2Cor.2:14-17 - "Sunnyhill" Herne Bay Evangelical Free Church

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2 Corinthians 2:14-17


Reading: 1 Sam.18:1-16

On Display in Christ

On May 9 th each year Russia organises a major display of military power on the streets of Moscow. It is known as the Victory Day Parade and this year marked the 70th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in WWII. The celebrations this year were the largest ever organised and included an impressive display of military hardware on the ground but also in the air with an aerial flypast.

On July 4 th in the US there are parades celebrating Independence Day. While these events don't contain the same exhibition of military might they do regularly involve marching bands and military personnel as success in past military battles are remembered.

Almost without exception since 1880 France has marked Bastille Day (July 14 th) with parades through the centre of Paris. Smaller military parades also take place this day in other towns in France On July 14 th in France.

In the UK we too have our parades even if they are more often look like ceremonial tourist attractions. We have an annual Armed Forces Day that takes place in June to show support for our armed forces.

Of course military parades prefer to draw attention to a country's strengths and to celebrate its victories rather than to focus upon its weaknesses and failures – we don't like to be reminded of those.

In NT times the Romans were good at organising their own military parades. A successful general returning home after a victorious campaign would be particularly honoured. The elements of such celebrations would be well-known to the inhabitants of the empire and Paul alludes to this common knowledge in this section of his letter to which we now turn.

Anxiety Turns to Joyfulness Praise
Well let me first remind you of just where we are in Paul's letter.

Paul has just been explaining to the Corinthians how worried he had been about them. He was so worried that when the Lord opened a door for fruitful ministry in Troas he simply wasn't able to avail himself for the opportunity. Paul had hoped to receive some news from Titus about the situation in Corinth but then Titus never showed up! In disarray Paul abandoned Troas and headed off to Macedonia. There he finally did meet up with Titus who had excellent news – the Corinthians wanted to see their relationship with Paul put on a better footing. (Paul will tell us something more of this later in this letter see 2Cor.7:5ff.)

With good news ringing in his ears and rejoicing his heart Paul directed his thoughts in a Godward direction praising and thanking him. Paul affirmed confidently his trust in God who had a purpose and a plan for his life.

But how could Paul suddenly start writing about parades and triumphal processions when he has only just told the Corinthians about his weakness and his failures in Troas? Is Paul getting a bit carried away with things? Was his life really made up of one victory after another? Was Paul guilty of crass triumphalism? Just how are we supposed to understand what he wrote in these verses when he said that "God in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession"?  

But what are you to make of what he says? At first sight Paul's words seem extravagant – the AV doesn't help us at this point but rather misleads with a suggestion that one victory after another is characteristic of Paul's Christian life. Paul's life is however marked by weakness and suffering as he follows his crucified Lord – life was not a continual bed of roses for him and we will be disappointed if we expect it to be so for us.

Paul's Allusion to Roman Military Celebrations
The first thing we must underscore is the fact that God deals with Christians as they are in their union with Christ. Paul is who he is because he has been brought into a living fellowship with Jesus Christ by grace through faith. He does what he does because in his union with Jesus Christ he has been given the task of being an apostle. As Paul lives and ministers he understands that everything that God does with regard to him is determined by this indissoluble union. Whatever happens to Paul he will never have to face God on his own he will always meet him as united to his Son!

What a wonderful thing to know that we are so tied to Christ that God will never ever treat us as isolated or separated individuals but always as related so intimately to Christ!

Now Paul draws upon the imagery of a Roman military parade and uses this language to describe what has happened and is happening to him. This is an illustration that Paul uses and is helpful if we don't try to press the application too far.

When a Roman general won a battle/war he would return from the field leading his defeated foes in his victory parade. These defeated soldiers were now his slaves and he displayed them as trophies of war as he led them in triumphal procession. Their presence is a demonstration of their weakness and of their captor's power.

And Paul sees himself as part of God's triumphal procession. Paul who was once the fanatical Pharisee Saul bound on destroying the church of Jesus Christ has been found out. His strength has been shown to be nothing but weakness that has been overcome by the all-conquering Jesus. Paul's presence now in this particular triumphal procession is testimony to the power of God. He is being led about now "displayed in Christ" as belonging to Jesus. His presence is both a testimony to the conquering power of saving grace and a warning to those who would go on resisting.

Nor is this the only lesson that Paul wants to draw from the victory celebrations of a Roman general. As an integral part of those celebrations sacrifices would be offered to the Roman gods and the smell of these sacrifices would drift over all who were present. Now Paul speaks of himself as being made a channel through which the fragrance of the knowledge of the true and Living God would be passed on to others!

Paul pictures himself (and his ministry of faithful gospel service) as the aroma of Christ and a fragrance – both these words were used amongst Jews to describe sacrificial offerings presented to God. Paul is comparing his preaching (and indeed by the sharing of the good news by any Christian) to the spreading of a smell – how that smell is appreciated on or not does not really depend upon the message but upon the condition of the hearer.

For those who hear the message that Paul has to preach, observe its effects in the lives of others and who embrace it wholeheartedly for themselves, this message is sweet and fragrant. To them the gospel message is a wonderful aroma of life, life, the fullest life imaginable.

But not all those who hear the message of the gospel receive it in that way.  While the reason for preaching and for sharing the good news with others is that they too might receive it and respond to it and be saved many refuse to pay it any attention at all. To these that message that is so valued by others is to them the smell of the refuse tip, it has the smell of death about it and nothing else.

