The Triumphal Procession of Christ
Topic: Trials Passage: 2 Corinthians 2:12–17
Grace Community Church
Oct. 25, 2020
The Triumphal Procession of Christ
Let’s turn in our bibles to 2 Cor. 2. I want to thank Ron for a great message last week.
As we continue our series, Messy Grace, let’s briefly recap where we are: Paul left Corinth after a painful visit, he then wrote a strongly worded letter to Corinth. Paul’s stated intention was to go to Macedonia and then return to Corinth and stay a while.
When Paul didn’t return to Corinth after visiting Macedonia as he said he hoped to do, a group of anti-Pauler’s in Corinth saw this as an opportunity to undermine Paul and at the same time promote their own ministry, so they accused him of being fickle, untrustworthy, a man who didn’t keep his word.
We’ve already looked at Paul’s defense, so let’s pray and then pick up the story in verse 12.
12 When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, 13 my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia.
14 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. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 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. 2:12-16
Paul was an apostle and his life was going from city to city preaching Christ and seeing people come to faith in Christ. When Paul entered a new city, he never knew what he would encounter. Sometimes he would face a lot of opposition and sometimes he would find a lot of hearts prepared to receive his message and to believe on Jesus.
Troas was one of those cities where people’s hearts were open to the gospel. Paul writes, a door was opened for me in the Lord. Paul didn’t open the door, God opened the door and many people were getting saved through the preaching of the gospel.
This is what Paul lived for…but in this case his heart just isn’t into it. There’s something else on his mind.My spirit was not at rest. He’s distracted. His mind is troubled, his heart burdened. The same guy who wrote be anxious for nothing was anxious for something. He hoped Titus would be in Troas but he wasn’t.
To us this feels out of left field. Why couldn’t Paul rest because Titus wasn’t in Troas, and why is it important for him to write this to the Corinthians? What we will find is that Titus plays a key role in the unfolding relational mess between Paul and the Corinthian believers.
This might seem strange, but it reminds me of a scene in Beauty and the Beast when Belle takes a book out of the library and as she flips through it she sings,
Oh, isn't this amazing?
It's my favorite part because you'll see
Here's where she meets Prince Charming
But she won't discover that it's him 'til chapter three!
What we see here in chapter 2 reminds me of that scene because this is where we meet the bearer of happy news for Paul, but we won’t discover that it’s him til chapter 7!
Suffice it to say that Titus was the messenger who brought Paul’s severe letter to the Corinthians, and Paul wants to know, how did they take it? Titus, what happened? Were they angry? Hurt? Repentant? Paul can’t rest until he knows and only Titus can tell him.
But Titus isn’t in Troas, and Paul’s spirit has no rest and he leaves this open door of ministry the Lord has opened up for him and he travels to Macedonia, hoping to find Titus there.
And that story will be continued…but not yet. Because Paul interrupts his story with spontaneous thanksgiving to God. Let’s read it again, starting in verse 14:
14 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. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?
I like the fact that Paul breaks into praise when the story of their relational mess is still at a low point. The story will get better, but thanksgiving towards God isn’t just for the high points in life. We can and should give thanks to God when things are going great, when things are going horribly, and everything in between.
The truth is, our lives have happy chapters and sad chapters, easy chapters and hard chapters, blessed chapters and not-so-blessed chapters, fruitful chapters and barren chapters, surrounded by close friends chapters and surrounded by loneliness chapters. Your life right now is in a chapter. Might be a happy chapter, might be a sad chapter. Might be a “nothing much is happening” chapter. Now is a chapter, but now isn’t the whole story. For the Christian we can be assured that God is writing a metanarrative that isn’t up and down; in Christ it’s up. In Christ it’s all things working out for good. We may lose some battles along the way, but in Christ we’ve won the war. God in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession.
Paul borrows from the Roman military to convey this. When a Roman general conquered in battle the conquering hero would often return to his people with a parade- what Paul calls a triumphal procession- and in that parade would be the conquering soldiers, government leaders, people dispersing incense, and finally, bringing up the rear, the conquered, being led along in chains, broken, defeated, marching to their doom.
There is some question about where Paul places believers in this illustration. Are we conquerors, or are we the captives being led? 1 Cor. 4:9 seems to identify us – or at least the apostles – as the conquered.
For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as
to human beings. 1 Cor. 4:9
That does seem to place us as captives at the end of the procession. But I don’t think that means we are captives at the end of the procession here in 2 Cor. 2.
Over the years that I’ve preached, there have been times when I’ve used the same illustration to make different points, and I think Paul is doing that here. In 1 Cor. the church is full of themselves, pointing to worldly benchmarks of success to say they’ve made it, they’re mature, they’re spiritual. We have a lot of money, we have a lot of status, we are accepted and respected by everyone in polite society.
Paul says, good for you. I wish I was there with you, but it feels like we apostles are at the end of the line. Humiliated, rejected, doing without, experiencing hardships, condemned to die. He’s addressing a worldly sense of spiritual success, and saying that as we are led by Christ sometimes we will look like the exact opposite of worldly success.
But here in chapter 2 I think he’s using the same illustration to emphasize our triumph in Christ, no matter what is happening in our lives. Thanks be to God that Christ, our General, has triumphed over sin and death, over Satan and the world, and his victory is our victory.
