There is a sermon announced in the bulletin, but you can disregard that because that’s not the subject for today. I’ve come to the conviction that we need to receive some encouragement as the people of God. This is a dire time. And I can speak on your behalf because I know you carry the same burdens that I do as a church. This is a very hard time for the church. The church is, at least in name, filled with false teachers; defecting pastors; immoral leaders; proud, arrogant men; power being usurped by women; division; racial hatred and animus; bad theology; worldliness. It’s a very dire time, and it is compounded by the fact that we feel like we’re being persecuted because we’re being told we can’t meet.
There are some people who might wonder what the future of the church is. Some churches have just shut down, but that’s because they fear the powers, or because they’re basically trying to please the culture and they can’t find a way to do that in this setting. It’s a very difficult time for faithful pastors. They can’t shepherd their flocks. They can’t come alongside the weak, the struggling, the unruly, the needy. I’ve had to make phone calls to dying people in a hospital rather than be beside them, with them as they went into glory. Such was the case with Jackie Owens whose service was held yesterday. We can’t have weddings. We can’t have memorial services. And beyond that, you have a society of people who are afraid. They’re afraid in the sort of terminal sense. They’re afraid they might die because they’re being told that all the time; and where do they turn? The churches aren’t there.
I think back to other issues that have happened in our society – riots and earthquakes and things like that – that inevitably result in an increased attendance on a Sunday as people led up to the reality of imminent death rush to the church to find hope. I remember 9/11 and how packed this church was on the Sunday following the Tuesday of 9/11. But it seems as though there are no places they can go. The people of God who need each other, who need fellowship, who need mutual prayer and love and support are isolated largely from each other.
This could be a time of real discouragement, and it kind of has the feel that there doesn’t seem to be an end. We’re realizing that evil men get worse and worse as time goes on; that’s what the Bible says. But we might have thought that the church would get stronger as time went on. We know, maybe more than at any time in the history of the church, the weakness of the church because of media. Weak churches, unfaithful leaders, immoral leaders can’t hide. Nobody can hide, not in this culture. The Internet will expose you. So all that is wrong is out there, and we all bear the weight of it.
So we may be wondering just exactly where is all of this going. To help you with that, I want you to open your Bible to 2 Corinthians chapter 2, 2 Corinthians chapter 2, and I want to enter into a time in the life of my ministry hero, the apostle Paul. A dire time for him as well, a time when in a church he founded and loved there were false teachers, bad doctrine, sin, division, hostility on many levels, and persecution. It was enough to discourage even him. Hear his words in 2 Corinthians 2, verses 12-17.
“Now when I came to Troas for the gospel of Christ and when a door was opened for me in the Lord, I had no rest for my spirit, not finding Titus my brother; but taking my leave of them, I went on to Macedonia. But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death; to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things? For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God.”
There really never has been a time when the people of God have not had enemies, in fact, when Satan himself, the archenemy of God, has not attacked God’s kingdom.
I think back to Deuteronomy and Moses’ final counsel as he was passing off the scene and handing the baton to Joshua. Listen to Deuteronomy 31: “Moses went and spoke these words to all Israel. And he said to them, ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I’m no longer able to come and go, and the Lord has said to me, “You shall not cross this Jordan” – into the Promised Land – ‘It is the Lord your God who will cross ahead of you; He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them. Joshua is the one who will cross ahead of you, just as the Lord has spoken. The Lord will do to them just as He did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when He destroyed them. The Lord will deliver them up before you, and you shall do to them according to all the commandments which I have commanded you. Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the Lord your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.’
“Then Moses called to Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, ‘Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land which the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall give it to them as an inheritance. The Lord is the one who goes ahead of you; He will be with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.’”
Chapter 1 of Joshua; chapter 1, verse 1: “Now it came about after the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, that the Lord spoke to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ servant, saying, ‘Moses My servant is dead; now therefore arise, cross this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them, to the sons of Israel. Every place on which the sole of your foot treads, I have given it to you, just as I spoke to Moses. From the wilderness and this Lebanon, even as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and as far as the Great Sea toward the setting of the sun will be your territory. No man will be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.
