The Fragrance of Faithful Ministry

Reading Time: 9 mins

Nothing moves or drives Paul more than preaching about “Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is, perhaps, one of the more compelling books in the New Testament, especially when the story which prompted it comes into view. Throughout, Paul writes almost in a mode of “self-defense,” as the Corinthians had developed a serious doubt and distrust for him because of his apparent “vacillating” (2 Cor. 1:17). At the end of his first letter, all indications pointed to an upcoming apostolic visit (1 Cor. 16:5–7), a plan which never materialized. This apparent wavering had spoiled his reputation in the Corinthians’ eyes so much so that his very office as an apostle of Jesus Christ was thrown into question. This is why Paul makes a point at the beginning of this second correspondence to address the notion that he wasn’t a man of his word:

“But I call God to witness against me — it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth,” Paul writes. “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith. For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Cor. 1:23—2:4).

It wasn’t out of indecision that his plans were changed, nor was his absence an indication that his love for them had waned. Actually, just the opposite was true, as, he says, it was out of love that his planned visit was delayed. Paul was disinterested in making “another painful visit” to the Corinthian church, full of backbiting and disciplinary meetings. He’d done that already (see his first Corinthian epistle). Instead, he traveled to Troas to, among other things, wait for Titus who was to come bearing news regarding the Corinthian congregation. Titus had been sent ahead of Paul with a “tearful letter” in hand, a correspondence which many scholars would agree is neither the first or the second canonical letter but another letter that has since been lost to time. This lost letter was, it is inferred, even more fiercely worded, as the apostle addressed the continued controversies within the parishioners at Corinth.

Eventually, after an anxious period of waiting and even more changed plans (2 Cor. 2:12–13), Paul and Titus rendezvous at an undisclosed location in Macedonia, where a full report on the Corinthian congregation is relayed (2 Cor. 7:5–7). And while circumstances had improved, for the most part, there were still several nagging matters that required Paul’s attention, not the least of which was dispelling the quibbles regarding his apostolic authority. What’s surprising, though, is how Paul goes about this — which is where the end of 2 Corinthians 2 excels.

“But thanks be to God,” Paul says, “who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:14–17).

There is a wonderful contrast within what Paul recounts, here, as he admits his restlessness in Troas (2 Cor. 2:12–13), which gives way to thanksgiving in Macedonia (2 Cor. 2:14). Why? Because even though his plans had been completely reordered, God’s Word was still triumphant in and through them. His intentions were postponed, but that merely allowed for “the fragrance of the knowledge of [Christ]” to spread even further. It might’ve not been “the plan,” but it was so much better, as they were made to see and experience how Christ triumphs over sin and death. “Thanks be to God for changed plans,” we might reckon his words. What could’ve been viewed as a failed endeavor full of fumbled logistics was just another platform for the continued advancement of the gospel. Paul’s version of successful, triumphant Christian ministry is not “everything going according to plan.” His motto isn’t like Hannibal’s in The A-Team, who’s always caught saying, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Rather, Paul’s motto is, “We speak in Christ.”

Nothing moves or drives Paul more than preaching about “Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). He was stubbornly committed to that message before and above anything else. Little else mattered to him, save for dispensing, far and wide, the news that Christ has triumphed “once for all” through the cross and empty tomb. And as that proclamation went forth, the good news of Jesus’s blood-bought forgiveness filled hearts and lives and communities and entire regions, much like the aroma of a candle permeates a room. Paul and his companions were content to be the vessels through which the “aroma of Christ” could disseminate and spread “everywhere,” even if that meant laying aside their best laid plans. “For we are the aroma of Christ to God,” he attests, “among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 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. 2:15–16). 

