How should we look at ourselves in Christ? What are the pictures given to us that we can fully appreciate our status in Christ Jesus? The apostle Paul often gives us beautiful pictures of our condition before we came to Christ and once we belong to Christ. In this section of 2 Corinthians 2 the apostle Paul is going to describe more beautiful pictures of who we are by describing who he and the apostles are in Christ Jesus. One of the reasons this is important is because this helps us in our distress. Knowing who we are will give us comfort through suffering and afflictions.
A Concerned Paul (2:12-13)
Paul speaks about his deep concern for these Christians in Corinth. The Corinthians seem to think that Paul does not care about them and that is why he did not come to them on his way to Macedonia. So Paul dispels this false view by pointing how much concern and love he does have for them. Paul was in Troas and the work was going very well while he was there. The door was opened by the Lord and the proclamation of the gospel was successful there (2:12). However, even though the work was going well by the grace of God, Paul was restless because of his concern for these Corinthians. Paul was waiting to receive word from Titus about his letter that he sent to them. The concern was so great for Paul that he left Troas, even though the work was going well there, to meet Titus on his return because he wanted to know the condition of the Corinthians, their reception of Titus, and their attitude toward Paul. Now, what is interesting about this letter is that Paul will not explain the answer he received and the hope he gained from meeting Titus until 2 Corinthians 7:5. Many scholars think that Paul has entered a massive digression at this point in the letter. I do not believe that is what Paul is doing. Rather, Paul is showing the comfort he clung to until he received this news. Paul’s comfort comes from the God of all comfort. So how does Paul handle the distress he is in over the Corinthians until he receives word from Titus?
Led In Triumphal Procession (2:14)
Notice how verse 14 begins. “But thanks be to God….” Paul turns his heart to thanksgiving in his distress. He changes his focus from his difficulties to God and giving him thanks. Paul says that he gives thanks to God because in Christ we are led in a triumphal procession. The triumphal procession comes from the Roman Empire when victorious Roman generals would return to Rome in a victory parade. Now the typical understanding of what Paul is saying is that Paul and his companions give thanks because they are victorious soldiers with Jesus as the victorious general in this triumphal procession. This is how the KJV, NKJV, NASB, and HCSB interpret this passage: that Paul and his companions are led in triumph in Christ.
However, scholars have done more research on this triumphal procession in Rome and it appears that this is not what Paul meant. This verb was not used to describe the victorious troops but defeated prisoners (Seifrid, 85). The NIV and NLT reflect this understanding most clearly.
But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. (2 Corinthians 2:14 NIV)
While the victorious general would celebrate the victory in this parade, following behind him were the spoils of war, captured animals that were to be sacrificed, and captives who were going to be executed. The prisoners of war were marched through the streets as fragrant perfumes filled the air. At the end of the parade, many of the captives were executed. Thus, the smell of the parade was sweet to the victors and the smell of death to the defeated. The sacrifice of the animals and captives at the end of the parade was called the triumph (Witherington, 367). In speaking about this procession, one captive stated, “In a triumph I would have had to march only once.” The procession itself was intended to be an act of worship to the god who had granted the victory. Paul is God’s captive being led to the death as a slave of Christ. This fits what Paul already to wrote to these Corinthians about who he and the apostles were.
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. (1 Corinthians 4:9 ESV)
This picture also fits better what Paul will say to them in a few sentences:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. (2 Corinthians 4:8–12 ESV)
This also fits the only other place Paul used this same Greek word for a triumphal procession:
He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:15 ESV)
The Aroma of Christ (2:14-16)
Paul is giving thanks that he is a captured slave of Jesus Christ. Why? Because through Paul and the apostles the fragrance of the knowledge of God is being spread everywhere (2:14). You see that Paul continues to use the triumphal procession imagery. His role as a slave of Jesus was to spread the knowledge of our Lord everywhere he went. Paul spreads the aroma of the gospel by preaching and being living sacrifices to Christ. Paul’s ministry, with all of his suffering and distress, has a purpose: to be the aroma of Christ. The gospel message is a call for people to no longer be captives in sin but captives for Christ.