“Be strong and courageous, for you shall give this people possession of the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous; be careful to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, so that you may have success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.’”
In 2 Chronicles chapter 32, on the brink of an invasion from a pagan king into the land of Israel, we read: “After these acts of faithfulness Sennacherib king of Assyria came and invaded Judah and besieged the fortified cities, and thought to break into them for himself. Now when Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and that he intended to make war on Jerusalem, he decided with his officers and his warriors to cut off the supply of water from the springs which were outside the city, and they helped him. So many people assembled and stopped up all the springs and the stream which flowed through the region, saying, ‘Why should the kings of Assyria come and find abundant water?’ And he took courage and rebuilt all the wall that had been broken down and erected towers on it, and built another outside wall and strengthened the Millo in the city of David, and made weapons and shields in great number. He appointed military officers over the people and gathered them to him in the square at the city gate, and spoke encouragingly to them, saying, ‘Be strong and courageous, do not fear or be dismayed because of the king of Assyria nor because of all the horde that is with him; for the one with us is greater than the one with him.’”
The prophet Isaiah in chapter 41 gives a similarly encouraging message of God’s faithfulness to sustain His people. Isaiah 41, verse 8: “But you, Israel, My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, descendant of Abraham My friend, you whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called from its remotest parts and said to you, ‘You are My servant, I have chosen you and not rejected you. Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.’
“Behold, all those who are angered at you will be shamed and dishonored; those who contend with you will be as nothing and will perish. You will seek those who quarrel with you, but will not find them, those who war with you will be as nothing and non-existent. For I am the Lord your God, who upholds your right hand, who says to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you.’ Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel; I will help you,” declares the Lord, “and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.” Over and over God declared to His people that He would be their deliverer, their protector. No matter how strong the enemy, no matter how formidable his forces, He would always be the protector of His people.
When you come into the New Testament in that first magnificent sermon in Matthew, the first sermon recorded in the gospel of Matthew in chapter 5, you hear these words in verse 10 from the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ: “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
And then in the gospel of John, at the end of His ministry, gathered with His disciples in the upper room, John 15, verse 18. He says to them on that final night, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you’re not of this world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates Me hates My Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well. But they have done this to fulfill the word that is written in their Law, ‘They hated Me without a cause.’” And he quotes from Psalm 35, Psalm 69, and Psalm 109, “They hated Me without a cause.”
He goes on in chapter 16, “These things I have spoken to you so that you may be kept from stumbling. They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God. These things they will do because they have not known the Father or Me.” And at the very end of that sixteenth chapter, verse 33, “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”
None of us should be surprised at hostility. But for us who live in this particular country in this time in history persecution has been, perhaps, personal - people in your own family who resent you, people that you know and meet who resent your commitment to Christ. But mostly we have lived in an era when the church has not known corporate persecution, not in this country. So our understanding of these great promises of God to protect His people have been somewhat theoretical and historical. The church has not been persecuted in our country. It has not been troubled by the government, at least not until now, and we’re beginning to feel hostility. We’re beginning to feel like we’re being singled out.
We understand persecution exists around the world. According to those who track persecution of Christians, there are at least 260 million Christians living in places where there is overt persecution. I don’t know the exact numbers, but estimates are that about three thousand Christians were killed for being Christians last year. Ten thousand churches were burned or assaulted or destroyed. Four thousand people were arrested and imprisoned for being Christians. And always, the persecution comes from two levels. It comes, number one, from authoritarian government; and number two, from majority false religious authorities, mostly Islam. So it seems that the greatest persecutors of the church have always been those in authority: civil authority or religious authority. For the first time in our nation’s history, government rulers have decided to shut down churches, but not riots and protests, based on a somewhat deceptive fear of an illness from which 99 percent of people recover, most without symptoms.
What does the future of the church look like? We keep hearing words like, “This restriction is indefinite.” We’ve experienced something that is very new to us. Questions are being raised about the future of the church, and it’s easy to be discouraged when the fellowship that is our life is assaulted and broken apart.
