THE FRAGRANCE OF CHRIST

“We are like a sweet-smelling incense offered by Christ to God, which spreads among those who are being saved and those who are being lost”.

2 Cor 2:15 GNB

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the leader of the confessing church in Germany in World War II. He was imprisoned for his anti-Nazi stance and executed on 9th April 1945, just before the war ended. Witnessing his death was the resident doctor at the Flossenburg concentration camp. He said, “Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God” (E. Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, p532). Bonhoeffer’s life and death (he was only 39 years old) were an offering to God and the phrase used by Paul here, “a sweet-smelling incense offered by Christ to God” well sums up the effect he had on the Christian world.

Many Christian believers in Paul’s day were, in the hostile world of the first century, also sweet-smelling incense offered to God. They filled the world around them with a holy fragrance that was pleasing to God. And they drew other people into the orbit of God’s love in Christ. People were converted to Christ as much by their influence as by the preaching of the apostles.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, make my life an offering to you.

A SWEET FRAGRANCE

“God uses us to make the knowledge about Christ spread everywhere like a sweet fragrance”.

2 Cor 2:14 GNB

“The burning of incense along the victory route was part of the ceremonial of the Roman Triumph. The sense of smell, as well as of sight and hearing, was involved in the splendour of the occasion. As Paul was led by God, so too (to continue the imagery of the victory procession), Paul ‘spreads everywhere a fragrance’ (v.14). Although he rejects triumphalism, his ministry is not without effect. If incense impinges on the senses, even though invisible, so too Paul’s ministry makes its presence felt.

If a fragrance is smelt, so a person is known. What God does through Paul and his companions is to ‘spread …the knowledge ´of God everywhere. The ‘knowledge of God’ in biblical thought is not nearly so abstract or intellectual as it sounds. For instance, when we read that ‘Adam knew Eve his wife’ in Genesis 4:1 (KJV) something as physical as sexual intercourse is in mind. If ‘knowing’ one’s wife is a real experience, so too ‘knowing’ God is a real though different inter-personal experience. What God was doing through Paul was establishing relationships between himself and people. Paul’s evangelism, therefore although non-triumphalist, was nevertheless effective and noticeable. Later, he will remind them that ‘the weapons we fight with … have divine power (10:4-5) (P. Barnett, The Message of 2 Corinthians, p53-4).

The presence and influence of the Christian believer, both as an individual and as part of a group, should also spread a sweet aroma. The believer does this through kindness, empathy, and caring, as well as witnessing to his, or her, faith in Jesus. You don’t have to ‘preach’ at people. You bring the presence of Jesus as you go.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, make your presence felt through our witness.

CHRIST’S TRIUMPH

“Thanks be to God! For in union with Christ we are always led by God as prisoners in Christ’s victory procession”.

2 Cor 2:14 GNB

Perhaps not many modern Christians would think of Christ as being honoured with a victory procession. With the symbol of the cross having become the accepted image of Christ, the suggestion is more of death than triumph. But in Paul’s usage here “there is the picture of a Roman Triumph and of Christ as a universal conqueror. The highest honour which could be given to a victorious Roman general was a Triumph. Before he could win it, he must satisfy certain conditions. He must have been the actual commander-in-chief in the field. Five thousand of the enemy must have fallen in one engagement. A positive extension of territory must have been gained. The victory must have been won over a foreign foe and not in a civil war. The procession was led by the state officials and senators. Then the trumpeters, the spoils from the conquered land, the white bull for the sacrifice still to be made, the wretched captives, the enemy princes, leaders, and generals in chains, who would be thrown into prison and usually later executed. Further along would be priests swinging their censers with the sweet-smelling incense burning in them. Then there came the general himself dressed in elaborate finery, followed by the army wearing all their decorations. Paul… sees the conquering Christ marching in triumph throughout the world, and himself in that conquering train. It is a triumph which, Paul is certain, nothing can stop (W. Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, p204-5).

As more people came to know and submit to Jesus Christ, that sense of conquest would spread. He still triumphs in many places. Give thanks.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, capture many hearts in love and glory for yourself.

THE GOOD NEWS

“When I arrived in Troas to preach the Good News about Christ, I found that the Lord had opened the way for the work there”.

2 Cor 2:12 GNB

There is a proverbial saying, “No news is good news”. That does not apply to the Good News about Jesus Christ. He was the Good News. And that Good News is what the New Testament is all about. The ancient world at the time of Jesus was dominated by many religions most of which were based on myths. But Jesus was no myth. The faith that grew up from his life and ministry was a faith based on a God who became a man and dwelt on earth, teaching about a Heavenly Father and his kingly rule, performing miracles of healing on the sick, dying as a sacrifice for people’s sins and rising again. Moreover, he sent the Holy Spirit to empower people to live lives of holiness.