The gospel is not a defeatist message, it’s a triumphant message! And as we share that message, God spreads the fragrance of that triumph and the knowledge of the risen Christ everywhere we go.
Notice the metaphor of fragrance, or aroma, becomes a big part of Paul’s illustration.
- Through us God spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere
- We are the aroma of Christ to God
- To one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life
Fragrance has a powerful effect on us. Did you know that of all our senses the sense of smell has the most powerful connection to our memories and our emotions? When I was 15 I went with some friends to a massive Jesus festival, and it was an awesome three days of great music, teaching, and fellowship.Every night the smell of campfires burning all around etched itself into my memory so that to this day when I smell wood burning outside, it stirs the memories and feelings of that awesome time, even though it was decades ago. Fragrance connects with us on a deeply personal, impactful way.
As Christians, we are to leave a fragrance of Christ behind us. People should smell the love, kindness, grace, mercy, righteousness, wisdom, integrity of Jesus. That’s what Paul is saying: as God leads us in Christ through life, in triumph, He wants to spread through us the fragrance of Christ everywhere. Not our fragrance, Christ’s fragrance. People should smell Christ on us.
When I read this passage, one person I think of is my father in law, Janice’s dad. Bob Lehman was a man who exuded the triumph of Christ through his life. Dad was a Lutheran pastor most of his life, and his relationship with Jesus was at the same time deep and simple. He didn’t love getting into complex debates over Christian doctrine like my brother in law Bill and I did. When Bill and I got into heated debates we were also spreading an aroma, but not necessarily Christ. We could clear a room!
Dad really wasn’t into debate or arguing, but he loved Jesus and exuded a constant sense of triumph in Christ like very few people I’ve met.
Over the years, so many times when challenges would arise, whereas my first reaction in a similar situation would be something like, “OK, I need to worry about this. What are we going to do? How are we going to deal with this? What practical steps can we take?” I’ll get to faith, but let me worry and be negative for a little bit, ok? But Dad would go right to, “Thanks be to God who in Christ always leads me in triumphal procession!”
- Obstacles were simply opportunities for Christ to help him overcome
- Trials were testimonies of Christ’s victory in the making
- Financial needs were the springboard for Christ’s abundant provision
- Even in the deepest valleys when Dad experienced heart ache, like when Janice’s mom lost her memory to Alzheimer’s, he never lost sight of the ultimate victory awaiting both Ingrid and himself in Christ.
There was always a smell of triumph in Christ surrounding my father in law. During worship, Dad would often whistle a kind of trumpet blast and to me it always sounded like triumph. Through Bob’s life many were led to believe in Christ’s triumph too. We miss him. But he’s probably whistling trumpet blasts in the presence of Jesus right now!
The Lord wants us to spread the aroma of Christ to everyone, but that aroma won’t smell the same to everyone.
As the Roman procession paraded through town, it would have been sensory overload for everyone, but in very different ways. For the victors, it would have been an amazingly happy time and the smells of burning incense, like the smell of burning campfires for me, would have been mixed with the exhilaration of conquering for an intoxicating experience. But for the conquered, that same smell would have represented their defeat, humiliation, and despair. The same smell that meant joy to the conquering, meant death to the conquered.
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing (same aroma – the aroma of Christ), to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Vv. 15-16
How can the same smell be different to different people? It’s talking about spiritual senses but we see a physical example in nature. God created mankind such that the smell of death and decay repulses us. But God created other creatures, like vultures, to be attracted to the smell of death. They don’t even notice that delicious carcass until it starts to rot and decay. That gets me thinking - rotting flesh must smell different to them than it does to us. Our yuck is their yum!
To those who are spiritually dead, Christ smells like death. Following Jesus seems like a dead end, a missing out on life proposition. Living for the things the world can give feels like living, like life. Not because they bring life but because we were spiritually dead. The Bible says in Eph. 2 that we were all dead in sin. In that state of spiritual deadness we wanted nothing to do with Jesus or the things of God and those who do follow Jesus looked and smelled like fools to us. And there’s nothing we could have done to change our spiritual senses from death to life.
But God…Eph. 2:4 says But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ Eph. 2:4-5
Paul asks, who is sufficient for these things? The answer is, no one but God. Getting someone to go from death to death to life to life isn’t something we can do by being eloquent or persuasive. It takes the power of God making a spiritually dead person alive in Christ.
As Christians, our part isn’t to save souls, it’s to spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ everywhere we can, and then ask God who is rich in mercy to make the dead alive.
Our part isn’t to be perfect people – we are sinners saved by grace – but to be humble examples of flawed but genuine people being led in triumphal procession by our victorious General, Jesus Christ. We want to be careful that our lives don’t get embroiled in sin and scandal because that will be what people smell if we do. We are to live full lives and that includes being involved in many things, but we want to be careful we don’t get so identified with some lesser cause that when people think of us, the aroma they smell is that lesser thing, rather than the aroma of Christ.
And then, our part is to pray and ask God to use our lives to help others join the triumphal procession, led by Jesus Christ from life to ever-increasing life. May the Lord make it so.