There are an abundance of ways by which God describes the glory and beauty of Christ in the Scriptures. One of the most delightful is that of a “sweet smelling aroma” (Eph. 5:2). Throughout redemptive history, there are a variety of allusions (sometimes explicit and sometimes elusive) meant to prepare us for the spiritual allurement of Christ. It will be a great benefit to our spiritual growth to gather together and focus in on all the references and allusions to the concept of fragrance as it is used spiritually in Scripture.
The first time we find a reference to fragrance in redemptive history is in the description of the anointing oil that was to be poured over everything in the Tabernacle (Exodus 30:22-33), the Temple (1 Chron. 9:29-30) and on the Priests. In Exodus 30:22-33 we read:
Moreover the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Also take for yourself quality spices—five hundredshekels of liquid myrrh, half as much sweet-smelling cinnamon (two hundred and fifty shekels), two hundred and fifty shekels of sweet-smelling cane, five hundred shekels of cassia, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, and a hin of olive oil. And you shall make from these a holy anointing oil, an ointment compounded according to the art of the perfumer. It shall be a holy anointing oil. With it you shall anoint the tabernacle of meeting and the ark of the Testimony; the table and all its utensils, the lampstand and its utensils, and the altar of incense; the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the laver and its base. You shall consecrate them, that they may be most holy; whatever touches them must be holy. And you shall anoint Aaron and his sons, and consecrate them, that they may minister to Me as priests.
And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying: ‘This shall be a holy anointing oil to Me throughout your generations. It shall not be poured on man’s flesh; nor shall you make any other like it, according to its composition. It is holy, and it shall be holy to you. Whoever compounds any like it, or whoever puts any of it on an outsider, shall be cut off from his people.’”
We must begin our investigation of the spiritual meaning of the ceremonial oil by asking the fundamental question, “Why did God command this fragrant anointing oil to be poured over the Tabernacle et al?” Since the Tabernacle and its furniture was typical of Christ and His redemptive work, it’s natural for us to conclude that this act of anointing was typological of the spiritual anointing of Christ (Ps. 45:7, Luke 3:22). It was also typical of the anointing of the people of God with the Spirit of God in the New Testament (1 John 2:20, 27). The anointing oil was a type of the Holy Spirit, who is Himself the excellency of Christ. Jonathan Edwards explained this so well when he wrote:
This holy anointing oil signified the Holy Ghost. The priests were anointed with this oil to signify Christ’s being anointed with the Holy Ghost, and the spices and fragrancy of the ointment signified the graces of the spirit of God.1
Edwards again noted:
The excellencies of Jesus Christ are often in [the Song of Songs] compared to the very same spices with which that holy oil was perfumed, and the name of Christ may most fitly [be] compared to this most precious and holy ointment that was appointed on purpose to represent that grace that he is full of and is the fountain of.
The name of Christ is compared to ointment poured forth because then it is under the greatest advantage to send forth its odors. The name of Christ filled the soul of the spouse with delight as the holy anointing oil, when poured forth, filled the sanctuary with its fragrancy.
When we survey the unfolding of redemptive history we discover a number of other biblical-theological allusions to fragrance, fragrant oil or spices. For instance in Psalm 45–one of the foremost Messianic Psalms of David–we find the symbolic reference to fragrant oils employed to represent the glory and beauty of the Messiah. We know that Psalm 45 is fulfilled in Jesus, the Messianic King, because we read of its fulfillment in Christ in Hebrews 1:8-9. At the height of the meditation the Psalmist wrote, “All Your garments are scented with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon” (Ps. 45:7). This may seem somewhat tangential until we read the same symbolism in Proverbs 7:17. An intertextual reading of the two passages leads us to safely conclude that the fragrant aroma of Christ (Ps. 45:7-8) is intentionally being contrasted with the fragrant aroma of the adulterous woman of Proverbs 7:17-18 (i.e. the personification of evil). In an article I previously wrote,* I sought to explain the connection between the two passages in the following way:
Proverbs 7 is one of the ten father-to- son talks found in the book. A father counsels his son with respect to the danger of going after the adulterous woman. Interpreters have sometimes understood this to be a warning against adultery and sometimes as a warning against evil in general. The latter interpretation is supported by the fact that, in Proverbs 8, wisdom is personified as a woman who calls out to young men, in contrast with the adulterous woman of Proverbs 7. Whether the adulterous woman of Proverbs 7 is understood to be a specific sin or evil in general makes little difference; the same warning is being sounded. There is something attractive about sin, but in the end it is deadly.