This week little children will be here for the first time in months. They have missed months of Sundays being instructed in the Generations of Grace in the Word of God, in Adventure Club and sound doctrine. Young people have missed months and months of fellowship with their friends; and we’ve all missed each other.
Why is this happening? I find myself exactly where Job was. I don’t know the counsel of God, but I do know this: I do know that historically when times get hard for the church it tends to purge the church. I’ve been reading about some churches that have shut down till the end of the year, and the ones that are doing that so far will produce an immediate blessing by not meeting. Persecution always purges the church. More important, what does a faithful church do? Well, you’re experiencing it right now.
Paul – back to 2 Corinthians – Paul knew deep, penetrating, disheartening disappointment over the Corinthian church. He was actually discouraged. In fact, in chapter 7 of this letter and verse 6, he said he was depressed. It’s hard for me to imagine Paul being depressed about anything. But the shallowness of that church, the sinfulness of that church, the false teachers who had been successful in that church, the church turning against him because they were told lies about him, the church becoming so much like the world that they were, in some cases, indistinguishable – that’s losing the impact of their testimony – was immense grief to him. One sin and spiritual disaster followed another to such a degree that as he concludes this letter, he says in chapter 12, verse 20, “I’m afraid that perhaps when I come I may find you to be not what I wish and may be found by you to be not what you wish. Perhaps there will be strife, jealousy, angry tempers, disputes, slanders, gossip, arrogance, disturbances.” Then in verse 21, “I’m afraid that when I come again my God may humiliate me before you, and I may mourn over many of those who have sinned in the past and not repented of the impurity, immorality and sensuality which they’ve practiced. I’m even afraid to come.”
In chapter 2, he starts the chapter, “I determined this for my own sake, that I would not come to you in sorrow again. I don’t want to come because I’m afraid of what I’m going to find. I don’t know if I can take any more heartache.”
In the eleventh chapter, in a very familiar portion he says, “I have suffered a lot.” He talks about, verse 23, “being in imprisonments, beaten times without number in danger of death, five times receiving from the Jews thirty-nine lashes, three times beaten with rods, once stoned, three times shipwrecked, a night and a day in the deep.” He talks about “frequent journeys that brought dangers from robbers and countrymen and Gentiles in the city, in the wilderness, on the sea, among false brethren. I have been in labor and hardship through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there’s the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. The worst pain is my heart is so grieved over the church. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?” Physical things are one thing to bear. Far worse than that is the tragic spiritual condition of the church.
So you could say that discouragement, anxiety over the Corinthian church ate at his soul. He knew they had all the gifts, but they were divided, full of rancor and animosity toward one another. They were disorderly. They were worldly. Chaos reigned in their supposed worship. Sin stained their gathering around the Lord’s Table. They fought, they sued each other, they were involved in sexual sin, and they were proud. Conditions were so bad that Apollos would not stay there nor would he return, though Paul urged him to.
Additionally, false teachers had come and settled in successfully, managing to deceive the leaders and members of the church to join in a mutiny against faithful Paul. False character was being blasted. His controversy with Peter, discussed in Galatians 2, was being exploited against him. He was slandered. Doctrinal issues, use of spiritual gifts were all mixed up with personal jealousies and pride. They winked at incest, abused their marriages, ate at demon feasts, failed to give as they should, even questioned the resurrection. Now that’s a congregation to bring grief to anybody who cares about the church. He couldn’t even bring himself to go there. On top of this, in Ephesus, those who hated him and the gospel started a riot, recorded in Acts 19, that could have taken his life right at the time that he’s concerned about this church. Some think he may well have had even a potentially fatal illness. He needed to be comforted.
Not hard to understand his grief. So he sort of becomes for us a model of how to respond in a time when the church is in disastrous condition. How do you deal with all of this? And especially difficult was his dilemma because of the love he had for them.
Back in chapter 2, verse 4, he says, “Out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not so that you would be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you.” Love always intensifies disappointment, doesn’t it. Love always intensifies discouragement. His heart is really on the brink of being broken. He says similar words at the end of the epistle, chapter 12, verse 15, “I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? Is this what I get for loving you more, less love from you?”
