Perfumed Living

The Fragrance of His Knowledge

2 Corinthians 2:12-17


I have examined as many commentaries as I have in my library, perhaps twenty in number, and they all seem to substantially agree that this passage is using an illustration very familiar to First Century Corinthians. Let Charles Erdman vividly portray the scene:

The whole paragraph is phrased in figures borrowed from the scene of triumph in which a victorious general swept through the streets of imperial Rome. In pomp and glory, crowned with laurel, mounted on his chariot, preceded by the senate, magistrates, musicians, the spoils and the captives in chains, the proud conqueror ascended the Capitoline Hill, leading his exultant hosts. Clouds of incense filled the air with perfume. The miserable captives turned aside to die, while the praise of the victor was shouted by the multitudes amidst a tumult of joy.…

Through Paul the knowledge of God is being spread abroad. This knowledge is like sweet perfume; it rises like the smoke of the incense in the midst of which marched the conqueror’s train…There are, however, two classes of men among whom this perfume circulates, those on the way to salvation and those on the way to perdition…all breathing the same incense. To the victors the fragrance was a symbol of present gladness and of future safety; to the captives it was a token of defeat and condemnation and a premonition of approaching death.… (The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1944, pp 35-36)

I’m sure there is much to enlighten and encourage the believer in this helpful illustration. Clearly we rejoice with the apostle and thank God that He “always leads us in triumph in Christ.” Victory is assured to those who find their Champion in the Lord Jesus. We are also deeply grateful that God “through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.” More of that later. My question is this: Is there good reason to conclude that unbelievers catch from our lives the smell of death, and believers instead pick up the fragrance of life in Christ?

Three Reasons to be Encouraged

Open Doors: This passage of Scripture has always intrigued me, perhaps because I find real encouragement in it on several levels. Of course it’s very heartening to know that it is possible to have open doors in the work of the gospel (v 12). Often I have felt that evangelism in the West was more like banging one’s head against the wall! How thrilling it would be to hear a voice from heaven: “Would you like to know where the door is?” Such is proffered by the One “who has the key of David, He who opens and no one shuts, and shuts and no one opens” (Rev 3:7).

Fragrant Living: I am also encouraged by the certainty of a spiritually fragrant life, because it is not dependent on me, but provided directly as a ministry of God Himself (2 Cor 2:14). I recall meeting a couple in Ireland who had been gloriously saved. The wife told me she had sought after God for 20 years. She attended the village church every day! She spoke to nuns, wrote to priests, visited shrines, all to no avail. She couldn’t, as she said, get through to God.

Then her husband hired a young man to work in his construction business. She watched the new employee staying busy in the company yard, next door to the house. Something about him was different. At lunch, she told her husband, “Don’t let that fellow go home without having tea with us. He has what we need.”

The man was surprised when invited to afternoon tea with the boss and his wife his first day on the job. Even more surprised when she blurted out after the meal was served: “What do you believe?” Simply he shared the gospel of God’s grace with the couple. The woman told me after, “I think he was lonely; he stayed all evening. But I had been waiting 20 years for this news!” When he finally left, she ran to her bedside and cried out to God to save her—and of course He did. Her husband was saved soon after.

The interesting thing about the whole story was this: “I don’t think he was walking with the Lord,” the woman told me. “I still don’t think he is.” But she had caught something of the influence of Christ, “the fragrance of His knowledge” which had been manifested through this believer by God Himself. How encouraging to think that, even when we fail, God doesn’t fail.

Certainty in Uncertainty: I’m a little reluctant to tell you the third cause for my encouragement, because it gets dangerously close to the meaning of the proverb: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles” (24:17). The apostle Paul is struggling about where he should be. He has a great opportunity for the gospel in Troas where unbelievers need the Savior. But he is also very burdened for the Corinthian believers who have received a strongly-worded letter from him. He was hoping to meet at Troas his coworker Titus who had news of their response, but Titus wasn’t there, and Paul could find no rest in his spirit.

Have you been there? There is work to be done with sinners; there is work to be done with saints. Too much work, it seems, for the available time and opportunity. Paul, like I am so often, seemed unsure where he should be working, and I must confess I find that encouraging. But notice Paul’s response: “Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place” (v 14). God is not neutralized in His work when we feel thwarted in ours. He just carries on, leading us in triumph (even when we may feel defeated) and manifesting His fragrance through us anyway.

Careful Now!

