In Hebrews 9:3-4a the author talks about the internal structure of the tabernacle and says, “Behind the second curtain was a second section called the Most Holy Place, having the golden altar of incense and the Ark of the Covenant covered on all sides with gold.”  This verse has caused no little confusion and is often used to show that the New Testament is mistaken.  According to God’s instructions to Moses in Exodus, the altar of incense was placed in the Holy Place not the Most Holy Place. Kistemaker clarifies this problem for us. He writes, “However, on the Day of Atonement the high priest had ‘to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the Lord and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain’ (Lev. 16:12). On that special day, once a year, the censer became the extension of the altar of incense. The smoke of the incense had to conceal the atonement cover of the ark, so that the high priest would not die (v. 13). The function of the altar could not be obstructed by a curtain separating the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place. Thus, the censer momentarily entered behind the curtain as an extension of the altar of incense.”[1]  Therefore it’s apparent that the function of the altar of incense was related to what lay beyond the second veil in the Holy of Holies and it is appropriate to speak of it as being present there.

The special mixture of fine incense was something that would only be allowed in the tabernacle services. It could not be used in the camp of the Israelites or in the cities after Solomon’s temple was built. It was to be a unique odor that belonged only to God’s service. Like the aroma of all the proper sacrifices in the Old Testament, the odor ascended to God as a “sweet smelling savor.” It was often said to be “well-pleasing to God.” Jesus, the Son of God, is the one person declared by God to be “well-pleasing.” Matthew 3:16-17 “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”

When the High Priest brought the incense into the presence of God in the Holy of Holies, it filled the place with smoke and blurred the view. It’s often suggested that the High Priest’s vision was blurred by the smoke so that he could not see the mercy seat. But it might be that this “pleasing” offering to God served as a covering that covered the sins of the priest and the people that enabled them to escape the consequences of their sin. God only focused on the “sweet smelling savor” of the incense. It served as a covering or “an atonement” allowing God to ignore the sins of the people. Isn’t this what takes place with us? Our sinfulness must be atoned for, “covered” up, so that God will not hold it against us. That is what the sacrificial system pictured from the very beginning. Paul knew that Christ was his only hope for righteousness and in Philippians 3:9 he writes about acceptance from God that was based on “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ.” The sweet smelling aroma of Christ’s sacrifice makes atonement for our sin so when God looks at us, he sees his only son in whom he is well pleased.

[1] Simon J. Kistemaker and William Hendriksen, Exposition of Hebrews, vol. 15, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 238.