Paul paints a picture in (14-16) of a Roman ‘triumph’. In the ancient world it was probably one of the greatest spectacles any eye could see. When a Roman general returned victorious from battle, he would march through the streets of Rome with his winning army. Behind them, in chains, there would be prisoners of war, and servants carrying incense. The streets would be thronged with shouting, cheering crowds. Paul, in these verses seems to compare himself to a captive, then to an incense – bearing servant, and finally to the incense itself that rose all the way along the line of the procession. There will be more to say about this in a moment.
Verses 12, 13 reveal a human Paul: When I arrived in Troas to proclaim the Message of the Messiah, I found the place wide open: God had opened the door; all I had to do was walk through it. But when I didn’t find Titus waiting for me with news of your condition, I couldn’t relax. Worried about you, I left and came on to Macedonia province looking for Titus and a reassuring word on you. And I got it, thank God! The Message. I once asked a rather stupid question of a Ugandan friend who was studying with me in Bible College. This was before I knew him really well, and I was just trying to make conversation at the meal table. ‘How do you find people in the U.K?’ I asked him. ‘People are people brother!’ He replied. ‘People are people.’ So they are. Paul was not a ‘stained glass window’ figure. He was a flesh and blood human being. Here we see him as rather like a parent who can’t go to bed until he knows his child is home safe and sound. This situation in Corinth was weighing heavily on him, and he wanted to hear a cheering word. At the same time, Paul found that opportunity to preach the gospel was knocking for him in Troas. It is wonderful when our desire to preach Christ coincides with God’s providential ordering of circumstances. (See in connection with this: Col.4:2-4; 1 Cor.16:8, 9). (But even when God is doing something really good for us, as was the case with Paul here, our emotions may not necessarily reflect this because our minds and concerns can be focused elsewhere. There is something so human and transparently real about these words.
Paul’s always (15) relates even to situations such as the one described in (13). Paul did not feel triumphant at that time, it would seem, but turbulent (on the inside). Yet he was triumphant. Whatever his emotions, he was part of God’s triumphal procession in Christ (14). You will note that it is through us that God spreads the sweet smelling knowledge of Christ. In terms of getting the word out about Christ, we have to ask ourselves: ‘If not us, who? If not now, when?’
But Paul is not so much thinking about our words concerning Christ. He is talking rather about how we smell. In other words, he is talking about who we really are in our inmost character. Paul says that Christians smell of Jesus. God catches that scent from us, but so also do believers and unbelievers. Whilst this fragrance is pleasant in the nostrils of fellow-followers of the way, non-Christians turn up their noses and pull faces at it. They have a totally different reaction.
Like two people at a perfume counter smelling the same fragrance and yet having widely divergent views about it, so it is with us. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God, which is recognized by those on the way of salvation – an aroma redolent with life. But those on the way to destruction treat us more like the stench from a rotting corpse. This is a terrific responsibility. Is anyone competent to take it on? No – but at least we don’t take God’s Word, water it down, and then take it to the streets to sell it cheap. We stand in God’s presence when we speak; God looks us in the face. We get what we say straight from God and say it as honestly as we can. The Message.
Prayer: Whatever happens today, or in the coming days, let me never forget that Jesus is the undisputed, undefeated Champion, and I’m on His team!