Paul met Christ on the road to Damascus, believed in him and spent the rest of his life preaching the Good News. Troas was a sea port on the western coast of Asia. It was used as a crossing point of embarkation to sail westwards to Philippi in Europe. Paul speaks of God having prepared the way for him. Maybe Christian believers had settled there from elsewhere and welcomed him. It sounds as though the people welcomed him there, although little is known of his ministry there.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News. It is Good News because it tells of God’s mighty love for sinful human beings. It is Good News because it tells of Jesus Christ, lifts people up, gives them hope, joy and peace. It makes them new men and women.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help us to spread the Good News of Jesus far and wide.

SATAN’S PLANS

“When I forgive … I do it in Christ’s presence because of you, in order to keep Satan from getting the upper hand of us; for we know what his plans are”.

2 Cor 2:10, 11 GNB

Churches are notorious for the conflicts that often rage. Different people have conflicting ideas about “what should be done”, the raising of funds, the development of buildings, the work (and pay) of ministers, and music. Trouble seems to be endemic. And those with a sense of pain at these developments often observe that “Satan is at it again”.

Paul was very conscious of the constant need to bring home to the members of the churches he served that Christ had to be made central. But frequently things went wrong because of the trouble-making activities of Satan. He was always at work, trying to get in, causing dissension and strife, spreading false teaching, fomenting jealousy, back-biting, unbelief and prayerlessness. It is amazing that the Christian church survived those early decades as all manner of different faiths competed for allegiance, and human frailty was ever evident. Paul was adamant – he had to be emphasizing Christ continuously in order to outwit Satan. It could be said that on a human level, Paul’s towering faith in Jesus and his tireless efforts to build up the congregations in Christ are what ensured the church made progress. Eventually it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Always be afraid of Satan and his plans. He will worm his way in by a multitude of strategies. And he never tires. Only uplifting Christ will thwart this master-wrecker of churches. He is just as determined to throw you personally off-balance spiritually. Be sensitive and wide awake. Don’t let him start. He plans and never sleeps.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, keep me ever watchful for the influence of Satan.

DOING IT IN CHRIST

“When you forgive someone for what he or she has done, I forgive them too. For when I forgive – if, indeed, I need to forgive anything – I do it in Christ’s presence because of you”.

2 Cor 2:10 GNB

The Christian church is a body of people made up of a number of factors. The Holy Spirit is a major factor and he creates the presence of Jesus Christ who is the head of the body, its Saviour and its Lord. Then there are the people with their ideas, their experiences, their fears, hopes, sins and shortcomings. In addition, there is the Bible with its message being the word of God and to which the people have access and by which they try to order their lives – beliefs, behaviour and standards. Another component is Satan who loves to get into churches and cause trouble.

Because of the interplay of personalities and the strange results that sometimes crop up and cause dissension, disagreements, ill-feeling and strife, relationships get snarled up and break down. In handling the problem of the difficult member at Corinth Paul struggled to make sure that it was all sorted out in a manner that brought glory to Christ. He coaxed them on to think about and work out reconciliation. This would involve forgiveness which would be in the Spirit of Christ. The phrase “in Christ” was one of Paul’s favourite expressions. He himself sought to live “in Christ”. The church’s worship, its spirituality, its teaching – all had to be worthy of a body that was “in Christ”.

Christ is still the standard, the Lord and the guide of every Christian church. And he should be present – you should be able to feel this in every activity and meeting.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord Jesus, be present in every activity in our congregation.

LOVE ALL THE WAY THROUGH

“I beg you to let him know that you really do love him”.

2 Cor 2:8 GNB

The Christian church, like all groups of people, can become a nasty mess of broken relationships, bitter personal feelings, resentments, and ongoing feuds. Jealousies can flourish, people looking for revenge, and animosities can run riot. It isn’t always easy to halt the bitterness when once it starts and gets hold. Often it is glossed over and the situation just deteriorates.

Paul treated the problem of the difficult person in the church at Corinth with seriousness and strength. He confronted it, and when the time was ripe for reconciliation, gave his advice and instructions accordingly. By this time serious hurt had been caused. In advising that the community should extend forgiveness, he underlined the guiding principle that should predominate in all Christian relationships – love. Even in situations of disagreement, Christian believers should speak the truth in love to one another. Christianity is a group movement. They are not just a collection of individuals. “The corporate nature of Christianity comes out clearly as Paul speaks to the Corinthians. His words are addressed not only to individuals, but also to the church whose members minister to one another by their gifts. Lively and open relationships provide the best context for the word of God to work out its purposes among us. This is why the local congregation is so highly regarded and referred to as ‘the church of God’” (2 Cor 1:1) (P. Barnett, The Message of 2 Corinthians, p47).

