The Lutheran Church deliberately chooses to worship in a historical, liturgical way. Part of this practice is simply claiming our mantle of being part of the historic, catholic Church. But it is more than that. Our Augsburg Confession, Article 14, “Concerning the Mass,” states: “For ceremonies are especially needed in order to teach those who are ignorant” (AC, 14, 3; Kolb, 69). Today, we have largely become “ignorant” of the historic Lutheran practice of burning incense in the Divine Service. Thus, this primer.
Old-Covenant Circumcision Pointed Forward to Its Fulfillment in the New Covenant
In the Old Covenant, circumcision brought someone into God’s covenant. But circumcision was also a “type,” a foreshadowing of baptism (Colossians 2:11-14.) Because baptism fulfills circumcision, we see Jesus commanding His Apostles to “disciple the Gentiles by baptizing… and teaching…” (Matthew 5:17, 28:20). That is also why the New-Covenant Church no longer circumcises infants.
Old-Covenant Sacrifices and Passover Pointed Forward to Their Fulfillment in the New Covenant
The sacrifices of the Old Covenant brought to the people the benefit of Christ’s work before it was done. The Lord’s Supper of the New Covenant brings to us the benefit of Christ’s forgiveness after it was finished. (An excellent resource on this topic is Eating God’s Sacrifice by David J. Brege.)
Because the Lord’s Supper fulfills the Old-Covenant Sacrifices and Passover, Jesus commanded His Apostles to “do this,” celebrate and administer the Lord’s Supper in His New-Covenant Church. That’s also why we no longer sacrifice animals or celebrate Passover in our worship of God.
The Old Covenant: a Shadow of Eternal Worship
“See to it that you [Moses] do according to the pattern that you were shown on the mountain” (Exodus 25:40). Old-Covenant worship was a “pattern” that God mandated for his people. Later, concerning the Temple, which replaced the Tabernacle, the Old-Testament Apocrypha, Wisdom 9:8, tells us:
You [God] gave me [Solomon] the command to build a temple on your holy mountain and an altar in the city that is your dwelling place, a copy of your holy tabernacle that you established from the beginning.
What was the source of this “pattern,” this “copy,” that God’s Old-Covenant people were to follow? The book of Hebrews tells us that the pattern that God gave to Moses was “a pattern, a shadow, of what is in heaven” (Hebrews 8:5)! Old-Covenant worship was a shadow of heavenly worship.
But this “pattern,” this “copy and shadow,” was weak compared to what Jesus would establish in the New Covenant. “For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God” (Hebrews 7:18-19, ESV). That “better hope” is the New Covenant that Jesus instituted.
The New Covenant: Joining the Saints in Eternity
The New Covenant fulfills the Old and is not “weak” like the Old Covenant. But even more takes place in our worship of God in the New Covenant. Instead of being a “copy and shadow”:
[We] have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. [Hebrews 12:22-25, ESV]
Our worship is not a shadow of heavenly worship but a joining in it! But before we get there, we first need to look at what God commanded about incense in the Old Covenant.
Incense in the Old Covenant: Symbolizes our Prayers Rising to God
This is one purpose of incense that we still know about in the Lutheran Church. We hear the reason every time in Evening Prayer: “Let my prayer rise before You as incense,” which is a quotation from Psalm 141. Incense is a visual image of our prayers rising to God. But it’s more than that.
The Hebrew of the Old Testament describes that when God is angry, His nose is burning. We lose that idiomatic expression in our translations. With the Hebrew idiom of God being angry as being understood as His nose burning, incense then conveys the idea that instead of God’s nose burning at us in anger, He is pleased with us, which the smell of the incense helps convey. God is pleased and receives our prayers.
Incense in the Old Covenant: Testifies to the Presence in the Bread and Wine of the Presence
In the Old-Covenant Tabernacle (and later Temple), God commanded for a Table to be part of the architecture. On that table were:
…plates and dishes for incense, and its flagons and bowls with which to pour drink offerings; you shall make them of pure gold. And you shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me regularly. [Exodus 25:29-30, ESV]
The “flagons and bowls with which to pour drink offerings” were sacrificial drink offerings of wine (see Numbers 15:5-7 and 28:7). And so that the Table held more than “the bread of the Presence,” but also wine, the wine of the Presence!
As recorded in Leviticus, God told Moses about the bread and the frankincense on that Table.
“You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it… And you shall set them in two piles… on the table of pure gold before the Lord. And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the Lord. Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the Lord regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the Lord’s food offerings, a perpetual due” [Leviticus 24:5-9, ESV]
Lehem ha panim is the Hebrew (well, transliterated into English) for “bread of the presence.” Lehem ha panim could mean the bread is the “bread before the presence” of God. That is a legitimate understanding, considering that the bread was placed in front of the Holy of Holies, where the cloud of God’s divine presence was above the Ark of the Covenant.
