2 Corinthians 2:14-17
At this point, Paul 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 2:14-16a.
God’s “triumph” is not a reference to God’s favorite motorcycle; it refers rather to a Roman Triumphal Procession. When a Roman general won a significant victory (actually on the battlefield; over a foreign foe; gaining foreign territory; killing at least 5000 enemies), he was entitled to the Roman version of our “ticker tape” parade. If you have ever seen “Gladiator” or “Ben Hur” or “Julius Caesar,” you have seen Hollywood’s version of a Triumph (VIDEO). Let’s take a closer look at the elements of a Triumph.
At the front were the horn-blowers who announced the procession to the crowd. Behind them came the priests who swung censers of incense to praise the gods for this victory, and the white oxen to be sacrificed for the same purpose.
Next came those bearing the booty of the conquest, including representations of the land and its resources.
Next came the captives—soldiers and officers of the defeated army. They are on their way to death by execution or gladiatorial combat. To them, the incense of the priests would remind them of their defeat and imminent death.
Next came the victorious soldiers, followed by senators and, finally, the general himself in a great chariot drawn by four white horses. To them, the priest’s incense would remind them of their victory and the rewards they would soon receive.
Paul is using the Roman Triumph as a metaphor to explain key elements of the great victory God has accomplished through his Son, Jesus Christ.
The victorious general stands for Jesus himself. He has won a complete victory over Satan and over the guilt of sin (see Col. 2:14,15). He has been exalted by God the Father, will reign at the end of the age—and is even now given honor and dominion.
The priests stand for Paul and his missionary band—and for all Christian workers. The incense stands for the “the knowledge of Christ”—the good news of Jesus’ gift of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Through us, God is announcing Jesus’ victory and inviting everyone to join his procession.
The captives stand for those who reject the good news. It “smells” terrible to them, not only because it exposes their present alienation from God, but also because it proclaims their future judgment for refusing this gift (“death to death”).
The victorious soldiers stand for those who receive this invitation. It “smells” wonderful to them. It not only becomes spiritual life in them when they receive it; it also assures them eternal life (“life to life”).
So much for explaining the metaphor. What lessons can we learn from it? I want to get at this by asking three questions...
Why do people respond so differently to the same message?
Read 2:15,16a. We’re all aware that people react very differently to the same odor (CERTAIN PERFUME; SAUERKRAUT). But why do people react so differently to the same message?
Is it just spiritual aesthetics—we just have different spiritual tastes? No, there is only one God and one Savior (1Tim.2:4; Acts 4:12).
Is it that God has doomed some to death and elected others to life? No, the Bible is very clear that God wants everyone to have eternal life (1Tim.2:4).
According to the Bible, your reaction to the message is an indication of your own heart attitude. Paul uses the same terminology in explaining this in 1Cor.1:18,23,24,29,31 (read). "The word of the cross" refers to the gospel—the aroma. Paul says that people respond to this message very differently, depending on their attitude:
To those who proudly depend on self and humanity ("boast before God"), the notion that a crucified Messiah is God's answer is scandalous and moronic—a choking stench.
But to those who are willing to humble themselves and admit their moral failure and inadequacy ("boast in the Lord"), this message is the essence of God's power and wisdom—a savory aroma attracts them to receive Christ.
This explains why the same person can hear the same message—and yet regard it as stupid and offensive at one point in their lives, and then another point be struck by how wonderful and inviting it is (ME).
What about you? Do you still believe that you are competent to chart your own course, solve your own problems, etc.? Then the word of the cross will be unappealing to you—an offensive stench. But if you are ready to admit that you've blown it and that you need help from the outside, this same message becomes a delicious aroma! Why not lay hold of it today by personally admitting your need to Christ and asking him to give you the gift of forgiveness and a relationship with him that he is offering you?
What does it mean to be led in God’s triumph?
Re-read 2:14. What an amazing promise! If you belong to Christ, you can be triumphant; you can have victory! This promise is not (primarily) about the ultimate triumph of eternal life in God’s kingdom, because Paul uses the present tense to refer to his experience in this life. How can we experience this? First, we must understand what it means to be led in God’s triumph.
It does not mean that God will establish Christian governments in every nation (CHRISTIAN RIGHT). This will happen only when Christ returns; until then, Christians should attempt to do this. Nor does it mean that God will eliminate suffering for Christians in this life (HEALTH & WEALTH). This was certainly not the case with Paul. That’s why the “but” that begins this passage is so significant. He has just related how many difficulties he has been experiencing (sentence of death in Asia; agonizing conflict with Corinthians; no rest for his spirit in Troas).
It means that if you belong to Christ, God is sovereign over every single circumstance in your life. It means that nothing that happens in your life is an accident. It means that God can overcome or work through every single circumstance to advance his purpose in your life. Paul teaches this same truth in Rom.8:28,29 (note his definition of "good" and the condition) and Rom.8:31,37.
