“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 Cor 2:14-16)
As we enter September I’m getting eager for fall which brings with it cool, crisp air with the smell of bonfire smoke. That smell often reminds me of past falls. Smell is the sense most closely tied to memory which makes it very powerful emotionally.
The passage on the aroma of Christ in 2 Corinthians is one that has always puzzled me. I believed the common approach to this passage: when we know Christ, his love for us pours out into the world around us and it creates a sweet aroma that draws people to Christ. I think this is true, however, I’ve always felt there was something deeper going on in this passage. For instance, why does he use the phrase “aroma of Christ to God”? And what is all this business about life to life and death to death?
To really understand we have to go back, A Kid in King Arthur’s Court style, to the days of the Roman Empire. A Roman dominated world was the culture in which Paul was living when he wrote this. The Romans, whose empire covered most of the known world at it’s pinnacle, were masters of war. Brutal in their tactics and religious in their methods. And they had one tradition, which was very rare: a Triumph. It was an elaborate parade given for a Roman military general who was victorious in a battle.
It only happened maybe twice in a lifetime and it was extraordinary. Think Thanksgiving Macy’s Day Parade meets Olympic Opening Ceremonies. Triumphs weren’t given out like participation awards, there were very strict criteria that had to be met in order for a Roman military general to earn a Triumph.
“To attain [a Triumph] a general must satisfy certain conditions. He must have been the actual commander-in-chief in the field. The campaign must have been completely finished, the region pacified and the victorious troops brought home. Five thousand of the enemy at least must have fallen in one engagement. A positive extension of territory must have been gained, and not merely a disaster retrieved or an attack repelled. And the victory must have been won over a foreign foe and not in a civil war.” (the Letters to the Corinthians, William Barclay)
Barclay goes on to explain that in a Triumph the whole procession including the victorious general marched through the streets of Rome to the Capitol. First came the state officials and the senate followed by trumpeters, then spoils from the land conquered. After that came the white bull to be sacrificed, then came the prisoners of war (Princes, leaders and generals in chains soon to be flung in prison or executed). After them came musicians and priests swinging censers filled with sweet-smelling incense. Finally, came the general himself followed by his family and his army.
As this elaborate procession passed through the streets of Rome everyone around smelled the sweet fragrance the priests were releasing in the air. To the General, his army, his family, the musicians, and the onlookers it was a fragrance reminding them of victory, jubilation, happiness and songs of triumph. To the prisoners on their way to jail or death the fragrance reminded them of death, defeat, hopelessness and loss.
Paul is saying that just as this sweet smelling fragrance elicits different responses, the gospel will elicit different responses in people. To some the gospel, that all have sinned and deserve death but Jesus died in our place, is indeed good news. To those who believe the gospel it is a sweet fragrance! Yet to those who don’t believe it’s not a lovely fragrance. It tells them of their spiritual deadness without faith in Jesus. To those who don’t believe, it’s a fragrance of death.
However, our focus in sharing the gospel with others shouldn’t be how people will respond. Our main focus should be that the gospel we share and proclaim is a sweet aroma to God. We should share the gospel fully and boldly, not shying away from the desperation of our situation without Christ, and not withholding the free grace that is offered in Jesus. The true, authentic good news is a sweet fragrance to God. So share the gospel boldly, unashamedly, fully and with triumphant joy in your heart, knowing that this wonderful gospel smells sweet to God who leads us in his triumphant procession now and forever.