Like Sweet-Smelling Incense
A Meditation on Acts 10:4

(Audio 5:26)

Zechariah burned incense in the temple when an angel appeared to him (Luke 1:9-10). James J. Tissot, ' The Vision of Zecharias' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.
Zechariah burned incense in the temple when an angel appeared to him (Luke 1:9-10). James J. Tissot, ' The Vision of Zecharias' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

An angel speaks to Cornelius, the Gentile centurion stationed in the coastal city of Caesarea. He's a regular attender at the local Jewish synagogue, though you would call him a "God-fearer," rather than a full convert to Judaism. He is earnest. He prays. He gives alms. His heart is strong after God.

One afternoon -- about the time the evening sacrifice is being offered miles away in the temple in Jerusalem -- Cornelius is praying. Suddenly, he has a vision. An angel announces:

"Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering1 before God." (Acts 10:4)

The angel is comparing Cornelius's prayers and righteous deeds to the temple offering of fine flour and oil that is burned with frankincense on the altar producing a sweet-smelling "pleasant aroma" to the Lord (Leviticus 2:2, 9, 16; 5:12). Incense!

David says something similar:

"May my prayer be set before you like incense;
may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice." (Psalm 141:2)

Paul says of the gifts the Philippian church have sent to support his ministry:

"They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God" (Philippians 4:18)

In Revelation, they offer before the throne "golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints" (Revelation 5:8; cf. 8:3-4). These prayers smell sweet to the Lord.

Those who love the Lord spend time in prayer before him. They show compassion to the hurting. They help those in need. They serve on the Lord's behalf. And this is right!

But have you ever thought of it from God's point of view? That our prayers and service are sweet to him, like a fragrant incense before him.

Eric Liddell, a strong Christian and Olympic runner whose life is depicted in the Oscar-winning film "Chariots of Fire" (1981), is quoted as saying:

"I believe God made me for a purpose,
but he also made me fast!
And when I run I feel his pleasure."

Oh, to live our lives to bring pleasure to our Lord!

My friend, you often struggle. Many times you can only see your sins and short-comings. Sometimes, all you can seem do is stand your ground and trust God. Sometimes, you don't even think about the lady you prayed for, the family you helped, the song you sang to the Lord in your devotional time.

But God who has redeemed you looks at your life and is pleased. He doesn't view you with judgment, but with a Father's love. Your prayers are sweet to him for they show your humble faith. Your acts of kindness bring joy to him because they demonstrate that you've internalized his Son's values. They bring him joy. He rejoices in the baby steps and, later, the long strides of spiritual adolescence. They are like the hint of incense on the evening breeze. Hallelujah!

So keep on. Don't quit even when it is hard. Paul the Apostle and his friend Silas are severely beaten -- flogged. And yet from the inner cells you can hear them singing hymns to Jesus at midnight.2 Incense. Paul reminds us,

"Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters,3 be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain." (1 Corinthians 15:58)

References and Abbreviations

[1] "Memorial offering" (NIV) is mnēmosunon, "memory," here, "an offering that presents a worshiper to God, a memorial offering." The same Greek word is found in the Greek Septuagint in Leviticus 2:2, 9, 16: 5:12 to translate ʾazkārâ. In Leviticus 2:2, "memorial portion" (ESV, NIV), "token portion" (NRSV), "the memorial of it" (KJV) ʾazkārâ, "memorial portion," from zākar, "to remember, recollect." It is the technical term for that portion of the cereal offering which was burned as God's share. Its derivation indicates a meaning such as "memorial" or "remembrance" (Andrew Bowling, TWOT #551d). Holladay (p. 8) offers "suggested meanings: reminiscence; summons; invocation; sign-offering."

[2] Acts 16:23.

[3] The plural of adelphos, "brother," can mean "brothers and sisters" (BDAG 18, 1).

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