So he sent Titus. He sent Titus to find out how they responded to his first letter, 1 Corinthians; and even a second letter that he sent them that’s not included in the New Testament, but he refers to it. He wanted to know how they responded to the pleas in the sixteen chapters of 1 Corinthians and the second letter. And that’s where we pick up the story in chapter 2, verse 12.
He had come to Troas, and he had come to Troas very discouraged. Troas was a seaport city, a city on the Aegean Sea in western Asia Minor at the mouth of the Dardanelles, founded in about 300 BC, ten miles from ancient Troy in Mysia, and Augustus Caesar had made it a Roman colony. His departure had been caused by the riots in Ephesus that would have taken his life. So to make things even more difficult, he is heartbroken, and he’s running from deadly enemies.
He comes to Troas. He’d been there before, according to Acts 16, but apparently didn’t found a church. A church is there in Acts 20, so perhaps he founded it on this very short visit mentioned right here in verse 12. He came for that reason. “Now when I came to Troas for the gospel of Christ,” to evangelize the city, to what he always did – go to the Jewish synagogue and preach the gospel, and then preach the gospel to the Gentiles; and for those who believed, establish a church.
And wonderfully, and it should have been encouraging, “A door was opened for me in the Lord. An opportunity for evangelism was opened in the Lord.” In other words, it wasn’t strategically designed by him, as some effective methodology. No. The Lord had given him favor. The Lord had gone before him. The Lord was doing work through his brief time there. He must have preached to know that the door was open.
He knew about open doors, he talked in Acts 14:27 about an open door of faith. He talked in Colossians 4:3 about an open door of the Word. So here is a door open for evangelism. Doesn’t mean there aren’t adversaries. But the door is opened, and the only way he would know the door was open would be to preach the gospel and see the response. And it was obviously the Lord because some must have believed; and this is most likely where that church that appears later in the book of Acts got its start. This would be the best of all possible situations, wouldn’t it, for a discouraged evangelist. He found a place where the Lord opened the door. You would think that he would say, “This is where I’m going to be. This is where I’m going to stay.” But not so.
Look at verse 13: “I had no rest for my spirit.” That is such an interesting statement, “I had no rest for my spirit.” “No rest.” As I had mentioned earlier, he further defines that in chapter 7, verse 6 as “being depressed.” He couldn’t get past his pain over the Corinthian church: Would they love him? Would they listen to him? Would they repent? Would they forsake their worldliness, their carnality, their divisions? Would they repent of incest? Would they end the quarrels? Would they get past the confusion about marriage and divorce? Would they turn from idols? Would they purge the Lord’s Table? Would they abandon sexual immorality? Would they discipline those who sinned, and would they expel the false teachers?
And this was so much on his heart because he loved them so greatly that even with an open door in Troas, he had no rest for his spirit. Why? “Not finding Titus my brother.” Titus was on his way back to Paul who was coming from Ephesus, and Titus was going to bear the report as to how they responded to the letters he had written. But he still had the aching questions because he hadn’t seen Titus.
This is a dangerous hour for the preacher. His heart is in danger of rebellion. And when the door is open he can’t even go through it. He lost his zeal for the work. He’s in despair. He’s heartbroken. Everything seems to have gone wrong. No joy, just a restless, disappointed, discouraged heart.
When the preacher gets to this point everything becomes a drudgery. The gold is – the glitter of the gold is off the ministry. It seems like a plodding toil of heartbreak. And the temptation comes to many to give up ministry, go another direction. Real difficulties are magnified out of proportion; and the minister even begins to act without trusting God.
Apparently, Titus was supposed to have met Paul at Troas to report on the Corinthians, but somehow he was delayed. So Paul wasn’t about to wait there, even with an open door. He had no heart for that. So burdened, so overwhelmed, he left. You know, it’s a danger in ministry. Time spent in dwelling on the feelings of a broken heart can suck the energy out of a servant of the Lord; and that’s time and energy lost for eternity.
