As we turn to today’s passage, you’ll notice that Paul is still writing about his travel plans. This time, he talks about travelling to Troas and to Macedonia. Now Troas and Macedonia are both mentioned in Acts 16 where we read that Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Holy Spirit would not allow them to. And so they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. But during the night, Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia, which was a Roman province. And the man in the vision begged Paul to come to Macedonia. And so, believing God was calling him to preach there, he headed for Macedonia. That’s what we read in Acts 16. And Paul refers to his trip to Troas and to Macedonia in this letter to the Corinthians.
So, he’s still talking about his travel plans. And do you remember? Some people in Corinth were suggesting that Paul couldn’t be trusted, because he kept changing his travel plans. At first, he talked about spending a long time in Corinth after he had visited Macedonia. He might even — he said — spend the winter with them. But then, he changed his plans and he said he would visit them on the way to Macedonia and on the way back from Macedonia. So, he would visit them twice. But then, he changed his plans again and said that he was only going to visit them once. And so, some people were saying Paul was untrustworthy. You can’t rely on him to keep his word. He says one thing to one person and he says the opposite to someone else.
So, Paul was writing to defend himself. And his defence at first was pretty strange — wasn’t it? — because instead of giving reasons for changing his travel plans, he wrote to them about the message he proclaimed about Jesus Christ. and about how all of God’s promises to us are yes in the Lord Jesus. All of God’s promises — his promises to save us from our sins and his promises to care for us — are true because of Christ. So, instead of defending his own reputation, he wrote to them about God’s faithfulness to his promises. And I suggested that the reason Paul adopted that approach at first was because he was more concerned with the gospel than with his own reputation. Paul’s attitude was: whatever you may think about me, my preaching is true. What matters most is not what you think of me, but that you believe God’s promises of salvation, which are true because of Christ the Saviour.
That’s how Paul began his defence. But then, last week, we saw that he went on to explain that he didn’t want to visit them a second time because the first visit had been so painful for all concerned. When he visited them, he had to confront them about an issue which required church discipline. And that had been a difficult experience for everyone. And so, since that last visit was so difficult, so painful for all concerned, he was reluctant to make a second visit if it was going to be as painful as the previous one.
So, that was Paul’s explanation. He changed his plans, because his first visit was so difficult. And in today’s passage, he’s still talking about his travel plans. He tells us that he went to Troas to preach the gospel and found that the Lord had opened a door for him. However, he had no peace of mind at that time, because he didn’t find Titus there. And so, he left Troas and made his way to Macedonia. Most interpreters say that the phrase ‘opened a door’ means that the Lord opened a door in Troas for effective ministry. That is, the Lord was blessing his work in Troas and lots of people came to faith. However, if that’s the way it was, it seems strange that Paul was willing to leave Troas, where the Lord was blessing his ministry, in order to move to Macedonia. If lots of people were being converted in Troas, why move on to another place? So, at least one interpreter takes a different view. He takes the phrase ‘opened a door’ to mean that God opened a door for Paul to travel to Macedonia. In other words, after Paul went to Troas to preach the gospel, the Lord led him on to Macedonia. And that makes sense, knowing what we know from Acts 16 about the vision Paul received of a man in Macedonia calling him to come to work there.
But Paul also mentions Titus in these verses and how he was expecting to see Titus; and because he didn’t see him, he had no peace of mind. Well if you jump forward briefly to chapter 7 and verse 13, you’ll see that Paul mentions Titus again. And it seems from what we read in chapter 7, that Paul eventually saw Titus and he saw that Titus’s spirit had been refreshed by the Corinthians. Moreover, Paul goes on to say in verse 15 of chapter 7 that Titus remembered that the Corinthians had been obedient. And so it seems that Paul had sent Titus to Corinth to see how things were going. When he didn’t find Titus in Troas, he had no peace of mind. That is, he was worried and anxious, because Titus’s absence seemed to suggest to him that the situation in Corinth hadn’t improved. But at last, finally, Titus turned up and was able to give Paul a good report about the church in Corinth. Things had improved.
