Here is a biblical riddle: “When and why did the Altar of Incense in the Tabernacle move?” The answer will intrigue and encourage you.
Revelation Chapter Eight marks the start of Part Three of the book. Each part covers the period between the first and second comings of Christ, but from different perspectives and with varying levels of detail. Part Two started with the throne in Heaven with God seated on it, and Part Three also starts in the heavenly throne room.
An angel offers incense on a golden altar which stands before the throne. The resultant fragrant smoke is depicted as mingling with the prayers of the saints (Revelation 8:1-5). I wrote in a previous post about how the layout and furniture of the Tabernacle of Moses was a three-dimensional model of the multi-dimensional reality of heaven pictured here in the book of Revelation. The Golden Incense Altar was located in the Inner Court of the Tabernacle, the Holy Place, along with the Menorah and the Table of Shewbread, but here in Revelation it is pictured as standing before the throne… it seems to have moved!
Hebrews 9:2-4 contains a description of the Tabernacle that reads as follows: ‘A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant’. Now, if you read the original description of the Tabernacle that Moses constructed, (Exodus 30) you will note that the incense altar was located in the Inner Court, not the Holy of Holies. What is happening here? Is the description in Hebrews incorrect? But no, wait a minute, the Bible is inspired and trustworthy is it not? So there must be an explanation for the moving Incense Altar.
The Holy of Holies contained just once item: The golden Ark of the Covenant, a representation of the throne of God. The room next to it, the Holy Place/Inner Court contained the table, the Menorah, and the Incense Altar. A thick curtain separated the two rooms and only the High Priest was allowed past this curtain, once a year, to present the blood of the atonement sacrifice before the Ark of the Covenant. Later, Solomon built the Jerusalem Temple according to the same pattern as the Tabernacle, but Matthew records that when Jesus died on the cross, as an atonement for the sins of all humanity, ‘the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom’ (Matthew 27:51). The author of Hebrews explains this by setting out the wonderful fact that, because of what Jesus has done, we who believe, can enter into the very presence of God; he writes, ‘Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith…’ (Hebrews 10:19-22). This is why this same author describes the Golden Incense Altar as located inside the Holy of Holies before the throne of God. You see, as is clear from the contexts of both Exodus 30 and Revelation 8, this altar represents prayer and worship. There is no curtain of separation between us and God anymore, and we can therefore approach Him freely in prayer and worship! Hebrews 4:16 makes this absolutely clear when the author declares, ‘Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need’.
The Golden Incense Altar has moved because Jesus ‘rearranged the furniture’ to represent a new reality – no longer are we cut off from God by sin, but in Christ Jesus we have access to Almighty God!
In Revelation 8 the particular prayer requests of the saints receive a dramatic response… but I will write about this in my next post.