Beyond the Lectionary Text: 2 Corinthians 2:12-3:6
by Sam Perry
The gospel brings trials and trouble and in life. Paul has suffered greatly for the sake of the gospel and because of this there are those who doubt his apostolic authority. Paul in vss. 12-13 describes the burden on his heart for the church. There is cause for thanks however. If you choose to take up your cross and follow Jesus Christ, you will make Him know in a way that you can’t if you don’t take up your cross. This has been interpreted in triumphalist ways that bring to mind health and wealth and utter success, but to read the text this way is a mistake.
During this time, when the Roman army won a great victory, there would be a huge parade as the army came home. At the front would be the Caesar followed by the generals who won the victory. Further back in the procession would be the royal family and generals of the defeated nation. They would go to the pagan temples where an offering would be made and the offering was the lives of the defeated general and royal family from the defeated nation. This is the triumphal procession.
Colossians 2:15 The triumph of the cross is held up, “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. The same imagery is here, that the powers that opposed Christ have been defeated and are in a procession of Christ’s triumph.
So the Corinthian’s procession tells us that the glory of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that it has defeated our flesh. Christ reigns over his people and we are in a procession to our own cross. The same thing had happened to the apostle Paul. As he was on the road to Damascus he was vanquished by Christ and now follows him as a messenger to the Gentiles who will suffer greatly. Paul uses this same argument in the first letter to the Corinthians. There is no health and wealth as Paul talks to the Corinthians. I Cor. 4:9 where Paul says, “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men.”
Why is it that so much of the church in North America is so taken with health and wealth teaching that says everything should look like success when we are faithful in following after Christ? Even in churches that openly denounce health and wealth teaching can very subtly fall into the mistaken notion that faithfulness in the gospel somehow should equal nothing bad happening in life. The apostle Paul says that by taking up your cross, you will make the Lord known, and you will not make Him known without taking up your cross and the person who has taken up their cross is on their way to die. There will be no salvation in the world until there is again a cross within the church. And we as God’s people must find ourselves in that procession without complaint, but rather with profound thanksgiving. Paul says, “thanks be to God who leads us in this procession.” It is by Christ defeating our flesh and our taking up our cross and dying for His glory and honor that the aroma of Christ is spread around the world.
How are we making God known throughout the world? Is there a cross that we have taken up in order to make the aroma of Christ in the world? Does it dominate our work? Our pocketbooks? Our entertainment? Or do you suffer as so many do in the church with knowing that Jesus Christ is good and right and true and alive, but I want to be accepted. I want to be cool. I want wealth and prestige and power. It is easy to be of divided mind and hold back, afraid of what may come, and seeing the apostle in this procession not sure they want to join. Look at the thanksgiving that comes out of Paul being in this procession. He is not longing for the things of this world.
Taking up the cross leads to a huge impact. Most people want our lives to make a difference. The Corinthians look at Paul and think he is a loser, but Paul says we have to redefine winning. The cross is foolishness to the Greeks. God’s people are, however the aroma of Christ to God. So however you sacrifice in order to follow Christ, the apostle says it is pleasing to God.
There is also impact on people. “To the one the smell of death and to the other the fragrance of life.” Taking the message of the gospel puts out an odor that divides the world. Those who believe also smell it and are encouraged by it as they see God working on broken hearts and as they see him at work in their own lives. To others it is an ugly thing that smells like death. But as Jesus says in Matthew 11 the kingdom advances forcefully. When Christians take up their cross and proclaim Christ crucified, it is pleasing to God the Father as he smells His own Son.
Paul anticipates the immensity of this task with his question in vs. 16. But it isn’t an insurmountable task. For God’s people have been called to speak as those sent from God. Yes in and of ourselves can’t accomplish it, but in Christ by His Spirit are sent by Him to be that aroma of life and death in the world. What an impact that all of us can have for the kingdom! Profoundly motivated by what God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Chapter three says that not only has God changed us, but we have changed the world. Follow Paul’s argument. He asks if there needs to be a letter of recommendation for you to accept Christ? No, you are our letter of recommendation as God speaks to and changes you through us. That is our recommendation. And when God’s people take up their cross and proclaim Christ crucified in His great procession, they will find letters of recommendation all over as lives are changed in the home and at work and everywhere the aroma of Christ is found. Our confidence comes from God in Christ as well as our competence. God provides for all that is needed in order to be a part of this procession. This ought to be great comfort to any who fear they aren’t good enough or not gifted enough or strong enough to be a part of this procession.
The word competent is the same word in the Old Testament when Moses is asked to lead God’s people and go before pharaoh. Moses uses the same word saying that he is not equal to the task, but God reveals Himself as the One who is all-sufficient, El-Shaddai.
Any who fear need fear no more for the God of all sufficiency will provide what is needed to take up their cross and follow our risen Savior Jesus Christ as He leads us to lay down our lives for the sake of the great gospel of grace to be an aroma of Christ the world over.
It may need to be added that some will see both confidence and competence as arrogance. Sadly there are even some in the church that consider any faith claim made with certainty as arrogance taking up an almost agnostic tone saying, “No one can know for certain.” But even Paul doesn’t stand on his own authority, but rather boldly proclaims his confidence comes from God Himself.
1. Ridley and Ladimer were two English martyrs who were burned at the stake in Oxford on October 16, 1555, as martyrs of the Reformation. As he was being tied to the stake, Ridley prayed, “Oh, heavenly Father, I give unto thee most hearty thanks that thou hast called me to be a professor of thee, even unto death. I beseech thee, Lord God, have mercy on this realm of England, and deliver it from all her enemies.”
As the flames began to rise, Latimer encouraged Ridley, “Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.”
The martyrdoms of Ridley, Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer are today commemorated by a Martyrs’ monument in Oxford. The faith they once died for can now be freely practiced in the land.
2. Pew Polls on religion have been tracking faith in the U.S. for a long time. The most recent poll in 2015 reveals, as past polls have, an increasing number of people classified as religiously unaffiliated. Increasingly children are not taking the faith of their parents. More and more people wonder what difference the church makes and what truth really is.