I adore the strong scent that freshly ground coffee generates when it brews in the early morning. The smell takes me back to my early years, when my parents sat at our kitchen table enjoying their slow-brewed coffee, sweetened with sugar and a dash of milk. Happy and relaxed before their hectic day started.

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But I adore more than just the scent; I also enjoy all that it makes me think of, including memories, serenity, and nostalgia. I cannot quite put into words how this specific perfume moves me. It is profound.

I realized that this must be God’s reaction when our holiness reaches him. Exceedingly happy — a pleasant scent he could inhale throughout the day. In fact, God seems to associate particular smells with particular meanings throughout the Bible. Some excite him, but regrettably, others make him shudder.

The Scent of Our Intercession

God gave the Israelite priests instructions in the Old Testament to burn fragrant incense, which is composed of a mixture of five exotic spices, on the golden altar within the Holy of Holies at all times. Like my coffee, though, God was pleased not by the scent per se but by what it signified—the unceasing prayers of his people.

As Nadab and Abihu discovered, incense, which was connected to the people’s prayers, was actually so pure and sacredly fragrant to God that any departure from what God had expressly commanded was greeted with instant death.

The Fragrance of Our Apology

Israel was obligated to offer specific kinds of animals as sacrifices in addition to incense in order to atone for their transgressions. Again, though, God was more delighted by the offerings’ symbolism of repentance, pure souls, and transformed lives than by their scent. These sacrifices provided “a pleasing aroma to the Lord” when carried out correctly.

But over time, Israel started to handle their sacrifices carelessly, and God severely chastised them for it. “I’m done with burning offerings of rams….” I find incense to be an obscenity; bring no more meaningless sacrifices.

For believers in the present, the idea remains the same. God is looking for sincere repentance that comes from really humble and contrite hearts, not “vain” confessions or simple regret.

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance,” as Martin Luther notably stated in the first of his ninety-five theses. A life of worship does not require repentance on the side. Because it’s fundamental, God finds repentance to be particularly fragrant.

The Scent of Our Eyewitness

Christians are tasked by the apostle Paul with dispersing “the fragrance of the knowledge of [Jesus Christ] everywhere.” Because among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, we are the aroma of Christ to God; to one, we are a fragrance from death to death, and to the other, from life to life.

We declare that everyone who believes in Jesus Christ and accepts his atoning death on the cross will be saved by God’s grace. Jesus Christ was killed in order to atone for humankind’s sins. We bear testimony to the fact that Jesus died in order to fulfill our deepest desire—to be reconciled with God permanently.

Unfortunately, even when this truth is expressed “with gentleness and respect,” as it always should be, not everyone enjoys the fragrance of it. Even while our testimony constantly spreads the aroma of Christ, listeners don’t always respond to it in the same manner. It is the sweet scent of life eternally to those who are being saved, but it is the bitter smell of death forever to those who are perishing.

But regardless matter how the listeners respond, our testimonies create a potent aroma that God loves because God always finds the truth to be pleasing. He is most pleased when he sees his Son exalted in the valiant accounts of those he came to save. “What can man do?” if the Lord is happy with us.

The Scent of Our Love

“No one has ever shown greater love than this: giving his life in order to save his friends.” When Jesus willingly gave his life on a Roman crucified to atone for the sins of his people, enduring immense mental, spiritual, and bodily anguish, it was the greatest act of love ever displayed.

“The Lord intended for him to be crushed,” yet Christ freely gave up his life. In the process of being crushed, his selfless offering released the most fragrant and revered aroma, as his death had the power to “make many to be accounted righteous.”

We are expected to give as followers of Christ, not to die in order to atone for the crimes of others. However that may appear in our day-to-day lives, we are required to bear witness to Christ’s suffering and sacrifice by offering our own bodily, mental, and even emotional pain for the sake of others.

We also become a fragrant sacrifice to God when we live out Christ in this way. He could inhale that scent continuously throughout the day.