Lighting candles and burning incense have long been part of religious rituals and worship. In the Bible, both candles and incense are mentioned frequently, especially in relation to the tabernacle and temple worship. For Christians today, especially those from Evangelical and Charismatic traditions, understanding the biblical significance of candles and incense can bring new depth to our worship and walk with God.
- Candles and lampstands were part of the furnishings in the tabernacle and temple, symbolizing God’s presence and the light of His truth.
- Incense was burned daily on the incense altar in the tabernacle and temple, representing the prayers and intercession of the people rising to God.
- Jesus is depicted as the lampstand in Revelation, the source of light and truth for His church.
- Believers in Revelation present incense bowls of prayer before the throne of God.
- Candles remind us that Jesus is the light of the world; incense reminds us to offer prayers and intercession.
- The holy anointing oil was specially formulated and used to consecrate people and objects in temple worship.
- Practices like lighting candles and burning incense can aid worship when done with reverence and sound doctrine.
Candles and Lampstands in the Tabernacle and Temple
In the detailed instructions for constructing the tabernacle in Exodus 25-30, Moses was commanded to make a seven-branch golden lampstand, hammered out of pure gold, to be placed in the Holy Place outside the veil covering the Most Holy Place (Ex. 25:31-40). The lampstand was to be kept burning continually with pure olive oil (Ex. 27:20-21). This golden lampstand was thus a key furnishing in the Holy Place of the tabernacle, providing illumination for the priests to carry out their daily duties. The lamps were to be tended daily so that they never went out.
When Solomon later constructed the temple in Jerusalem as a more permanent House of God, he made ten golden lampstands according to the pattern of the original tabernacle lampstand (1 Kings 7:49; 2 Chr. 4:7). The ten lampstands were placed five on each side of the Holy Place. Though more ornate, the temple lampstands served the same purpose of illuminating the Holy Place continually through burning olive oil.
The lampstands in both the tabernacle and temple symbolized the light of God’s presence, holiness, and revelation. As David declared, “the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor; no good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, blessed is the man who trusts in You!” (Ps. 84:11-12). Into the sinful darkness of humanity, God brought the light of His presence.
The Incense Altar and Offering Incense
In addition to the lampstand, another important furnishing in the Holy Place was the altar of incense (Ex. 30:1-10). This was a small golden altar, placed in front of the veil screening the Ark of the Covenant, on which sweet incense was burned morning and evening when the lamps were tended. Like the lampstand, incense was to be burned perpetually according to God’s instructions.
A special formula of incense was made from sweet spices – stacte, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense – and this was only to be used in the tabernacle for consecrated purposes (Ex. 30:34-38). No unauthorized incense was permitted.
The burning of incense represented the prayers and intercession of the priests and people rising up to God. David spoke of his prayer as being “set before you as incense” (Ps 141:2). In times of divine judgment against Israel, the lack of prayer was equated with failing to burn incense (Isa. 43:22-24; 64:6-7). But when God’s people did pray and seek His face, it pleased Him like sweet incense.
In the New Testament, the imagery of incense corresponding to prayer continued. In Luke 1, Zechariah was burning incense and the people were praying when the angel Gabriel appeared to announce John’s miraculous birth (Luke 1:8-13). Revelation 5:8 depicts the “golden bowls full of incense” in heaven as “the prayers of the saints.” Heartfelt, persistent prayer is likened to wafts of incense arising to the very throne of God.
Jesus as the Lampstand and Light of the World
While the lampstand in the earthly tabernacle only gave light to the Holy Place, Jesus came as the true divine light that illuminates the entire world. John says explicitly, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men….That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:4, 9).
Jesus proclaimed this truth about Himself, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12). When John later saw a vision of the ascended Christ walking among His church, he described Christ as a “seven golden lampstands” (Rev. 1:12-13), corresponding to the seven-branched lampstand in the tabernacle.
Christ is the complete fulfillment of what the temple lampstand represented: the light of salvation, truth, and revelation that overcomes the darkness. What the golden temple lampstand merely pictured, Christ embodied as the divine Light of the World.
Incense Imagery in Revelation
The incense altar also finds rich imagery in the book of Revelation. At the heavenly throne John saw “the golden altar which was before the throne” (Rev. 8:3) – likely corresponding to the incense altar before the Ark of the Covenant in the earthly temple.
In Revelation 5:8, the ascended “elders” (possibly representing the church) hold “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” This demonstrates that the imagery of incense as prayer continues in heaven. The saints in glory offer up bowls full of incense before God’s throne, picturing reverent prayer and worship.
Later in Revelation 8:3-4, an angel stands at the heavenly golden incense altar and is given “much incense” to offer “with the prayers of all the saints.” The incense smoke ascends up to God, showing how the earnest prayers of His people are pleasing to Him.
Practical Applications for Believers
For Christians today, especially those from Evangelical and Charismatic traditions who hold to the authority of Scripture, the biblical imagery of candles and incense contains valuable significance.
Candles Remind Us of Christ’s Light
Though we no longer need physical lampstands and candles to illuminate temple worship, the candle can still serve as a vivid symbol for us. It can remind us that Jesus is “the light of the world,” the one who brings God’s truth and revelation to dispel sin’s darkness (John 1:4-9).
Lighting a candle in worship can remind us to focus on Christ’s light and illuminate any darkness in our hearts. We are called to shine forth Christ’s light in a dark culture (Matt. 5:14-16). The candles we light can symbolize our identity as lights bearing Christ’s truth to the world.
Incense Reminds Us to Pray
In the same way, burning incense can remind Believers of the importance of prayer and intercession. The fragrant smoke rising heavenward visualizes our prayers ascending to God’s throne, pleasing to Him. Incense serves as a physical aid to prompt us toward repentance, reverent worship, and earnest prayer. Christ intercedes for us as our High Priest, while the Spirit intercedes through us (Romans 8:26-27, 34). Burning incense represents joining our prayers to Christ’s.
Anointing Oil Consecrates Objects and People
In addition to the lampstand and incense altar, the Old Testament temple utilized anointing oil for consecrating people, the tabernacle furnishings, and the priests (Exodus 30:22-33). This specially formulated oil was to be treated as holy and only used for consecrated purposes. New Testament believers are also consecrated as priests through Christ (1 Peter 2:9). While we are not commanded to use special anointing oil today, the symbolism reminds us that God has set apart His people and objects dedicated to His service.
Practiced with Wisdom and Sound Doctrine
The key for believers incorporating practices like lighting candles or burning incense is doing so according to sound doctrine, and with the right heart motivation of worshipping Christ in reverence, not using physical objects as charms or amulets. We must be wary of any superstitious or unbiblical views about the intrinsic power of physical objects like candles or oils. All their significance must point to biblical truths about Christ, prayer, and the spiritual realm. When practiced carefully according to Scripture, lighting candles and burning incense can serve as visual aids to enrich our worship and prayer.
Candles and incense held rich imagery in the Old Testament tabernacle and temple as God met with His people, showing His light and presence. This established backdrop helps us better understand the symbolism when candles and incense reappear in the New Testament.
Jesus is the complete fulfillment of the lampstand as the divine Light of the World, and His intercession corresponds to the incense offered on the altar. Candles can remind us of Christ’s light, while incense reminds us to offer our prayers and worship. When grounded firmly in Scripture, lighting candles and offering incense in worship can deepen our awe and adoration for Jesus Christ Himself. But the physical objects only have value when they direct us to spiritual truths concerning the Lord. May we light candles and burn incense with discernment, remembering that worship is all about Jesus.