In our text this morning, Paul is going to talk about a parade, a victory parade. It’s a familiar image to us. For example, whenever a professional sports team wins a championship, there is often some sort of a victory parade that winds through the streets of the hometown.
You can kind of imagine what this looks like in your mind — The Texas Rangers won the World Series last year and there’s a parade in Arlington, Texas, and people are lining the streets. It’s a festive affair. Pickup trucks are in the parade and the athletes — the best of the best — sit in these pickup trucks and wave to the crowd. There’s a special focus on the star players and somebody is probably carrying the championship trophy and Corey Seager is displaying his MVP award. It’s quite a celebration.
It’s fun to imagine what it would be like to be in a parade like that, to have everyone cheering and acknowledging how important you are. But Paul has a very different image of a parade in mind. In fact, his description of this parade that is so horrific that some commentators have been unwilling to even acknowledge that Paul meant what he said. But the truth is, if we can get that image that Paul presents stuck in our heads, it will dramatically change the way we view our lives as Christians. This morning, we’re going to try to do just that as we continue on in 2 Corinthians, chapter 2.
Before we get into the text, though, I need to try to give you a timeline of Paul’s visits to Corinth and his letters to them. We have in our Bibles 1 and 2 Corinthians, but there were actually at least two more letters that Paul wrote that we don’t have. So, let’s see what we can piece together.
We know that Paul went to Corinth on his second missionary journey and he established the church there around A.D. 50. We can read about this in Acts chapter 18.
And then, about five years later, Paul was on his third missionary journey, and while he was at Ephesus, he heard about some problems with immorality in the Corinthian church, and he wrote them a letter. He referred to this letter in 1 Corinthians 5:9, but unfortunately, this letter no longer exists; it has been lost.
Shortly after that, Paul received more information about the problems in Corinth and he wrote what we now know as I Corinthians to deal with those problems, and then he had Timothy carry that letter over to Corinth.
However, that didn’t solve the problems in Corinth and, in fact, things got even worse. It seems to have provoked some rebellion against Paul’s authority. And so, it was necessary for Paul to make a quick trip to Corinth to try to resolve this crisis. Paul referred to this visit as a “painful visit” in 2 Corinthians 2:1. It appears that the opposition to Paul came to a head with one member in particular defying his authority as an apostle. The church didn’t come to his defense and Paul had to leave Corinth, no doubt a bit discouraged.
This “painful visit” didn’t accomplish its goal, so Paul went back to Ephesus and wrote another letter to the Corinthians that he describes as being written “out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears.” (2 Corinthians 2:4). This was a stern letter of rebuke and Paul sent it to Corinth with Titus. This letter was so severe that, later, Paul was sorry that he had written it.
Titus carried this severe letter to Corinth to try to correct the situation. Meanwhile, Paul was so anxious to hear back from Titus that he headed to Macedonia to wait. Titus showed up and was able to give Paul some good news — the Corinthian church had changed their attitude. The leader of the rebellion had been rejected and disciplined by the church, and the church was once again ready to listen to Paul and to renew their friendship.
It was at that point that Paul wrote this letter that we now refer to as 2 Corinthians.
As we pick up in chapter 2, verse 5, Paul talks about this leader of the rebellion against him, “Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure —not to put it too severely — to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” (2 Corinthians 2:5-7)
In his previous letter, Paul told the church how to deal with this man and I’m sure he said basically the same thing he said in I Corinthians 5 about the man who was sleeping with his stepmother. You need to disfellowhip him, “Let him who has done this be removed from among you.” (I Corinthians 5:2). And now, you Corinthians need to disfellowship this troublemaker.
The reason for doing that was to help this man to see how wrong he was in what he was doing, which hopefully would lead him to repent and start doing what’s right. And praise God, that’s exactly what happened. But the Christians in Corinth was apparently not willing to forgive him and let him back into their fellowship. They continued to deal with this man harshly, and so Paul has to say, “You’ve disciplined him enough.” Apparently, he was repentant, he was sorry for the way he behaved, and Paul is now telling the church that we need to show love to this brother, we need to encourage him, we need to welcome him back into the fold.
