Fire and IncenseMuch of prophecy is given in the language of the earthly sanctuary. For example, in Daniel 8, the little horn power casts down the sanctuary. In Revelation 1, Jesus is seen standing in the midst of the seven candlesticks and wearing priest's clothing. In Revelation 11, the temple of God is opened in heaven and the ark of His testament is seen. The extensive use of sanctuary-related symbols in prophecy necessitates a study of the earthly sanctuary in order to accurately understand prophecy.
The key to understanding the symbols of the sanctuary is to know that the Israelites built a sanctuary that was patterned after another tabernacle, the great original. "And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them. According to all that I shew thee, after the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall ye make it" (Exodus 25:8-9).
The New Testament clearly defines the location and nature of the original tabernacle after which all others were patterned. "But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building" (Hebrews 9:11).
"Now of the things which we have spoken this is the sum: We have such an high priest, who is set on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens; A minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, and not man. For every high priest is ordained to offer gifts and sacrifices: wherefore it is of necessity that this man have somewhat also to offer. For if he were on earth, he should not be a priest, seeing that there are priests that offer gifts according to the law: Who serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount" (Hebrews 8:1-5).This heavenly tabernacle resides in heaven, with Jesus as its high priest. The earthly tabernacle serves as an illustration or shadow of actual events happening in heaven as Jesus ministers for us in the plan of salvation (Heb. 8:1-5). The way these symbols were used in the earthly sanctuary were designed to help us better understand the reality of Jesus' ministry in the heavenly sanctuary.
Each piece of furniture, vessel, participant, feast and ceremony had a larger meaning. For example:
- The passover lamb that was sacrificed on the 14th day of the first month represents Jesus' death on the cross (John 1:29,36, Rev. 5:12). Just like the lamb, Jesus was an innocent substitute as people would repent of their sins, placing them upon Him.
- The golden lampstand with the seven candelsticks (Ex. 25:31-40) represents Christ's church (Rev. 1:20). The oil in the lamps symbolize the work of the Holy Spirit and the light produced represents Christ and His character, which is shown to the world through His followers (Matt. 5:14-16).
- The earthly priest would sprinkle some of the blood from the sacrifice in the Holy Place, symbolizing Jesus sanctifying and enabling His followers to obey Him and have a healthy conscience (1 Peter 1:2, Heb. 9:9-14, Heb. 10:19,22).
"And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets. And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto 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 up before God out of the angel's hand. And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake. And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound" (Revelation 8:2-6).In the earthly sanctuary system, every day, a priest would take coals from the altar of burnt offering (the altar in the courtyard), combine them with incense and place them on the altar of incense (the golden altar in the Holy Place compartment of the sanctuary) (2 Chron. 13:11, Lev. 16:12). The smoke from this incense would ascend and permeate the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, even going out among the tents surrounding the courtyard. It was a continual burning before the Lord (Ex. 30:7-8). This represents the intercession and prayers of God's people being made acceptable by Christ through His continual intercession for them.
This connection between burning incense, the prayers of God's people and intercession reoccurs throughout the Bible. "Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice" (Psalms 141:2). "And Moses said unto Aaron, Take a censer, and put fire therein from off the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them: for there is wrath gone out from the LORD; the plague is begun" (Numbers 16:46).
According to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John (Luke 1:9-13).
There were also examples of abuse of these sanctuary symbols, such as in the case of Nadab and Abihu. They filled their censers with fire and incense and offered "strange fire" to the Lord. The fire was not from the altar of burnt offering, but kindled from another source. This teaches that our prayers must be based in faith in Christ's sacrifice. That faith allows Christ to empower our lives (to live according to what we know is right) and make our prayers effectual (James 5:16).
