Several weeks ago, as we passed the half-way point in the Book of Exodus, we realized that God’s people had a problem.
God had saved the nation of Israel from Egypt, they had crossed over the Red Sea together, and then God had carried them to this mountain on the far side of the eastern wilderness. And there, at the foot of that mountain, God essentially signed a marriage contract with Israel. He then called the elders of Israel half-way up the mountain, into God’s symbolic reception room, where they ate a feast together to celebrate their engagement.
And that is when we realized that God’s people had a problem. They are engaged to be married to God. But God’s house, apparently, is on this mountain in the Arabian wilderness, while the land that God has promised to give to Israel is actually in the north, in the mountains of Palestine, where their ancestor Abraham once lived. Is this marriage going to be a long-distance relationship?
At that point God called Moses up to the top of Mount Sinai, that mountain in Arabia, and began giving him blueprints for a special sacred tent, called a tabernacle, where God would be able to live as he leads his people through the wilderness into the promised land.
And over the last weeks we have discovered that the tabernacle contains many layers of symbolism. When we look at it from one perspective, we see that the tabernacle is really a miniature model of Mount Sinai itself. Which means it is also a model of the original Garden of Eden. Which means it is also a model of the earth, and a picture of how the earth fits into God’s universe.
And underlying it all we have seen how God’s instructions for the tabernacle have followed the pattern that he used in creation: shaping the earth into a house for himself, fillling it with light and life, and then ordaining mankind — his own children — to continue the process of bringing God’s light and life and order into the world. In the same way, we have seen God shape the tabernacle, fill it with light and life, and then ordain Aaron’s family to serve as priests.
And at the end of the passage last week we saw that one of the main tasks Aaron’s priesthood is called to do is provide breakfast and dinner for God every single day. Not because God needs to be fed, but because God’s people need that twice daily reassurance that he is right there, living with them.
So it looks like Israel’s problem has been solved. God is going to shift houses from Mount Sinai into miniature Mount Tabernacle. And his people will be able to continue to meet with him and eat with him.
And this is why this next section of God’s instructions have been confusing for some modern scholars.
So far, God’s instructions have made sense, they have followed a pattern — the pattern of creation: God creates the earth, then he creates mankind to care for the earth; God plants the garden of Eden, then God forms mankind to care for the garden; God commissions the tabernacle, then God commissions Aaron to care for the tabernacle. By that logic, God’s instructions should be finished.
But he goes on. As we look at our passage today we see that he continues with instructions for a small altar for burning incense. Okay: that seems related to the whole tabernacle thing. But then he talks about the procedure for taking a census! And after that: how to make a bronze basin for the priests to wash themselves, followed by recipes for anointing oil and incense.
This whole section seems like a random grab-bag of left-over items, as if God is going, “Oh, wait, there was river flowing through the garden of Eden, so I better make sure to include some water here in the tabernacle. And how is Moses supposed to pay for the tabernacle? I’d better set up a tax structure for him. And last week I told Moses to anoint Aaron with oil, but I forgot to give him the recipe! — I better do that now.”
This section is just not organised in the way we modern people would organise it. And as a result — as I mentioned — some modern scholars have concluded that this section really is just a random collection of footnotes that got jammed in later.
Of course, as far as I can tell from reading those scholars, they do not believe that God spoke these words to Moses. They do not even believe that Moses wrote the Book of Exodus. They think some ancient Jewish librarians came along 1000+ years after Moses and copy/pasted sections from several different books together and then called it God’s Word: The Book of Exodus. Those modern scholars also seem to believe those ancient Jewish librarians really did quite a clumsy job of hiding their deception.
Well, in our church we believe that God did speak with Moses, and that Moses wrote down what he heard. It is clear that the Book of Exodus was edited and updated a bit in the generations after Moses — just like our modern English bibles have been updated from the King James version of 400+ years ago — but the substance of the book dates from Moses’ time.
