Spectacular sights! Stunning smells! Startling sounds! Tantalizing tastes! Tender touches! The writings of the Apostle Paul contain all of these things—the sensory experiences of his world—in his writings. Modern readers often miss these things because they are unaware of the cultural or theological backdrop to what Paul is saying. One of the places where these things are present is II Corinthians 2:14-17.
While Paul will focus on the sense of smell in this passage, the picture is much larger. Imagine a general returning from a military victory in the time of Paul. He is riding on a chariot with captives chained to that chariot; they are a living display of his glory and triumph. Shouting crowds have gathered to celebrate this victorious general. Flowers are cast before the chariot and incense is burned in his honor. It is a scene overflowing with sights and sounds and smells—a wondrous display, a total sensory experience that Paul’s readers would be able to call to mind.
It is in the context of this celebratory triumph that Paul addresses his Corinthian hearers and us. He tells us that we can be thankful because God is the general in the chariot and we are the captives chained to his chariot—a chariot-bound church for the display of his glory. God leads us in triumph as those whose rebellion has been conquered by him. But we are not led to execution; we are led to resurrection. Paul says that God always leads us this way and we carry the fragrance of that triumph to everyone, all the time, everywhere.
This fragrance that we give off is the reality of knowing Christ, of being under his Lordship. Paul even calls it “the aroma of Christ,” a sweet scent. We give off this scent to three parties:
-to God: it is here that Paul adds to the cultural image by moving back into the Old Testament to use a theological image. The word “aroma,” used multiple times in the OT. is associated with the idea of sacrifice and this aroma of Christ that we exude, rises up to God like a sacrifice and it is pleasing to him, it brings him pleasure.
-to the perishing: though we give off the same fragrance, the knowledge of Christ, to everyone, to some this sweet smell of Christ has the sickly smell of death. Sadly, the aroma of Christ drives some to a rejection of the gospel and to the choice of death.
-to the saved: that same fragrance which has the smell of death to the perishing is the fragrance of life to those who are being saved. It is a triumphal fragrance and they recognize the victory and life offered by a gracious God in that fragrance.
In short, this is a picture of the normal Christian life—to exude the “aroma” of Christ to the people with whom God brings us into contact and to recognize that some will experience it as the fragrance of life, some will experience it as the smell of death. But this does not take place automatically, independent of our cooperation and submission to Jesus. Not all Christians have this kind of impact on people around them. Some Christians just plain stink—to everyone else and to God as well. Other Christians are odorless—blending into their surroundings and so go unnoticed.
But we don’t have to be stinkers or fragrance-free. We are in Christ, therefore all through our lives we are part of a continuing triumphal procession, held captive by the grace of God and fragrant agents of the expansion of his kingdom; we are carriers of his glory into the grind of life. “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ.”