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Saints on Parade

Stonebrook Community Church https://www.stonebrook.org


Sunday, February 2, 2020  Brad Barrett

2 Corinthians 2:14-17 

Saints on Parade

I was 19 years old, having just finished my freshman year at Iowa State.  And I went to Loveland, Colorado, for the summer.  My family had moved there from Iowa 9 months earlier.

It had been a momentous year for my parents.  Both of them—then in their 40’s—had believed in Jesus Christ that January.  All I knew that summer was that they had now gotten very religious.  Jesus Freak stuff.  I was not thrilled.

In spite of my lack of enthusiasm for them, I repeatedly heard the gospel that summer.  My reaction was stubbornness.  I resisted it strongly. I did not want to hear about Jesus. I did not want to admit my sin. I did not want to need God.  I wanted to be left alone.  The message of the gospel was very distasteful to me, and I hated it.  I actually had great respect for the people who tried to tell me about Jesus.  Their lives were exemplary and worthy of respect.  But I hated the message. 

But God had mercy on me.  At the end of that summer, God’s Holy Spirit softened my heart to finally yield, repent, believe, and find life everlasting.  The message I once hated became the best thing in my life. 

Now I look back on those few months with intrigue.  Why was I so resistant to such glorious news?  The message of Jesus is nothing but good.  God offers eternal life through his Son—life forever and ever and ever and ever in glory and joy and hope and peace in the presence of our beautiful Creator.

So in light of that, I am intrigued by my resistance and my stubbornness.  What is not to like…what is not to love about that message?   What was wrong with me?  Why was I so stubborn that I was willing to throw heaven away?

We are in Week 2 of a new sermon series going through a letter written by one of God’s most significant spokesmen, a man named Paul.  He wrote this letter to a church in ancient Greece.  A city called Corinth.  It was the second letter of his that we have in the Scriptures, so we not surprisingly call it 2nd Corinthians.

In our passage today, we will read something that describes some of my story.  And it will touch on the story from the other side:  The story of those who patiently tried to tell this stubborn, proud 19-year old about Jesus. 

2 Corinthians 2

Vs. 12-17

12 When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord,

13 my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia.

14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.

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

16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?

17 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.

Paul says some unusual things:

  • Triumphal procession
  • Fragrance.  Aroma.
  • Life to some, death to others.
  • He asks, Who is sufficient?
  • He insists he is not peddling God’s Word.

What is he talking about?  Let’s look at each verse now in more detail.

Vs. 12-13

12 When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord,

13 my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia.

A brief geography lesson.  Troas was a city in modern-day Turkey.  Macedonia was a region of modern-day Greece.  Corinth is south of Macedonia near Athens.   All of this is in the region of the Mediterranean Sea. 

So here in vs. 12, Paul as an apostle was like a traveling evangelist.  He went to the City of Troas.  And even though it was a fruitful place and perhaps could have been the start of a new church, he left.  He was unsettled.  His friend and co-worker in the gospel, Titus, wasn’t there.  So he left to find Titus. 

Vs. 14

14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.

Why does Paul jump topic from telling us of his travels to this?  He gives thanks to God for some triumph.  What is he talking about, and why?

First, we need to get a brief overview of the letter.  And then vs. 14 will make more sense.   Matt talked about some of this last week, but it will be helpful to review.

A major theme of this entire letter is weakness and strength.  Weakness and strength.

The Corinthians had lost respect for and trust in Paul.Perhaps largely through the influence of some false apostles (which we read later in the letter), the Corinthians see Paul as weak.  He suffers lots of persecution.  He seems to vacillate on decisions.  He leaves fruitful places like Troas just because Titus isn’t there.  To the Corinthians, these seem like negatives.  Signs of a weak man.  And if Paul is weak, then the message of Jesus that he proclaims is also weak.  Ineffective.  Insufficient. 

It is this point that Paul focuses on throughout the letter.  He has lost the hearts of the Corinthians.   But his concern is less about himself and more about Paul’s message.  The gospel of Jesus.  The message of eternal life through faith in the risen Christ.

