Freshly-ground coffee brewing in the early morning hours produces a powerful aroma, and I love it. The scent reminds me of childhood, my parents sitting at our kitchen table, leisurely sipping their cup o’ joe, sweetened with sugar and a splash of milk. Content and at ease before their busy day began.
But it’s not just the aroma that I love; it’s everything that I associate with it: contentment, nostalgia, memories. How this particular aroma stirs me is beyond explanation. It runs deep.
It occurred to me that this must be how God feels when our godliness ascends to him. Pleased beyond explanation — a delightful aroma which he could breathe in all day long. In fact, all throughout the Bible, certain scents seem to hold specific meanings for God. While some delight him, others, unfortunately, cause him to recoil.
The Aroma of Our Prayers
In the Old Testament, God commanded the priests of Israel to continually burn aromatic incense — made from a blend of five exotic spices — on the golden altar inside the Holy of Holies. But, like my coffee, it wasn’t simply the fragrance itself that pleased God, but what it represented: the constant prayers of his people.
In fact, the incense, associated with the people’s prayers, was so pure and sacredly sweet to God that any deviation from what God had explicitly commanded was met with swift death, as Nadab and Abihu found out (Leviticus 10:1–2).
Just as God prescribed a specific recipe for the incense, he also prescribes specific prayers for believers today — prayers of:
- Thanksgiving (1 Timothy 2:1)
- Forgiveness (1 John 1:9)
- Intercession (1 Timothy 2:1)
- Praise and adoration (Psalm 148:1–14)
- Utter dependence (Matthew 7:7)
- Seeking wisdom (James 1:5)
- Petitions and supplications (1 Timothy 2:1; Philippians 4:6)
- Seeking peace (Philippians 4:6–7)
- Salvation (Romans 10:9–10)
These particular prayers, in fact, are so pleasant and precious to God that he lovingly collects them in “golden bowls” in heaven (Revelation 5:8). By keeping them close, he can continually enjoy their blessed bouquet.
The Aroma of Our Repentance
In addition to burning incense, Israel was also required to sacrifice certain types of animals to atone for their sins. But, again, it wasn’t the aroma from the sacrifices that pleased God as much as what it represented: repentance, clean souls, changed lives (Leviticus 1:9, 13; 2:2; 23:18). If performed properly, these sacrifices were “a pleasing aroma to the Lord” (Numbers 15:3).
Over time, however, Israel became careless with their sacrifices, for which God sternly rebuked them. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams. . . . Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me” (Isaiah 1:11, 13).
The principle is the same for today’s believers. God doesn’t want “vain” confessions — mere remorse — but genuine repentance that comes from truly humble and contrite hearts (Psalm 51:17).
Martin Luther famously wrote in the first of his ninety-five theses, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Repentance is not peripheral to a life of worship. It’s at the very heart, which is why God sees repentance as especially fragrant.
The Aroma of Our Witness
In 2 Corinthians 2:14–16, the apostle Paul charges Christians to spread “the fragrance of the knowledge of [Jesus Christ] everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.”
The knowledge that we proclaim is that Jesus Christ was crucified for the sins of mankind, and all who repent and appropriate his sacrificial death on the cross through faith will be saved by God’s grace (Ephesians 2:8–9). We are witnesses of the knowledge that Jesus died to bring us to God forever, for our greatest joy (1 Peter 3:18).
But, unfortunately, not everyone likes the scent of this truth, even when it’s spoken “with gentleness and respect,” as it always ought to be (1 Peter 3:15). While our witness always spreads the fragrance of Christ, it’s not always received the same by its hearers. To those who are being saved, it is the lovely perfume of life everlasting; but to those who are perishing, it’s the sour stench of death eternal.
Regardless of recipients’ reactions, however, our testimonies produce a powerful fragrance which God delights in, for truth always smells good to God. Nothing pleases him more than to see his Son glorified in the courageous testimonies of those he came to save. And if the Lord is pleased with us, “what can man do?” (Hebrews 13:6).
The Aroma of Our Love
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The greatest act of love ever performed was when Jesus voluntarily offered up his life for the sins of his people, suffering untold emotional, spiritual, and physical pain on a Roman cross.
“It was the will of the Lord to crush him” (Isaiah 53:10), but Christ gave up his life willingly (John 10:18); and in being crushed, Christ’s loving sacrifice gave off the sweetest, most sacred of fragrances (Ephesians 5:2), for Christ’s death is able to “make many to be accounted righteous” (Isaiah 53:11).
As Christ-followers, we are called to give no less (Ephesians 5:2) — not that we are called to die for others’ sins. But we are called to demonstrate Christ’s suffering and sacrifice through our own emotional, spiritual, and even physical sufferings on behalf of others, however that may look in our daily lives (Colossians 1:24).
It is when we are expressing Christ in this way that we too become a fragrant offering to God. And that, indeed, is an aroma which he could breathe in all day long.