And there are many scholarly reasons why we believe that, but at the very foundational level the reason we believe Exodus is one of the Books of Moses is because Jesus said Exodus was one of the Books of Moses. So:
Because we believe that this is the Word of God, and because we do not believe that God forgets things and has to add them in later, we are going to assume that this section is actually properly organised, even if it is organized in a way that is different from the way we might do it. So we are not going to judge God’s instructions by our standards, we are going to judge ourselves by God’s standards.
All right: we are convinced there must be a reason these elements have been introduced at this time in this order. So this is what we are going to do: we will zoom in and look at each element in detail and try to understand how they fit into the tabernacle system. Then we will zoom out and see what the larger pattern must be. Okay?
First element: the altar of incense.
 It is to be square, a cubit long and a cubit wide, and two cubits high—its horns of one piece with it.
So this is a miniature model of the large bronze altar where animals are sacrificed — except that this altar is covered with gold, not bronze. Why? Because:
It is to be placed inside the tabernacle, in front of the curtain that shields the ark of the covenant law.
The altar in the yard outside is further away from God, that is why it is bronze, a metal made by mixing two very common metals together. But this miniature model of the altar stands very close to God, just outside the curtain of cherubim that separates God’s innermost throne room from his outer reception room; that is why it is covered with gold, a metal that symbolises purity and holiness.
And as God’s instructions continue we find out that this incense altar is connected to the priest’s daily routine of providing breakfast and dinner for God.
But why? What is the connection?
Well, if you recall from last week, every morning and evening the priests are to sacrifice a lamb on the bronze altar outside as a food offering presented to the Lord, along with grain and oil and wine.
But it would be really disgusting to gather up the burned-up fragments of those offerings and carry them into God’s reception room and lay them, still smoking and stinking, on the small, golden altar inside. In fact, in verse 9, that is exactly what God says: “Do not offer on this altar any other incense or any burnt offering or grain offering, and do not pour a drink offering on it.” That would be disgusting!
Instead of doing that, the priests light some incense from the coals of the altar outside, and then they carry that incense into God’s reception room and serve it to him as a symbolic representation of the sacrificial meal.
We could think of it like this: the bronze altar is God’s stove. It is in God’s wet-kitchen, outside. But of course God does not eat directly from the stove! He is the King, and Father, and Husband of his people, so of course it is appropriate for his meal to be served to him daily, in his dining room, on this little gold altar, which is like his plate.
Second element: the census.
Apparently, when Moses takes a census of the Israelites, everyone over twenty years old lines up on one side. Then they “cross over” one by one to be counted. And as they “cross over” they each pay a half shekel of silver as a ransom for his life, so that no plague will come on the nation when they are numbered.
In those days, a half shekel of silver was not nothing, but it wasn’t a lot, either — maybe the equivalent of 200 or 300 ringgit for us.
 The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives.
So there is a refreshing equality about this tax: the people of Israel are all absolutely equal in value, because they are all human beings.
And now we find out what this tax is to be used for:
 Receive the atonement money from the Israelites and use it for the service of the tent of meeting. It will be a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord, making atonement for your lives.”
But what does it mean? Why is taking a census so dangerous that the people have to pay a ransom to keep a plague from coming on them? Maybe it would be better to just never count the people?
This word “census” throws us off a bit. For the ancient people of Israel, a census was only taken when it was time to go to war. That is why, in scripture, only men over the age of twenty are counted. And we also have to understand that Israel’s army — God’s army — was 100% volunteer driven. There was no mandatory national service. Instead, when there was some threat to the nation, the leaders would line everyone up on one side, and those who were willing to fight would willingly “cross over” to be counted. And we see an example of this at the beginning of the Book of Numbers, actually.
Okay. That makes sense so far. But still, why this threat of a plague? Why must those who are willing to fight pay a ransom?
Well, Israel’s army was God’s army. They were only to go to war when God led them to war. So if the leaders of Israel ever tried to celebrate their national strength by recruiting soldiers for a war of their own — like King David did once — then God would make sure to reduce their national strength through a plague so they would have to put their trust back in God again.
