READ : 2 Corinthians 2:12-16
Every Christian is called to ministry – service – in Christ’s name in the church and the world. But what does that entail? In the apostle Paul’s two letters to the church in Corinth he speaks more about the nature of Christian ministry than anywhere else. David Bast has selected ten vivid metaphors Paul uses in First and Second Corinthians describing ministers of Christ. He explores them in this series: “What Are We, Images of Christ’s Servants.”
In the opening chapters of 2 Corinthians we find yet another criticism has been leveled against the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 1:15-23). Apparently Paul had sent word to the Corinthians that he planned to visit them soon, and then later changed his mind and cancelled the trip. As a result a new wave of accusations broke out against him. To the lengthy catalogue of complaints recorded by the church in Corinth – that Paul was weak and unimpressive and all the rest – was added the charge that he was unreliable. You couldn’t trust Paul to keep his word; his yes meant no and his no meant yes.
Paul responds by explaining his actions and movements. If he did not visit Corinth, where did he go? Well, he went to a place called Troas, on the coast of Asia Minor just opposite Macedonia in northern Greece. He went there for the same reason he went anywhere: to preach the gospel. And he enjoyed great success there; “a door was opened for me in the Lord” (v. 12), he writes. But Paul had another reason for going to Troas. When the apostle decided not to visit Corinth himself he had sent his friend Titus there to find out the condition of the church. Paul was hoping to meet Titus in Troas and hear his report on the spiritual state of the Corinthians. You can imagine Paul’s anxiety. Had the church in Corinth turned against him completely? Were they embracing the heresies of the false apostles who had followed in Paul’s wake? Did they choose to ignore his apostolic counsel and advice? Paul had no way of knowing. He didn’t find Titus in Troas, and there was no news from Corinth. Poor Paul! No telephones, no postal service, no email! What could he do? He could do what he did; he caught a ship for Greece in search of Titus and tidings of the Corinthian situation (v.13).
A Triumphal Procession
At this point there’s a very abrupt change in the text of 2 Corinthians chapter 2 where Paul has been telling this whole story. Against the backdrop of all the worry and frustration we can read into Paul’s account of his movements comes an unexpected outburst of praise. Like a single shaft of sunlight suddenly piercing a gloomy overcast, Paul all of a sudden breaks out into a doxology: “But thanks be to God!” (v. 14). What happened? Well, one thing that happened, as we learn later on in 2 Corinthians, is that Paul did meet Titus in Macedonia and heard from him the good news that the Corinthians had responded to Paul’s admonitions.
For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn – fightings without and fear within. But God . . . comforted us by the coming of Titus . . . as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me.
2 Corinthians 7:5-7, ESV
Another reason Paul was overjoyed by the news he received from Titus was because it reminded him that the success of the gospel was ultimately not his responsibility. Christian ministry is, as they say nowadays, a God-thing. We do our best to preach and teach and counsel, but in the end, it’s the Lord who must build and preserve his church. And he will. There is no doubt about the final success of this work.
Paul expresses his confidence in this great truth by employing one of his most complex and interesting images for the nature and work of Christian ministers.
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. 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?
2 Corinthians 2:14-16, ESV
The picture Paul sketches here was based on a real life experience in ancient Rome. When a Roman general won a new province for the empire, the Senate might award him its highest public honor, a “Triumph.” A triumph was a gigantic victory parade through the streets of Rome in which the triumphant general rode in a golden chariot, preceded by his conquering legions and followed by a train of enslaved prisoners of war. That’s who we are, says Paul. We are marching with Christ through the world in triumph. He’s the one who wins the victory, but we are right there with him, in one sense his conquered prisoners, but in another his loyal soldiers.
The Smell of Life and Death
But the thing that Paul dwells on in employing this extended image of a Roman Triumph is the sense of smell, the aroma. He keeps coming back to it – through us Christ “spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere;” “We are the aroma of Christ to God.” We are the “fragrance from death to death” or “from life to life” to those who are either perishing or being saved. What does all this mean? What’s up with all those smells?
One reason Paul focuses on this, I think, is because smells must have been an overwhelming part of the experience of an actual Roman triumph. We can read about such a spectacle and perhaps even picture something of what it would have looked like, but we can’t really imagine the aromas – not just all those marching men and animals, or the vast crowds of spectators, but all along the route, all over the city, the clouds of smoke that would be rising from burning incense and sacrificial offerings.
But there is more to it than that. Paul is using certain characteristics of our sense of smell to convey metaphorically some truths about the gospel and its effects. Researchers have observed, for example, that smell is the one of our five senses most closely linked to memory. Smell is the most evocative of our senses. It can most readily call to mind places or persons or experiences from the past. I was talking to a man on an airplane about this once, and when I made this point he immediately exclaimed, “Aqua Net!” “Aqua Net?” I responded. “Yes, Aqua Net,” he said. “When we were first married that was the brand of hair spray my wife used, and to this day whenever a catch a whiff of it I see my bride again.” And what about us? We are, says the apostle, the aroma of Christ to God. What a marvelous thought! When the Father sees us and the effect the gospel has had on our lives, when he watches our ministry, he catches a scent of his beloved Son, and God is well-pleased.
But the gospel at work in and through us doesn’t just affect God, it affects the world as well. In addition to being the most evocative of our senses, smell is the most reactive as well. It’s not just tied most closely to memory, it’s linked directly to our stomachs too. No other sense produces such a strong response in us, whether positive or negative. As you well know, nothing can make your mouth water like the right smell, and nothing can turn your stomach faster than the wrong one.
And amazingly, sometimes the same smell can do both, depending on time, place and circumstances. That’s what Paul is getting at when he says that the ministry of the gospel is the smell of life or death to those who are being saved or perishing. The message of the cross, of Christ crucified for the sake of lost sinners, is proclaimed throughout the world. Some hear it and are attracted by it. They turn to Christ in faith and are saved. To them the gospel is the smell of life: of fresh-baked bread, of new-mown grass, of coffee brewing in the morning, of a just-washed baby.
But to others this very same message smells like death, like filth, like garbage, like a rotting corpse. They are repulsed by the gospel, disgusted. They laugh at the gospel. They mock those who believe it, and they persecute those who serve it. And in the end, all such people will perish.
All of this prompts me to ask two questions. The first is this: How does the gospel smell to you? Are you drawn to it? Does it savor of life to you? It’s interesting to me that Paul uses a continuous tense when he writes about the life and death issue of responding to the gospel message. That is, he speaks of those who “are perishing” and those who are “being saved.” This suggests that if you are one of the former it’s not yet too late to become one of the latter. If you are headed down the wrong road, away from Christ, there is still time to change direction.
Here’s a second question: If you are a Christian, how does your life smell to others? The truth is that people’s eternal destiny will be forever determined by how they respond to the message of the gospel. But it’s very difficult for us to separate a message from the messenger who delivers it. The fact is, Paul does not say here that the gospel is the smell of life or death to the saved and the perishing; he says that we are.
It is one thing for someone to consider the claims of Christ and reject them, or to find the message of the cross foolish or offensive. That person has made his or her choice. But what if people are so turned off by what they see in the lives of Christ’s servants they never pay serious attention to Christ himself? What if what we are – the hypocrisy, or prejudice, or lack of love we display – speaks so loudly people can’t hear what we say? Wouldn’t that make us at least partly responsible for their perishing?
No wonder Paul says, “Who is sufficient for these things?” May God give us grace to match the life-giving message of the gospel with lives that are holy.