Skip to main content

A sweet smelling lesson idea

Memories created and triggered by smells are some of the deepest and most quickly recalled memories in the human brain, so any opportunity to incorporate smells in our lessons is a great teaching opportunity.

I originally taught his story in worship as a Children Sermon where I invited the kids to stand around the Communion Table as I lit some frankincense sticks. That's a good place for this lesson because that's where and what Zechariah was doing when the angel Gabriel appeared to him with an important announcement! It could easily be adapted for classroom use.

Zechariah was a Temple priest described by Luke 1 as the husband of Elizabeth and the eventual father of John the Baptist. His job was to tend the Altar of Incense inside the Temple. The priests taught that the smoke from the altar made the prayers of the people RISE TO GOD. And one of their most fervent prayers was for the coming of the Messiah.

Zechariah is the very first person we meet in Luke's Gospel.  The second person we meet is the angel Gabriel who announces to Zechariah that his barren wife will bear a son (John the Baptist) who will "prepare the people for the Lord." Zechariah answers with disbelief and as a consequence of his disbelief, Gabriel makes Zechariah "mute" until baby John is born. 

altar-of-incense-TabernacleThe altar of incense that Zechariah tended was proscribed by God to Moses in Exodus 30:1–10. The carrying poles were only used when the whole Tabernacle was moved.

The altar of incense was considered part of the holy of holies (where God resided in the Temple above the Ark of the Covenant). It was a horned "altar" that held burning coals -- upon which the priests would sprinkle three aromatic spices. The only spice we are sure about is FRANKINCENSE, and yes, that' s also the gift brought to Jesus by the Magi.

Frankincense can be purchased online as an aromatic oil form, or in loose crystalline form for sprinkling, or as an incense stick.

Not only can it be "burned" in the classroom on an "altar of incense" you and the kids could construct, you could sprinkle some of the oil on a pinecone or other similar porous material to go home as a fragrant reminder of your lesson about how our prayers "rise" to God (are heard), and how we can encourage others to pray. How can we prepare ourselves to "believe" when the announcement of Christ's birth comes to us? How will we demonstrate that belief??

How to make your own incense altar

Watch this video demonstrating the use of what's called a "charcoal round" placed on top of a flat rock, lit, and then has incense added to it.  Students can shape a "horned altar" piece underneath the rock using non-flammable material like aluminum foil. If you want to get real fancy, have someone built you an altar platform that the kids can glue aluminum foil to, shape the horns, and gather around for your sweet-smelling lesson.

Some Questions to Ask:

  • What prayers do you have that you'd like answered? (What kind of prayers does God want to hear from us?)
  • What should we pray for to help us prepare for Advent?
  • How do our candles in our sanctuary (and Advent Candles) remind us of the Altar of Incense?
  • Why do you think Gabriel made Zechariah speechless for his disbelief?

Try this:  

  • Take a small piece of paper, write your prayer on it, then place it on the charcoal burner and add frankincence to make your prayer "rise to God."


Make sure your incense doesn't set off any fire alarms. Have plenty of adult supervision and a bucket of water nearby for safety. But don't be afraid of creating this smelly lesson memory.

More about the Altar of Incense

Since it required tending so often, the altar was placed outside that chamber so regular priests could care for it daily.

Priests would refill this special mixture of incense on the golden altar in the morning and evening, so a sweet-smelling smoke issued from it day and night.

Although this altar was in the Holy Place, its fragrant odor would rise above the veil and fill the inner holy of holies, where the ark of the covenant sat (the "seat of God"). Breezes might carry the smell outside into the tabernacle court, among the people offering sacrifices. When they smelled the smoke, it reminded them their prayers were constantly being carried to God.

Why Smells?

Daily life in the ancient world was anything but clean and sanitary, especially in agrarian societies. Living in close proximity to their animals, the smells and other elements of animal life objectionable to the human senses could not be escaped.

Metaphorically speaking, "sin" smelled bad. Anointing with oil made one "pleasing" to God, in effect, it cleansed them from their sin in order to make them acceptable. It is said that part of the ancient Hebrew root for the word "Messiah" means, "one who smells pleasing/clean to God."

On account of unpleasant smells, incense was burned in the king’s presence to mask the odors of the livestock and unwashed bodies as a tribute to his position. It is therefore not a surprise that incense was also burned before the one, true creator God in the tabernacle of Israel, which was His earthly throne room under the old covenant. 

The smells of the altar being a "cleansing" smell is also reminiscent of many other "clean" scriptures, including, "Who shall ascend to the hill of the Lord? He who has clean hands and a pure heart." 

Like the table of showbread and the lampstand, the altar of incense was made with materials fit for a king — gold and acacia wood (vv. 1–3). It was also outfitted with poles by which it could be transported like the table was (vv. 4–5). The similarities stop there, however, for while the lampstand and the table illustrated God’s work to provide His people with light, bread, and other necessities, the altar of incense represented work that the Israelites offered unto the Lord — the work of prayer.

For more information:

Scene from "The Birth of John the Baptist" DVD, Superbook.


Images (4)
  • altar-of-incense-Tabernacle
  • mceclip0
  • mceclip1
  • mceclip2
Last edited by Luanne Payne
Original Post

Add Reply

Post a New Topic
Lesson or Resource Inc. is a volunteer-run, 100% member supported, 501(c)3 non-profit Sunday School lesson ministry. You are welcome to borrow and adapt content for non-commercial teaching purposes --as long as both the site and author are referenced. Inc reserves the right to manage, move, condense, delete, and otherwise improve all content posted to the site. Read our Terms of Service. Get a free Registered Membership or become a Supporting Member for full access to all site resources. is rated 5 stars on Google based on 51 reviews. Serving a global community including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, S. Africa, and more!
Link copied to your clipboard.