In our modern day of air fresheners and antiperspirants, it might be hard to imagine the odors that must have permeated the ancient world in cities like Corinth. Travelers would arrive at port after a long journey, unbathed. Meat sold at the market had been previously used in pagan rites, and didn’t come shrink-wrapped. Refuse was cast in the street, especially in the poorer quarters of town.
Well…you get the idea.
But when Paul speaks of being the “fragrance” or “aroma” (2 Cor 2:14-15; he uses two different words in the Greek) of Christ, he has two background images in mind. One is from the Old Testament: the pleasing aroma of an honest and humble sacrifice that rises to God. In this way, those who serve as apostles “smell like the aroma of Christ’s offering to God” (2 Cor 2:15a, CEB).
The second image, however, is the one mentioned in the previous post: the lingering aroma of incense from a passing victory parade. The scent itself might provoke quite different reactions from the crowd: elation in those who were allied with the conqueror; fear and loathing in those who were not.
Taken together, the images convey what it means to Paul to be an apostle: “vertically,” a pleasing sacrifice to God; “horizontally,” the smell of life or death to others, depending on their response to the gospel. Paul’s concern, understood narrowly, is the defense of his apostleship; but more broadly, it’s the defense of the nature of apostleship itself, and by extension, of a right understanding of the gospel.
The more we push toward a broader reading, the more we are compelled to ask: if we are supposed to be the representatives of Jesus, what “aroma” do we give off?
Here, it might seem that the simplest advice would be, “Don’t go around making a stink.” Many people have encountered obnoxious and self-righteous Christians, who themselves may have been blissfully unaware of the effect of their behavior on others. We can easily agree that we don’t want to be like that (perhaps while silently and confidently congratulating ourselves that we’re not and never will be).
Certainly, Paul has no desire to see Christians annoying each other or their neighbors: we should try to live at peace with everyone, even our enemies (Rom 12:18-21). But when Paul says that those who represent Jesus spread “the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere” (2 Cor 2:14, CEB), he isn’t saying, “Don’t be a stinker.” He’s taking on his critics, those who find his way of being an apostle off-putting or even offensive. He’s confident that he is living as Christ would want him to, and making a bold claim: if anyone doesn’t get it, it’s because they’re standing on the wrong side of the gospel.
The lesson for us is twofold. First and without a doubt, we should take seriously our role as people through whom God intends others to see his character. We should always want our lives to give off the aroma of graciousness and peace, not the stink of selfishness and sin.
But second, we must also remember that even if by the grace of God we represent Jesus well — indeed, not just “if” but especially “when” — some will not be pleased with the aroma. Like Paul, and like Jesus before him, we must live with integrity, but in the knowledge that some will find this offensive.
More on this in the next post.