“But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.” 2 Corinthians 2:14
Last spring I walked into our church during the week and quickly turned around and walked back out. The smell of death as you walked into the church was overwhelming. We tried to use air fresheners but nothing could subdue the smell. We didn’t know what had died or where it had died but the something had most definitely died. We were later able to get a company to come in and clean everything out and things started to smell much better.
Our sense of smell is powerful. According to a science magazine the human nose can tell 1 trillion different smells. That’s a big number. So while we may not always be able to identify where a smell is coming from we can all be aware of the smells around us.
In 2 Corinthians 2:14-17 Paul is going to describe how Christians give off on odour. However, before he goes into that he describes in verse 14 about being led around in Christ’s triumphal procession. I think it’s important to first understand what Paul is getting at there before we can fully understand what Paul means by the different aromas. If you read verse 14 in a few different translations you will notice that there are two main ways of translating the verse. A lot of translations will translate it along the lines that Christ leads us in a triumphal procession. However, the NIV and NLT will translate it as Christ leading us as his captives. which is quite a bit different. So why the difference? It has to do with a single Greek word, θριαμβεύω, and how it gets interpreted. I say interpreted rather than translated because it’s one of those words that you can’t translate word for word.
So what is the issue? The word, θριαμβεύω, has to do with a military general leading around prisoners of war in a triumphal parade in order show the greatness of the victorious army over its enemies. The parade would go through the town where people would mock the prisoners and burn incense until the procession got to the temple where sacrifices to the gods were made as a thanksgiving for their help in battle. This procession was a way of honouring both the military leaders and the gods. So the question that needs to be asked when coming to 2 Corinthians 2:14 is, does Paul actually see himself as a conquered enemy of God? Traditionally, most translations don’t see Paul as meaning this and so interpret the verse as Paul joining in with Christ in his victory. Is this actually what Paul means though?
This Greek word is only used one other time in all of scripture, in Colossians 2:15, where it is about Christ triumphing over the rulers and authorities by the cross. Here it looks like Paul is using the word in its more traditional sense. In fact there isn’t evidence of anyone in that time period using the word like it has been traditionally translated in 2 Corinthians. If Paul is actually trying to say that he sees himself as a conquered enemy being paraded around, what does he mean by this?
I think he is deliberately using this language because he is writing to the church of Corinth and he is trying to get at one of their biggest problems, which was their pride. Reading through both first and second Corinthians it quickly becomes apparent that the Corinthians had a rather high opinion of themselves. So high in fact, that they often thought they knew better than Paul. Along with this, the Corinthians thought they knew what it meant to be really spiritual, which was a whole lot different than what Paul thought. So we see how Paul boasts, in chapter 11:23ff, about his beatings and imprisonments and so on. Paul often boasts about what the Corinthians will see as a disgrace. I think the same kind of thing is going on in Chapter 2:14. Paul is in fact boasting that he is a conquered enemy of Christ. Paul, who once went after and persecuted Christians, has been overpowered by Christ and is now his prisoner. Instead of this being something shameful for Paul, which he then tries to hide, he will boast all the more about it. Christ has overpowered him and is now parading him around as a sign of Christ’s great power. This is the power of Christ, that even an enemy like Saul of Tarsus cannot stand against him.
The other important thing is that Paul is not a shamed prisoner of Christ, rather, he celebrates and boasts that Christ has taken him captive. He is a happy and willing prisoner. His captivity is a fragrance that will show the greatness of God throughout the entire world. This fragrance will be a sweet aroma to those who are being saved, but the smell of death to those who are perishing.
So what are we smelling? When we look at the life of Paul: his beatings, his labours, his lashes, what do we smell? When we hear Jesus say that whoever wants to be first must be the servant of all, what do we smell? When Jesus tells us that to be his follower we have to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him, do we smell the aroma of life or death?