But mentioning Macedonia, as he does here in verse 13, causes Paul to give thanks to God in verse 14. And he gives thanks to God for always leading him in triumphal procession in Christ. And that’s what we’re going to think about now.
Verses 14 to 16a
He’s still thinking about his travel plans. Some were saying that Paul can’t be trusted because he keeps changing his plans. And so, Paul was saying to his readers that he wasn’t wandering around the Roman world randomly or higgledy-piggledy. He’s not one of those people who just goes where he likes whenever he likes. No, he’s been led by God. God was leading him from place to place. And so, it was God himself who was determining his itinerary. And that’s what we learn from Acts 16, isn’t it? In Acts 16, Luke describes how they wanted to go to the province of Asia, but the Holy Spirit prevented them. Then, they wanted to go to Bithynia, but the Holy Spirit would not allow them to. We don’t know how the Holy Spirit stopped him, but he made his will known to Paul in some clear way. And then, when Paul was in Troas, God gave him the vision of the man calling him to come to Macedonia. Paul wasn’t wandering around the Roman world randomly. God was leading him.
More than that, God was leading him in triumphal procession. Paul is referring to the kind of triumphal procession which would take place in Rome after a great victory. So, whenever a Roman emperor or general had come back from winning a war, a great procession was organised, which might take place over two or three days, when the victorious general and his army would make their way into Rome and through its streets. And all the people would stand along the route and celebrate their victory. Think of a football team which is taken through the streets of their home town on an open-top bus after wining the cup. And all their fans are cheering. Think of that, but 10 times, 100 times, more elaborate. When the victorious army marched through the streets, they would carry the spoils of war, baskets full of gold and silver and jewellery which they had captured. And they would also carry with them pictures of battle-scenes and of the towns which they had conquered and placards displaying the names of people they had defeated. And, of course, trumpets and other musical instruments were played to accompany their victory march. And some of the enemy army and the defeated generals were also led along, in chains probably. And very often, when the procession was finished, the captured enemies were taken away and executed. And the historians tell us that aromatic substances were also carried along as part of the procession. And that’s significant for what Paul will go on to say about spreading everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ.
But for now, notice how Paul sees himself as being led by God in a triumphal procession in Christ. God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son have won a great victory, haven’t they? They’ve won a great victory through the cross of Christ and his resurrection from the dead, because by means of Christ’s death and resurrection they have conquered sin and they have conquered death and they have conquered the Devil and all his demons. The Devil is the strong man who held the whole world in his power, but the Lord Jesus has conquered him and he’s setting his people free from Satan’s tyranny. And every day death claims more and more victims for itself, because everyone dies. But the Lord Jesus conquered death when he was raised from the dead to live forever; and everyone who is united with Christ through faith will also be raised from the dead to live forever. And Christ has conquered sin, because he took the blame we deserve for our sins and he laid down his life to free his people from the condemnation we deserve for our sins. And through faith in him, we are washed and cleansed and pardoned. And so, he delivers his people from the penalty of sin. And, then, by means of his Holy Spirit, who lives and works in the hearts of his people, he’s freeing us from the power of sin which wants to control what we do and say.
So, God the Father and Jesus Christ his Son have won a great victory through the cross of Christ and his resurrection from the dead. And now, they’re leading Paul and companions on a great triumphal procession. And remember I’m mentioned the aromatic substances which were carried along in the Roman triumphal processions? Perhaps they carried flower petals or some kind of incense with them. Whatever it was, it would give off this scent which everyone could smell. Well, Paul and his companions were like those people who carried aromatic substances in the Roman procession. But Paul and his companions did not carry petals or incense. No, the scent they spread about came from the gospel of Jesus Christ which they proclaimed. And so, do you see? Paul is comparing his preaching to spreading a smell, a fragrance. The knowledge of Jesus Christ is like a fragrance which he and his companions were spreading everywhere.
