The Aroma of Christ 2 Corinthians 2:14–17

Written on: June 1, 2024

Article by: Kevin Cleary

In 2 Corinthians Paul is describing his travel plans in relation to Corinth. He mentioned not finding Titus in Troas and so leaving even though there was a good opportunity. He carried on to Macedonia.

He pauses in chapter 2 verse 14 to thank God who always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. He goes on to say that “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? For we are not like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.

Paul paints us a picture of a Roman triumph and if we take a few minutes to see this illustration with first century glasses it comes to life with meaning and clarity. A Roman Triumph was given by the senate to a general who had won a great victory. To be eligible, a general had to have met certain conditions:

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Conditions for granting the right to triumph
the triumphant had to be a current or former dictator, consul or praetor and had to hold any of the above-mentioned offices during the war; the leader had to act according to the will of the gods, that is to have the so-called ius auspicii in the area; the commander had to personally lead the troops; the chief had to be proclaimed emperor, a title he held to triumph; the war had to be waged against an external enemy (civil war was not accepted); as a result of the war, the new territory had to be incorporated (regaining the lost territory was not accepted); in a single battle, at least 5,000 enemies must have died with proportionally lower own losses, triumph did not come for victory at sea; the winner had to bring the army to the walls of Rome.

(Jasinski)

A Tribute was a sort of formal honour, combined with a religious ceremony involving a parade and a celebration. It would sometimes last for multiple days. It would proceed as follows: The Senate, headed by the magistrates. Trumpeters to announce the arrival. Carts laden with the spoils of war, at times vast fortunes. White bulls and oxen for sacrifice. Elephants and rare animals or exotic flora from the conquered countries. The arms and insignia of the leaders of the conquered enemy. The enemy leaders themselves, with their relatives and other captives. The lictors of the Imperator in single file (these were the executioners), their faces wreathed with laurel. The Imperator himself, in a circular chariot drawn by four horses. He was attired in a gold-embroidered robe and a flowered tunic; he held a laurel bough in his right hand, a sceptre in his left, and wore a laurel wreath on his head. The adult sons and officers of the Imperator. The entire body of infantry, with laurel adorned spears (Britannica).

Along with these, just behind the captives, would be incense bearers, people throwing flowers and spreading perfume as well as some carrying spices from the conquered land. “The smell of incense burnt to the gods in a Roman triumphal procession would have had different connotations for different people. For the victorious general and his soldiers, and for the welcoming crowds, the aroma would be associated with the joy of victory. But for the prisoners of war the aroma could only have been associated with the fate of slavery or death which awaited them (Kruse). While some have wanted to make the connection to OT sacrifice these Roman practices seem to better fit the context as well as the application of the passage. One can imagine this fragrant scene which for some was the fragrance of victory and glory and peace while to others the last leg of their journey to impending doom.

There is further debate about where Paul stands in the parade, is he a captive of Christ being ushered to his death which connects with his ongoing suffering or is he a victorious combatant returning home. The challenge is that both seem to fit the theme of strength in weakness and glory in suffering which is a key element in the book of 2 Corinthians and Paul’s ministry and indeed all Christians ministries. I would contend however, that Paul and all the faithful are not captives but victors, as this fits best with the phrase “leads us in triumphal procession.

The aroma doesn’t change, but the meaning does as with many things in life. Consider that Paul is addressing a group containing those who have responded differently to his message. He is also addressing people who have had their friends, family members, fellow citizens respond differently to their message. The message that Paul shares is the one that we share “Through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.”

We must ask why is this such a divisive message? Why does the aroma of Christ cause such a strong response? Why not simply “Live and let live” as the saying goes? The reason is…that people know. Just as surely as those captives and victors knew their fate as they marched in a Roman triumph, people know. They know they could be better, they know they are guilty, they know their lives are missing a key ingredient. The message and example of Jesus challenges them to change. They know that certain behaviours are wrong. They know. The only way they can carry on as if everything is fine is by telling themselves every day, that nothing is wrong. Then comes Jesus, perfectly just and loving and right and even though they hate the thought of it, they know that right is right and wrong is wrong.

We are living in a time when people are being forced to admit it, on large cultural stages. Joe Rogan on a recent podcast said, “we need Jesus.” Russel Brand, the hedonistic shock comedian and actor was recently baptized. Ayan Hirsi Ali left Islam due to the abuses she suffered in the name of a false God and turned to Atheism. She has now more recently claimed Christian faith. In her explanation she states that Atheism does not offer the kind of uniting truth that societies need. Even the likes of notorious atheist Richard Dawkins stated in a recent interview that he sees the value in a Christian culture.

The Aroma of Christ is so powerful, so compelling and beautiful that when presented with it, people know. It’s like a vegan smelling bacon. They may refuse to eat it, but they know it smells amazing. This is becoming a more and more undeniable conclusion. We have said this before, but the conditions of our current society are exactly what one would expect in a world untethered from a moral law and a divine Law Giver. Jesus offers the only hope for a world like ours – Joe Rogan was more right than he could have possibly imagined.

In light of the situation illustrated Paul asks: Who is sufficient for these things?

Paul is setting up a contrast. It is not a contrast of character but of content. Paul is superior to these peddlers of the gospel not because of who he is but because of what he shares: The fragrance of the knowledge of him. He later makes a similar point when in chapter 4 he says “we carry this treasure in jars of clay. To show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” It is God’s Triumph that is being celebrated in the imagery that Paul has created and it is the knowledge of this victory that Paul proclaims, and to which people are responding. As Christians we must engage in conversation with those we are trying to reach in a way that is comfortable and effective. A big part of doing this is understanding this imagery, it’s not about us. It is all about God’s victory and about partaking in it or remaining on the losing side.

We can’t compromise the message.

When we stayed in Tennessee recently, we had an Air B and B. The owners had placed glade plug ins all around the house. We didn’t enjoy the smell, so guess what we did? When people respond badly to a message, the temptation is to change the message in hopes that some other one will be more appealing. This is the nature of Triumph. There is a winner. God is the winner and proclaiming his victory over sin and death is absolutely good news. Some people are enamoured with sin and actually dead in it, and don’t want to be told that they are on the losing side. This is not to say that we adopt a self-righteous attitude. Remember that we are reading II Corinthians, which was written by Paul after this church had rejected him and who were at that very time entertaining false teachers over and above Paul. Yet Paul wrote to them in love, without compromising the truth, and calls us to do the same.

The imagery that Paul used presented a powerful and well-known image for his first century audience. It also presents a powerful message for us. Despite the circumstances of our lives, and no matter how difficult, God always leads us in Triumphal procession. ‘In Christ’ we participate in that Triumph so that through us he spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. This also means that we are to some, a fragrance from death to death, but to others a fragrance from life to life.

Barrie, Ontario