Furthermore, there are many cases in the Bible where incense was burned to worship false Gods, such as Baal, the moon, stars and sun (2 Kings 23:5, Jer. 11:17, Jer. 18:15-17). There was also incense burnt by those who weren't appointed priests, such as Uzziah the king (2 Chron. 26:18-19), and Ahaz, which resulted in his slaughter (2 Chron. 28:3-5). There were many other cases where the burning of incense was done incorrectly, was an abomination, and God would not hear their prayers, resulting in judgments and destruction (Jer. 1:16, Is. 1:13-15, Is. 65:3-7, Mal. 1:10-11). Insincere prayers, lack of faith in christ's sacrifice and praying to false gods, are all represented by misuse of the symbols and result in judgment. "Because they have forsaken me, and have burned incense unto other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the works of their hands; therefore my wrath shall be poured out upon this place, and shall not be quenched" (2 Chronicles 34:25).
The introductory scene to the Seven Trumpets, in Revelation 8 verses 2 to 4, presents a beautiful picture of intercession as God's people pray and Christ's righteousness makes the prayers effectual before God. However, in verse 5, the angel again takes the censer and fills it with fire from the altar of burnt offering, but instead of adding prayers and incense to it, he casts it to the earth. This indicates an absence of intercession, or an end of probation, which would result in destruction for those who had not repented. "And I will make your cities waste, and bring your sanctuaries unto desolation, and I will not smell the savour of your sweet odours" (Leviticus 26:31).
The Bible reveals that individuals, cities and nations are all given a time of probation, during which the Holy Spirit strives with them and Jesus ministers for them. They are given many chances and warnings to make choices that lead to health, happiness and life. When, after much striving, they prove themselves to be resolutely set in an evil and harmful direction, intercessory prayer becomes of no avail, and God reluctantly leaves them to the results of their decision. Their probationary time is over. Note that we are not here referring to the complete end of human probation just before the second coming, but rather to the end of probation in individual lives, nations and political entities, as they seal their fate by the choices they make.
The Amorite nation provides an example of this process. They were corrupt and practicing idolatry, yet God was willing to bear with them until the fourth generation. When their evil choices had fully matured, His judgments would fully fall on them, as He allowed their freedom of choice and the results of their choices to play out. "But in the fourth generation they shall come hither again: for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full" (Genesis 15:16).
"...The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation" (Exodus 34:6-7).
The censer being cast down represents this end of probation and thus the end of intercession for the entity affected in each Trumpet. In the story of the trumpet sounding to Judah, discussed in Judgment & the Sound of the Trumpet, the people's lawbreaking became so great that Jeremiah was instructed not to intercede for them anymore (Jeremiah 7:16). The coals of the fire that are placed in the censer, but not combined with incense, aren't useful in the sanctuary services. In the same way, believing in Christ's sacrifice (at the altar of burnt offering in the courtyard) or claiming the name of Christianity, yet not surrendering to Christ (faith) by continuing on (into the sanctuary) in obedience with heartfelt prayer, submission and faith in Christ's merits (incense) to forgive and transform you, will not result in salvation through Christ's intercessory ministration. Instead, the persistant and unrepentant sinner experiences the full result of their sins themselves.
The Trumpets reveal that the people God has chosen to represent Him on earth and spread His message to others, the Christian church, have largely rejected Christ's ministration for them. Yes, they have claimed His name in large numbers throughout the Christian era, ruling powerful nations and receiving an abundance of opportunity and blessings. Yet, in each phase of history, most of Christendom rejected the warning message of their day, and suffered greatly as a result.
The sanctuary symbolism of the Seven Trumpets indicate a timespan that takes us from the beginning of Christ's ministry as high priest (when He ascended to heaven after His sacrifice on the cross (the priests took the coals into the sanctuary after the evening sacrifice), down to the very close of probationary time for all humanity, when His intercessory ministry finally ends and the last judgment is brought to completion. The completeness represented by the use of the number seven, along with clues provided by other parallel prophecies, also indicate that the succession of the Seven Trumpets covers the entire Christian era, from John's day to the second coming.
Let us pray for one another fervently and unceasingly, while Jesus yet offers His intercession and the Trumpet still sounds. "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (James 5:16).
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