And because Israel’s army was God’s army, every man who volunteered to join belonged to God for the duration of that particular conflict. They were, quite literally, giving their lives to their heavenly Commander, lives that they might not get back. This ”ransom” was a physical symbol of their sacrifice, a physical representation of the lives they left behind when they went away to war. That way, even if they did not come back, the silver they had left behind would be used to help maintain the tabernacle. And as their lives were spent in this way to keep the tabernacle running, the tabernacle itself would become a continuing memorial for the Israelites before the Lord, making atonement for their lives.
In short, by paying this ransom and entrusting their lives to God, the men of Israel were receiving an assurance that, even if they fell in battle, their lives would be saved, because they would continue to symbolically live on in the running of God’s house — even after death, their lives would continue to serve the tabernacle.
Okay. The third element in this section: the bronze basin for washing.
This basin goes outside, in the courtyard, between the tent of meeting and the altar. And every time the priests cross over from the bronze altar into the tabernacle, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die.
Which makes sense. As we noticed last week, there is a lot of blood going on in the altar area, and it would not do for the priests to be touching blood and walking in blood and then tracking all that into God’s house when they go to serve him!
It also works the other way: every time the priests cross over to the bronze altar to prepare another food offering to the Lord, they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die.
They are, essentially, the cooks in God’s wet-kitchen: they should wash their hands and feet!
And, of course, we should understand that this washing is not just physical, it is also symbolically a spiritual washing.
Fourth element: the recipe for the sacred anointing oil.
And we can tell right away that this is an expensive mixture of rare spices, which is used to anoint everything: the tabernacle, the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering, and the basin. You shall consecrate them so they will be most holy, and whatever touches them will be holy.
And this makes sense because, if you recall from last week, all of these pieces of the tabernacle were shaped by the hands of sinful human beings; they need to be spiritually cleansed, set apart for service to God.
And of course this includes the priests:  “Anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them so they may serve me as priests.”
But then God says,  ‘This is to be my sacred anointing oil for the generations to come.  Do not pour it on anyone else’s body and do not make any other oil using the same formula. It is sacred, and you are to consider it sacred.  Whoever makes perfume like it and puts it on anyone other than a priest must be cut off from their people.’”
Whaaat? Why is the death penalty attached to making perfume?
Well, two weeks back, when Aaron was first chosen to be priest, we realised that God did the choosing — Aaron did not choose himself. Here, God is simply making sure his people understand the gravity of this concept: the priesthood is by appointment only. Anyone who tries to ordain themselves by adopting the trappings of the priesthood is in active rebellion against God; they are actively trying to deceive God’s people and lead them into rebellion…so: yes, they should die if they are caught trying to copy this particular perfume.
And now, the fifth and last element in this section: the recipe for the incense — another very expensive blend of rare spices, which is to be burned in front of the ark of the covenant law in the tent of meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you.
And again God says,  “Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the Lord.  Whoever makes incense like it to enjoy its fragrance must be cut off from their people.”
Why so strict?
Last week we saw how the food sacrificed to God on the bronze altar outside was reserved only for God and his priests, it is not for common people to eat. Well, since this incense is a symbolic representation of God’s food, it makes sense that it must also be reserved for him alone. It is not for common people to make so they can enjoy its fragrance or perhaps even pretend that they are enjoying a private meal with God in their own homes. To do so would be an act of rebellion against God’s holiness, and of course death must be the result.
Okay. So those were the elements, in the order in which God spoke them to Moses. We understand a bit better how they each connect to the running of the tabernacle.
But now we have that larger question to answer: why were these elements introduced now, and in this order?
Why did God do it this way?
Well, if we zoom out again and look at the whole process, we see that, for the first half of God’s instructions over the last weeks, there has been a steady progression outward: from the holiest object in the center of the tabernacle to the outermost wall of the courtyard, followed by the “creation” of a priesthood. In this way, the tabernacle was designed to resemble the original creation, the original Garden of Eden on the original mountain of the Lord in the east.