Paul says, “the punishment is enough”. I think the better word would not be “punishment” but “discipline” or “correction”. It’s like when we as parentsdiscipline our children. The purpose of our discipline is not to punish our children. It’s not to make them pay for what they did. The purpose of discipline is to bring correction, to help teach them to do what’s right.
But just as in parenting, there’s always the danger that you may go too far in your discipline. As Paul said in Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger…” And so, here, Paul tells the church in Corinth, “Okay, that’s enough. You’ve disciplined him, he gets the message and he’s sorry for what he did. And if we don’t love him now, we’re going to lose him.”
So, in verse 8, Paul says, “So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.” (2 Corinthians 2:8-11)
Paul tells the Corinthians to invite this brother back into their fellowship, to love him, to accept him. Their discipline has been effective and now Paul encourages them to forgive him. In fact, he takes the lead. He says, “I’ve already forgiven him. I don’t hold any grudges about what happened.”
One of the things I’ve seen over the years is that oftentimes in hurtful situations, the situation reaches a stalemate. What I mean by that is that whether it’s a husband and wife, or parents and children, or a relationship within the church or in the workplace, there are people who are wounded, there are people who are hurt, and nobody wants to be the one to take the first step and say, “I forgive you”, to take that first step toward healing, and so the relationship just turns into a stalemate.
Paul clearly demonstrates his willingness here to take the first step and to extend forgiveness. When Paul wrote the severe letter, he was testing the Corinthians to see if they would do the right thing, and they did. And now Paul is saying, “Once again, you need to do the right thing and that means you need to forgive this brother and begin the process of healing.”
It’s interesting that Paul says he forgives “in the presence of Christ”. I think he’s painting a picture that when we forgive someone or we choose not to forgive someone, we are doing it in the presence of Christ. Picture Jesus standing right next to you, knowing everything he has done to forgive you of all your sin. And then for you to say, “Jesus, I know you did all this for me. but I’m not willing to forgive this person. I just can’t do it.”
In Matthew 18, Jesus talked about the fact that each and every one of us has been forgiven so much. No matter how wounded you are, no matter how much you have been hurt by someone else, it’s very little compared to the degree to which you have offended God throughout your lifetime. But Jesus is willing to forgive you much. In return, he asks that you be willing to forgive others who have hurt you. Forgiven people should be forgiving people.
The truth is, if we as Christians, are unwilling to forgive someone else, it makes us a hypocrite. To receive all the forgiveness that God has offered us and then to turn around and be unwilling to extend forgiveness to someone else, it’s nothing but hypocrisy. So, Paul says, “We do this in the presence of Christ and because we are in his presence, we are willing to forgive as he has forgiven us.”
Then Paul closes this section by reminding us that it’s important for us to forgive others so that we don’t play into the schemes of our enemy. Our enemy, Satan, is always looking for a base of operations from which he can destroy your life, your family’s life, the church’s life. Paul says when we choose not to forgive, we give Satan a foothold. We create a place of operation where Satan can set up camp and, from that base, he can begin to destroy our lives and our relationships and our families and our churches.
So, forgiveness is not only the right thing to do, but we need to forgive for our own sake — so that we don’t allow the enemy a place from which he can destroy our lives.
Then, in verse 12, Paul takes what seems to be somewhat of a detour, and he says: “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.” (2 Corinthians 2:12-13)
Remember that Titus was the one who carried that severe letter, that painful letter to Corinth, and Paul was very anxious to hear back from Titus about how his letter had been received. He went to up to Troas to meet up with Titus, but when Titus didn’t show up there, Paul went on to Macedonia to try to find him.
What’s interesting about this is that while Paul was at Troas, he was having a lot of success. The Lord had really opened a door for him. But Paul was so anxious, thinking about the Corinthians, that he couldn’t concentrate on his ministry and he left.
I find this a bit shocking. I don’t know about you, but whenever I think of the apostle Paul, I picture a ministry machine. I mean, throw the guy in prison and he sings hymns of praise; beat him up and he praises Jesus even more. Nothing seems to be able to stop this guy. But here, Paul says, “I was so worried about you guys that I wasn’t able to focus on my ministry.”
