Our culture tends to define us. We experience a constant struggle of “swimming upstream” in reflecting Christ. Becoming like our surrounding culture, whether religiously or morally, has pressured God’s people from the beginning. Corinth is an excellent example. Paul battled the Corinthian false preachers who had influenced the church to be citizens of their culture instead of citizens of the Kingdom of God. Carrying the cross through hardship, self-denial, and sacrifice is not a popular message. As Paul preached the “message of the cross” it caused a rift between him and those who argued for a more convenient and pleasant gospel. Therefore, in 2 Corinthians Paul presented pictures to help the Corinthians visualize God’s intended identity for his people. Notice the text:
“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. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?” (2 Corinthians 2:14–16 NIV11)
Paul described service to Christ as a Roman triumphal procession that followed a victorious campaign by a conquering king. The procession included the king riding in a chariot followed by wagons carrying the spoils of war and a multitude of captives of kings, rulers, and common soldiers. Pagan priests would burn incense to the gods and musicians would play to honor the victor. Then, at the end of the procession, some of the captives would be put to death as a sacrifice to the Roman gods and to the glory of the conquering king.
The procession of captives in combination with the incense and sacrifices, was the ultimate triumph. Even if death awaited at the end of the parade, it was in honor of the king. For a captive, his own death was the ultimate glorification of the king. Therefore, who were Paul, Timothy, Titus, and his other working companions? They were captives for Christ heading for death so that the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Christ might be spread everywhere. In fact, in verse 15, Paul said that we become like the incense burned in the parade spreading the aroma of the knowledge of Christ. In other words, in being taken captive by Christ and even dying for him, Jesus is honored and glorified wherever we go, like incense that permeates the air, we tell others about our conquering King.
Seeing Ourselves in the Picture
What a thought that God sees us marching in Christ’s triumphal procession, giving ourselves up to death for both those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To be sure, to some we are an aroma of death because they reject the life they see in us as we live as sacrifices for Jesus. That was exactly the reason the false preachers and their followers rejected the gospel of Paul. That kind of life was nothing but death to them. But to others, our life as captives is an aroma of life as they see that being conquered by Christ and dying for Christ, produces the ultimate life in ourselves and others. Paul included every disciple in this message when he later said, “We have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:14-15).
Living as Captives in Christ’s Triumphal Procession
How can this picture be seen in our lives? We live comfortably and the challenges of the first century do not seem evident to us. I would suggest at least three applications:
- If we are his captive, we must be willing to be inconvenienced. “Inconvenienced” seems such a weak word when compared to marching as a captive toward a triumphal death, but that is where dying for Christ plays out for most of us. We tend to be very protective of our time. We may be willing to make a “sacrifice” from what is left over after we have satisfied our own rigid schedule, but more than that is needed when a soul is at stake. As Paul said, “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be visible in our mortal flesh…So death is at work in us, but life in you (2 Cor. 4:10, 12). The key to saving a life, is giving our lives. For Jesus to truly be visible through us requires us to give ourselves over to death just as Jesus did.
- We cannot change the message so the smell is more acceptable. That was exactly the philosophy of the false preachers at Corinth. They were “peddlers of God’s word,” preaching a message of comfort and ease that fit the culture of the world instead of the message of the cross. The teaching of Christ is counter-cultural and we often feel the pull of minimizing those parts of Christ’s teaching that are despised by the world. We must be impressed that Jesus required high commitment and the ultimate sacrifice from his disciples. Too many Christians and even church leaders are content with mediocre commitment and are far from the picture of denying self and taking up a cross.
- The need to properly perceive our place in this world and in the sight of God. We have been created by God for good works, as a light to bring salvation to the end of the earth. We haven’t joined a church in order to celebrate our salvation. Our weekly meetings are not all about us. Jesus said, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8).
Who are we? We are Christ’s captives in his triumphal procession, “spreading the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.” Whether in life or in death, we live to glorify him. Never think differently!