Why Russian Christians Use Incense in Church (Hint: It's in the Bible)

"Our prayers ascend to God with the smoke of incense. The Old Testament prophesied this, and the New Testament reveals this with fulfillment in Christ. Orthodox worship involves the entire human person, including all five of one’s senses"

Throughout the Scriptures we see both the inward and outward aspects of worship offered to God as being in unity with one another. For example, Scripture tells us to lift both our “hands” and our “hearts” to God (Lam. 3:41). The hands are outward, and the heart is inward. God is glorified by both, and he commands us to worship him with both. We rightfully advocate both the lifting of our hearts and the lifting of our hands to God, as they are complimentary to one another.

Incense and prayer work the same way. They are two sides to the same coin, so to speak:

Let my prayer arise in Thy sight as incense. And let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice. —Psalm 141:2

In the New Testament scriptures, Jesus teaches us to pray the Lord’s Prayer. In that prayer, we say, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” God wants to be worshiped on earth in the same way he is worshiped in heaven. Heavenly worship includes incense, in both the Old Testament (e.g. Isa. 6) and the New (e.g. Rev. 8). If heavenly worship includes liturgy, robes, and incense, then earthly worship should also include the same, should it not?

The scriptures are filled with references to incense in the context of worshipping God. For example:

  • Exodus 25,30,31,35,37,39,40
  • Leviticus 4,16
  • Numbers 4,7,16
  • Deuteronomy 33
  • 1 Samuel (1 Kingdoms/Reigns LXX) 2
  • 1 Chronicles 6,9,23
  • 2 Chronicles 2,13,26,29
  • Psalm 141
  • Isaiah 60
  • Jeremiah 17,41
  • Malachi 1
  • Luke 1
  • Revelation 5,8

When considering all of these scriptures as a whole, one can understand that God is pleased with the use of incense in the context of our worship.

One of my favorite references to worship utilizing incense is found in Malachi 1:11. This prophesies of the age of the new covenant, when God expands his blessings to the “Gentiles” or the world at large (in other words, the age of the Church):

For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, my name shall be great among the Gentiles; in every place incense shall be offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name shall be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts.

And here is another helpful selection from the New Testament (Rev. 8:2-4):

And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.

Our prayers ascend to God with the smoke of incense. The Old Testament prophesied this, and the New Testament reveals this with fulfillment in Christ. As a result, incense is fitting for the worship of God in both heaven and on earth.

Orthodox worship involves the entire human person, including all five of one’s senses. With the chanting and preaching, you hear the Gospel. With the icons, you see the Gospel. With the prostrations and/or kneeling, you feel the Gospel. With the incense, you smell the Gospel. And when you partake of the Eucharist, you “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).

— Fr. Joseph Gleason
Rostov the Great, Russia

Find out why my family and I moved to Russia . . .

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