If the Corinthians see Paul as weak and ineffective, then the message of the gospel must be weak and ineffective.  So the stakes are high.  Actually, the highest.  Eternal life with God forever and ever is on the line. 

So now with that background, we now look at vs 14.

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.”

He gives thanks to God.  We know what that means.  But why is he thanking God?

Let’s start with the phrase, “God leads us in triumphal procession.”  The word triumphal procession was a term common to the Mediterranean world in the Roman empire.  War was not uncommon (same as today and in every generation), and when a ruler would conquer a land, he would go back home have a “victory parade.”  A celebratory procession.  A “triumphal procession.”

The conquering king would return home to march in the parade on his horse.  In front of him were the captured and defeated rulers and other leaders, now his slaves.  The king paraded them before his own citizens to humiliate the conquered people and to declare the greatness of the king’s regime.

Behind the king were his own people, celebrating with him.  Glorying in the king’s victory.  And perhaps taunting the defeated people.

And also in these Roman triumphal processions, they burn incense in worship to their pagan gods.  (This is important, we will see in vs. 15)

So do you have the picture in mind?  A victory parade.  When the Kansas City Chiefs win the Super Bowl tonight… they will have a victory parade and celebration.  A “triumphal procession.”  Paul uses this vivid metaphor that would have been well-known to the Corinthians.  But what is his point?  Metaphors are powerful communication tools, but they are not always clear.  Why does he use this word?  What’s the triumph about? 

On the one hand, Paul is not defeated and humiliated like the army the king conquered.  He’s not like that, as if God has crushed Paul and is now shaming him before all the people.  But neither is Paul a conquering soldier who is arrogantly taunting those losers in the front of the parade.

What’s he getting at?  Well, theologians over the centuries have had a friendly debate about this. 

Here’s my take:  In short, Paul is now on the winning side.  God’s side.  Not in arrogance, like a winning football team taunting the losers.  Rather in humility… yet extreme confidence.  With boldness and courage. 

In humility, because Paul was once an enemy of God and is now so fortunate to be on God’s side.  This is  the gospel message. 

Colossians 1:21–22 ESV  And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him,

The gospel says we are all sinners, hostile to God, alienated from him, and deserving of death.  But then the mercy of God shows up.  He has compassion on sinners—on his enemies—and he sends his Son to die, enduring the punishment that the enemies deserve.  God—in seeming weakness through the death of his Son—actually reveals his glorious power, and he gives life to his former enemies. 

So Paul is humble….and yet he is bold in this victorious parade because he now shares in the glory of the risen Christ.  The King of kings and the Lord of lords.

But the Corinthians see Paul as weak.  Ineffective.  That’s why here in vs. 14, Paul says,

“No worries about all these things that make me look weak!  No worries, for God is leading us.  God through his Son Jesus is the conqueror leading the parade. 

“And I, by God’s mercy, get to march in this parade with him! 

“I who was once his enemy am now on his side, by his great mercy!  Hallelujah!  Thanks be to God, we are on the winning side with God marching before us.”

So Paul is humble for he remembers the mercy of God.  Yet Paul is bold, for he knows that God is triumphing in life, and has graciously brought Paul into the victory parade.  God and his people will win.

Vs. 15-16

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

16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?

Paul’s metaphor in vs. 14 comes to play again.  Instead of a Roman ruler burning incense to worship his many gods for victory in war, Paul himself and other apostles are the incense of Jesus to the One True God.  “The aroma of Christ to God.”

It actually reminds us of the Old Testament when animal sacrifices were made in faith and in worship.

Exodus 29:18 ESV … burn the whole ram on the altar. It is a burnt offering to the Lord. It is a pleasing aroma…

When God’s people offered sacrifices out of humble worship, it was a pleasing aroma.

Now a new and better sacrifice has been made:  God’s own Son.  The Son’s death is a pleasing aroma to God the Father.