It’s important to notice the shift that occurs, where the apostle transitions from referring to the gospel as the fragrant element, to he and his companions as the fragrant element, that is, “the aroma of Christ.” To be the fragrance of something means that you have the scent of that thing on you, emanating off of you, to the point where you walk by someone and they’re able to instantly get a whiff of you, eliciting a response of either whoa! or ew! The same scent can often garner polar opposite reactions. Similarly, Paul never suggests that the fragrance they were spreading changed depending on who they were speaking to. Whether he was in the company of “those who are being saved” (the redeemed) or “those who are perishing” (the unredeemed), it didn’t matter: the same aroma, the same message of Christ’s triumph over sin and death was being spread everywhere. 

This is where the image of the “triumphal procession” comes into play. In the Greek, this is only one word, alluding to an official Roman tradition lauding the triumphs of Rome’s greatest generals. Depending upon the greatness of their conquest, Roman conquerors would march into town with a giant triumphant victory parade in tow. The conquering general would ride in on a chariot, decked out with all the pomp and pageantry you could imagine. Going before him would be the royal officials swinging censers and burning incense, the fragrance of which would serve as the “sweet smell of success” and triumph for every citizen lining the thoroughfare. Though they had no part in it, they were made to share in the triumph of the conqueror. Following the general, however, you would find a column of captives, to whom the same aroma would serve as the “fragrance from death to death,” as they marched toward their own. 

Paul, in a sense, says preaching the gospel is like that: it’s like diffusing the incense of Christ’s triumph. And no matter what response he got, he wasn’t about to change the message (the aroma). The fragrance was always the same. “The preachers are the same among both,” R. C. H. Lenski comments, “the same sweet odor of Christ and the gospel Word comes from their lips” (900). This was in stark contrast to the “peddlers” who were around in those days. “For we are not,” Paul maintains, “like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Cor. 2:17). A “peddler,” of course, is a “huckster” or a “swindler” — a person who doctors a product in order to stuff their own pockets. The best facsimile to capture what Paul has in mind is one of those old snake oil salesmen, whose magic elixirs were accompanied with a bevy of supposed benefits and fixes for the human body. 

For Paul, those who were preaching something other than Christ’s triumph were like no good “peddlers” diluting the message of the gospel for their own profit. These “peddler-preachers” were going around putting money in their wallets by watering-down the truth of God’s Word, twisting the announcement of Christ’s accomplishments into a message that was all about them. This, by the way, is how you can tell if a preacher is “preaching” or “peddling.” If his message is all about you and how you can live a “triumphant Christian life,” you’re being peddled. You’re being sold the snake oil of salvation by helping yourself. “We are the aroma of Christ,” Paul says in contrast, “we are the fragrance of his victory.” The long and short of it is, the Christian life is not about you. You are not the point. You are not the focus. You are not David, and the Bible is not a book all about how you can defeat “the Goliaths” in your life.

For Paul, those who were preaching something other than Christ’s triumph were like no good “peddlers” diluting the message of the gospel for their own profit.

A few months ago, I was asked why I preached about Jesus so much. “You know, hearing about Jesus is good and all, but shouldn’t we move on to something else? Isn’t there some other message we need to hear to help make us better Christians?” I’ve received a similar line of questioning before; and it’s not always malicious or mean-spirited, it’s just really misguided. Hearing well-worded wisdom for managing your life or polished practices for bettering your relationships are often seen as the sort of relevant topics the church needs to hear nowadays. But those sort of messages only go so far. They might lead to changes in behavior in the short-term, but they cannot ultimately deliver you in the long-run. Deliverance only comes through faith, and faith, as Paul says elsewhere, only “comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). 

To think that our lives can be changed or saved by hearing practical life-lessons for “victorious Christian living” is like walking through the fragrance aisle at the mall hoping that will make you smell better. It won’t work. For that, you need something truer, something deeper, something lasting. For that, you need Jesus. Paul was certain that he was commissioned “by God” to speak one thing: Christ alone (2 Cor. 2:17). Everywhere he went, then, he was determined to be faithful to that commissioning. He was stubbornly committed to diffusing the “the fragrance of the knowledge of [Christ],” even if that commitment didn’t always lead to rapid results or resounding success. Paul’s words invite us to reconsider what it means to be a part of something “successful.” How do you know if your ministry or your church is a success? What does “the sweet smell of success” smell like in terms of gospel ministry? 