So, Paul was not wandering around randomly. He was being led by God. And he was being led by God in a triumphal procession. And wherever he went, he preached the good news of the gospel. And look at the first few words of verse 15, where Paul says:
For we are to God the aroma of Christ….
Just pause there for a moment. Paul will go on to refer to how the message of the gospel is received by the people who hear it. But before he mentions the people who hear it, he mentions God. So, whenever someone preaches, there are two dimensions to their preaching. There’s the horizontal dimension: the message is directed outward to the people who hear it. But there’s also this vertical dimension: the message is directed upwards to God. So, when Paul preached about Christ, it was like an aroma which ascended first of all to heaven and to God the Father. Isn’t that interesting? We usually only think about the horizontal dimension, don’t we? You know, when the preacher is preparing his sermons, he’s only thinking about the impact it will make on the congregation. But here’s Paul reminding preachers everywhere that there’s this vertical dimension too; and the Lord is listening to our sermons. And, of course, the faithful preacher will want to ensure that the message he proclaims and which rises to heaven is fragranced with Christ. If it’s to be a sweet-smelling aroma to God, it must be fragranced with Christ.
But, of course, there is a horizontal dimension to preaching. And Paul makes clear here that preaching divides. Preaching divides. It divides those who are being saved and those who are perishing. Do you see those two groups at the end of verse 15? Paul says that when we preach, we are the aroma of Christ to those who are being saved and to those who are perishing. And, of course, when he says ‘we’ are the aroma of Christ, he means we’re the aroma of Christ because of what we preach. So, preaching and the message they proclaimed was like an aroma which both groups smell. However, to one group the aroma is the fragrance of life; but to the other group the aroma is the smell of death. The same message is proclaimed to both groups. But to one group, the message is sweet-smelling and pleasant; and to the other group, the message stinks.
And that’s why I say that preaching divides. It divides because it makes clear those who are being saved and it makes clear those who are perishing. Some hear and it’s the best news they’ve ever heard. They love it. They believe it. They rejoice because of it. But others hear the same message and they think it stinks. They hate it. And they won’t believe it.
Both groups hear the same message, but they respond to it in one of two very different ways, because that’s what God’s word does. It divides. We would love it if everyone believed. We would love it if the message seemed to everyone to be a sweet-smelling fragrance. And sometimes in the church, we think that if we change how we present the message, if we change how we package it, then people will accept it. We sometimes think it’s not the gospel which puts them off, but the way we present the gospel. But Paul is telling us that it’s the actual gospel message which divides. It’s the aroma of Christ which divides. It’s the fragrance of the knowledge of him which divides. When the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed, it will be the fragrance of life to one group; and it will be the smell of death to another group. To those who are being saved, it will be the fragrance of life, because God is at work in those people to save them from their sins; and he opens their hearts to pay attention to the message; and he enables them to trust in Christ the Saviour. But then, to those who are perishing, the very same gospel message will be the smell of death, because God has determined to leave those people in their sin and misery. And no matter what we may try to do to make the message more presentable, the message will always stink to those who are perishing.
2:16 to 3:6
Who is equal to such a task? That’s what Paul asks at the end of verse 16; and he means: Who is qualified or competent for this work? Who is qualified to preach this gospel message which divides the world in this way? Who is qualified to spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ? And that’s what the rest of today’s passage is about. He refers first of all to those who peddle the word of God for profit. The word Paul uses for one who peddles the word of God was normally used to refer to backstreets dealers who would try to cheat you by selling you dodgy goods. Apparently it was also used to refer to people who would sell wine which had been watered-down. Well, preachers are always tempted to water-down the word of God to make it more pleasing and acceptable. They know, for instance, that people don’t like hearing the law of God and being told what sins the Lord forbids. They want to be told that they can do as they please. And, on the other hand, preachers know that the cross of Christ is an offence, because it offends human pride. People don’t like being told they’re sinners who cannot save themselves by their good deeds. And so, because the gospel message is an offence, preachers are often tempted to water it down to make it more acceptable. And look at the beginning of verse 17 where Paul says, ‘Unlike so many….’ In other words, they are many who water down the word. They are many who are pedlars and hucksters.
