When I was studying for this sermon, I found it very interesting the emphasis put on the sense of smell in Scripture. When we think of the most important senses, we may think of something like sight or hearing. In fact, if you had to give up one of your five senses, it might just be the sense of smell, or maybe the sense of taste. Try to imagine losing your sight for just a day or becoming temporarily deaf. That would be a hugely traumatic experience. Losing the sense of feeling would probably be a little more common and a little less traumatic, but it is always an indicator that something is seriously wrong.
The sense of smell on the other hand is entirely different. Just about every time we catch a cold or experience some seasonal allergies, it seems that we lose our sense of smell. Unlike all the other senses, when we lose our sense of smell, we don’t panic, worried about what has gone terribly wrong. We may miss the ability to smell our food or some flowers or something, but it is not devastating.
Considering how relatively unimportant we consider smell, it’s surprising how much emphasis the Bible puts on the sense of smell. For example, in speaking about idols, God says, “idols made from wood and stone, gods that neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell” (Deut. 4:28). And all throughout the law and the whole Old Testament we see examples of the sense of smell, often referring to a sacrifice.
Luke7:36-38, 47 7:36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to come to his home for a meal, so Jesus accepted the invitation and sat down to eat. 37 A certain immoral woman heard he was there and brought a beautiful jar filled with expensive perfume. 38 then she knelt behind him at his feet, weeping. Her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them off with her hair. Then she kept kissing his feet and putting perfume on them. 47 I tell you, her sins – and they are many – have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love.
Jesus says that because of her great love for him she has performed this great act of worship for him. And in fact, Christ has also forgiven our many sins. Because of this we also have a great love for him, and hopefully we too want to express our love for him. While we can’t fill the house with a physical aroma like this woman did. Often the spiritual state of a person or a group of people in Scripture is referred to with reference to the sense of smell. We can express our love for Christ by offering up a spiritual sweet aroma to Christ. In fact, our entire lives can be a sweet aroma to God.
There are three different ways in which can be either a sweet aroma to God or a stench in his nostrils.
I. The first way we can be a sweet aroma to God is repentance and cleansing from sin..
A. Unholiness is a stench in the nostrils of God.
Genesis 19:13 For we will destroy the city completely. The stench of the place has reached the LORD, and he has sent us to destroy it."
Here the angel is speaking to Lot about the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah. And he speaks of this evil as a stench rising to God. Think about walking into a garbage dump and just taking a big whiff of all the decaying rubbish. That is what moral decay is like to God. It is an offensive, foul odor to him.
B. Genuine Repentance is a sweet fragrance in the nostrils of God.
In his complaint against the Israelites in the days of Isaiah, God contrasts their sin with a fragrant incense. He says that they have burdened him with sin instead of bringing him this fragrant incense.
Isaiah 43:24 You have not brought me fragrant incense or pleased me with the fat from sacrifices. Instead, you have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your faults.
Obviously, if they are sinning, then what they are lacking is holiness. Specifically, God had put in place a system of cleansing from sin. That system called for the burning of incense and the sacrificing of animals. These were referred to as a sweet fragrance in the nostrils of God.
Exodus 29:41-43, 41 Offer the other lamb in the evening, along with the same offerings of flour and wine as in the morning. It will be a fragrant offering to the LORD, an offering made by fire. 42 "This is to be a daily burnt offering given from generation to generation. Offer it in the LORD’s presence at the Tabernacle entrance, where I will meet you and speak with you. 43 I will meet the people of Israel there, and the Tabernacle will be sanctified by my glorious presence.
Every day, the activities of life would bring impurity to Temple. So every day they had to purify the Temple once again from its impurities by making a sacrifice. Remember that sin is a stench in the nostrils of God. God stays away from where there is sin, just like we stay away from the garbage dump. Therefore when the Temple becomes impure, God’s presence is driven away. But he made the provision for cleansing. This cleansing restores a sweet fragrance to the air. This cleansing eliminates the stench that would keep God away, so He is able to come back and fellowship with them again.
1 Cor. 6:19 Or don’t you know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God?
According to the Bible, we are the Temple of God. His presence comes and dwells with us in the Person of the Holy Spirit. But when we sin, that creates a stench in God’s nostrils. Surely, every time we commit a sin, we don’t lose our salvation. So then, one may ask, why do we need to repent of our sin if our salvation doesn’t depend on it. Well, the whole purpose of salvation is to restore our relationship and fellowship with God. When we sin, our lives are an offensive odor to God, so He cannot remain to fellowship with us. When the Temple became offensive in the Old Testament it had to be cleansed by sacrifice. However, when we sin, we don’t need another sacrifice, because Hebrews 9:27 says of Jesus as our high priest:
Hebrews 7:27 -He does not need to offer sacrifices every day like the other high priests. They did this for their own sins first and then for the sins of the people. But Jesus did this once for all when he sacrificed himself on the cross.