Now back to vs. 15-16:

So everywhere Paul goes, he speaks of Jesus.  And Jesus is this aroma.  A fragrance.  God is pleased by the Son’s sacrifice.

When people all over the world smell Jesus, they notice and react in one of two ways.  Some smell life.  Others smell death. 

The Bible is quite clear on this:   There are only two choices in life:  Either life or death.  Light or darkness.  Salvation or destruction.  There is no neutrality.   

One author says,

“The message of the gospel creates a crisis of decision that does not allow anyone to remain neutral or to take a wait-and-see attitude.”

The gospel story of Jesus Christ is polarizing.  We have to choose a side.  Paul’s first letter speaks of such a polarizing effect.

1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

From my story when I was 19 years old, when I heard about Jesus, I smelled death.  And I resisted the message of the gospel. 

I’ve never forgotten the words of a U.S. Marine in WWII about the smell of death.  In a battle in WWII, on a small island called Iwo Jima in the Pacific Ocean, dead bodies could not be removed from the field of battle due to the intensity of the fight.  In the high temperatures, the smell of decaying bodies became unbearable, a smell that never left the nostrils of the men who survived. 

One Marine said this: 

“We learned to live in that atmosphere, eat our food, ignoring the flies buzzing off the dead bodies and onto our food.  But the smell was probably the worst.  It was so intense that sometimes you’d literally gag and have dry heaves…. When I finally left the island, I escaped the smell but not the memory of the smell.”  (War Stories II, p. 369-70)

It’s really strange.  The gospel message of eternal life is so repulsive to so many people, that it smells like death.  A horrific, unendurable smell.  But it’s actually mind boggling that the gospel can be so hated.  All God wants to do is love people, show mercy to them, and save their souls for eternity.  He wants to usher them into eternal glory.  He does this through his Son.

So from a purely objective point of view, why would any of us EVER reject this message?  Why was I so stubborn as a 19-year old, rejecting this message?

The only answer is that the sinful rebellion of our hearts simply hates to admit we are wrong and that we need God.  This is the deceitfulness of sin.  And we get blinded by our own sin and by the devil himself (which we will read about in Chapter 4 in two weeks.

Jesus’ words describe our reaction to the gospel.

John 3:19–20 ESV And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.  For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.

In my story, I did not want to hear the gospel message because I loved my sin.   It smelled like DEATH to me.  The aroma of death, Paul calls it. 

Then finally, vs. 17. 

Vs. 17

17 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.

Paul is apparently explaining his motives.  Other preachers and apostles are in it for the money.

Paul is not talking about making a normal living as a preacher.  In his first letter, he proves the point that ministers of the gospel should make their living from the gospel.

Here he is talking about greed.  About making great financial gain by being a preacher.  This issue was common back then.  And it is common today.

Paul insists his motives are sincere and pure.  We will learn more about this next week as Matt takes us into Chapter 3. 


So I want to finish up by answering the question, “So what?”  So what does all this have to do with me?  How does it relate?  What do I do with this?

Let me offer three considerations from this short passage.

Understand the human heart

We need to have a good, sound theology of the gospel and the heart of mankind.  We need to understand how repulsive the gospel of Jesus is to all of our sinful hearts.  The gospel is actually a message of life—eternal life.  But it smells like death to some.   How can this be?

We have to understand why.  It’s a condition of every human heart. 

Jeremiah 17:9 ESV  The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick;  who can understand it?

And a passage we just looked at:

John 3:20 ESV  For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.

If we don’t understand this, we will have all sorts of problems.  We will be confused about evil in the world.  What’s wrong with this crazy world, we wonder?   There is no need to wonder.  These two verses tell us why. 

If we don’t understand the darkness of the human heart, we will be confused about why people react so strongly against Jesus.  Last Sunday Matt spoke about Pastor Andimi in Nigeria who was martyred for his faith just two weeks ago.   WHY?  Why did this happen?  If we understand the sinfulness of the human heart, and if we have read our Bibles at all, we are not surprised.  Quite saddened and grieved.  But not surprised. 

