"In Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in His presence." --2 Corinthians 2:17
In ancient Rome, whenever a general led his troops to a great military victory, the Roman Senate would vote him a triumphal parade through the streets of Rome. During this ultimate military honor, he rode in a chariot with his face painted red for reasons the Romans couldn't quite remember--perhaps linking him to the Roman god Jupiter. Huge crowds cheered. The commander's army traditionally followed in their leader's wake, lambasting him with off-color jokes and profane songs to keep him humble in his moment of supreme glory. For a similar reason, a slave rode in the same chariot, standing behind the general, holding a golden crown over his head while whispering in his ear, "Look behind you, and remember that you are mortal!"
Members of the Senate, musicians, sacrificial animals, the spoils of war, and captured prisoners in chains also walked in this triumphal procession. Clouds of incense offered to the Roman gods enveloped the parade, producing a specific scent wafting over the scene. Flowers tossed along the parade route added to the unique smell. The spectacle and the aroma reminded the Romans of another great victory while the same sight and smell signaled impending execution or slavery for the prisoners of war. The image above was carved into the Arch of Titus in Rome, depicting his triumphal parade after defeating the Jews in Jerusalem in 71 A.D.
The Apostle Paul used the metaphor of a Roman triumphal procession to explain to the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth their position and purpose within the Body of Christ. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul told his brothers and sisters that "God in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession" and spreads through us "the fragrance that comes from knowing him." (2 Corinthians 2:14) It is significant that God "leads us" in triumphal procession. What role do we play in the parade? Are we the soldiers commanded by the victorious general (Christ) or are we the captive prisoners destined for death or slavery? The answer could very well be both! In Ephesians 6, verse 11, Paul encouraged his fellow believers to "put on the full armor of God," recognizing that they (and we) are engaged in a spiritual battle with the devil. At the same time, to the Roman church, Paul wrote that "you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God" and "the benefit you reap leads to holiness" and "the result is eternal life." (Romans 6:22) As for execution, we have been crucified with Christ and we no longer live. Instead, Christ lives in us. (Galatians 2:20)
Paul extended the metaphor of a Roman triumphal procession to describe the impact of a Jesus follower to those around him or her. In 2 Corinthians 2:15-16, Paul explained that our presence and the story of what Jesus has done in our lives gives off an aroma. That scent serves the same purpose as the clouds of incense that covered the parade route. To people who love Jesus or are attracted to Jesus (even if they don't yet know why), we smell like the ultimate victory of Christ that is inevitable, a victory already achieved on the cross. To those who want nothing to do with the Lord or prefer to deify self, the fragrance of our lives reminds them that they are headed for destruction. We all do things at times in our selfishness or sin that serve to distract, or even repel, people from Christ. We shouldn't use these verses to justify that behavior. But it is true that our relationships with each other are influenced by our individual relationships with Christ.
The reality that our lives can either draw people to Christ or drive them away from Him is a weighty responsibility. At the end of 2 Corinthians 2:16, Paul asked who could possibly shoulder such a burden. When I read the words of his answer, they nearly jumped off the page. That is the beauty of the Bible. It is not just a book. It is the living Word of God through which God the Holy Spirit speaks to us. No matter how many times we read it, the Lord is always teaching us something new. So, what kind of people can navigate the awesome responsibility of being "the aroma of Christ to God?" The verse featured at the start of this reflection highlights the answer. People who speak sincerely, people sent from God and people standing in God's presence. (2 Corinthians 2:17)
I want to be this kind of person. I want to be someone who, when he talks about the Lord, or life in general, does so with a sincere, honest passion and authenticity. The word "sincerity" in the text means, in the original language, "pure" or "transparent." No exaggeration. No drawing attention to myself. I want to always remember that, wherever I am or whomever I meet, I have been sent there from God. The Lord provides purpose to my life. My only purpose in life is to serve His purpose in every moment and every interaction. And I want to be a person who remembers, at all times, that I stand in the presence of the Lord. He is always there with me; that is what He promised to all of us in Matthew 28:20. Because of that reality, I choose to act and speak in a pure manner with as much integrity and as little hypocrisy as I can muster. I remember all the time that this type of life is not possible through my own will, energy or strength. It is only as I remain dependent on the Lord and He lives His life through me that others will see the presence of Jesus in me.
Heavenly Father, we surrender to You! We praise You as the victorious conqueror of our hearts! We gladly follow You as You lead us in Christ through all the days of our lives. Cause others to be drawn to You through our lives. Help us to speak and live with sincerity and purity. Remind us that we serve Your purposes in this life, not our own. Fill us with Your Spirit so that we overflow with Your presence wherever we go. In Jesus' Name, Amen.