But Paul and his companions were unlike them, because in Christ they spoke before God with sincerity, like men sent from God. So, they were ‘in Christ’. That is, they were united with Christ through faith. And that’s the first requirement for any preacher of the gospel. Is this person a believer? And they spoke ‘with sincerity’. Instead of trying to deceive people with a watered-down gospel, Paul was sincere and his motives were pure and he didn’t have to hide anything from this hearers, because there was nothing to hide. And look: they preached ‘before God’ and they preached ‘like men sent from God’. They had been sent by God. Paul, of course, had been commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ when the Risen Lord Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. And every true preacher has been sent by God, because in every generation God sets apart and he calls men to preach his word. And when they preach, they preach as ones who are conscious that they’re preaching before God and that they are accountable to him for how they have conducted their ministry.
As Paul writes these things to the Corinthians, it maybe seems to him or to them that he’s commending himself to them. That’s what he’s saying in verse 1. But then he adds that he doesn’t need letters of recommendation. He doesn’t need a reference. When someone is applying for a job, or when they’re going on a mission, I’m often asked to write a letter of reference. Is this person suitable for the position? Well, Paul says he doesn’t need letters of recommendation. Why not? Because the believers in Corinth are his letter of recommendation. He means they are the proof of his ministry, because the reason they believe and are Christians is because Paul went to Corinth and preached the gospel to them and they believed.
And so, he goes on to say in verse 3 that they are the result of his ministry. And, of course, he mentions the Holy Spirit, because it was the Holy Spirit who enabled the people in Corinth to believe the gospel. So, Paul went to the city and preached the gospel. And the Holy Spirit worked in their hearts and enabled them to believe. And so, says Paul in verse 3, they are like letters of recommendation which have been written, not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; and not on tablets of stone, but on human hearts. And so, the work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the Corinthian believers is the proof of Paul’s ministry.
And so, who is equal to the task of preaching God’s word? Who is qualified or competent for this work? Well, Paul says in verse 4 that he’s confident that he is qualified for this work. But, he then adds in verse 5, his competence or qualification for the work comes from God. So, God is the one who has qualified Paul, because God is the one who set Paul apart and who called him as an apostle and a preacher.
And — he says in verse 6 — God has made Paul a minister of the new covenant. Here he’s referring to God’s promise to his people through the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The people of Israel kept breaking the old covenant, the one God made with them at Mount Sinai, when they promised to do everything the Lord commanded. But they kept breaking that covenant, because they were sinners like us. So, God said he would make a new covenant. And in that new covenant he promised to give them a new heart like never before; and to fill them with his Spirit like never before; and to forgive their sins like never before. And on the night the Lord Jesus was betrayed, as he was celebrating the Passover with his disciples, he picked up the cup and said:
This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
He was saying that the time for the new covenant had come, when God would forgive his people for their sins like never before; and when God would fill them his Spirit like never before; and he would give them a new heart like never before. The Lord Jesus shed his blood on the cross for the complete forgiveness of all our sins. Then he was raised from the dead and he ascended to heaven to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And now, when the word of God is preached by preachers sent by God, the Lord Jesus sends his Spirit to work in the hearts of those who hear to enable them to believe the good news and to trust in him for salvation. He sends his Spirit down to work in the hearts of those who hear so that the message they hear is the fragrance of life. He leaves some in their sin, so that the gospel message seems to them like the smell of death. But he enables others to smell the fragrance of Christ and to believe in the Saviour so that they will receive the free gift of eternal life.
And so, you should pray that the Lord will continue to call preachers to preach his word in the power of the Spirit and to make known this wonderful new covenant by which God promises — for the sake of Christ — to forgive the sins of his people and to fill them with his Spirit and to renew their hearts to love him. We should pray that the Lord will continue to call preachers who will not peddle the word of God or water it down, but who will preach it before God and with sincerity as men sent from God. And you should pray that God’s triumphal procession will not cease, but will continue; and that the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ will be spread everywhere.