So he turned away from the open door, verse 13, “taking my leave of them,” – no doubt there were some believers there that are embedded in the “them,” and others who were anxious to hear the truth – “and I headed toward Macedonia.” He knew the route that Titus would take, and so he set out on a gloomy journey to intersect with the delayed Titus. Likely five days by boat across the northeast corner of the Aegean Sea, and then on foot down a familiar road, at which point he would hope to intersect with Titus.
It’s just so hard to imagine, at least for me, that a man of the strength of Paul could get to this point. He was close to the edge, very close to the edge. This is the dark side of the preacher’s life. This is what disappointment can do to the best of men. Was he defeated? Where did he turn to find encouragement?
Notice the next verse, verse 14: “But” – that’s important, isn’t it. That’s an adversative, something’s coming - different. “But thanks be to God.” He moves in the direction of encouragement by moving from his problems to his God. He’s finding his way to the very things that God told Moses and Joshua and Israel, the same things that Isaiah wrote about: “Be strong and courageous, the Lord is with you.” I don’t know if he ever met Titus before the encouragement started to come back.
He did meet Titus, chapter 7: “But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus; and not only by his coming, but also by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me; so that I rejoiced even more.” Wow. Good word from Titus.
I would like to think he came to the “But thanks” before he met Titus. Titus did come and bring a good report. That comforted Paul greatly. But I don’t really think that report was the source of his joy. It certainly played a part in relieving his anxiety at the moment. But he knew that perhaps even with hearing from Titus that there was still a resistant minority there; and the fickleness that the Corinthians had showed in the past could come back again.
So where did he go to find lasting joy? It wouldn’t be in just the report about the Corinthians because that could only be a temporary reality. Where does he go? “But thanks be to God,” – for the report from Titus? No. I love this – “who always leads us in triumph in Christ.” You see that? He remembered what God had said to Moses and Joshua and to Judah, and what Isaiah had said, “Be strong and courageous. Don’t fear; God is with you. Thanks be to God.”
In specific, what does he mean? Well, I wish I had time to unfold all of it. But let me see if I can give you enough to capture your heart.
There’s a word there, “triumph,” – Do you see it? – “triumph.” That’s a technical term. In Paul’s mind he is seeing a triumph, a Roman triumph. The highest honor that could be given to a victorious Roman general was called a triumph. Before a Roman general could receive from his king and from his people a triumph, he had to have been the commander-in-chief of a field army. The campaign must have been completely finished against an enemy: the region pacified, the victorious troops brought home, five thousand of the enemy at least must have fallen in one engagement, a positive extension of the territory must have been gained and not merely an attack repelled, the victory must have been won over a foreign foe and not a civil war.
That’s what qualified a general to receive a triumph. In the actual triumph, the procession of the victorious general marched through the streets of Rome to the capital in the following order. First, there came the state officials and the senate – the politicians get out in front. Then there came the trumpeters. Then there were the spoils taken from the conquered land. When Titus conquered Jerusalem in 70 AD, for example, he was given a triumph, and he brought through the streets of Rome the seven-branched candlestick, the golden table of the shewbread, and the golden trumpets from the temple, and carried them through the streets of Rome. These became symbolic of the conquering.
There followed the white bulls that was to be offered in sacrifice to the gods for giving the victory. Then there walked the wretched captives – the enemy princes, leaders and generals – in chains shortly to be flung into prison, and in all probability, almost immediately, to be executed. Then there came the lictors beating the prisoners with their rods, followed by the musicians playing music of triumph. Then there came the priests swinging their censers, bringing about a sweet-smelling fragrance. Then there came the general himself in a chariot drawn by four horses clad in purple, embroidered with gold palm leaves. In his hand he had an ivory scepter with a Roman eagle on it. Then came the army wearing all their decorations and shouting, “Triumph! Triumph! Triumph!”
That’s what Paul sees in his mind. Magnificent imagery. “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ.” Magnificent imagery. Paul remembers that Christ wins.
Three aspects of this become clear. He gives thanks to God for the privilege of being in the army of the triumphant Christ. “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ.” Whatever may happen in my ministry, whatever successes or failure, whatever encouragement or discouragement, whatever the ups and downs of life and ministry, Christ triumphs. He always leads us.
