We wouldn’t normally think of describing ourselves as possessing a particular fragrance or aroma when it comes to the effect we have on those we rub shoulders with. The senses that get most of the attention in the Bible are seeing, tasting, and hearing. But smelling? That doesn’t show up as much (see Genesis 8:21; Lev. 1:9, 13, 17 for examples though). However, Paul uses this metaphor in 2 Corinthians 2:14–17 to describe his own ministry as an ambassador for Christ. Let’s look at this passage with some help from the commentary series, God’s Word for You.

Come and Join the Parade

Do you ever wake up in the morning and say to yourself “I really don’t think I can do this”? You may feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what you have to get through. Self-doubt may be plaguing you. Or it may be even worse than that—you may be grappling with a deep sense of self-loathing. You know that you are a hypocrite and a fraud. And you have a gnawing suspicion that it’s only a matter of time before you are exposed. It’s a Christian version of what psychologists call “imposter syndrome”. Whatever the particular flavour of your insecurities, I suspect that most believers, if not all of us, question from time to time whether we have what it takes for life as an authentic, selfless follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. And if that’s you, then let me tell you that we’re in good company.

If we want to set ourselves up to keep pressing on and serving Jesus wholeheartedly for the long haul, then this passage is the ideal place to start. In this section, through Paul, God gives us three reasons why we do not need to be ashamed, embarrassed or crippled by self-doubt, fear or even shame, but can get on with serving Christ by speaking the gospel, come what may.

God Speaks through Us when We Speak the Gospel

The key question for Paul is right at the heart of this paragraph in verse 16: “who is sufficient for these things?” The surprising thing is that Paul’s answer isn’t “nobody”, but “we are”! And how can he say that? Because of the power of the gospel. Our sufficiency, our adequacy, our qualification for the task has nothing to do with us, thank God, but it flows from the fact that God himself speaks through his words.

Unlike the travelling philosophers, who could make a healthy income by charging for their “services” when they came to town, Paul insists that he (along with his companions, and by extension, all servants of Christ) speak as “men of sincerity, as commissioned by God” (v 17). Paul spells out the reason for this distinctive approach at the end of verse 17: ”in the sight of God we speak in Christ”. Speaking before God, in Christ—speaking in a way which is marked by the sincerity that comes from knowing we are accountable to God, and by the depth of insight and knowledge that comes to us through our union with Christ—is what makes inadequate people like us adequate for this task. Paul describes this insight by describing the Roman victory parade in verses 14-16.

Triumphal Procession

Paul paints a picture of the familiar splendour of a Roman pompa triumphalis, the victory parade granted to particularly successful generals. Graeco-Roman literature records over 300 of these events. Most commentators and translations agree that this is what this passage is referring to. What isn’t so clear is where we fit into this scene.

There were seven key components in most of these processions.

  • First in the pompa triumphalis came a group carrying pictures of the great battle and boards carrying the names of conquered cities and nations, as well as some of the plundered riches of those defeated.
  • Then came some white bulls to be sacrificed to Jupiter.
  • Third came the conquered peoples. The key leaders of these people were taken to the Temple of Jupiter and executed at the end of this “happy” celebration.
  • Fourth in line were a group of incense-bearers producing clouds of smoke.
  • Then the successful general (the triumphator) appeared at the heart of the parade in fifth position.
  • In the wake of the victorious general came two more groups—in sixth position came those Romans, now intensely grateful, who had been rescued from the barbarians in this campaign.
  • And then, the general’s own troops brought up the rear in seventh position.

Normally, attempts to make sense of this scene seek to identify us with one of those seven groups—most often, as reflected in the NIV for example, with the prisoners: “God who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession”. There is however a slight problem with that—the captives in this procession were generally about to be executed by the one whom the parade was honouring, which would be a very unusual (not to say depressing) picture of Christian discipleship! So how can we make sense of this?

Incense-bearers

The key actually lies in the group of people in the parade who are often overlooked. It’s the incense-bearers, who, for Paul, are the most important group of all.