This reminds us that Paul wasn’t a ministry machine. He was a human being and there were times that he struggled and he was anxious. So, it makes me wonder, “Why is Paul telling them that?” I think about how critical the Corinthians had been to him. Why would you give them even more ammunition to criticize you with?
Remember what it was like in the church of Corinth. It was a church that was filled with spiritual arrogance. It was driven by false teachers who focused on performance. They were so proud of themselves and they were competing with one another to demonstrate who was the “best of the best”.
And if the church was going to have a parade like the Texas Rangers did, they would have said, “I want a seat in the pickup truck; I want to hold the MVP trophy; I want to be applauded as somebody important.” That was the climate in Corinth where everybody was battling to demonstrate they were better than everybody else,
In a climate like that, it would have been easy for Pul to get sucked into that game and to come back and say, “Well, let me tell you what I’ve done.” Instead, Paul lays it all out on the table and he says, “There are times that I struggle; sometimes I don’t get it right.” And I think Paul lays that out there so that he can give us his image of a parade.
Verse 14, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession….” (2 Corinthians 2:14)
Everybody pretty much agrees that Paul is referring here to what was known as The Roman Triumphal Entries. These parades were legendary. In fact, they are mentioned over 350 times in ancient literature.
Basically, what happened was this: Whenever a general went to battle and he was able to kill a certain number of people — some put the number around 5000 — and he was able to take a certain amount of territory for the Roman empire, then he was able to claim a complete victory! And that general would be given a Roman Triumphal Entry. For a Roman general, this was their shining moment. This was everything they lived for and served for. This was their moment of fame!
It was an all-out celebration with all of the pomp and pageantry that Rome had to offer. It was a fabulous event. It would start with the victorious general leading the procession. And, of course, he would be the star of the show, the center of attention. Behind him would be all the slaves who were in chains, all the enemies he had conquered. They would march through the streets, behind the general, with the very clear message that they had been conquered and they were marching to their death. Behind them, would be the loot and whatever else was taken in the battle.
The streets were filled with all kinds of incense, with perfume. And then, at the end of the parade, many of those prisoners would be executed. And so, if you watching this parade and smelled the incense, that smell was always a sweet smell to the victor, but it didn’t smell so good to those prisoners who had been defeated. Because whenever they smelled that incense, they knew that death was right around the corner.
The Roman Triumphal parade had only one purpose and that purpose was to bring glory to the general. This was his moment!
So, in this picture of the Roman triumphal parade, where does Paul see himself? And where are we? Well, for starters, it’s obvious that we’re not up at the front. But, if you’re not at the front, then where does put you? It puts you in the back. And that’s why the NIV translates this verse, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession.” (2 Corinthians 2:14, NIV).
I want you to get that imagery in your head of the conquering general at the front of this parade, and then behind him, all of these slaves are marching in chains, and Paul says that we are those slaves in chains marching behind the conquering general.
This is a picture that John Calvin found so offensive that even though he admitted that’s what the text says, he wouldn’t interpret it that way. In fact, he translated this text, “But thanks be to God who causes us to triumph.” If you have a King James Bible, that’s how it reads, “Now thanks be unto God, which always causeth us to triumph in Christ.” (2 Corinthians 2:14, KJV).
The problem is, that’s not what the Greek text says. Because that’s how it read for about three hundred years, until Greek scholars came back to the text and they said, “That’s just not what it says. What it says is that Paul is the one being led in this Roman triumph. He’s not at the front of the parade, he’s at the back.” So, let’s think about this imagery.
What Paul is saying is that Jesus Christ is the conquering general. And, at the end of the day, our parade is not going to look like the Texas Rangers, where all of us as Christians are trying to out-perform one another and some of the superstars end up in the convertibles and take the applause and a few of us hold the MVP award. That’s just not the way it’s going to be. It’s going to look very different from that.