If God sees a given circumstance as an obstruction to his purpose, he will display his sovereignty by removing it. More often, however, he displays his sovereignty by working through these adverse circumstances to accomplish his purpose. No matter how much adversity, no matter how many unanticipated difficulties, no matter how many shattered dreams and disappointments—God will sovereignly work through all of these to transform you and impact others with Christ through you. Consider how God enabled Paul to triumph over imprisonment.
(Acts 16:19-40) When he was in Phillipi, he was wrongly beaten and imprisoned. Because he knew that God could work through this situation, Paul sang songs of praise in the dungeon. God sent an earthquake that released Paul from his chains. Rather try to than escape from the jailer, he led him and his family to Christ. And then the authorities dropped their charges against Paul.
(Phil.1:12-14) When he was in Jerusalem, he was wrongly arrested and imprisoned for two years in Caesarea. After appealing to Caesar, he stayed under house arrest and chained to a Roman guard for over two years before his trial. I’m sure he prayed for God to release him as he had before—but it didn’t happen. Paul could have despaired or become bitter at God for forgetting him, but Paul knew that if God didn’t release him it was because he could be more effective in his mission in prison. So during this time, Paul led many of his guards to Christ, and his example emboldened the Roman Christians to share Christ throughout the city. But God did more to spread the gospel through Paul’s imprisonment that he knew. These guards spread Christianity all over the Roman Empire. The four letters Paul wrote have impacted countless millions through the last 20 centuries. And Paul’s companion, Luke, researched and wrote two defense briefs for Paul’s trial—the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts!
Are you experiencing this Triumph? Can you say 2:14 with Paul? I know I these words often stick in my mouth. But when this is the case, it’s not because my circumstances are too terrible, nor because God is unable or unwilling. It is because I have lost sight of God's sovereignty, or because I have a different purpose for my life (build my own kingdom). When this is the case, the remedy is repentance...
What does it take to be a fragrance of Christ?
If you have received Christ, God wants to spread the fragrance of Christ through you to others. He wants the knowledge of Christ (the message of the gospel) to be communicated through you so effectively that people are polarized (explain). Why are some Christians “fragrant”—while others are not? What does it take to be a fragrance of Christ? There are many answers to this question, one of which we'll look at NEXT WEEK. But let's look at a surprising and encouraging answer that Paul gives in this passage...
You might think Paul’s had this kind of impact on people because he was a great public speaker, or because he was so physically impressive, or because he was so fearless. But you would be wrong (HUNCHBACK; 1 BROW; BALD; NOT ORATOR; FEARFUL). In fact, the first thing he says after describing his “fragrant” life is 2:16b (read). This is a rhetorical question, demanding the answer “no one.” And just to make sure we don’t miss this point, Paul answers his own question in 3:5 (read). Here is Paul’s first open secret to a fragrant Christian life: Rely on God’s adequacy, not your own.
Impacting others for Christ is not humanly difficult—it is impossible! Who is ever adequate to convict someone’s heart of his lostness? To persuade someone that he needs Christ and that he is the Truth? To inspire a Christian to give his whole life to Christ? To counsel confused Christians back on track? To equip Christian workers to plant churches here and around the world? The problem for some of us is that we think we are adequate for these things. All we need is the latest seminar, or best-selling Christian book, or a five-step formula. We scale God’s work down to human adequacy, and then we wonder why we get only human results. Instead, we should look at the immensity of the task and say with Paul, “I am not adequate for any of this! If any real spiritual work is going to get done through me, it will have to be by your adequacy.”
The problem with most of us is that we focus so much on our own inadequacy that we lose sight of God’s adequacy. That’s what I love about Andrew in Jn.6. Jesus tells his disciples to feed 15,000+ people. They say, “No way! There are no Giant Eagles within 100 miles—and even if there were, we’re broke.” They had the first part of the secret (their own inadequacy), but not the second (God’s adequacy). Only Andrew dimly got the second part. He brings a little boy with a fish sandwich lunch to Jesus and says, “We have this—but what is this for so many?” And even though Andrew’s faith was weak, Jesus multiplied that fish sandwich to fully feed every person in the crowd—and the disciples as well. It turns out (according to Jesus) that this whole thing was a picture. The multitude represents a humanity that is starving to death spiritually. Jesus is the Bread of Life, the sole source of spiritual life. The disciples represent us, the followers of Christ, through whom Jesus wants to distribute his life.
We need to learn the lesson of Andrew: God doesn’t require your ability—he only requires your availability. When you agree with him that you are completely inadequate for this task—and then also agree with him that he is adequate and just present yourself to him day by day and situation by situation, he will multiply his life through you to others in ways you’d never imagine!
We'll look at another key to being fragrant for Christ--communicating the message of the "New Covenant" accurately...