At first glance, it seems pretty innocent to use incense. Other than a possible fire danger, is burning incense really a problem for the one who has put his or her trust in Jesus Christ?
First, some history. Evidence points to the use of incense for religious purposes in ancient Egypt, China, India and the Middle East. Worshipers in Buddhist temples bow to idols while waving bundles of burning incense sticks. Incense is used to burn the scalps or arms of Buddhist monks and nuns, and the scars mark them for life. Within Hinduism, the use of incense is pervasive. The incense stick is rotated between the palms before being placed in a holder in honor of the gods.
Judaism has a long tradition of incense use, going back to the tabernacle in the wilderness. God gave instructions for constructing the altar of incense, which was set in the Holy Place in front of the veil before the Holy of Holies. Every day, a priest burned incense on the altar within the tabernacle. Exodus 30:34 describes the exact composition of this holy incense, which had a balsamic fragrance. Exodus 30:8 tells us the incense was to burn perpetually before the Lord. “Strange” incense (that which did not follow God’s recipe) was forbidden for use in worship.
Later, in the temple, about half a pound of incense was burned daily. For the Jews, incense was to be a symbol of prayer, as David says, “May my prayer be set before you like incense” (Psalm 141:2).
Incense is still used by priests within the Eastern Orthodox Church. It also finds a place in Roman Catholic tradition and even some Lutheran churches. Incense burning has seen resurgence among the emergent church movement in an effort to return to “vintage” Christianity.
Incense is also being used today among neo-pagans and Wiccans in procedures designed to release power and invoke spells. Practices vary among these groups, but Christians should have absolutely no part in them. We worship the Creator of the universe not the creation. To worship or burn incense to any person or thing other than God is to deny the Lord Jesus Christ.
Since the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ the veil between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies has been removed (Matthew 27:50-51). The Law has been fulfilled (Matthew 5:17). It is no longer necessary to burn incense to approach God, as we read in Hebrews 9:11-14.
The Christian has freedom to burn incense or not to burn incense. It is a matter of conviction. However, there are some basic questions to be asked. What is our purpose for burning incense? God knows our motives (Proverbs 21:2). If our motivation is to increase the power of our prayers or to somehow be more pleasing to God, then we are falling into the trap of legalism or mysticism. We are not told to burn incense in Scripture. Hebrews 10:19-22 says we approach God with confidence and full assurance of faith.
Another question to ask is, will my actions cause a weaker brother in Christ to stumble? Because of the link between incense and pagan religions, Christians who were saved out of paganism may struggle with using incense. Biblically, we must consider those of a weak conscience who may construe our use of incense as an approval of idolatrous practices (see Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 10:23-33). We are “called to be free,” but we must use our freedom to “serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13).