However, when we want to experience the presence of God, we must create a sweet aroma of holiness for God. Instead of sacrificing all over again, we must merely apply that sacrifice to our sins by confessing them.
1 John 1:9 But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong.
True repentance of sin is indeed a sweet aroma of holiness to God. It’s like the smell of rain in a fresh Spring garden. It’s the type of fragrance that invites the presence of a Holy God with a keen sense of smell, who cannot stand the stench of unrighteousness.
II. The second way we can be a sweet aroma to God is through a pure heart.
A. While we’re talking about holiness, let’s talk a little bit about what holiness is not. When I was a kid, we went to a church that would call themselves a holiness church. Women didn’t wear makeup or pants. Men didn’t wear shorts. We didn’t go to movies. We didn’t even have television sets. In fact, I could talk for quite some time about the types of things that we could not do. I can’t speak for the rest of the members of the church, and I was only a child, but I know that I looked down on those who were not as “righteous” as I was. When I saw a woman wearing makeup, I thought she was going to Hell. While, God is very much interested in holiness, this sort of self-righteousness is another stench in his nostrils.
Isaiah 65:2 "I opened my arms to my own people all day long, but they have rebelled. They follow their own evil paths and thoughts. 3 All day long they insult me to my face by worshiping idols in their sacred gardens. They burn incense on the rooftops of their homes. 4 At night they go out among the graves and secret places to worship evil spirits. They also eat pork and other forbidden foods. 5 Yet they say to each other, ’Don’t come too close or you will defile me! I am holier than you!’ They are a stench in my nostrils, an acrid smell that never goes away.
God especially finds hypocrisy to be an offensive odor. Those who are so careful to be pure and clean on the outside, but inside they are just as evil as everyone else, are so much more offensive to God than those who are evil on the inside and act evil on the outside.
In fact, it is not only God who finds hypocrisy offensive. If you’ve ever tried to evangelize people, I know that you’ve run into the same excuses that I have. And the number one hindrance to the Christian faith is “Christians.” What I’m talking about is people who claim to be Christians, which means followers of Christ, but they are nothing like the Christ they claim to follow. In fact, Gandhi once said, “I like their Christ. It’s their Christians I don’t like.” This kind of hypocrisy is not only a stench to God, but it is a stench to mankind too. This is a foul odor that drives people away from Christ.
B. There is nothing we can do about other believers who do not live out their faith. There is nothing we can do about those who claim to be Christians but are not really regenerate. But there is one thing that we can do to help solve this problem. We ourselves can resolve to be holy, not on the outside as a show for everyone else, but we can resolve to allow the Holy Spirit to change our hearts and conform us to the image of God. You see, just as the hypocrisy of some believers is a foul odor that drives people away, when we live out our faith, it is a sweet aroma to the world, that can attract them to the Gospel.
2 Cor. 2:14 But thanks be to God, who made us his captives and leads us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now wherever we go he uses us to tell others about the Lord and to spread the Good News like a sweet perfume. 15 Our lives are a fragrance presented by Christ to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those being saved and by those perishing. 16 To those who are perishing we are a fearful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved we are a life-giving perfume. And who is adequate for such a task as this?
When we live out of lives consistently with Biblical righteousness, we are not parading about like the Pharisee’s did, showing our righteousness. Instead we are a part of God’s parade. A display, not of our own goodness, but of the power of God’s grace. We are in a procession, not of our own triumph, but a procession of the triumph of God. When we do this, we are spreading the Gospel like a sweet smelling perfume. Just like the smell of cooking, this perfume attracts people to the Gospel. Instead of our self-righteousness driving people away, because they can see right through it, our Righteousness-in-Him attracts people to the Gospel.
This verse does speak of this fragrance being a “fearful smell of death and doom” to those who are perishing. So it would seem that this is actually an offensive odor to these people. However, when the Bible talks about an offensive odor, it calls it just that, a stench. Instead, the verse says that this is a matter of perception. Those who are perishing, perceive the sweet perfume as a fearful smell of death and doom, but regardless of how they perceive it, for all of them, it is a sweet perfume. And I would propose that sometimes those who are perishing need a good whiff of holy fear. When they see a hypocrite, it is just a stink to them, because they know that the hypocrite is really as evil as they are. However, when they see someone who is living out genuine holiness, it is unpleasant for them, but for a different reason. It is unpleasant, because that know that it is genuine. And if it is genuine, then they know that it may apply to them too.
So, the way we live, in holiness, but not a superficial holiness, or a self-righteousness, but the righteousness of Christ in us, is a sweet smelling fragrance, both to God and to other men.