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. (Romans 6:22 ESV)
Now this message of being a living sacrifice, a captive for Christ, a slave to him, giving your life for the sake of the gospel, suffering affliction and hardship in the name of the Lord has an effect on people. There are two responses that come from this message. To some it is the fragrance of death. They see what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ by what the gospel proclaims that we are called to sacrifice ourselves completely and by looking at Paul and his companions who suffered immensely for the cause of Christ. They see that life and it is the smell of death. They do not want that life. They do not want to belong to Jesus because of the sacrifice required. Jesus said if you want to be his disciple you have to take up your cross and follow him. Carrying your cross was to go to your death. You give your life to Jesus. That call will cause most people to turn away from Jesus, leading to their death. It is the aroma of death that leads to death.
But for others the message of the gospel is the fragrance of life leading to life. These people understand that they are enslaved to sin and hopelessly doomed for their sins. They know that the wrath of God rests upon them and that they are condemned. But the hope Paul proclaims is that you can have life in Jesus as a slave to him. Paul thanks God that he is using his affliction to spread the message of Jesus. Who is qualified for such a task? Who is sufficient for the calling God had given them? But all Paul can do is spread the gospel of Christ. It is a stench to many that leads to death. But for some it is the aroma that leads to life.
Not Peddlers (2:17)
Finally, Paul makes the point that he and his companions are not like others. He is not a peddlers of God’s word. He does not tamper with the word of God. He does not water down the word of God. He does not change the word of God to make it more palatable. They are men of sincerity, commissioned by God. How can he? He is a captive of Jesus Christ, praise the Lord. He follows in Christ’s triumphal procession as Jesus leads the victory.
I want us to contemplate the picture Paul has presented to the Corinthians because it is a picture for us also as Christians. In verse 15 Paul said that they are the aroma of Christ and in verse 14 the fragrance is the gospel message of Jesus. Paul understood that his message of the gospel and his afflictions and life sacrifices for Jesus would be the stench of death to many. So what happens is we are tempted to do two things.
First, we are tempted to change the message so the smell is more acceptable. But Paul says that we cannot do that. We cannot become peddlers of the word of God. We cannot tamper with it. We cannot water it down. This is why it is so important for us to study the word of God, line by line, sentence by sentence, and paragraph by paragraph so that we can see the full weight of God’s word to us. We do not want the word of God watered down or altered. We do not want it softened or made palatable. We cannot fall into the temptation to change what God has said.
Second, we are tempted to change the way we live so that the smell of our lives is more acceptable to the world. Therefore we do not live our lives as living sacrifices. We do not behave as slaves to Jesus Christ. We turn our calling into going to church for a few hours a week and define that as being a true disciple of Jesus. Friends, people who think they were Christians saw Paul as the stench of death. We cannot change how Jesus has called us to speak, live, and act simple because the world finds us to be the aroma of death! We must be faithful to God. We must give our complete allegiance to Jesus. Why do you pray so much? Because I am a captive of Jesus. Why do you read your Bible so much? Because I am a captive of Jesus. Why do you go to church so much? Because I am a captive of Jesus. Why do you never miss worship and study gatherings? Because I am a captive of Jesus. Why do you give your life for others? Because I am a captive of Jesus. Why do you suffer affliction and hardship? Because I am a captive of Jesus. Why do you put others first? Because I am a captive of Jesus. Why do you tell people you are a Christian? Because I am a captive of Jesus. Why do you refuse to compromise on morality and virtue? Because I am a captive of Jesus. Why do you help others? Because I am a captive of Jesus. Why do you give yourself even to the expense of being taken advantage of by others? Because I am a captive of Jesus. Why must you share the good news of Jesus? Because I am a captive of Jesus.
But 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. (2 Corinthians 2:14 ESV)