The sense of the Lord’s sovereign leading is the foundation of our joy. Paul remarks about this at the end of his life in 2 Timothy chapter 4, familiar words to us, verse 16: “At my first, in my defense, no one supported me, but all deserted me; may it not be counted against them. But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that through me the proclamation might be fully accomplished, and that all the Gentiles might hear; and I was rescued out of the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to His heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” That’s his swan song. That’s his final sign-off. “It’s enough,” he says, “to wear the uniform and march behind the victor. Christ wins. He leads His people to triumph.”
In 1 Timothy chapter 1, Paul says, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service,” – or ministry – “even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost sinner, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Paul ended up his life clear about the triumph, clear about the triumph. “Thank You, Father, for putting me in uniform as a part of the army of the triumphant Christ.” He would be, as Romans 8:37 puts it, a hupernikaō, a “super conqueror.” We follow our conquering hero in the victory parade, not as captives, not as prisoners headed to judgment, but as fellow conquerors in the great triumph over sin and death and hell. Jesus Christ will win. Revelation says He will come back as King of kings and Lord of lords, and He will reign. Christ wins, and we win with Him. We are in the triumph. We’re in that victory parade.
In that victory parade, as I mentioned, there would be some priests carrying censors burning with a strong fragrance. There would be women throwing flowers in front of the general and his troops. This would create a rising fragrance, a sweet aroma, the smell of victory. Paul applies that: “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.” Manifests through us, the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.
That takes us to a second reason to be thankful, not only because he was marching in the triumph of Christ, but secondly, he gives thanks to God for the privilege of having eternal influence, for the privilege of having eternal influence. To be a sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him every place, in verse 15: “For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things?”
Who in the world could expect his life to matter that much? Not only to be in the army of the triumphant Christ, but to have eternal influence, to be one who exudes the sweet aroma of the gospel in every place. Romans chapter 10 says, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how will they call on Him in whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? Blessed, blessed are the feet of those who preach the good news.”
Most people would like their life to have some significance. This is the greatest significance any life could ever have. It’s incomparable to have a life that matters eternally, that matters eternally. When the gospel comes off your life in deed and word it is a sweet aroma. And I want you to notice that it is a sweet aroma, first of all, to God, verse 15: “We are a fragrance of Christ to God.”
Before you ever think about how you affect people, you have to understand that faithfulness to the proclamation of the gospel in life and word sends up a fragrance to the One who sits on the throne. As the emperor at the end of the parade, no doubt on Capitoline Hill in Roman ancient times could smell the fragrance. So the fragrance of a godly, virtuous, gospel-faithful life rises to the very pleasure of God. Should be as our ambition, Paul tells the Corinthians to be pleasing to Him, 2 Corinthians chapter 5, verse 9.
“So thanks to God to be in the triumph. Whatever role I many have played, whatever ups and downs my contribution may have had, to be in the victory parade is enough for me, to wear the uniform of my King.” And, secondly, “to have a life that sets off an aroma that pleases God. Who is adequate for that?” But beyond just pleasing God. To have a life that has an eternal impact on the people around us, not only a fragrance of Christ to God, but a fragrance among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, “to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life.” In other words – listen – this is vital to understand.
There are those who are being saved, and there are those who are perishing. Paul uses that kind of language back in 1 Corinthians chapter 1: “Preaching of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness. But to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.” There are two categories of people in the world: those who are being saved and those who are perishing. And as the triumph marched along, and the incense and the flowers sent off their aroma, to the wretched captives it would be an aroma of death, perfume of death. To the victors, it was a perfume of life.
Your life matters as a Christian. It compounds those who come under your influence. This is kind of a Hebraic way to think. It’s superlatives. Your life, preaching the gospel, adds to those who are perishing greater condemnation; to those who are being saved, greater reward. That is an amazing reality.
I think most Christians assume that the only time your life matters is if somebody believes. No. Listen to 1 Peter 2:6, “Behold I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone,” Christ. “He who believes in Him will not be disappointed. This precious value then is for you who believe; but for those who disbelieve, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the very corner stone,’ and, ‘and a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense’; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed.” Receiving Christ, life to life; rejecting Christ, death to death. The same aroma brings life and brings death.