One caution here:  We don’t want to swing so far that we become angry cynics at the world.  But we do need biblical wisdom to understand the reality of the human heart.  We need not be cynical, for we are actually hopeful, for Romans 1:16 says, The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.

If we don’t understand the depravity of man’s heart, when we do speak about Jesus and they reject us and the message, we will be discouraged, wondering, “What is wrong with me?”  We then may be tempted to soften the message.  Or change it.  Or simply not speak at all. 

If we understand the condition of the human heart, we will be more about prayer.   For we will realize that ultimately, only God can change the human heart.  So we pray, desperately seeking his help to work in the hearts of people we love.  Like we will read in two weeks in Chapter 3, we pray that God will remove the veil that blinds our hearts. 

If we are being the fragrance that God intends us to be, we should expect people to react to us one way or another.  For we remember that the Lord Jesus himself spoke perfect and glorious grace and truth.  Some loved him and believed in him.  But others so hated him that they killed him. 

So we must have solid convictions on the theology of the sinful human heart lest we grow confused and lose heart. 

Walk in this glorious ministry

Our life’s mission is to walk in this glorious ministry like Paul did.  If you’ve ever wondered what your life is for, this is it.  And we will see more about this in the weeks to come. 

Now Paul’s specific role as an apostle had some unique aspects to it that may not apply to many of us.  Such as overseeing and starting multiple churches across a region. 

But the fundamental task of spreading the news of Jesus—of “spreading everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him”— and helping people to grow as disciples is applicable to us all. 

This is the most glorious, eternal work we can do.  It is a work about eternity.  It is a work of God and for God.  It is a work of love, bringing a life-giving message to the dying.

We shouldn’t belittle such a noble task.  We shouldn’t neglect such a glorious calling.  We shouldn’t be afraid of reactions from others. 

God is leading the triumphal procession.  The victory parade is his.  If you have believed in his Son, you are on God’s side, and the victory is yours.  Even if you die in martyrdom like the Apostle Paul eventually did or like Pastor Admini from Nigeria did just two weeks ago, victory is still yours.  For what is the worst thing that can happen to you?  You die for Christ and are immediately ushered into his presence in heavenly glory. 

As followers of Jesus, we have a glorious calling.

We should walk with tremendous confidence in our ministry that God has given us because

  • He always leads us in triumph,
  • He is manifesting the aroma of Christ through us everywhere, an aroma of eternal life. 

Believe your adequacy is from God

Paul asked in vs. 16, “Who is sufficient for such a task?”nnWho is adequate?  Who is capable?  Who is qualified?

My previous point was to “Walk in this glorious ministry.”  When we come to grips with the glory and eternality of this mission we have—this task of pointing people to Jesus— we can be overwhelmed.

It is normal to wonder, “Oh, I don’t think I can do this?  I’m not that smart.  I’m not eloquent.  I’m timid.  I’m afraid.  I don’t have many skills.”  All normal.

In fact, even Moses – when assigned by God to go back to Egypt and lead God’s people out of slavery – even Moses balked.

Exodus 4:10 ESV Moses said to the Lord, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.”


But such honest questions about our adequacy have one honest answer:  God is your Power Source.  God is your Wisdom.  God is the True Spokesman.

Here is the Lord’s response to Moses:

Exodus 4:11 ESV Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?

Moses argued with God, searching for excuses, and the Lord was not pleased.  So the Lord simply but powerfully told Moses, “GO!  This is my will and my work.  I am all you need.  I am enough.”

We can all find objections to serving the Lord.  But such objections, while understandable at one level, are rooted in UNBELIEF.  Like Moses, we simply don’t believe God will help us.

But the Lord is our sufficiency.  He is the One who makes us adequate and capable for such a glorious, eternal ministry. 

We are not enough in ourselves.  But God is enough. 

More on this topic next week as Matt takes us into Chapter 3.