It’s at this point I think we need to be careful in seeing what the text actually says. Paul continues: “For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life” (vv 15-16). Notice the following observations:

1. Both among the saved and the perishing, the smell (euodia) is a fragrant one. The AV translates the word “sweet savor” or “sweet smell[ing].” The Hebrew sometimes speaks of “a savor of rest” as in the case of Noah’s offering (Gen 8:21). Forty-two times we read in the AV of a “sweet savor.” There seems to be no suggestion of a “stench of death” or anything like that.

2. In the context, the perishing ones (i.e., those at Troas) are not opposed to the gospel; there is an open door where they seem eager to hear about Christ. And we, says Paul, though not sufficient in ourselves, are sincerely proclaiming the gospel with the help of God (vv 16-17).

3. Most importantly, notice the order of the two groups in verses 15 and 16. Verse 15 places “those who are being saved” as Goup A and “those who are perishing” as Group B. If we simply follow the order in the text, how will verse 16 read? “To the one” [that would be Group A—the saved] “we are the aroma of death leading to death.” Then “to the other” [Group B—the perishing] we are “the aroma of life leading to life.” Unless there is some chiasm I am insensitive to, that seems to be the simple order of the passage.

Sweet Savors Everywhere

So let’s think about the context again. People have been avidly listening to the gospel in Troas, if the descriptor “open door” means there is a welcome for the good news there. Meanwhile (although Paul doesn’t let us in on the reaction to his first epistle until chapter 7) it is also good news wafting over from Corinth. Everything is smelling good! At least, that’s how the two situations are presented in this letter. Both groups are responding positively to the Word of God.

Now consider, practically speaking, how a believer’s influence affects those around him or her. Think, for a moment, of Paul’s description of his own life: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

Two Piles of Stones

Here are the two views: “I have been crucified with Christ…but Christ lives in me.” Both the death of Christ and the life of Christ are manifested through the life of the believer. But who sees what? It might help to think about the children of Israel crossing the Jordan River. The ark has taken its place at the bottom of the river Jordan (yar-dan, coming down from the judge) so the people can walk through on dry ground. Then not one but two stone markers are erected.

The Lord instructed Joshua (Josh 4:1-8) to select representative men, one for each tribe. They were to remove twelve stones from the river bed “from the place where the priests’ feet stood firm.” They were to be piled up as a cairn at Gilgal, their first overnight stop in the land. They were designed to evoke the following question from future generations of Israelites: “What do these stones mean to you?” (v 6), stones everyone could see.

God Himself provided the answer: “Then you shall answer them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord; when it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. And these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel forever.” In other words, their life in the Land was the result of a supernatural act of the promise-keeping God. This supernatural act involved the Ark, with its Mercy Seat, somehow cutting off the waters of judgment and providing a way through where no other way could be found.

But there was another set of stones, not to be forgotten: “Then Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests who bore the ark of the covenant stood” (v 9). This was not the work of representative people, but of the Deliverer himself, the man whose name meant “O Lord, Save.” This was something he did on behalf of the people, and once the river flowed back, only the eye of faith could see them there.

Could we not write over the stones in the river: “I am crucified with Christ” and over the pile at Gilgal, “nevertheless I live”? Your workmates and neighbors have no idea what the first statement means, for it is imperceptible except by faith. But they can see your supernatural life and ask you for “a reason of the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15).

Whether By Life or Death

Now back to our Corinthian passage. When you meet a believer who exudes the beauty of Christ, what is it that impresses you? I daresay it is the measure in which they have entered into the death of Christ. This means nothing to the unbeliever, but everything to the believer. Who but a believer would appreciate the following: “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Phil 3:10)? See also Gal 5:24; 6:14.

And what does the unbeliever sense in the presence of a believer? It is the life of Christ in us. As Paul says in the same epistle: “For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:11). This, of course, is in the context of our fragile clay vessels carrying the treasure of the divine light of the gospel to a dark and dying world. It is “the life of Jesus” that shines out to illuminate them with Christ Himself.

Why the words “death unto death” and “life unto life”? Because this should be the effect. To those who are saved, every contact with the people of God should spur us on to enter more fully into that death from which flows all our blessings. It is Mary laying her glory at Jesus’ feet. It is Paul beseeching us to place our all on the altar in Romans 12:1. Or Peter reminding us that Christ “Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness” (1 Pet 2:24). And every interaction with those still lost should bring before them the manifestation of His life by us. “Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands for us” (Ps 90:17).