And if Adam had not sinned, then God’s instructions for the tabernacle could have ended there — could have ended where we ended two weeks ago: with the “creation” of Aaron.
But Adam did sin. And he was driven out of the garden. And so, from Genesis, Chapter 3, until this point in Exodus, mankind has been sinful and homeless, cut off from the garden of the Lord.
Now, through the tabernacle, it is clear that God is planting a new garden on the earth. That is encouraging, of course. But it presents a problem: how can sinful, homeless mankind be brought back into the garden without dying?
God began to provide a solution to this problem last week when he introduced the series of sacrifices necessary to bring his new priests safely into his presence. Last week, the steady progression outward turned around and became the beginning of a steady progression back in toward the center of the tabernacle.
That progression has continued today.
God begins with instructions for the altar of incense because that is the most sacred object in the center of the tabernacle, except for the ark itself. The incense altar is like a companion for the ark, because it is the only other piece of furniture that God “touches”, we could say. The ark is God’s footstool, the connecting point between heaven and earth; the altar of incense is God’s dinner plate — which is the connecting point between God and his priests.
Right? Think about it: the priests never touch or even properly see the ark. The closest they come to touching something that God touches is the altar of incense. This little altar is the thing that directly connects God to his people.
So God begins with the altar of incense today because that is the object in the center toward which God’s people are being drawn, that is the goal of the tabernacle project.
Okay. But here’s a question: if this incense altar is so important, why did God not reveal it back when he introduced the ark, or the table and the lampstand?
Because this altar only exists because of Adam’s sin; the need for sacred, symbolic meals only exists because of Adam’s sin.
Back when God revealed the ark and the table and the lampstand, he was retelling the story of the original creation. God’s footstool and light and food were present in the original creation — but no food offerings were necessary in the original creation, because God did not need to prove his presence with Adam by symbolically eating breakfast and dinner with him every day. They just ate together, and it was just ordinary! But eating with God is not ordinary anymore.
So the reason the incense altar is only revealed now is because it is part of the post-fall pattern, not the original creation pattern.
Basically, the outward moving ”story of creation” phase of the tabernacle is finished; we have made the turn now to the inward moving “story of redemption” phase.
So it makes sense for God to begin with a picture of the goal: the altar of incense in the center of the tabernacle.
It also makes sense for God to then zoom right back out to the fringes of his world and then work his way back inward, step by step.
And who is on the outside, furthest away from God? The common people of Israel. The priests have regular contact with the altar of incense in the center of the tabernacle; the common people do not. So how can the common people participate? How can the common people serve?
By participating in a census. Whenever a family offered up a father, or a brother, or a son to serve God in a war, they would pay this ransom in silver. Their man could not cross over the courtyard into the tabernacle, but the silver that represented the price of his could cross over for use in the tabernacle. And so, in this symbolic way, the families of Israel would be brought into the tabernacle, integrated into God’s house.
So it does actually make sense for God to suddenly talk about a census in the middle of his instructions for the tabernacle, because this is how the people furthest from God can be symbolically drawn into their Father’s presence in the center.
And it makes sense for God, after the census, to talk about the bronze basin for washing, because the basin is the next step in toward the center: the basin is the gateway through which the priests must pass into God’s house.
And — get this — the basin is meant to be a model of the “waters gathered in one place” on the third day of creation, and a model of the original river that flowed through the Garden of Eden. It is also meant to be a model of the Red Sea; in fact, later on in scripture, another name for this basin is “the sea”.
Now, what did God’s people do at the Red Sea? They “crossed over” it, passing from the death of slavery in Egypt into the life of freedom with God.
But wait: there’s more. Going forward from this point in scripture, that phrase “cross over” is used many times, and most of the time it is talking about crossing over the Jordan River, which was the gateway into God’s promised land.
Putting the pieces together now: it is no mistake that God used that special phrase “cross over” in the previous section, when he was talking about the census. The people “cross over” from death into life every time they pay their ransom and allow themselves to be counted among God’s warriors. The priests “cross over” from death into life every time they wash their hands and feet at this basin and pass through the gateway into God’s house.