The Jews in ancient times wrote about the Torah these words: “As the bee reserves her honey for her owner and her sting for others, so the words of the Torah are sam hayyim, an ‘elixir of life,’ for Israel and sam ha-maweth, a ‘deadly poison’ to the nations of the world.” Or the sun shining on a tree brings life to some branches and death to others. If a branch is vitally connected to the tree and the tree is properly rooted in the soil, the sun brings life. On the other hand, if a branch is broken off, the sun will wither and scorch it to death. So is the gospel. Same sun that melts the wax hardens the clay. Every time you proclaim the gospel, every time I preach the gospel, two things are happening: an aroma of the gospel is going out to either produce death to death or life to life. What a privilege. Who’s adequate for that? Whose life could ever matter that much apart from divine purpose?
Thanks for being in the army of the King, the triumphant King. Thanks for a life of influence. And, finally, thanks for the privilege of preaching truth, verse 17: “We’re not like many, peddling the word of God. We’re not like many, peddling the word of God.” What is that? Kapēlos is the term. Kapēleuō means “to corrupt.”
Even then there were many who corrupted the Word of God, who manipulated the Word of God, who misinterpreted the Word of God, purposely, out of ignorance, whatever. But a kapēlos was a street hawker, somebody who set up his little operation on the street to hawk his wares – pitch men, con men, hucksters, using their ingenuity and skill, trickery and deceit. A kapēlos was a con man, a huckster who concerned with cheating and making profit at the buyer’s expense, out for personal gain. Typically they sold watered-down wine for a high price, and they were able to sell it by the sheer devices of cleverness which they employed.
They were cheapening the truth. They were degrading the truth. They were adulterating the Word of God, adulterating it with their own ideas, or with Judaism, or with paganism, or with whatever, just like people do today, twisting and perverting Scripture to their own ends. Why? For popularity, fame, money. Fraudulent adulterators of God’s Word. Cheap gospeleers, prosperity preachers, health and wealth preachers, sacramentalists, legalists, pragmatists, manipulators of Scripture and people.
Paul is saying, “We’re not like that. We’re not like that.” And there are many like that. “But as from sincerity” - eilikrineia – “not from human cleverness, not from devices, but with a pure heart as from God, we come to you with integrity. The single source of our message is God. We speak in Christ, of Him, and by His power, in the sight of God.” Paul is saying, “God knows that I am speaking from Him concerning His Son.”
Anyone can preach a truncated message. Anyone can twist and pervert the truth and mingle it with human wisdom, and contaminate it with all kinds of cleverness. Paul says, “I would never do that. It’s such a high and holy privilege for me to be a soldier marching behind the triumphant general. It’s such a privilege to have a life that matters every time the gospel is proclaimed from my mouth. It’s a savor, or an aroma, of life to life or death to death. And the bottom line is what makes this significant is that I am faithful to speak the Word of God.”
Paul found his way out of his discouragement. As he thought about the privilege of being associated, as a co-conqueror with the King of kings, his privilege of being in the triumph, of influencing people for eternity, of pleasing God, the great privilege of being empowered to proclaim the truth; and that’s what led to his gratitude.
I don’t know what the future’s going to look like for the church, but I do know who wins. Right? Christ wins. And we’re in His triumph. And our lives matter more than any in the world. No human being has a life that matters eternally unless he’s in Christ. And we just need to be faithful to the privilege of proclaiming the truth with integrity, and then we’ll see what the Lord will do. Do not fear. Be strong. Be of good courage. The Lord is with us. Amen?
Father, we thank You for again the clarity of the Word and the power of it as it speaks truth to our hearts. Give us wisdom and opportunity to proclaim the glorious gospel as You have designed for us to do, to know nothing but Christ and Him crucified. Like the apostle Paul, use every one of us for Your honor and Your glory in these days. Be exalted, O Lord, we pray. That’s our prayer. Amen.
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