Ever been accused of being selfish, deceitful, or underhanded? It hurts when people question our motives and sincerity when our intentions are pure.
This unfair judgmental and critical attitude is especially painful when it happens within the context of our church family. Without a doubt, it can be extremely discouraging. Our natural human response is to want to react defensively and possibly to retaliate.
The apostle Paul had many friends and enemies both within and without the church. While he had his fair share of fans and supporters, there were those who despised him and had wormed their way among the ranks of the naïve church membership in Corinth, during the mid-first century, and sought to discredit Paul as person, a Christian, and a church leader. Of course, they did this while he was away doing mission work elsewhere.
While Paul had been hindered from making a timely return visit (most likely his third) to the Corinthian congregation, these false apostles with self-serving motives had infiltrated and called into question Paul’s sincerity, integrity, and spiritual authority. Many in the congregation were confused and dismayed by these opponents’ persuasive argument and false accusations.
In response, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17 (ESV) the following words: “14 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. 15 For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things? 17 For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ.”
The narration has a lot to do with grief and tribulation, but throughout the hardship, the power and comfort of God is at work. Paul is trying to show why his ministry looks the way it does—not very glamorous or trendy. In 2:14, he refers to being “triumphed over” by Christ and led in triumphal procession. Paul has essentially become a public spectacle, one who was mocked and viewed by many as a fool for Christ’s sake (1 Cor. 4:10).
He and his coworkers are often hungry and thirsty, poorly dress, abused, homeless, and Paul has to hard labor with his own two hands (1 Cor. 4:10-11). But none of that mattered to Paul, because he is constrained by the love of Christ (2 Cor. 5:14). He views himself and his ministry colleagues as being conquered by Christ’s grace and power (2 Cor. 4:2, 10).
Going back to 2 Cor. 2:14, Paul employs a smell or fragrance metaphor in his vivid declaration that God is spreading the fragrant knowledge of Christ through Paul and his friends, this knowledge being the gospel proclamation. He feels called to be the aroma of Christ (v. 15) among the saved and the perishing.
In the Old Testament, the phrase for “sweet aroma,” in referring to the various offerings and sacrifices is used everywhere (e.g., Exod. 19:18; Lev. 1:9). Sometimes, however, Paul says he smells like the stench of death (2 Cor. 2:16). Truth be told, he recognized that his ministry was a matter of life and death. He states: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18, ESV).
Who could possibly be sufficient for such a ministry and up to this monumental task? Paul recognizes that he himself is quite insufficient but that God makes him sufficient.
Just like Moses, Jeremiah, Gideon and the other prophets were made adequate for their respective tasks through God’s power, so is Paul. And Paul is able to self-affirm that he is nothing like the many religious charlatans out there who peddle God’s word for money. Instead, he and his companions are “men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God [to] speak in Christ” (1 Cor. 2:17).
Sometimes it can be tough to be a Christian, but we must never forget that our purpose is to please the Lord and not other people. God himself will reward obedience and faithfulness in the end.