God's Triumph in Christ
2 Corinthians 2:14-17
Read 2:12,13. Paul continues to explain his travel plans. At this point, he begins a digression that continues until 7:4. Through the use of striking metaphors and analogies, Paul provides us with some of the most vivid descriptions of authentic Christianity in the Bible. Let's take a look at the first one--read 2:14-16.
This "triumph" is not a motorcycle. When a Roman general won an important military victory, the senate/emperor honored him upon his return home with a "triumph." This was something like a "ticker-tape" parade--you have probably seen Hollywood renditions of this in those 1950's movies that always seemed to star Richard Egan or Kirk Douglas. The following parties were part of these triumphs:
The victorious general and his soldiers usually came first.
Behind him came the incense-bearers. They carried censers of burning incense, which represented thanksgiving to the gods for victory. The scent of this burning incense wafted all along the street behind the incense-bearers.
Next came the captives, usually consisting of two distinct groups:
Those who had voluntarily surrendered and complied with Rome. They were to be set free after the triumph. Those who resisted and were forcibly subdued came last and in chains. They were to be executed after the triumph.
You can imagine how differently these two groups of captives reacted to the incense. To the former group, it represented rescue and freedom. To the latter group, it represented defeat and imminent execution.
Paul uses this image, so familiar to his audience, to describe a spiritual event--the most important spiritual event in this age.
The "triumphant general" is Jesus Christ. He has won the greatest spiritual victory there is. Through his death and resurrection, he has paid the penalty for our sins and thus removed Satan's claim to hold us in his rival kingdom (Col. 2:13-15). God is exalting his Son by spreading the news of this victory throughout the world.
The "incense-bearers" are Paul and his band--and all of us who have received Christ.
The "aroma/fragrance" is not some ritual incense--it is the actual Person of Christ himself. We are indwelt by Christ through the Holy Spirit, and his spiritual life actually comes out through us to exert a powerful spiritual influence on others.
The "captives" are the people who come into contact with Christ through us. They are polarized into two distinct groups. The difference between these two groups is not the fragrance (it is the same); it is their heart attitude toward God:
To those who are volitionally self-sufficient ("those who are perishing"), the life of Christ is offensive because it exposes their volitional alienation from God and pronounces their judgment ("from death to death"). But to those who are willing to admit their need for God ("those who are being saved"), the life of Christ is a sweet savor because it demonstrates the possibility of reconciliation with God.
In short, this is a picture of the normal Christian life--to exude the "aroma" of his life to the people with whom God brings us into contact, and to watch it impact and polarize people spiritually.
But this does not take place automatically, independent of our cooperation. Not all Christians have this kind of impact on people around them. Some just plain stink--to everyone else and to God as well. Others are odorless--blending into their surroundings.
What we need to know is how to be more "aromatic" Christians, how to allow the fragrance of Christ to go out through us . . .
Speak God's Word
Read 2:17. The aroma is released as Paul speaks God's word.
God's word has the power to reveal Christ, to bring people into personal contact with the living God. One of the secrets of Paul's impact was his confidence in the power of God's word. It was not his intellect, personality, physical appearance, etc.
See 1 Cor. 1:18,23 the same effect on two groups of people. Read also Rom. 1:16; 10:17; Col. 1:5,6; 1 Thes. 2:13.
"Just give them the word and rely on God to work through it."
Over against this, Paul criticizes the false teachers who peddled/corrupted God's word. These people "adulterated" (4:2) the word for personal gain. They preached themselves (4:5) rather than Christ. There's a lot of pressure on us to change the message so that people will like us.
Christianity will improve your self-esteem vs. Jesus Christ will forgive your sins.
Christianity will help you become financially prosperous vs. Jesus Christ will liberate you from the love of money.
Everyone is telling people their message. Tell them what God says! We're not here to be popular, curry favor, etc.--we're here to speak God's word!
Especially the GOSPEL: one God, one mediator, sin & forgiveness. Yes, some will react adversely because it offends their pride. But others will be reconciled to God through it!
Give your whole life to God
Notice in 2:15 that Paul says we are a fragrance of Christ "to God." The point is that the life that impacts others for Christ is the life that is consecrated to God.
The Roman priests offered incense as thanks to their gods for military victory. Old Testament priests offered animals (whole burnt offerings) as thanks to God for his blessings. Speaking anthropomorphically, God said this was a "sweet savor" which pleased him.
Read Rom. 12:1. We are to offer our whole lives to God as thanks for salvation through Christ. This means signing over the title-deed to God, giving him your time, money, possessions, relationships, plans, future, etc.--to use as he sees fit so that your life will glorify him. Read vs. 2.
This offering is a "sweet savor" that not only pleases God, but also impacts people for Christ. It is a testimony to the reality and power of a living God.
Read Lk. 14:33-35. Why should people be attracted to a Person who makes sovereign claims on their lives? American Christianity is often anemic because it is only a means to making our lives a little more comfortable rather than a radical, life-changing commitment to Jesus Christ. This is unsalty salt!
Yes, those who want to rule their own lives will ridicule us and call us fanatics. That's OK--we won't die from this. But those who want to live for a cause greater than their own selves will be struck, convicted, and attracted to Christ.
Cultivate a lifestyle of self-giving love
Read Eph. 5:1,2. Notice the same imagery--"a fragrant aroma." But here it is used to describe "walking in love."
Jesus spoke God's truth, and was fully committed to God. But he could have done all this without being pleasing to God or having any impact on other people. He "walked in love." His whole life was one long act of "giving himself up" for the people he loved (INCARNATION; MINISTRY; CROSS). His death was simply the culmination of a life given up for others. He drew his life from his Father's love and gave himself up for others.
Surely this is the most important feature of this aroma.
1 Cor. 13:1-3 says we can know all the truth and consecrate all we own to God--but unless we love other people, our truth and consecration are useless.
This is why the New Testament uses phrases like "above all" and "beyond all these things" when it talks about cultivating a lifestyle of love.
When we show this love to people who don't know Christ, it may get through when nothing else can (ME AT AGE 15).
When we display love relationships with one another, this is what gains us a hearing for God's word and makes sense of our costly commitment to God (CCM HARVEST MEETING TESTIMONIES).
The compliment we want to hear from lost people is not "How knowledgeable they are!" or "How righteous they are!" but rather "How loving they are!"
Read 2:16b--"who is adequate for these things?" Who can speak words that will bring people to God and alter their eternal destinies? Who can live a life so transformed that it convicts people of their need for God? Who can love so sacrificially that people sense God's love? This is way beyond me! And it was way beyond Paul--read 3:5. Only God can do this, so only God should get the credit--read 4:7.
Because of God's adequacy, all of us who have Christ can have this kind of impact on others regardless of our native limitations. All of us can experience the excitement and satisfaction of seeing God work through us to affect others for Christ. Do you want this?