Lehem ha panim could also mean “bread that is the presence.” Considering that panim is also the Hebrew word for “face,” that makes the most sense. Here’s why.
God commanded that the priests burn frankincense as a memorial of (as a way to bring to mind) the bread, and the wine, on the Table. That’s an unusual command, for the priests could see the bread and wine right before their eyes, which they ate and drank every Sabbath. So, why burn frankincense to remember, to bring to mind, what they could already see? They didn’t need to be reminded of that.
But if God was present in the bread, then it makes perfect sense to burn frankincense to bring to mind and testify to that reality, for they can’t see that! In other words, it makes more sense that the burning frankincense testified to the presence of God being there on the Table, instead of testifying only to the bread. Testifying to the bread served no purpose; testifying to “the Presence” of “the bread of the Presence” did!
Further, we can also see that God was pointing toward its fulfillment. Every Sabbath, the priests ate the bread of the Presence and drank the wine of the Presence. This was a “type,” pointing forward to the Lord’s Supper that Jesus would institute for His Royal Priesthood (1 Peter 2:9) in the New Covenant.
Incense in the New Covenant
You might be thinking, “That’s all Old-Covenant stuff. What does that have to do with me today?” Something to notice is that God commanded for incense to be burned “throughout your generations,” in other words, it is to go on without end (Exodus 30:8). Leviticus 24:9 states that the Bread of the Presence was to be set before the LORD as “a covenant forever… a perpetual due” between God and His people.
Thus, for the burning of incense is to be “a covenant forever,” it will either have to:
- Continue as something from the Old Covenant into the New, like prayer and preaching (Jesus did not command these but they continued from the old), or
- Continue in a fulfilled form, such as baptism is for circumcision, and the Lord’s Supper is for the Old-Covenant sacrifices and Passover.
Incense, however, has no commanded, fulfilled form instituted by Jesus. So, it simply continues as “a covenant forever,” moving from the Old Covenant into the New.
We know this to be true, for pointing forward to New-Covenant worship, the Old Testament says:
From the rising of the sun to its setting my [God’s] name will be great among the nations [Hebrew, goy; LXX, ethnos], and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts. [Malachi 1:11]
This refers to New-Covenant worship because this prophecy tells of worshiping God, not just in Jerusalem, but everywhere! (See Jesus’ words in John 4:21.) Even more, this worship specifically mentions Gentiles (Hebrew, goy; LXX, ethnos). Where incense was earlier burned in the Tabernacle and Temple during Old-Covenant worship, in the New Covenant, Gentiles would now burn incense in their worship of God in the New Covenant.
Worship in Heaven
The New Covenant isn’t a copy and shadow of heavenly worship like the Old (Exodus 25:40, Wisdom 9:8, and Hebrews 8:5). Instead, New-Covenant worship is a joining with the saints and angels in heaven in their eternal worship of God (Hebrews 12:22-25).
Heavenly worship includes prayer, and so we pray (Revelation 5:8-10, 6:10-11, 8:1-5, 11:17-18, 16:5-6, etc.). Heavenly worship includes singing hymns, and so we sing hymns (Revelation 4:8, 11; 5:9-10; 7:15-17; 15:3-4, etc.). Heavenly worship is reverential (proskeneuo, “falling down” before God), and so our worship is reverential (Revelation 4:10, 5:14, 7:11, 11:1, 11:16, 15:4, 19:4, 19:10; see also AC 24, para 2). And, of course, heavenly worship includes the burning of incense, and so we burn incense (Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4).
Now, we don’t have full congruence with heavenly worship because we are still sinful and our knowledge of the faith is incomplete. That’s why we still need sermons (Luke 24:47), confession (John 20:23), and hymns to teach and correct us (Colossians 3:16). But in other areas, our worship forms join with the worship forms taking place in heaven.
Incense testifies to our prayers rising to, and being received by, God.
Incense testifies to Jesus’ Presence in the Lord’s Supper.
Incense testifies that, in our worship, we join in the eternal worship of God by the saints and angels in heaven.
 Our Lutheran Confessions affirm this “catholic principle.” For instance, they read “we have made this mutual declaration with hearts and mouths that we intend to create or accept no special or new confession of our faith” (SD, “Concerning the Binding Summary,” 2; Kolb, 526). Elsewhere, our Confessions read, “that no new interpretation is introduced here” (AC XX, 12; Kolb, 54) and that “we have said nothing new” (Ap II, 15; Kolb, 114).