Paul's Confidence in the Corinthians: Part 2 of 3 (series: Lessons on 2 Co.)

by John Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

And through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. So Paul, by his preaching, and the knowledge of God (of Him, may mean of Christ) releases along the route of his travels the fragrant fragrance of tribute to God. In speaking of the fragrant smell Paul may also think of sacrificial incense (Rom. 15:16{9]; Eph. 5:2{10]); his mind often moves freely from one allusion to another as he writes. But the main thought is that his apostolic ministry has been one long triumphal procession of the victorious God, who in Christ has controlled and led him, and now has given another proof of this in the recent triumph of Paul over his foes in Corinth.


Through us, God diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. The surrendered life has a quality which is like the perfume that permeates the air from a flower that is crushed. This influence is hard to describe. Paul calls it a fragrance. Others have described it as a radiance. This quality is found in those who are so conscious of the love of Christ that they are unconscious of themselves. It cannot be artificially produced; it is the reflection in us of God’s Spirit. When Mary broke the box of fragrant ointment over Jesus’ feet in self-effacing love, “the house was filled with the odor of the ointment” (John 12:3). Goodness born out of love for Christ has the quality of peace and happiness which Jesus described in the Beatitudes. Robert Louis Stevenson spoke of it as “flowering piety.” It appears when resignation has blossomed into the joy of accepting and doing God’s will instead of merely submitting to sorrow or misfortune as fate, or when the judgment of God that lays us low becomes the means of the triumph of His grace. It is the fragrance of His knowledge. Its effect on others is to produce an experience of God. God is not revealed by argument, but by a quality of Spirit which creates the capacity to feed and respond, as light awakens the eye to see. Nothing else will reach the hearts of men. Lives which lack serenity or grace have no attractive power. Only a power which makes us happy in spite of adverse conditions can speak to the secret unhappiness of those who are unreconciled to life or to God.

15 For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.

In that triumphal entry, there were those who were going to be set free and those who were going to be executed—but all of them were in the triumphal entry.

The apostles, who preach the gospel that gives the fragrance of the knowledge of God are here called the fragrance. It is the message rather than the man that gives the sweet-smelling odor, and this message concerns Christ; so it is really the fragrance of Christ. Just as to God opened verse 14, so here of Christ stands first with emphasis in the Greek clause; Paul continually seeks to drive home the truth that the gospel concerns the will and work of God, the saving action of Christ. It is not based on the human resources of the apostles; they (the apostles) point men to the divine source of redemption and moral power. In verse 15b the illustration takes a startling turn. The perfume or incense of the gospel message produces quite different effects in those who hear it; verse 16 will explain that. But now Paul states generally that the message is truly Christ’s fragrance in all who hear it, whether they are being saved or are perishing. The men who are in these two groups, are shown by their reaction to the gospel, to be on their way either to salvation or to ruin.

For we are to God the fragrance of Christ. Like incense from an altar, the fragrance of Christ rises to God from surrendered lives. It gives God satisfaction, as the writer to the Hebrews suggests: “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God” (Heb. 11:16). In them, God sees the fruit of His age-long purpose of redemption. To realize this deepens our sense of the importance of our loyalty to Christ. Christian lives are the one product in history which gives history its meaning. The value of a civilization may not be properly judged by art or architecture, or by the comfort and security it offers, but by the number and vitality of its Christian men and women. Political and social theories must be tested by the extent to which they encourage the growth of Christian character in freedom, co-operation, moral principle, and reverence for personality.

16 To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things?

Paul is overwhelmed by this—“who is sufficient for these things?” My friend, the greatest privilege in the world is to give out the Word of God. There is nothing like it. I would never want to run for the

presidency of the United States. It is difficult to understand why anyone would want to be president in this day of unsolvable problems. But it is glorious to give out the Word of God! Do you know why? Because He always causes us to triumph.

When the Gospel is preached and multitudes accept Christ that is wonderful. It is just as wonderful when I tell somebody about Jesus, and they accept Him as their Savior. We can see the triumph there. We are an aroma of life unto those who are saved. But now wait a minute—what about the crowd that rejects Christ? We are an aroma of death to them. I have to admit that I feel awful when I think about those to whom I have preached the Gospel only to see them leave still without Christ. I may be their worst enemy, because when they must stand before Christ they can no longer say that they never heard the Gospel. However, all people are now in the triumphal entry. Many will not be set free; they will be judged. But regardless of our destiny, we are in the great triumphal entry of Jesus Christ, because He is going to win my friend! Every knee must bow to Him, and every tongue must confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Every individual will have to bow to Him someday—regardless of whether He is the person’s Savior or Judge. No wonder Paul exclaims, who is sufficient for these things?

To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. Today the incense is ascending; the Word is going out. And we are an aroma of life to some and an aroma of death to others.

But as the aroma of incense during a triumphal procession spreads everywhere and has different effects on different people, for example, on those who were about to die, and on those to whom victory meant life, so has the sweet savor of Christ had varied results according to men’s reaction to it. It makes good men better, and bad men worse, just as light on an unhealthy eye may produce blindness, while to a healthy eye it brings greater illumination. The Christian spirit brings men to judgment. It awakens the conscious to moral realities. It brings human pride and all its superficial triumphs to the dust. Men may resist that judgment or try to escape it, only to plunge deeper into evil. They resist goodness and are hardened. Neglect of spiritual values, as well as deliberate rejection, dulls the spiritual senses. This is what Paul means by death—the total loss of the spiritual sense. It is a tragic possibility. The final issue of moral choice is between life and death.

On the other hand, acceptance of God’s judgment through the influence of the Christian spirit opens up to us His grace and forgiveness. The knowledge of God to those who receive it becomes an aroma of life leading to life. Spiritual capacity grows by exercise. Vision becomes clearer by obedience. Christ becomes more and more to those who follow Him. The reward of following Him is thus a deeper understanding of His message and a greater freedom to obey it. The decisive point of Paul’s whole life was his obedience to “the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19).

It is the same aroma of Christ, the same message of His saving work; it is always an incense or tribute offered to God. But the results differ sharply. The gospel finds one group on its way to ruin, spiritual death; their rejection of it sends them farther on the way. In the other group, the message is welcomed, and it helps them on the way to God’s full gift of eternal life. Paul does not say how this happens, but only states the fact. The gospel confirms some in their sin; they reject it and become more hardened in wrongdoing. It finds in others the response that is an open door to immense blessings. Paul firmly believed that God’s will and wisdom are back of this; his belief that men are responsible for their decisions was equally as strong. But here he does not seek to balance the sovereignty of God, which to him is a basic fact, and man’s responsibility, which is also true. He turns rather to a question which shows that to him it is a terrible responsibility to confront men with a message which either hardens them in sin or opens the way to life: How can any man dare to carry on a ministry that has such immense, eternal issues.

Who is sufficient for these things? It is a responsible thing to be a Christian. There is no difference between lay people and the clergy in this matter. All need love, insight, and the power to reflect without distortion the mind of Christ. The concern of all Christians must be to make sure no one is turned away because they misrepresent Him. Our only safeguard is complete humility and utter sincerity. Paul goes on to speak of this in the next verse.



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