The apostolic version of success, as outlined here and throughout the rest of 2 Corinthians, is so unlike our version of success — namely, because Paul tethers his success not to tangible, demonstrable results but to faithfulness to God’s Word, to “speak in Christ” and spread “the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Cor. 2:14, 17). The “peddler-preachers” were openly connecting spiritual success to sweeping results, ballooning numbers, and a carefree pilgrimage. Within that framework, though, Paul’s life of faith makes zero sense. His version of spiritual success and triumphant faith included “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights,” not to mention being shipwrecked three times (2 Cor. 6:4–10; 11:21–29). That, to be sure, has neither the whiff of success nor triumph. It smells like failure and weakness and desperation. To which Paul would say, “That’s exactly the point!” “The way to live,” R. Kent Hughes says, “is to understand that weakness, suffering, and death are the means by which the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ wafts to the ends of the earth” (59). “If I must boast,” the apostle himself declares, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor. 11:30; 12:5, 9). “Paul,” notes Lenski, “pictures the apostolic success from beginning to end as such a triumphal passage” (898). But the triumph wasn’t his, it was Christ’s. His was the “aroma of Christ,” not the fragrance of his own successes.

Accordingly, we are made to realize that successful, triumphant Christian ministry:

  • doesn’t always look like everything going according to plan;
  • doesn’t always involve a sanctuary that’s busting at the seams;
  • doesn’t always mean the church will have parking lot problems;
  • doesn’t mean the church has a worship band with a Billboard Top 100 song;
  • doesn’t always result in sweeping revival. 

We can pray for those things but our hope of success is not found in those things. Rather, our hope of success is realized as we are faithful to speak Christ. That’s it. That’s what successful, triumphant Christian ministry is all about: spreading “the fragrance of the knowledge him.” It looks like diffusing and dispensing the abounding riches of Christ’s triumph over sin and death in order that those around us might come to delight in and revel in the “aroma of Christ” along with us. The “sweet smell of success” in ministry means being faithful to the words of Christ above anything and everything else, no matter the results. The task of every minister is to invite sinners to the table of grace to partake of the good news of Christ’s canceling of sin and disarming of death on the cross (Col. 2:14–15). There is no other errand which ought to occupy the mind, heart, and mouth of those who’ve been called to be heralds of the Living God. “When I cease to preach salvation by faith in Jesus,” quips Charles Spurgeon, “put me into a lunatic asylum, for you may be sure that my mind is gone” (391). Successful, triumphant Christian living means “smelling like Jesus,” and for that you need more Jesus. 

I was thinking about how to illustrate this idea and I couldn’t help but think about how easy it is for my wife, Natalie, to win me over. All she has to do is throw some chopped onion and minced garlic into a sauce pan and bring it to a sizzle. That’s it, my heart is won. Whenever I come home and the aroma of crackling garlic hits my nostrils, I am elated. “Mmm, gosh, that smells so good, hun, what are you making?” I’ll ask. To which Natalie replies, “It’s literally just onions and garlic.” Garlic, for me, is the best ingredient in any dish. I love its fragrance and its flavor. The issue, though, is that garlic stays with me. Regardless how much or how little I eat of it, Natalie can always tell. But as silly as it might sound, eating garlic is a good way to think about success in ministry — because just like eating garlic, the “fragrance” which leads to life does not come from us. 

The aroma of garlic presupposes the consumption of it. The “aroma of Christ,” likewise, is something we receive, something we ingest, if you will, by faith. And the more it’s ingested, received, and savored, the stronger the fragrance becomes. Every dish, in my mind, ought to be seasoned with garlic. And every sermon ought to be filled with “the fragrance of the knowledge” of Christ crucified and risen again for weak, deplorable, helpless sinners.

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