So it makes sense for God to move from talking about the census to the basin, because both of these elements contain the concept of “crossing over” from death into life.
Okay. But here’s a question: if this basin is a model of the original sea in creation, and the original river in the garden, why did God not reveal it back when he described the courtyard and the altar — which is also a model of the original mountain of Eden?
Because the need to “cross over” the river only became a need after Adam’s sin.
Back in the original garden, Adam and Eve drank from the river; they bathed in the river, I’m sure; but it was not until they were driven out of the garden that they looked back and realised that this river of life had become a river of death separating them from God, and that the only way to return to life in the garden would be through the waters of death. But how is it possible to pass through the waters of death and still live?
Here, in this bronze basin, God is beginning to answer that question. This basin is a physical prophecy pointing forward to a time when God will ”cross over“ the waters of death with his people carried safe in his hands.
So this movement from incense altar to census to basin does make sense. These are not just random footnotes clumsily jammed into the text by deceptive Jewish librarians 1000 years after Moses, this is a progression, this is a story: the story of redemption.
And now that we have seen this, we can see that it also makes sense for God to end his tabernacle instructions with these two recipes — the one for the anointing oil, and the one for the incense.
Because the oil and the incense are probably the largest line-items in the tabernacle’s annual budget, apart from the 700+ lambs that must be sacrificed ever year, morning and evening. Which means that these two items, along with the lambs, are what the people’s ransom money is used for.
And why is that significant?
Because this oil that was purchased with the lives of fathers and sons and brothers is sprinkled all over the tabernacle and its furniture, while the incense that was purchased at the same price is carried within to be consumed on the altar that stands just before God’s throne.
So do you see how this oil and this incense was a physical, living, perpetual memorial for God’s people?
Through this anointing oil, the tabernacle is absolutely impregnated with the willingly sacrificed lives of God’s families. Through the smoke of this incense, the tabernacle is symbolically filled with the spirits of God’s people as they cross over from death into life, as they pass through the curtain into God’s direct presence.
God ended his tabernacle plans with these two recipes because these two recipes are the whole point of the tabernacle! — the sweet-smelling sacrifices of God’s own people rising from the very center of God’s presence, woven into the very fabric of God’s house.
This is why God calls this ransom money “atonement money”. This is why he says, “It will be a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord, making atonement for your lives.”
And this is why King David, 500 years after Moses, made a connection between the prayers of God’s people and the incense that was burned before the Lord — we read that Psalm for our prayer of confession today: “May my prayer be set before you like incense.”
And this is why the prophet Ezekiel, 500 years after King David, made a further connection between the lives of God’s people and the incense that was burned before the Lord — we read his words for our promise of forgiveness today, where God told his people, “I will accept you as fragrant incense when I bring you out from the nations and gather you from the countries where you have been scattered.”
And this is why the prophet John, 500 years after Ezekiel, received a special vision of God’s true, heavenly tabernacle in the Book of Revelation. He gets to see directly into God’s throne room. And there he sees, under the altar of incense, the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. And he goes on to say that the smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God…
Brothers and sisters, what are we supposed to do with this astonishing progression from ransom money to bronze basin to altar to oil to incense symbolising the lives and prayers of God’s sacrificed people rising before the Lord?
There is almost too much to say at this point!
So I am going to try to keep it short and simple: Jesus has fulfilled every element we find here today.
The New Testament tells us, again and again, that Jesus gave his life as a ransom for God’s people. When God called his people to war against death, no one answered, because no one could. Then Jesus said, “Here I am, I have come — it is written about me in the scroll — I have come to do your will, my God.” He crossed over from divine life into human death. He volunteered to be counted among men, to be the Commander of the Lord’s armies on earth.
But instead of making mankind die for him on the field of battle, he died for us, the same ransom paid for the rich and for the poor, because ultimately we are all equal in value as human beings. He passed through the waters of death, he crossed the river we are all afraid to cross, he received the oil of the priesthood and became the sweet smoke of God’s incense, and he passed through that dark curtain into unapproachable light…and so he also crossed back over from human death into eternal human life.
