavior, and speech?
Yes, of course. And as I look back on the years I’ve followed Christ—seeing who I was before compared to who I am now, while I still fall short of God’s glory, I realize that over time he has been renewing my mind to increasingly conform to Christ’s character (Rom 12:1-2). Our Lord (really) is faithful to finish the work he started in us (Philippians 1:6) as we practice surrender to him in attitude, behavior and speech.
Devoting special time to the Lord is not just a religious habit, but an encounter with a living King of an unshakeable kingdom whose presence is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:25-26). Drawing near his flames with humble surrender to his Spirit and Word cannot help but transform our soul, cleansing us from attitudes that keep us tied down in bondage to the world, and freeing us into Christ’s righteousness, peace and joy (1 John 1:8-9; Romans 14:17). We increasingly take on the smell of his fragrant smoke.
Walking in the Spirit’s direction becomes more and more our natural response. Practicing his presence trains us “for the distinguishing of both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14). So “let us make every effort to enter into that rest, in order that no one may fall into the same pattern of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active…piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to judge the reflections and thoughts of the heart” (Hebrews (Hebrews 4:11-12).
And not just for individuals. The Lord’s fragrance should also linger on the church as a whole. The more we choose to speak his truth in his love (not arrogance, division or bickering), the more we radiate Christ’s fragrance, the more we demonstrate the stark contrast between God’s kingdom and the world’s. Instead of complaining as infants “tossed about by the waves…by the trickery of people” [or politicians or media], we trust in Christ alone. We grow together to “the maturity of the fullness of Christ…according to the working by measure of each single part, the growth of the body makes for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:13-16, LEB). This is the fragrance of Christ.
*All Scripture quotations from LEB, Lexham English Bible.