Love, and the Sacred Fire
Robert Wurtz II
Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. (Ephesians 5:1–2 NKJV)
Our passage is one of many examples of Paul explaining some mysteries of the OT priesthood (temple cultus). A “sweet-smelling aroma” concept is introduced in Genesis 8:21 when Noah offered from his flocks a burnt offering. It is taken up again in Exodus 29, Leviticus chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 17, 23, 26, etc. In Exodus and Leviticus, the priests performed the burnt offerings with the sacred fire that God kindled from heaven. This fire was to be used exclusively for the lampstand, altar of incense, brazen altar, and the preparation of the shewbread.
What was God teaching us in the Old Testament, and how does that relate to Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:1-2? The context deals with our responsibility to imitate the kind of love that God expresses. That love, in one sense, is the antitype of the sacred fire that the priests were commanded to use in the OT. When the sacrifices were offered using the sacred fire, they were a sweet-smelling aroma to God. When Jesus offered Himself for our sins, His offering was also a sweet-smelling aroma to God. Why? Because He presented His offering with the sacred fire of the love of God. It is this reality that we are to imitate.
You will recall that Nadab and Abihu decided to offer common fire to the LORD and were struck dead. It is believed that they were intoxicated because immediately afterward, the priests were issued prohibitions concerning intoxicating drinks (Lev. 10:9). Likewise, Paul adds later in Ephesians chapter 5, “Do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18 NKJV). Not only does alcohol alter our judgment, but it also tends to ungodly lust rather than godly love.
Two other occasions come to mind as it relates to offerings as Christians. First, in Romans 12:1-2, we are called to present our bodies as living sacrifices — holy and acceptable unto the Lord. This is a picture of a living burnt offering. The love of God is shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5), and thus we are enabled to offer ourselves to God as a sweet aroma. All that we do, motivated and energized by the love of God, produces an acceptable offering to the Lord. Any other motivation or energy source (as it were) is as strange fire to the Lord. It is simply not acceptable to Him.
Secondly, we have in Philippians:
Indeed I have all and abound. I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. (Philippians 4:18 NKJV)
Here we have an example of an offering being given to Paul out of love. How do we know? Because it was a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. This agrees with Paul’s words to the Corinthians on love, revealing the necessity of love in all that we do. What does it matter if we gave ALL of our goods to the poor if we did not offer them in love? So on and so forth.
In Revelation Chapter 2, we have the Ephesians in a state where they had left their first love. Jesus informed them that unless they returned to their first love, He would remove their lampstand. Why? Because godly love is (in one sense) the antitype of the sacred fire of God. When the fire goes out — the ministry cannot go forward. What use is a lampstand in a darkened room once the flame is extinguished? It’s just one more thing to stumble over in the darkness. So it is with a Christian and a Church. No matter what we do — if we are devoid of God’s love — we are nothing.
So we see then that the key to presenting God with an acceptable offering is to do so in the love of God. That love — that fire — must be the energy source and motivation behind everything we do in ministry. When it is present, our labors and offerings are a sweet-smelling aroma unto Him. This is a major key to acceptable ministry.