One of the striking features of this talk is that in counseling his son about the dangers of the adulterous woman, the father goes to great lengths to describe the attraction of sin. We sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that sin is not attractive. We can speak about it as if it had no power to draw our hearts after it. But the testimony of Scripture (and our own experience) is that there is a very real “pleasure” to sin, though it is a “passing pleasure.” If sin were not pleasurable, we would never run after it.
The father warns his son of the subtle way in which the woman allures a young man. He walks his son through the steps by which she seeks to draw him into her bed of sin. She dresses to attract, makes herself accessible, allures with a kiss, and even presents herself as religious (vv. 9–14). The allurement is summed up when she finally says, “I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love till morning; let us delight ourselves with love” (vv. 17–18).
While there is a very real attraction, the consequences are devastating. The father explains that the young man “does not know that it will cost him his life” (v. 23). He exhorts his sons to listen to him. He encourages them to turn away from her paths. He finally reminds them that many strong men have been slain by her; that “her house is … going down to the chambers of death” (v. 27). But is this alone enough to keep them from her?
It is likely that King Solomon wrote Proverbs 7. It may have been something his father, King David, taught him when he was a boy. Sadly, both David and Solomon fell into adulterous relationships. But there is a significant connection between the language of Proverbs 7:17 and the language of Psalm 45. Psalm 45 is a messianic psalm of David. It is a meditation on the glory and beauty of the Messiah.Hebrews 1:8–9 explicitly links it to Christ. At the height of the meditation, the psalmist writes, “All Your garments are scented with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon.” This is the exact language used inProverbs 7:17 to highlight the allurement of the adulterous woman.
Jesus Christ allures His people with His beauty. He is the only One who can draw our hearts away from sin. We avoid the pleasures of the world by turning to Jesus instead. When we are tempted to sin, we must remember that there is another who is altogether lovely. We must remember the words of Hebrews 12:1–2: “Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely … looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” When we desire Him, we will find that we have experienced the expulsive power of a new affection.3
As we move into the New Testament we discover a further development of this important biblical-theological theme. Much of this development unfolds in the Gospel narratives. In the fourth Gospel, for instance, the apostle John records various accounts in which fragrance and/or fragrant oils play symbolic roles in the Messianic ministry. When Jesus was in the home of Martha, immediately after raising Lazarus from the dead, John tells us that Mary “took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair” (John 12:2). We might be left to speculate as to the reason why this is significant had the Holy Spirit not given us a divinely inspired interpretation. In his explanation of the oil and the act of anointing Christ, John highlighted Jesus’ response to Judas–who had, with impure motives, rebuked Mary for her use of the oil. The significance of fragrant oil in redemptive history is immediately seen in Jesus’ impassioned response: “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial.”
This account is reminiscent of the Lukan record of the sinful woman who came to Jesus and washed His feet with her hair and tears (Luke 7:36-50). There, Luke tells us that she “brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil” and that she “she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil.”
A progressive development of Mary’s act emerges when we come to the burial account at the end of the Gospel. In John 19 we are told that Nicodemus came to the tomb “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds.” Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea “took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices…” It is precisely when Jesus had finished His the work of redemption (by His sin-atoning and wrath-averting death on the cross) that He was anointed with the fragrant oils. Interestingly, these where the same as some of fragrant oils mentioned in Psalm 45:7. There is also an exponential increase in the amount of oil used in the anointing–from Mary’s one pound to Nicodemus’ one hundred pounds. This may be an allusion to the fact that Jesus Christ is most alluring to sinners in His finished work. Mary’s anointing was anticipatory. Nicodemus’ was an act that accompanied fulfillment.
Returning again to the account in John 12:1-11, we soon discover a subtle yet important detail about the redemptive significance of the oil. Almost in passing, John observed that ”the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil” (John 12:3). This may have been written to highlight the breadth of the spiritually alluring fragrance of the atoning death of Jesus. Since Jesus linked Mary’s anointing of His feet with His death, it would seem natural to carry to imagery through with the reference to the house being filled with the fragrance on Jesus. The death of Jesus is of such a cosmic scale, and has spread so pervasively throughout the world, that it may justly be said that “the whole is filled with the fragrance of His saving work.”
The cosmic nature of Christ’s redemption is carried along under the figure of fragrance in another significant passage in the NT. In 2 Corinthians 2:14-16, the apostle Paul wrote:
Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?
