2 Corinthians 2:12-3:6
In the bit of the letter we have missed out (1:12-2:11), Paul begins to answer his critics in Corinth who were turning against him for falling short of their notions of what a strong spiritual leader should be, and yet in his letters for being a bully, harsh and unloving. From 2:14 through to 7:4 he embarks on an extended digression in defence of his ministry (see how 7:5 picks up from where he left off in 2:13). He is speaking of his own apostolic ministry, but in doing so he describes what authentic Gospel ministry looks like too – ie what it means for any of us to be a servant of the Gospel, committed to making Christ known.
2:12,13 exemplifies an important theme. In Troas Paul was distracted by his concerns about the situation in Corinth (he was waiting to meet up with Titus who would be bringing news back from there), but despite God opening the door such that his preaching was having a powerful effect – revival in Troas! – Paul’s heart wasn’t in it and he left to go in search of colleague. Paul readily admits to his weakness (distracted by other concerns), and yet can testify to God’s grace and power working in his weakness such that a new church was born.
2:14-17 introduces the metaphor of a Roman triumphal procession, when after a great victory the victorious general might parade around the streets of Rome with his army, leading behind them in chains at the end of the procession the defeated general and his troops, and some of the spoils of war, all trophies of the Roman victory. And all along the route incense would be burnt as part of the celebration. Paul uses the metaphor in two ways. First he sees himself as part of the procession, but whereas his detractors might have supposed that the proper place for an apostle would be up the front with Christ, as a trusted lieutenant, Paul rather puts himself at the back – one of Christ’s captives, one of the conquered not a conqueror (an image he used in an earlier letter to them too, see 1 Cor.4:9). As such Paul claims no honour for himself, but rather rejoices that through him Christ brings glory to Himself.
Then secondly, Paul tweaks the metaphor and likens himself to the incense lit along the victory route that bears witness to the victory of Christ. And as the smell of the incense must have pervaded the entire city, so God means to spread through us “everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him” – “knowledge” here as often in the Bible meaning, not head knowledge, but personal knowledge. The world has rejected such knowledge of God (cf. Rom. 1), but God wants to use us to entice people back into relationship with Him. Notice particularly that the nature of smell is that it is public, open – it can’t be contained. And nor should we try and hide the Gospel and keep it to ourselves – God means all to hear. Paul particularly draws out through the metaphor the divisive effect of Gospel ministry – “to the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life”. Some will be repelled, some will be drawn to Christ and new life. A frightening responsibility, being an instrument of life and death: spiritual oxygen or spiritual cyanide. And faced with such a task, some duck it (the “peddlers” of 2:17), but Paul has proved himself genuine.
A peddler was someone who roamed the streets selling goods of dubious quality, often adulterating them to make more profit – eg watering down the wine, or adding chalk to salt etc. “Many … peddle the Word of God”, watering down the message to make it more palatable, removing anything offensive – any whiff of death. Such a message is popular (and so profitable), but powerless to save.
In contrast, Paul was ever conscious of the Master whose word he spoke – “we speak before God” – so would not tamper with the message. And if they wanted proof, something that would authenticate his ministry, the Corinthians themselves are his letter of recommendation – a letter authored by Christ, written by the Spirit, “on tablets of the human heart”.
And in answer to his question back in 2:16, “who is equal to such a task?”, he says it’s not down to natural talents or abilities – “our competence comes from God” (2:5). He equips us. This ministry is all of grace. And his power is made perfect in weakness.
The passage is one we should apply easily to our Christian lives and witness. We all feel unequal to the task, and shrink from being the smell of death to others (we want to be liked). But how much better than an obituary in The Times – half a page of ink to commend one’s life – to leave behind living letters from Christ.
What makes is shrink from being too public about our faith?
Paul uses the metaphor of a Roman triumphal procession.
In vv.14b-16, he likens himself now to the incense lit along the victory route.