2 Corinthians 2:14-17

2 Corinthians 2:14-17

The Aroma of Christ

Smells are good if they smell good. Smells are bad if they smell bad. Profound words, right? Not everyone likes the same smells. The smell of yogurt might drive a teenager away from its presence, whereas it might draw a four-year-old ever closer to itself. The smell of a burger repulses a vegetarian but charms the meat-lover. We have something like that contrast going on in these verses, which mark the beginning of a lengthy section (2:14-7:4) wherein Paul defends his apostolic ministry and explains new covenant realities.

Connecting the start of this new section with the end of the previous one, we make sense of the “but” in v. 14 by recalling that Paul is tethered to the rope of God’s sovereignty. Where God takes Paul, that is where Paul goes. That direction meant delaying his travel plans to Corinth. That direction meant leaving Troas in search of Titus in Macedonia. That direction was always given by God in Christ: God’s guidance was, and is, always Christ-centered. Christ and his glory is the aim of Paul’s traveling. Wherever Paul goes, Christ is exalted. Paul rests in the sovereign, Christ-glorifying guidance of his Father of all mercies and God of all comfort.

What’s a little confusing is the triumphal procession that is spoken of in v. 14. The idea behind the triumphal procession is not the reason for confusion. God in Christ is the victor over sin, death, and misery. The procession puts on full display this divine conquest, and it arouses much laud and honor from those on God’s side of salvation. The confusion lies in the sense in which the “us” of v. 14 is to be understood. Commentators are not united on how “us” must be understood. Are believers led in the procession as the spoils of Christ the King? Or are believers following Christ the King as his soldiers who take part in the victorious work of salvation? In other words, are believers the slaves or soldiers? The captive or the co-captors? Paul uses this word for triumph only one other place (Colossians 2:15), and therein he speaks of God conquering rulers and authorities by means of the cross of Christ. These two verses are all the NT evidence we have of this word. Either sense can be understood biblically. We were conquered by Christ. We were slaves to sin but are now slaves to Christ and righteousness (Rom. 6:16-18). We are also spoken of as participants in the victory of Christ over all, as we are raised and seated in Christ (Eph. 2:5-6), even taking part in the judgment of the world and angels (1 Cor. 6:1-3). In either case, therefore, God is using us in his triumphal work of salvation in the lives of others.

Paul tells us that God in Christ uses us (captives and/or co-captors, slaves and/or soldiers) as a fragrance of the knowledge of God (v. 14). The word for fragrance is, to coin a phrase, olfactorily neutral. It does not tell us how people feel about the smell. It’s just a smell. It is subjectively considered. This, of course, does not deny the objectively pleasant smell of the knowledge of God. When “smelled” rightly, the saving knowledge of God is the best smell of all the smells! The gospel is good news whether or not a person receives it as it is. But not everyone responds well to the smell. Going back to yogurt and meats, some hate the smell; others love it. To those who are perishing, the good news of God’s message is a fragrance of death; it’s the smell of death, and it disgusts and repels the smeller. It’s foolishness to those who are perishing. In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul speaks of the same thing but with the imagery of the cross. The word of the cross is God’s power to those who are being saved, but it’s folly to those perishing. Just read the book of Acts to see the various responses to the fragrance of God. Some love the smell and believe, some want to smell more, and others avoid the smell as if it were a deadly poison.

To those dying in their sin, the gospel and the gospel ministers are abhorrent in their noses. However, to those that God has chosen to save from their sin, it’s an aroma of Christ. It’s a well-pleasing smell (v. 15). Here Paul uses a different word to connote the objective reality of the pleasing aroma. Christ’s message and his messengers are really and truly pleasant. Paul reminds us of the pleasing incense that was burned in a Roman triumphal procession. He also harkens back to the pleasing aroma of the various well-pleasing sacrifices in the OT. This well-pleasing smell is the same used in Genesis 8:21; Exodus 29; Leviticus 1:9; 2:2; 3:5; 4:31; 6:15; 8:21; et al. Paul also uses the word in reference to the good gifts sent to him from the Philippians (Phil 4:18). Finally, in Ephesians 5:2, Paul speaks of Christ’s self-sacrifice as a fragrant offering to God on our behalf.

Now, everyone who believes this message of the gospel is likewise a pleasing aroma to God, as we share the good news about God in Christ to others. But notice how these verses began: “But thanks be to God….” That’s no perfunctory statement. It’s Paul’s expression of gratitude for God’s guidance and making him an aroma of God. Paul knew of his self-insufficiency to smell good to others. He knew that the gospel offended and was the stench of death to some. Paul could do nothing from himself to cause the objectively pleasant smell of God’s word and God’s word-givers to be well-pleasing in their sight (3:5-6). Hence, “who is sufficient for these things?” (v. 16). As we put out the smells of the knowledge of God, we do so knowing that some will find it abhorrent; others will consider it the best smell they’ve ever smelled. Regardless, we do so being led by God, resting in his sufficiency to bring the smell of the gospel from one person or place to the next. There’s no reason for self-boasting in the smells we’re putting out. Let’s thank God for his leading us in Christ, as he uses us to spread his knowledge across the world. And let’s thank God whether people find our smells off-putting or life-giving.