Appian of Alexandria wrote this at the turn of the first century, describing just such a procession:

“Next came a large number of incense-bearers, and just after the fragrances, the general himself on a chariot inscribed with various designs, wreathed in gold and precious stones…”

Similarly Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote:

“After them [came] the people taking care of the incense censers in which aromatic herbs and frankincense were burned to produce fragrant smoke along the whole route.”

Now look again at what Paul actually writes, as he give thanks to God, “who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession” (v 14). Paul identifies Christ with God the Father as the triumphator—the victorious general. Then we are clearly identified as the incense-bearers, as “through us [he] spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere”. It is our role to spread the knowledge of God in Christ, which, for Paul, always happens through the proclamation of the gospel.

The Fragrance of Christ

Paul presses the image to say that not only are we the incense-carriers, we are actually the smell itself, which has its source in Christ and rises up to honour God himself. As incense-bearers in the parade, spreading the pungent smell of the gospel, we are actually “the aroma of Christ to God” (v 15). This gospel proclamation takes place among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, which is clearly a reference to the two key groups in the pompa triumphalis. According to verse 16, this gospel is breathed in both by those who have opposed the general and have been defeated (even about to be executed)—to these people our message and our very presence is the stench of death—and by those who have been rescued by the general and are skipping along, delighting in their newly restored freedom and even life.

Sincerely Speaking the Gospel

Notice where Paul goes with this. This is very definitely not Paul’s version of the desperately misleading bumper-sticker slogan wrongly attributed to Francis of Assisi—“Preach the gospel—when necessary use words”. Paul is not saying, just allow the aroma of your life to permeate society. There is no warrant here or anywhere else in the New Testament for saying all that we need to do is smell for Jesus! In fact, Paul is saying the reverse: we are up to the task of gospel preaching, if we will simply speak the truth as men of sincerity: “as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ”.

According to Lucian, a 2nd-century Syrian writer, “The philosophers sell their teaching like tavern keepers, and most of them mix their wine with water and misrepresent it”, (Hermotimus, 59.179), but not Paul and not us. Instead we spread the fragrance of Christ by speaking the gospel of Christ, knowing that God speaks through us when we speak the gospel.

Our Role and God’s Work

It is also highly likely that Paul depicts us as the incense bearers because being an incense-bearer didn’t require a terribly high degree of expertise. All you really needed to do as an incense-bearer was walk along and let the fragrance waft! Perhaps you needed to blow the smoke occasionally, or fan it in the direction of the crowds, but that’s about it. The incense-bearer doesn’t have to create the aroma—he or she just shows up and holds up the incense, and the smoke does the rest! And this is the role that God gives to us. Are we up to the task of gospel ministry? Will we speak in the power of Christ about Christ with sincerity, then yes we are—because it is God who speaks through us when we speak the gospel.

Who is sufficient for this? We are—because God speaks through the gospel. It would be good to remember that the next time you think that you have nothing to say to your friends who aren’t Christians. It would be good to remember that the next time you are fighting a sense of dread in your stomach before you speak in church, and a voice screams in your head, “Who do you think you are? Do you really think anyone is going to pay attention to this?” The great news is that the task of gospel proclamation isn’t really about us. Our sufficiency for gospel ministry isn’t based on us; it’s based on the fragrance of Christ, which God himself spreads through the gospel. We have nothing else. Living a gospel-shaped life as we serve Christ isn’t about us or our personality. Or our giftedness. Or our knowledge.

It is about God speaking in Christ through us.

Conclusion

This short paragraph is one of the most encouraging, freeing and motivating passages in the entire New Testament. It guards us on the one hand from slipping into thinking that evangelism is too hard for us (or that somehow we aren’t qualified for the task which God calls us to), and on the other, it reminds us that ultimately it is God’s work to bring people to new life in the power of the Spirit through the gospel of Christ. The Lord Jesus Christ has already won the definitive victory over sin, death and Satan, and it is our role and privilege to spread that powerful news in our world, as God works in salvation and judgment. That’s the first reason we can forget about ourselves and get on with serving Christ.

Questions for Reflection

  1. How does God speak to us? What difference does this make to the way in which we do evangelism?
  2. If we are “incense-bearers”, what are our responsibilities when it comes to evangelism?
  3. Why does Paul go to great lengths to explain that the message of the gospel brings both life and death?

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