But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume. And who is adequate for such a task as this? You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us. (2 Corinthians 2:14-17, NLT)
One of Paul’s strengths is his cross cultural communication skill, which enabled him to frame and explain spiritual truth in a way that was accessible to his Gentile audience. Using the familiar imagery of the Roman Triumphal parade, he used an excellent analogy for the conclusion that underscored the defense of his ministry which was previously under attack.
To understand the analogy we have to know more about this history of the Roman Triumphal Parades. In antiquity, the triumphal procession was a conducted in Rome to celebrate the victory of a military campaign. There have been nearly 350 such parades recorded in the ancient literature. These parades demonstrated Rome’s strength as the victor by parading the spoils of war as well as the military leaders of the opposing army and presenting them as conquered slaves. The highest honor any Roman general could receive was to lead one of these parades. These parades would allow those who were watching to vicariously share in the victory visually. As the procession made its way through the streets, it was accompanied by incense burners so that the viewers could also have a smell associated with victory, which would help seal the event in their memories, not unlike the smell of grandma’s fresh baked bread.
Having found a cultural connection with his readers, Paul repurposed the analogy to explain the impact of the gospel. His point is that Jesus is the one who leads the triumphal procession, and he is among those who have been captured by the cause of Christ. Paul presented himself as a servant who had given himself to the cause of the gospel, which includes the pain and the wounds that go with victory. Through his suffering, the fragrance of the knowledge of God was being spread everywhere.
This imagery becomes the basis for his point, which is found in the final verse. He is not like those who “preach for personal profit,” which may be akin to those who present a version of the gospel that disavows suffering, only pointing to the upside of the gospel that makes people the primary beneficiaries of faith. When our gospel preaching is ego centric, making human kind the hero of the story, the gospel becomes void of truth and fullness. In other words, I am not the grand marshal of this parade waving to the masses along the parade route, claiming credit and glory for myself.
Paul presented himself as one of the captives who has now joined the cause of Jesus. He has humbled himself to a greater person (Jesus) and to a greater cause (the Gospel), which, in turn, caused him to preach sincerely under the authority of Christ. And, perhaps most importantly, he does so for an audience of One, who receives all honor, glory and praise. Every now and then we need this sort of “Copernican Revolution” that reminds us that we are not the center of the Kingdom, around whom all of the benefits of the gospel orbit.