III. The third way we can be a sweet aroma to God is through a worthy sacrifice.
A. Useless ritual is a stench in the nostrils of God.
Isaiah 1:10-15 10 Listen to the LORD, you leaders of Israel! Listen to the law of our God, people of Israel. You act just like the rulers and people of Sodom and Gomorrah. 11 "I am sick of your sacrifices," says the LORD. "Don’t bring me any more burnt offerings! I don’t want the fat from your rams or other animals. I don’t want to see the blood from your offerings of bulls and rams and goats. 12 Why do you keep parading through my courts with your worthless sacrifices? 13 The incense you bring me is a stench in my nostrils! Your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath day, and your special days for fasting – even your most pious meetings – are all sinful and false. I want nothing more to do with them. 14 I hate all your festivals and sacrifices. I cannot stand the sight of them! 15 From now on, when you lift up your hands in prayer, I will refuse to look. Even though you offer many prayers, I will not listen. For your hands are covered with the blood of your innocent victims.
Remember that Exodus 29:41-43 said that the sacrifice rising to God was a fragrant offering to the Lord. Here they are doing just that. They are offering the sacrifices to God. But instead of being a fragrant offering to Him, they are a stench. Obviously, it is not that the animals they are sacrificing smell differently now. There is something much deeper here. God says that they are just like the rulers of Sodom & Gomorrah. And remember that God had already said that Sodom & Gomorrah was a stench. The condition of their heart was what stank to God. It wasn’t the actual sacrifice itself that had brought the sweet smelling savor to God, but it was the repentance and the cleansing that accompanied such a sacrifice. But their hearts were not in the sacrifice. They were sacrificing, and all the while they were performing wicked acts. God says that their hands were covered with the blood of their innocent victims. Here they were involved in murderous crimes and they had the audacity to come before the Lord with all kinds of festive sacrifices as if everything were okay. They were just going through the motions. They thought that as long as they kept the ritual of the Law they could do anything they wanted. But this ritualistic keeping of the Law with no change of heart was a stench in the nostrils of God.
I would propose that God is equally disturbed when we do the same thing. While it is important to have Christian discipline and do such things as reading the Bible, praying, and attending church, it is not following those rituals that saves us. If we are only doing these things because they are required, then we do them, we are a stench in the nostrils of God. When we come together to worship, our worship rises as a sweet aroma to God’s throne, but if we’re only here because we’re keeping the ritual, then the same worship rises as a stench. You can go through all the motions. You can raise your hands at just the right time. You can say “Amen” to all the good points. You can pay your tithe faithfully. You can give generous offerings to the Lord’s work. You can pray for hours every day. You can read the Bible over and over again. All of these things are GREAT things to do. But if you do all these things, and there is no change in your heart, then it is worthless. It rises as a stench to the nostrils of God.
Rev. 3:1,2 1 "Write this letter to the angel of F8 the church in Sardis. This is the message from the one who has the sevenfold Spirit F9 of God and the seven stars: "I know all the things you do, and that you have a reputation for being alive – but you are dead. 2 Now wake up! Strengthen what little remains, for even what is left is at the point of death. Your deeds are far from right in the sight of God.
G. R. Beasley-Murray said, “Observers of this fellowship see all the signs of a prosperous community: you have the name of being alive. But the appearance is that of a beautifully adorned corpse in a funeral-parlour, and the Lord is not deceived.”
When you take a corpse and put all kinds of makeup and fancy clothes on it, what do you end up with? A beautiful corpse. If you take a wicked heart and add to it all kinds of good rituals, you end up with nothing but a bunch of stinky ritual.
B. Genuine sacrifice is a sweet smelling savor to God.
Psalm 51:16-17 16 You would not be pleased with sacrifices, or I would bring them. If I brought you a burnt offering, you would not accept it. 17 The sacrifice you want is a broken spirit. A broken and repentant heart, O God, you will not despise.
God is not interested in adding ritualistic sacrifice to a rebellious and wicked heart. Instead, God wants the heart to be repentant. When the heart is repentant, when the heart is right with God, that is the sacrifice that rises to God as a sweet smelling savor. It’s not the scent of the animal being sacrificed that rises to God, but it is the repentant heart that sacrifices the animal. It is the heart that is the sweet smelling sacrifice. Then all of the actions that are added, and done for the right motives, also become sweet smelling savors to God. When your heart is right, reading the Bible, praying, public worship, giving in offerings, all of those things become sweet smelling savors to God.
Romans 12:1-2 1 And so, dear brothers and sisters, F77 I plead with you to give your bodies to God. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice – the kind he will accept. When you think of what he has done for you, is this too much to ask? 2 Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will know what God wants you to do, and you will know how good and pleasing and perfect his will really is.
God is not interested in ritual. God is not interested in what you do. God is interested in you. He doesn’t want your actions. He wants you to offer yourself as a sacrifice to Him. He wants you to give yourself to living a holy life. This self-sacrifice will rise as a sweet smelling savor to God. Only then, can all of the activities you engage in also rise as sweet smelling savors. Until your entire life is an act of worship, rising to God’s throne.