How should we respond to all this?
Well, if you are here today and you are not a Christian — if you do not yet belong to Jesus Christ — this is what you should do: come, and belong to Christ. God is calling you to cross over and be counted among his people, to give your life to and for a nation that is greater and deeper and older than any nation you belong to now — the nation that is never going to pass away, the nation that is Jesus’ Church. Come and pass through the waters of death, knowing that they will not drown you because Jesus has already passed through those waters on your behalf. He has already paid your ransom; your atonement money stands ready to be spent, sprinkled, poured out, burned in God’s presence as a sweet sacrifice for you.
Friend, I do not know what you think you are longing for in this life. But the bible does tell me what you are really longing for: a place to belong. A place of safety and true connection, a place where every mistake you have ever made in your life can truly be atoned for and redeemed, woven into something beautiful. This is the place Jesus is offering you, right now. Accept his offer!
First, believe. Accept that what God’s word says here is the truth. And then: come and let us baptise you. Let us sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. In this way you will cross over, you will be counted, your ransom will be paid, you will belong.
You have been homeless for too long already. Come home.
Now, for the rest of us who have already been gathered from among the nations, for we who have already crossed over and been counted among Jesus’ people, how should we respond to such a great salvation?
Well, honestly, as a preacher it is hard for me to say anything more than just: rejoice! Worship! Celebrate! Come and eat and drink! — which we are already doing, which we will do together in a moment.
Is there anything else we could do, perhaps on a more practical level?
Well…last week we discussed how, in Jesus’ Church, there is no longer a special, ritual Old Testament style priesthood. Partly because Jesus is the only High Priest left. And partly because we are all priests, and all of our daily work and worship has become our priestly calling and our evangelistic testimony before the world.
In the same way, today, we need to realise that, in Jesus’ Church, there are no more common people who may not touch the altar of incense at the center of God’s throne-room. Because Jesus is our great High Priest, and because we are all priests, all of our lives and all of our prayers have become the sweet smoke of sacrifice that fills the heavenly places. This means that our lives and our prayers are all equal in value, because we have all become God’s equally valued children. There is no more hierarchy in Jesus’ Church, except the hierarchy of High Priest and priesthood, Bridegroom and Bride. In the Church, in Christ, we have all been made equal.
So in our search for something more we can do, we are going to close today by looking back at God’s warnings against counterfeit oil and counterfeit incense. The temptation is always within us to believe that we chose to join Jesus’ Church instead of being chosen and ordained by God. The temptation is always within us to believe that the offering of our lives and prayers before God are somehow earning extra blessings in some way.
Brothers and sisters, the author of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament tells us that we have an altar from which others have no right to eat. In other words, we share a table with God that is reserved for him and for his baptised children alone. Therefore, the Book of Hebrews says, do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so.
This is our practical application for today: we must continue to believe that we are all saved equally by grace alone. To preach or believe anything else is another gospel, a false gospel, false oil and incense. We must not fall away into thinking we can save ourselves, ordain ourselves, earn our right to eat with God through the strength or length of our prayers or our ceremonies or any other religious trappings. We do not earn our place in our Father’s presence. Jesus spent his life as a frangrant offering and sacrifice for ours; as a result, our lives are spent as a fragrant offering and sacrifice for him. Our salvation is as simple as that: it is something that happens to us, that happened to us on that day when Jesus crossed over to be counted on our behalf.
So, brothers and sister, let us guard the purity of the Gospel, and let us guard the purity of our lives and our prayers. Let us not fall away into thinking that some kinds of prayers reach God more effectively than others — that is self-righteousness. Equally, let us not fall away into thinking that it does not matter what we do with our lives, that as long as we perform the right religious ceremonies we are “saved” so we can continue to sin as we please — that is licentiousness.
Instead, as the author of the Book of Hebrews concludes, through Jesus, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
And let’s eat.