Try to make your congregation or fellowship more than just a social club of like-minded middle-class people with God added on Sunday mornings. Do all you can to foster and encourage love in all things. Let it be a fellowship of love in Christ.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, let your love control our congregation.

TIME FOR HEALING

“Now, … you should forgive him and encourage him, in order to keep him from becoming so sad as to give up completely”.

2 Cor 2:7 GNB

Disputes, controversies and conflicts have a way of running their course. Then there comes a time when people feel they have had enough and they need to move towards reconciliation. When groups are at loggerheads, or for that matter individuals as well, they start to feel regret that there are bad feelings and want to inch towards some kind of settlement or rapprochement.

Referring to the person who had been at fault in the church community at Corinth as a man, Paul says it is time for the community to take the initiative and forgive the man. He knew that if and when they did, both the man concerned and the rest of the church would grow and mature as a result. However, if they failed to do this, and just let things drift without making any move to restore the man to the church fellowship, he might lose his faith altogether. That would be sad for the man and it would represent a failure on the part of the church fellowship. They would have lost a person who might have been quite a valuable member of the community.

Forgiveness is healing, no matter what the context in which it is exercised. Forgiveness in Christ is also a growth experience and a learning experience for all concerned. Sufficient remorse should be shown. And restitution where this is applicable should be made. Apologies should be extended. Words of affirmation are very much in place and so are expressions of thanks. Maybe even some small celebration might be in place. And joy may seal the whole event.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to forgive and to be an agent of forgiveness.

STRAINED RELATIONSHIPS

“I made up my mind not to come to you again to make you sad”.

2 Cor 2:1 GNB

Many years ago there was a comedy programme on the radio. In it every actor had a “signature line”. One man used to come in every week and announce, “Borss, borss, sump’n terrible’s happened”. Well something bad had happened in Corinth and we are not told precisely what it was. It appears that it might have been a big mistake by one person, but it caused tensions between Paul and the friends or relations of the individual concerned. Whatever, Paul deemed it wise to postpone his intended visit to them. He reckoned that had he gone it would have increased tensions, and he didn’t want that. When feelings are running high it is often wise for the people on opposite sides of the conflict to have a “cooling off” period. In this way they can think about things, assess where they themselves have gone wrong, and how they can take steps to promote better understanding.

Relationships can become strained in churches to this day. The minister and the leading office-bearers can find themselves not seeing eye-to-eye. The women’s fellowship can feel they are bearing too much of the fund-raising burden – or not being given a big enough say. The music team can have their gripes, and so on. Those who have the gift of wisdom – there are usually some! – need to work and discuss with the affected groups what went wrong. Probably they also need to follow Paul’s example and spend some time “cooling off”. Inter-personal relationships can also get fractious and need some repair. It is important, and mature and Christ-like to get the disputants to talk to a third party and for that person to try to bring the parties together.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help your disciples to work through strained relationships.

THE GUARANTEE

“God … has given us the Holy Spirit in our hearts as the guarantee of all that he has in store for us”.

2 Cor 1:21, 22 GNB

Today Christians throughout the world remember Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples in Jerusalem. The outpouring was accompanied by the sound of a rushing mighty wind, tongues of fire, and the disciples speaking in foreign languages which the foreigners gathered could understand.

The Holy Spirit was poured out subsequently in some of the places where Paul preached. Corinth was one such place. And Paul said that the gift of the Spirit was a guarantee of the future life of heaven. The word translated “guarantee” is a favourite word of Paul. “The Greek word was arrabon. It was the first instalment of a payment, paid as a guarantee that the rest was sure to follow. It is a common word in Greek legal documents … A certain man writes to his master that he has paid Lampon, the mouse-catcher, an arrabon of 8 drachmae so that he will start work and catch the mice while they are still with young. It was the first instalment and the guarantee that the rest would be paid … So when Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit as an arrabon, given us by God, he means that the kind of life that we live in the Holy Sprit is the first instalment of the life of heaven, and the guarantee that the fullness of that life will some day open upon us. The gift of the Holy Spirit is God’s token and pledge of still greater things to come” (W. Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, p198).

Rejoice that God has given us his Sprit and look forward with anticipation.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit.