The Aroma of Christ Among the Nations

Today is the second Sunday of our Fall Missions Focus. It has been our pattern for many years to close this service with a call to come to the front of the sanctuary for everyone who believes God is stirring in your life to move you sooner or later toward cross-cultural missions longer term. So please pray with me that God would confirm in this service what he has been doing in your life, or may begin to do today.

The Apostle Paul: Frontier Missionary

Before we turn to the text from 2 Corinthians let me put it in a missionary context. The apostle Paul was a missionary. We have seen that with crystal clarity in Romans 15 where he said that his ambition — his holy ambition — was “to preach the gospel not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20). He was called to the frontiers, where the church was not yet established. We call this frontier missions, or pioneer missions, or missions to unreached people groups. Paul was the first and probably the greatest. But oh what a lineage of lovers followed in his train! Right down to this day and this church and this service.

You can state the reason for this two-thousand-year lineage of missionaries in lots of different ways.

“Everyone who believes on Jesus has eternal life with him, and everyone who doesn’t perishes.”
  1. The last thing Jesus said to us in Matthew 28 before he went back to heaven was: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . . . And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20). He has all authority over the souls of all people and nations, he promises to be with us to help us, and he commands us to go. That is valid today because the end of the age has not come.

  2. Or you can give the reason for missions like this: “Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples” (Psalm 96:2–3)! God created the world to display and magnify his glory. People who don’t believe don’t magnify the glory of his grace, we want them to. We want the earth to be filled with the (acknowledged!) glory of the Lord like the waters cover the sea.

  3. Or you can give the reason for missions like this: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). The love of God extends salvation to all. Everyone who believes on Jesus has eternal life with him, and everyone who doesn’t perishes. Missions is the answer of our heart to that love.

  4. Or you can give the reason for missions like this: According to the rigorous statistical efforts of the Joshua Project, there are 15,988 distinct ethnolinguistic peoples in the world. Of these, they count 6,572 as unreached, that is, fewer than two percent of them are Christians. 2.6 billion people live in those unreached people groups. Just to give you a flavor: Of the one hundred largest unreached people groups, 44 are in India, 8 are in China, and 7 are in Indonesia and Pakistan. The three largest are the Japanese in Japan, the Bengali in Bangladesh, and the Shaikh in India. Of these one hundred largest unreached peoples, 43 are Muslim, 36 are Hindu, and 9 are Buddhist. 22 of them have populations over 20 million. In other words, there is a great work to be done in obedience to Jesus. And Jesus has all authority to get it done.

One of the great longings of my life is that we at Bethlehem would be the sending base of ever-increasing numbers of missionaries to the unreached peoples and that we would send them with ever-increasing effectiveness and ever-increasing biblical-faithfulness and ever-increasing care for them and their families. When I think about not wasting my life, this is what I think about as often as anything: study and pray and write and speak and lead in a way that results in more and more visionary young people and restless mid-career people and wise, mature retired people who pull up their stakes, pack their tent and go with Jesus and the gospel to unreached peoples of the world, no matter where they are — far or near.

God Uses His Word in the Missionary Call

So with passion in mind, and praying as we go, let’s look at one missionary’s testimony about what it means. Keep in mind that God often — very often — uses his word to awaken and confirm his calling to the work of missions. May that happen now, as I simply unfold 2 Corinthians 2:12–17.

The situation behind this text is that Paul wrote a painful letter to Corinth and is anxious about whether it had alienated them or healed them. So he sent Titus to Corinth to find out how they were doing. It may help to have the geography clear: Corinth is in the southern tip of Greece. If you go up the east coast, you come to the northern part of the peninsula called Macedonia where Thessalonica and Philippi are. Just to the east across the Aegean Sea that separates Greece and Turkey today was Troas.

Leaving an Open Door to Follow a Restless Spirit

This is where we pick up the story in verses 12–13: “When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia.” So, even though there was an open door for the gospel in Troas his heart was so troubled by the situation in Corinth that he decided not to stay but to keep moving to where he might meet Titus on the way back from Corinth.

I’m not going to linger here, but this is very striking and may relate to where you are in your life. A door is wide open where you are. Much needs to be done — right where you are. But your spirit cannot rest. So it was with Paul. And amazingly he left the open door of Troas behind and followed his restless spirit. Should he have left Troas? Should you? He did. And because he did, we have this amazing portion of Scripture.

Paul Was Conquered in Christ

So now Paul is in Macedonia and at last Titus comes. He doesn’t say that here. But he does in chapter 7 (verses 5–7):

For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn — fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more.

That is what’s behind chapter 2. But here in chapter 2, Paul exults in a very different way over this news. He chooses two metaphors or word pictures that are shocking. First, he says in verse 14, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession.” This doesn’t mean what you probably think it means. The word translated “lead in triumphal procession” (thriambeuonti) refers to what a great Roman general does when he leads in captivity those enemies he has conquered and takes them to their death or to slavery.

The word is used one other place in the New Testament. You can see this meaning there (Colossians 2:15): “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over (thriambeusas) them in him.” So in Colossians, Paul says God leads the devil in triumph, and in 2 Corinthians, he says that God leads Paul in triumph. Both have been defeated in their rebellion against God. Both are being led in triumphal procession and shamed for their rebellion.

But the great difference is that Paul is “in Christ” and Satan is not. Verse 14 again: “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession.” In other words, Paul was defeated and taken captive; but he was brought to faith and forgiven and justified and made a glad and willing servant of the greatest General who ever was. Paul was “in Christ” and that makes all the difference.

A Picture Accomplishing Two Purposes

So why does he use this word picture? Because he wants to accomplish two almost opposite things at the same time. One the one hand, God is triumphant and Paul is in his service. But on the other hand, God is like a great general and Paul is conquered and called to suffer in his service — even die. That’s what this word picture accomplishes.

One the one hand, Paul wants to rejoice and thank God that the Corinthians have repented and that his painful letter did not alienate them but blessed them. That’s a triumph worth exulting over with a triumphal procession.

But on the other hand, he knows that there are many adversaries in Corinth who do not accept his authority as an apostle and who have preached a different gospel (2 Corinthians 11:4). He calls them “super-apostles” (see 2 Corinthians 11:5; 12:11). They don’t recognize Paul’s authority, and they don’t see Christ in his ministry. In other words, Paul knows that he is not triumphant as a missionary the way some think he should be. Some people are converted. And some are not. Some see Christ in him and some don’t. They only see weakness. He has some success and some failure. So he chooses a word picture that describes him both as belonging to a great victor, and as a conquered enemy whose service of the king is to suffer and look weak and even die for him — led in triumphal procession as a defeated foe in the service of the king.

A Second Picture

That’s the first picture. The second picture is of his life as a sacrificial offering that has a sweet fragrance before God. This picture starts in the middle of verse 14: “and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.” So Paul pictures his missionary life and ministry as spreading a fragrance of the knowledge of Christ. And the reason I say it is a picture of a sacrifice being offered to God is that in verse 15 he says that the aroma is first “to God.” It is like incense being offered to God: “For we are the aroma of Christ to God” (verse 15a). Not first to the world, but to God.

“When Christ died for sinners, it was like a fragrant offering that was very pleasing to God.”

Ephesians 5:2 gives the best explanation of this picture: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” So when Christ died for sinners, it was like a fragrant offering that was very pleasing to God. Now here is Paul standing in the place of Christ as a missionary and suffering like Christ in the service of his conquering Lord, and he says, “We are the aroma of Christ to God.” In other words, when we suffer as missionaries in the service of Christ, it’s like Christ suffering for the lost, and God smells this fragrance of sacrificial love and it pleases him. That’s the picture so far.

But then comes the heart-rejoicing and heart-breaking parts of missionary service. This aroma of the love of Christ in the sacrificial service of the missionary may please God, but it does not please everybody. This aroma divides the world. Look at this division in verses 15–16: “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.”

The Heart-Breaking Side of Missions

In other words, some people smell the sacrificial love of Christ in the life of a missionary and it only smells like death. They hear the gospel and all they hear is death. They look at the cross and all they see is death. They see no life. No hope. No future. No joy. And so they turn away. And if they turn away forever, they die. They are the perishing. The smell of death leads to death. That’s the heart-breaking side of missions. They are people who don’t believe. They don’t see Christ as precious. They don’t see his suffering as a treasure. They don’t smell his death for sinners as the sweetest fragrance in the universe. It’s not a satisfying fragrance. It’s simply the smell of death.

The Heart-Rejoicing Side of Missions

But there is the heart-rejoicing side of missions. Verse 16: “to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” Those who are being saved smell the death of Christ as the aroma of life. They see in his death the substitute that they so desperately need before God. The Son of God dying in their place is the fragrance of life. So they don’t turn away. They believe him and receive him and embrace him and treasure him and they live — forever. Smelling Christ as the aroma of life gives life.

Those are Paul’s two pictures of his life as a missionary. (1) God conquered him when he was his enemy. He is now leading Paul both in triumph and in suffering. There is reason to exult in this procession. And there is reason to groan in this procession. Paul’s calling is to show the sufferings of Christ to the world in his own suffering. (2) The other picture is of Christ as a sweet smelling sacrifice or incense to God, and Paul sharing in Christ’s mission and sufferings so that he becomes this very fragrance in the world — which some smell as life and live, but others smell as death and die.

Who Is Sufficient for These Things?

Now Paul asks at the end of verse 16 — and I make it our closing question — “Who is sufficient for these things?” Who can bear the weight of knowing that the aroma of your Christ-exalting life will lead some to eternal life and others to eternal death? It’s as serious as if you walked down Nicollet Mall at lunch hour and some would smile and come in behind you and be saved, and everyone else would drop dead. Who could bear it? That’s what Paul asks.

In one sense, the answer is no one. But that’s not Paul’s main point. He said in 2 Corinthians 1:12 and Romans 1:5 that he carries out this very ministry by the grace of God. He is not sufficient — you and I are not sufficient — in ourselves. No missionary feels sufficient. But 2 Corinthians 3:5 says, “Our sufficiency is from God.”

“By God’s grace, we can bear the weight of being the aroma of Christ in some new place.”

So the utterly crucial question for many of you, as you have prayed and thought about giving your life, or a substantial part of it, to missions, is: Can I do this? Can I bear this weight of being the aroma of Christ in some new place? By God’s grace, you can.

Five Tests

Paul gives us five tests in verse 17 to help us know that. I will turn them into questions for you to answer:

  1. Do you treasure Christ enough so that you do not peddle his word? Paul says, “For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word.” That is, these peddlers don’t love Christ. They love money and use Christ. So the first test is: Do you love Christ more than money? Strictly, the next four phrases in verse 17 all modify the word speak. Literally: we speak from sincerity, from God, before God, in Christ. So I ask you:

  2. Will you speak from sincerity? Will you be real? Will you mean what you say? Will you renounce all pretense and hypocrisy?

  3. Will you speak as from God? That is, will you take not only your commission from God, but your words and your authority from God. Will you speak his words and not your own. Will you speak in his authority and not your own? Will you draw your strength and guidance from his power and wisdom, not your own?

  4. Will you speak as before God? That is, will you reckon him to be your judge and not man? Will you care more about his assessment of your words and not be deterred by human criticism?

  5. Will you speak as in Christ? That is, will you get your identity and your assurance and your confidence and your hope and your courage from your union with Christ?

No Perfect Missionaries

There are no perfect missionaries. The answer to these questions should be: Oh yes, Lord, as much as I know my heart, that is what I intend to be. Help me. To love you more than money. To be real and sincere. To speak your word. To fear no man. To get all I need from Christ.

In a moment, I would like to invite all of you who believe that God is moving you toward cross-cultural missionary work sooner or later longer-term (not just a few weeks but for some years), to come to the front and let us pray for you. And if you want to move forward with the nurture program, we will give you a card to fill out so that our mission leaders can be in touch with you and serve you in whatever way will help you. I am thinking of children who are old enough to have thought this through and young people and young adults, men and women, married or single, mid-lifers and retirees. God has his ways to loosen your roots. If you can discern what he is doing, I hope you will come.