The Use of Incense in the New Testament
by Aristobulus (Roger) Allen
Recently, a friend asked me this question: Where in the New Testament can the use of incense in worship be found? Prove to me by the authority of the New Testament that incense may be used in worship!
After our discussion, I thought I would try to answer this question a bit more completely. But before I go to the New Testament itself, let me explain briefly how Eastern Orthodox Christianity understands authority in the Church, of which the New Testament is a part.
Jesus said, "When the Spirit of Truth has come, He will guide you into all truth..." (John 16:13). Orthodoxy believes that the sole source of authority in the Church is God Himself, that is to say, the Holy Trinity. The Third Person of the Holy Trinity (the Holy Spirit) has been sent to the Church to guide us into all truth. As the Holy Spirit has taught the Church from Pentecost to the present, there have been times when His teachings were written down. These teachings of the Holy Spirit are called Holy Tradition. Within Holy Tradition there have been many authoritatively recognized expressions. One of these Spirit-inspired expressions is the Scriptures. Since Tradition preceeds Scripture, chronologically, Scripture can never be the sole source of authority and if one were to try to make it so, the Scriptures would then usurp the place of God the Holy Spirit in the Church.
The Holy Spirit has been teaching the Church for nearly 2000 years through Jesus, the Apostles (and their successors), the verbal Traditions, the Scriptures, the great Ecumenical Councils of the Church, the teachings of the Early Fathers, and of course the great Theologians throughout the centuries. Since the Holy Spirit never contradicts Himself, nothing in any of these sources of authority can contradict each other. Therefore, no council of the Church may contradict Scripture or Tradition or the Fathers. Yet, a council may (under inspiration of the Spirit) go beyond what the Scriptures say explicitly or go beyond what has been revealed in past councils of the Church or correct a past teaching of an Early Father, yet none of these may clearly contradict the other.
Since in Orthodoxy there exist these multiple sources of authority (each under the guidance of the Holy Spirit), any one of these sources would suffice for evidence that Christians may use incense (for one example) in their worship. The Church needs no direct New Testament authority for such a practice. A Church council could decide this or it could simply be an inspired Tradition. However, it is possible to demonstrate that the use of incense was common in New Testament times. Turning to the New Testament itself we find these references:
1. Matthew 2:11- The Wise Men offered Jesus at His birth three things: Gold (befitting a king), Frankincense- a type of incense common in the Middle East at that time (befitting a god), and Myrrh- a type of ointment which may be a reference to the Crucifixion or to healing. Since Moses was commanded by God to offer incense as a form of prayer and worship (Exodus 25:6, 30:1, 7-8), and since Matthew's audience was primarily Jewish Christians living in Antioch, the writer of this gospel includes the story of the Magi to show that Christ is to be worshipped as God just as the God of Moses was to be worshipped with incense. Yet, whatever one may believe about the meaning of these gifts, it is clear that at the birth of Jesus incense was offered to Him as a form of worship.
2. Luke 1:5-25- In Luke's gospel we are told the story of the birth of St. John the Forerunner (commonly referred to as John the Baptist). His father was a Jewish priest named Zacharias. This priest performed his priestly duties, as did all other Jewish priests from Moses until the time of Christ. In verses 9-11 of chapter 1, we are told that Zacharias was called upon "to burn incense in the Temple of the Lord". That he did so during the "hour of incense" (a common term for the hour of prayer) and that while he was making this offering "an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense".
Without going into any elaboration concerning these passages, suffice to say that incense was being offered to God by Jewish priests at the hour of incense or hour of prayer. We are not told which hour of prayer, but we know from the Old Testament (Psalm 55:17, Daniel 6:10) and historical records that the Jews celebrated at the least four daily offices of prayer during the time of Christ and the Apostles. These were:
A. The First Hour at 6 AM,
B. The Third Hour at 9 AM,
C. The Sixth Hour at 12 noon, and
D. The Ninth Hour at 3 PM.
3. Acts 3:1- In the book of Acts we are told the story of the healing of the lame man at the Temple through the hands of St. Peter and St. John. We are also told in the same verse that just before this happened, St. Peter and St. John were on their way "to the Temple at the Hour of Prayer" (this was the ninth hour or 3 PM). This "Hour of Prayer" is the same thing as the "Hour of Incense" spoken of in Luke 1:9-11 because incense was used at these hours just as God had commanded Moses, to show forth both prayer and worship.
Therefore, from the beginning of the Christian Faith daily times of prayer were being observed and incense was being offered at those times. It would be unthinkable to say that in a Jewish Temple of the 1st century that the Jews (including St. Peter and St. John) did not offer incense during each hour of prayer because this is what God had commanded through Moses. Now, just in case someone might say: Regardless as to whether or not this practice was going on it was an Old Testament practice not to be continued in the New Testament era. Let's take a look at how Christians are to worship.
Besides the fact that the Apostles themselves continued the practice (see Acts 10:3, 9), in the 8th and 9th chapters of Hebrews we are given a lot of information about earthly worship and heavenly worship, about the old priesthood and the new priesthood. In Hebrews 8:1 we are told that Jesus, who is our Great High Priest, sits at the right hand of the Throne of God in Heaven. We are also told that in Heaven He is a Minister of the true Tabernacle. Of this Tabernacle in Heaven at the Throne of God, Moses was given instructions as to how he should build the earthly tabernacle (Hebrews 8:5). If Moses built a place of worship on earth like the place of worship in Heaven, there must be a real place of worship in Heaven. What is that like? Furthermore, since the Church is the Temple of God (1 Peter 2:5), that is, the New Covenant earthly tabernacle, the Church's worship must also be like the worship in Heaven. It is therefore incumbent upon us to see what heavenly worship is like.
4. Revelation 4:1 through 5:14- In the 4th and 5th chapters of the book of Revelation we are given a glimpse as to what heavenly worship is like. One really should read the entirety of both chapters to get the full import of this heavenly vision. One of the things that goes on in heavenly worship is this: the 24 elders before the Throne of God "fall down before the Lamb, each having a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the Saints" (Revelation 5:8). Once more we see incense being used as a form of prayer and worship. The Lamb (who of course is Christ) is being worshipped with incense, and this incense, we are told, "are the prayers of the Saints". Therefore, incense is used in the worship of Heaven.
5. Revelation 8:3- Here we are told that an angel was given "much incense" and that the angel offered this incense "with the prayers of all the Saints upon the golden Altar, which was before the Throne". Also, "the smoke of the incense with the prayers of the Saints ascended before God from the angel's hand". If angels offer incense to God as prayer in Heaven, should not also men on earth? If worship of the Church is to be patterned after the heavenly worship, it would seem to me that we must offer incense to God as a form of prayer and worship.
Considering that Moses, the Apostles, and all Christians east and west offered incense to God as both prayer and worship until the 16th century, it seems to me that this practice should never have been abandoned by the reformationists. I could offer you hundreds of examples of the use of incense throughout church history and the Old Testament, but the question was: "Where is the use of incense found in the New Testament?" I hope that these verses I have mentioned have shed some light on the subject and have answered the question.
Of course, many other issues could be discussed with regard to Church authority. What about the use of icons in the Church or why do we celebrate seven Sacraments as divinely inspired? Although the New Testament speaks to both these issues as well, the point behind this brief article about incense was to explain the source of Christian authority. I hope that explanation is now clear. The Church receives Her authority from the Holy Spirit, and from all the Spirit-inspired sources within the Church, especially Holy Tradition and the seven Ecumenical Councils, not from the New Testament alone.