Here’s how it’s going to look is this — There’s going to be person at the front of the parade, one conquering general, and that will be Jesus Christ. And he will be followed by slaves in chains, people who have been conquered by the grace of God, and who now follow him as slaves of Christ. In fact, that was one of Paul’s favorite ways to describe himself — he was a slave to Christ.
And I think what Paul is trying to say here is, at the end of the day, there are no superstars in the church. There’s absolute no basis for us to be arrogant or proud. We’re not the one being applauded. There’s only one victor; there’s only one person who leads this triumphal entry. We’re not at the front of the parade, we’re at the back.
We’re simply slaves of Christ and our purpose in life is to bring him the glory. Paul may even have in mind that, at the end of this parade, he will actually be put to death in order to ultimately bring glory to our general.
It’s a powerful image that helps us to rethink who we are as Christians. It helps us rethink this whole idea of a performance-based Christianity and stop worrying about who’s most important in the church and who’s accomplishing the most for God, and who’s going to acknowledge me for what I have achieved. Instead, we remember that we are all slaves of Christ. There are no superstars; there’s no MVP; there’s nobody that outperforms anybody else. There’s just one person who is the conqueror who is worthy of all the glory.
And then, Paul picks up on this concept of the incense and the smells and the aroma when he says…
“But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume. And who is adequate for such a task as this?” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16, NLT)
Paul picks up on this idea of the aroma, the incense, the smells that were part of the Roman parade and he says that, when we see this correctly, we understand that we are the ones responsible for creating this aroma. Because we are servants of Christ, there is this aroma that follows us everywhere we go as we represent Jesus. Now, for those who are Christians, this aroma reminds us that Jesus is the one who will save us. But for those who are not Christians, this aroma reminds them that death is in the air.
But again, the aroma isn’t because of how great we are. The aroma is the aroma of Christ. Everything we do in service to Christ puts off an aroma that shows people how wonderful Christ is. When those slaves came through the parade, nobody was applauding them. No one was saying, “Wow!” Their only purpose in the parade was to bring glory to the one who had conquered them.
And so, Paul says, “Who is adequate for such a task as this?” In verse 17, his answer is,
“You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us.” (2 Corinthians 2:17, NLT)
The ones who are adequate are not those people who go out and use Jesus in order to make a name for themselves. They’re nothing but spiritual peddlers, religious hucksters. It’s very easy in our culture to use Jesus to make a name for yourself. Paul says these people are just peddlers. But the one who is adequate is the one who finds their sufficiency in Christ. And that is going to launch us into our discussion next week.
We’re all in this parade together. But we’re not at the front, we’re at the back. And we need to understand that we are not the superstars, this isn’t about us, this isn’t about our ability to perform, but rather we are slaves who are being led by the one who has conquered. And, at the end of the day, he is the only one who is worthy of this parade. When we understand that — in our brokenness — we can give off the sweet, sweet smell of Jesus.
If we can get this imagery stuck in our heads, it will remind us that the Christian life is not like the Texas Rangers winning the World Series. Rather, it’s like the Roman Triumphal Entry. And that will change the way we view our lives. It will allow us to see us as broken people who need to be willing to forgive one another. Broken people who are willing to lay all their stuff out on the table just like Paul did, because we’re all fellow slaves traveling on this path together.
One of the problems in a lot of churches is that we have this image like the Texas Rangers winning the World Series. Church feels like a competition and in that kind of situation, nobody wants to talk about their struggles, about their failures. We all have to pretend like everything is okay because we’re hoping for a slot in one of the pickup trucks, maybe a chance at the MVP trophy.
But what we want to create here at Cruciform is something that looks more like the Roman Triumphal Entry — where we understand that we’re all in this together; we’re all fellow slaves. Some days we do well and some days we crash and burn. Like the apostle Paul, there may be times when it just feels like everything’s coming unraveled.
But even in those moments, we can rejoice because we know that at the end of the day, the victory doesn’t depend on my ability to perform. Our victory is determined by the one who has conquered death. Our sufficiency is in Christ alone and it is only in Christ that we win the victory. So, at the end of the day, in this parade, Jesus the only one worthy of our praise.