Several important ideas surface when this text is considered. The first is that Paul understands the biblical-theological fragrance theme. Paul picks up the idea of fragrance with regard to the preaching of Christ. Here, this fragrance is “the knowledge of Christ.” In the preaching of the Gospel, the aroma is Christ is diffused. It is not merely in the work of Christ that the aroma of Christ fills the earth. It is also in the proclamation of Christ that the aroma spreads.
Paul then does something unexpected. You might expect Paul immediately to proceed to teach that the aroma of Christ is is diffused among men throughout the world; but this is not where Paul does in the first place. Rather, Paul says “we are the aroma of Christ to God.” What does Paul mean by this phrase? He insists that the ministers of the Gospel are themselves also the aroma of Christ. It is probable that Paul was intimating something similar to what he taught in Ephesians 5:2. In that passage, the sacrifice of Christ is likened to a “sweet smelling aroma” to God. In the Old Testament, the wrath of God was often portrayed under the figure of a flared nose. In fact, the word for nose and the word for anger are very similar. When the OT writers speak of God’s long-suffering they describe Him as being “long-nosed.” When a bull was angered his nostrils flared up, but when he was at peace his nostrils relaxed and he was considered to be “long-nosed.” Old Testament scholars have sometimes understood the idiomatic adjective, “long-nosed,” as a useful description of God’s mercy. Barry Horner helpfully explained:
The Hebrew, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, (arek aphayim), “long-suffering” means to be “slow to anger,” or literally to be “long of nostrils” or “long of nose” by which anger finds cooling ventilation. “Our fathers, acted arrogantly; they became stubborn and would not listen to Your commandments. They refused to listen, and did not remember Your wondrous deeds which You had performed among them; so they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But You are a God of forgiveness, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness; and You did not forsake them.” (Neh. 9:16‐ 17; cf. Ps. 86:15).4
The first time that we read of God’s long-suffering, in relation to a sacrificial offering, was when He “smelled” the sacrifice of Noah when he stepped off of the Ark:
Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled a soothing aroma. Then the Lord said in His heart, “I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done (Gen. 8:20-21).
Noah’s sacrifice was a type of the sacrifice of Christ. In the death of Christ, God’s wrath was satisfied. This is what Paul meant when he said, “Christ has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (Eph. 5:2). Since God loves the aroma of the sacrifice of Christ, He also loves having it diffused through the world. This is how Paul can say that “we are the aroma of Christ to God.” Whenever the message of Christ crucified is preached, God can figuratively be said to smell the sweet smelling aroma. The people of God are anointed with the same Spirit with which Jesus was anointed (1 John 2:20, 27) and are given the message about Him to proclaim to the nations. In this way, Christians are said to be “the aroma of Christ to God.”
Finally, Paul taught that believers are the aroma of Christ among the nations. One might think that this means that everyone who hears from believers the good news of the sacrificial death of Jesus would automatically welcome this spiritually aromatic message. But the apostle makes it clear that only those whom God is saving will love the message. It will be a “fragrance of life unto life” to them. But to those who are perishing, the message of Christ crucified and risen is a “fragrance of death unto death.”
Today, the aroma of Christ continues to spread throughout the world whenever the Gospel of His atoning death and resurrection are proclaimed. We are drawn away from sin and into the arms of the Savior when they respond in faith to the sweet smelling aroma of His grace. We ought to find the fragrance of Christ the most alluring and desirable of all. It is no wonder that the prophet Haggai called predicted that He would be “The Desire of Nations” (Haggai 2:7). God has smelt the sweet smelling aroma of Christ in His sacrificial death on the cross. We can be sure that if God’s wrath was satisfied through the sacrifice of Christ, we smell sweet smelling aroma of life in Him.
* For a fuller exposition of the link between Prov. 7:17 and Psalm 45:7 see this article.
1. Jonathan Edwards Sermons and Discourses 1720-1723 (WJE Online Vol. 10) http://edwards.yale.edu/archive?path=aHR0cDovL2Vkd2FyZHMueWFsZS5lZHUvY2dpLWJpbi9uZXdwaGlsby9nZXRvYmplY3QucGw/Yy45OjM6MjozOjQ3LndqZW8uNDQ3ODUyLjQ0Nzg2Mg==
2. Jonathan Edwards Sermons and Discourses 1720-1723 (WJE Online Vol. 10) http://edwards.yale.edu/archive?path=aHR0cDovL2Vkd2FyZHMueWFsZS5lZHUvY2dpLWJpbi9uZXdwaGlsby9nZXRvYmplY3QucGw/Yy45OjM6MjozOjQ4LndqZW8uNDUxNTM1LjQ1MTU0MC40NTE1NDMuNDUxNTUwLjQ1MTU1My40NTE1NjI=