Think again to that Roman celebration: the sacrifices would be made and the aroma would drift over spectator and participant alike. For the general and his supporters and for the crowds gathered to honour him the fragrance would speak of pleasant things – victory in battle and not of defeat, perhaps the highspot in that particular general's life! Oh the smell of that fragrance was sweet indeed.

Ah, but if you were one of the defeated enemy on display that fragrance signified something else entirely. It spoke of weakness, defeat and death. Why death, you ask? Well the fate of those captured men was usually execution once the celebrations were over – death was all that they could expect unless the celebrating victorious general were to spare them by an act of sheer grace.

Paul had once been an enemy but his resistance and opposition had been overcome. He had been captured by Christ but not for immediate slaughter and death – no, this man has been saved by grace so that he might preach and proclaim the good news of Jesus as a sweet perfume to others.

How does Paul respond to all of this?
Paul recognises both the honour of the work to which he has been called and the importance of it. While to others he might be thought to occupy a degrading position – after all he appears to have been taken captive against his will and is nothing other than a defeated foe – Paul rejoices in his union with Christ and his place in the purposes of God.

Paul is thankful concerning what has already been accomplished in his life and confident that God will never give up on him.

How easy in such circumstances to allow his head to be turned and to imagine that he is somehow a cut above the rest, perhaps it would be tempting that he had been chosen for something inherent in himself, that God saw something in him and so saved him and set him aside for ministry because of something special about Paul.

But this is not how Paul reacts and is never the way for a Christian to react. Paul's response is one of humility as he calls out:

v.16 "Who is sufficient for these things?"

Paul doesn't immediately give his answer to this question but he soon comes to it in 2Cor.3:5:

"Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God."

What Paul does do here is to explain how he set out to be that sweet smelling perfume, that fragrance of Christ to God.

Paul's response is to do his utmost to make sure that his own life is lived right and his own ministry is carried out properly. He underlines a number of important points.

Firstly Paul declares he is not, like so many, a peddler of God's word. What does he mean by that?

Well the word peddler is normally used in a pejorative sense. So someone who peddles the word of God would be a person who is quite prepared to adulterate it if that makes for easier "selling". In other words a peddler of God's word would change his message to meet the whims and fancies of his hearers. This could be done in a number of ways:

  • By deliberately adding something else to the word

  • By deliberately overlooking or ignoring something in the word

  • By presenting a version of God's word that is out of balance – ie. not presenting Bible truth in Bible proportion

In our generation teaching on judgment and hell are out of fashion to put it politely. But so also is teaching on holy living and serious discipleship. Think of the biggest congregations in the world – where are they to be found? They're to be found where a preacher is peddling the word of God and appealing to men and women to use God to further their own selfish pleasure seeking – the health, wealth and prosperity teachers. These worldly preachers don't want to talk often about sin and judgement and hell because the crowds would dwindle and the sales of books and dvds would dry up.

And Paul declared he wasn't like that. Making money was not the reason he was in ministry. Indeed he'll later remind the Corinthians that he deliberately refused to be a financial burden upon them. Paul faithfully preached God's word – at times it landed him in hot, very hot, water but it was his task to preach the gospel and he did the best job he could of that.

Secondly, and as a contrast to those who peddled God's word for profit, Paul insisted on three further qualities that characterised his life as a Christian minister:

  • He was sincere – please note that sincerity on its own is no sure guarantee a man can, after all, be sincerely wrong. But Paul was teaching the truth and sincere in his teaching of it. He wasn't acting a role, pretending that it was important when in reality he didn't think so at all. No, Paul had been conquered by Christ, his entire life had been turned around and he longed for others to know the truth that had set him free. He was a preacher of Christ.

  • He was himself "in Christ" that is he believed himself what he was seeking to pass on to others. He was united to the Christ he preached to others, he loved the Christ he preached to others, he suffered for this Christ he preached to others. This Christ whom he preached to others was everything to him, so much so that Paul could write elsewhere: "for me to live is Christ and to die is gain".

  • He lived his life consciously "before God" or "in the sight of God". Paul was no ungodly man who was simply doing his own thing he was aware of God's eye upon him, the eye of an all-seeing Holy God. So for Paul ministry could not be undertaken in a light or flippant manner – he had been commissioned by this God and would have to give an account to him for how he lived.

So Paul asserts that he was a God-centred sincere Christian man – his was just the kind of ministry that our churches still need today – may the Lord be pleased to give us such men.

Well what are we to make of this?

Paul was so enthusiastic and so concerned to uphold his own godly integrity wasn't he? The reason was that he was himself so moved by the message he had to preach.

He was thrilled to be able to preach a Christ who came to be crucified so that sinners could be delivered from their woeful bondage.

What does gospel preaching say to us? Does the thought of hearing another gospel sermon thrill us or do we inwardly groan and think to ourselves "not another gospel sermon"?

When Christ is preached – are we delighted? Is it like sweet perfume to us? Or do we perhaps long for the sermon to end because its smell has long since lost any appeal it may once have had for us?

May we know what it is to be passionate about Jesus Christ and if we have lost our first love or are in danger of losing it let us "repent and turn again that our sins may be blotted out (and) that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord".

To God be the Glory.


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