But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 2 Corinthians 2:14-15
Certain smells can have powerful effects on us and there’s a billion-dollar global aromatherapy market to prove it. Smells trigger memories, no matter how many years have passed since that fragrance first made contact with your nose—a perfume that makes you think of an old romance or a stale, musty smell that reminds you of your first apartment. Certain odors trigger emotional responses, both positive and negative.
Writing to the Corinthians, Paul alluded to the Roman conquerors who came back victorious after their battles and paraded through streets of Rome or Pompeii leading their prisoners of warfare in chains. But he also mentioned the smell of incense which preceded the whole caravan of humanity. It was probably was carried by a pagan priest leading the procession, swinging an incense pot back and forth. Anyone who ever witnessed such an event would always associate the fragrance of the incense which filled the air with the victory procession. Paul wrote, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:14,15).
But Paul is reminding these frail citizens of the Kingdom that it has been God who delivered them from the bondage which characterized their lives and has given them victory over their failures.
For a moment think with me of the moral character of those to whom Paul’s letter was addressed. Among them were immoral men and women who had violated their wedding vows, male prostitutes, con-artists and swindlers, thieves, slanderers, and drunks who never made it through a twelve-step program. And how do we know this? These are some of the dark characters which Paul mentioned when he wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter. He said, “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
What they had been pales in the light of what they became, their lives having forever been changed through an encounter with Jesus Christ. Then Paul pictures them as following Christ in a victory procession.
But what does this have to do with the aroma of incense which was associated with Roman conquerors? Paul says that the redeemed—those whose lives have been snatched from the fire—have taken on a certain fragrance, a sweet fragrance to those who are being saved and a stench to those who are being lost. Paul referred to it as “the aroma of Christ.”
Paul’s comments explain the polarity which has confronted Christians for centuries. For some the fragrance of Christianity is welcomed. It’s associated with churches, hospitals, street ministries, feeding the homeless, caring for the outcasts of society. It’s what makes our world a better place in which to live. But for those who are opposed to its message, that fragrance associated with the Church is a reminder that these who call themselves Christians are opposed to much that they practice. Jesus explained this, saying, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Some things never change, so when some individual—perhaps even someone you have never met—doesn’t much care for you, it may well be that the fragrance you are wearing, the touch of Jesus Christ on your life, brings a negative response in that person.
Resource reading: 2 Corinthians 2:1-17