Over the past few months in my personal scripture study, I have been reading through the letters of Paul chronologically. Recently in that study I came across 2 Corinthians 2: 14-17. In that passage a metaphor involving fragrance left some interesting implications:
"But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. 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. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ."
What a dense little paragraph. First, fragrance is a unique thing. It goes ahead and lingers behind. To think that we carry the knowledge of God like a fragrance is phenomenal. In the verses before this passage, Paul expressed his frustration that he had to modify his travel schedule. He wanted to be somewhere but his circumstances didn't allow for it. Even in that discouragement, Paul dissuades any inclining toward despair by this idea that we are carrying the knowledge of God like a fragrance.
This is a simple but important life lesson. We can plan but God is in control. Where ever we go, whenever our plans change, if we are prayerfully following our Lord, He "leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere".
Look carefully though, the clauses of this sentence is especially interesting. Paul says we are the fragrance of the knowledge of God. We who know God and carry his Spirit with us are witnesses to who He is. Since salvation is inherently linked to an individuals relationship with the person of Jesus Christ, this idea of us carrying the fragrance of the knowledge of God should be very empowering. God is in control and he has made us the aroma of Christ so that the presence of the spirit in us is radiating the idea of God's identity wherever we are, wherever we've been and however we get there or got there.
At this point the passage is jiving smoothly with my spirit, but then the "saved vs. perishing", "life to life", and "death to death" ideas come into the picture. Those gave me pause. It makes sense that we are the fragrance of God to both those who are saved and those who are not. Because when something stinks or is especially fragrant, everyone smells it. But are we really a curse to some and a blessing to others? Are some people just spiritually tuned to sense the fragrance of the knowledge of God as repulsive?
Pulling back to the previous paragraph, as Christians that the way a human relates to Christ Jesus is what leads to salvation. The knowledge of God is never a carrier of death, as with the resurrection Christ conquered death. So what is it that leads to the life and death effect of this? I believe this is the effect of attitude. The purely human attitudes of the fragrance carrier and the sniffer. Consider the following scent related memories. First, we'll start with the negative.
In the humid heat of an August evening I stepped onto a crowded bus. A concert had just finished playing at the Grandstand at the Minnesota State Fair grounds and the late night shuttle headed south was far more crowded that usual. Voices echoed loudly in the bus. The people smelled like beer and cigarettes. It was all too much for me. Dizzied, I sat myself down in the isle on the bus floor and covered my eyes. The Minnesota State Fair is a place of constant olfactory stimuli. The scents of any kind of food, countless types animals, refuse and vomit could hit you at practically any moment, still at this moment on the bus floor the memory of one specific toxic smell from earlier that night left me shaken enough to sit on the floor of a city bus.
The last week of the Fair had arrived and it was time to close up shop. About every other day standard process included comprehensively cleaning the basins of the deep fryers. To do that we used two tablets of chemical cleaner specially designed for the model of fryers we used. We searched everywhere for these tablets but had ran out, so in a pinch my manager borrowed some powder cleaner from the french fry stand down the road. I emptied the oil and filled the basins with water about a inch higher than the oil line as designated, and my sup began sprinkling the cleaning powder into the water. Then the cap popped loose dropping a couple of tablespoons of chemical cleaner into the water. The result was an inexplicably caustic fuming and frothing liquid that had to be drained and carried to the liquid waste disposal. After nearly a dozen five gallon bucket loads the odor was overwhelming, so much so that any sudden or undesirable smell for the next few months brought the sense of this awful olfactory experience rushing back to my consciousness.
If we as the aroma of Christ and the fragrance of the knowledge of God, carry that around with pretentiousness, aggressiveness, fire and brimstone messages, fear mongering, and/or hatred, how can we expect people to receive it? I see it in my non-christian friends. Some of them have been viscerally turned away from the Christian faith by the accusatory, fear-mongering, and/or hypocritical actions of Christians with whom they, or their loved ones, have come in contact. The stink of these ugly interactions linger like the caustic smell of chemical cleaner mixed with oily residue left over from frying thousands of cinnamon-sugar churros. That's the smell from death to death. The fragrance of the knowledge of God within Christians can be tainted by the odor of their stinky actions. But the contrary can occur when we carry Christ's aroma around as advocates of peace, with kindness, faithful gentleness, messages of hope, encouragement and love. By doing this we sow life. Consider this memory.
In the summer as a child, I biked all over my neighborhood, to and from friends houses or the countless activities I participated in. One sunny afternoon I coasted down a slop as I neared my child hood home and that's when it hit me. The smell of the charcoal grill compelled my feet to peddle rapidly. I soon could see the smoke billowing from my back yard. My dad was grilling meat for dinner. With countless activities in the summer taking up most of my time, still most of my summer memories are tied to that childhood home, that back yard and the smell of a charcoal grill and grilled meat. These memories are pleasant and a pleasant smell related to a pleasant memory only build up my fondness for both the smell and the memory.
When we have examples of people carrying the fragrance of Christ while exuding pleasant metaphorical scents in their actions, a person is likely to find fragrance of the knowledge of God more pleasantly. Therefore we have some serious responsibility here as believers. When we inherently "smell like Christ" by our identity in him, what we do becomes a representation to people of what Christ is like. So the fragrance of our actions can commingle with the fragrance of the knowledge of God and either lead people closer or push them further away.
Still it's not our fragrance that saves people. Our actions do not save souls. We can share the gospel but we can't force feed it to people. Like in the example of the parable of the sower (Matthew 13) we can sow seeds but we can't make people grow. The soil must be ready for the gospel to germinate, so sometime, things that must be dealt with before their heart will be fit for the Gospel to take root.
This is were the attitude of the sniffer comes into play. When a person knows the fragrance of God they know when it commingles with human stink that doesn't change God's identity. But when someone has only sniffed the fragrance of God within the context of the human stink they equate it to, it can literally repel them further away from even considering the idea of the knowledge of God.
Lastly, the concept of from "death to death" is not talking to destiny. Instead it's an emphasis. In Hebrew writing and poetry, which Paul would be influenced by, repetition doesn't translate as literally as our English language states. "Death to death" sounds final and unrecoverable in English, but in Christ death is defeated. Consider this, my terrible experience at the Minnesota State Fair doesn't fully dissuade me from returning. While that awful olfactory experience is a stalwart in my memories, the smell of freshly backed cookies and delicious food, the memories of fun with friends and the beauty of a warm summer day bring me back. In time if a non believer encounters Christians who's actions work parallel with the goodness of the knowledge of God, they may experience the same compiling positives of life begetting life.
Fragrances are powerful. They leave an impression. The idea that we are the aroma of Christ leads to two practical applications. The first is that when plans change, he is still with us. God is in control and since we are his metaphorical fragrance, wherever we go His Spirit inside is infusing the atmosphere around us with his knowledge, even when things don't go as we expect in life or in ministry. Secondly, we need to smell good. Since we carry the fragrance of the knowledge of God with us, let us represent that well and not allow it to be tainted by our stinky attitudes.
Forgive us for when we have carried the fragrance of Your name with the stink of our own pride or fallen natures. Forgive us Lord for the ways that we have fallen into seasons of despair when plans did not go our way. Forgive us for our lack of trust.
Thank You Father that You have given us Your Spirit and that You are always with us. Help us, in the power of Your Son, to move in that Spirit Power you give us, free us of fear and worry, and help us to live lives focused on service and love for friends and strangers a like. Let us smell like You. Let our actions and our presence lead to those who do not know You, find You, or at very least catch a whiff of Your glory and goodness.
Glory to You oh Lord,