Held by Iran for 444 days, released U.S. hostages were thrown a New York City ticker-tape parade in 1981.
Paul’s parade was different. First, a bit of his itinerary . . .
“Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-bye to them and went on to Macedonia” (2 Corinthians 2:12,13).
Paul finds the Lord has opened a door of opportunity to “preach the gospel of Christ” in Troas (today’s Turkey). But he wants the Corinthians to know he genuinely cares for them. So he tells them, “I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there.” Earlier, Paul had dispatched Titus to Corinth to discover how the church had received his letter. So, desperate to know, Paul “said goodbye to” Troas “and went on to Macedonia” across the Aegean Sea. There he finally meets up with Titus, who reports how the Corinthians humbly repented and how much they cared about Paul (2 Corinthians 7:6-9).
Buoyed by Titus’ good news, Paul bursts out in thanks to God. It’s the start of a long digression which reveals more of Paul’s mind and heart . . .
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God. (2 Corinthians 2:14-17).
Paul thanks God “who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ . . . “ This is more than Paul’s rejoicing over Titus’ report; this is Paul explaining his “captivity by God in Christ and how God spreads the gospel through him.
Customarily, a victorious Roman general led his conquered captives (through conquered territory or through Rome’s streets) in “triumphal procession” on their way to execution.
To Paul, God in Christ is the conquering general. He’s the captive. But the picture’s a paradox. Paul’s been captured to preach the gospel, and God empowers him to do it effectively. But spreading the gospel demands significant suffering. Paul “is not saying he is being led around in triumph, but rather that, like the captives in a triumphal process, he is being treated rudely while in the service of God” (Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky).
“For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men” (2 Corinthians 4:9).
Paul explains the reason for “thanks be to God” . . .
“For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Corinthians 2:15,16).
Customarily, captives being led in this procession spread incense along the way. So Paul pictures his gospel proclamation as a powerful fragrance. “ . . . as God drags Paul around as his slave, the knowledge of Christ emanates from Paul wherever he goes” (Witherington).
Despite mistreatment Paul himself is the fragrance that pleases God. Two, there are two groups of human hearers, divided by the gospel itself.
“To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.”
Paul’s gospel is “an alluring perfume, a spiritual oxygen that breathes life into their souls; to the other, a stench in their nostrils, a spiritual cyanide that suffocates and poisons them to death” (Sam Storms, Lead Pastor at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City, quoting Clement).
Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God. (2 Corinthians 2:17).
At the end of the previous verse, Paul asked rhetorically, “And who is equal to such a task?”—meaning, “Who is adequate to preach so powerfully that hearers are either saved or damned?”
The answer is, “No one.” So, if he’s inadequate to do the job, why not just preach for personal profit? Paul will not “peddle the word of God for profit.” The noun form of that Greek word (kapelos) refers to a merchant who regularly cheats customers by misrepresenting his product. Paul’s preaching, to the contrary, is marked by four qualities . . .
- He speaks “with sincerity”–that is, with pure motives wanting only that people understand the gospel.
- He speaks “before God”–that is, with the knowledge that God himself is hearing and judging him.
- He speaks “in Christ”–that is, out of his living union with the Messiah.
- He speak “sent from God”–that is, he speaks God’s gospel as God’s spokesman.
* * *
Though we’re not apostles and not commissioned to preach the gospel as they, we too are captives of God in his triumphal procession in Christ. In other words, by saving us, God captures us. He leads us with his other “captives” in “triumphal procession”–triumphal because he saves us from sin and death. But he saves us to become part of his mission–the spreading of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Through his Word and Spirit, he makes us “the aroma of Christ.” Christ is the “fragrance.” And we are to please God by spreading “the fragrance of the knowledge of [Christ].” This spreading (which has its source in God) is our mission. But this mission is war. Personal suffering is part of the battle. I have two concluding thoughts . . .
Here’s one. Since I’ve retired and become disabled, I’ve doubted my significance. What’s my purpose? What can I do? What am I here for? Paul’s answer: I’m hear to spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ. And one way I do that is through this blog. “O God, may I faithfully tell Christ’s gospel, so believers are strengthened in the faith and unbelievers (who may stumble on the site) get captured too.”
Here’s the second. In a busy life in a culture closed to the gospel, we forget we’re on a mission. “Lord, enable us to see ourselves as captives in your triumphal procession.”
And one final (really) thought: We’re captives in Christ’s triumphal procession . . .