Great Themes of the Bible (#14-Victory)

"But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?"

People who preach the gospel sometimes generate personal opposition. It is usually rooted in jealousy. Someone's ministry is thriving, but someone else's is not; so the latter maligns the former and hopes thereby to cut the more effective and fruitful leader down to size. If it is not jealousy that evokes opposition, it may be theology. Strangely enough, some who bill themselves as "soundest of the sound" are also "most mean- spirited of the mean-spirited." They say much and imply more in hopes of undermining the credibility of someone they oppose.

This is what Paul was facing in the epistle we call 2 Corinthians — although it is likely his fourth letter to that church. It was a church he loved and with which he shared a great deal of history. He had planted it three years earlier in the spring of A.D. 52 and had remained involved in its encouragement and defense. After investing a year and a half of his life there, he had moved on. But things fell apart very quickly in his absence.

Factions developed around various leaders. There were serious problems with immorality. Even the community-affirming event of the Lord's Supper had become divisive along social lines. And such spiritual gifts as the ability to prophesy or to speak in foreign languages were generating pride and strife among the church's membership. All this had been exploited by some teachers who came to Corinth and set about to take over the church's leadership. They appear to have come from Judea with the intent of bringing Corinth into line with Jerusalem, turning this predominantly Gentile church into a reflection of certain elements of Jewish culture. So they attacked Paul's credentials as an apostle (cf. 11:5; 12:12), accused him of pride and boasting (cf. 3:1; 5:12), said he had been dishonest with funds collected at Corinth (cf. 12:16-19), and even maligned his ability as a public speaker (cf. 11:6). Church fights can be ugly!

Thus Paul had to defend his ministry. Because his message was so bound up in his motives, behavior, and relationship with the church, he had to reply to the agitators who were undermining his work. He was past the point of being able to turn the other cheek before an insult and was facing the very real possibility that the gospel would be rendered ineffective if those opponents were not challenged directly and openly.

Titus had just come from Corinth and reported to Paul on the present state of affairs. Though some matters were much improved, others still had to be set right. So he wrote this epistle and minced no words about either himself or his opponents. In a section that begins at 2:14 and extends all the way through 7:4, he explains his own view of his ministry as an apostle of Jesus Christ. And what he says here about God's ability to spread the gospel abroad in spite of frustrations and opposition is worth hearing in every generation. Since every believer has his or her days of discouragement, these are refreshing words that speak of a victorious outcome.

What a Bunch of "Losers"

The reference to a "triumphal procession" would have been understood by anyone living in Paul's time. Although found only here and at Colossians 2:15 in the New Testament, the verb thriambeuo was well-known in both Greek and Roman culture as a reference to the victory parades that hailed Roman generals after a successful campaign. They were carefully staged and are recorded not only in literature from the period but in paintings, theatrical productions, and arches. The Arch of Titus in Rome would be a famous case in point.

Trumpeters would lead the way. Then came treasures looted from the conquered territory, captives in native costume throwing cinnamon, and the defeated general. Then the moment of triumph was celebrated when incense-bearers heralded the arrival of the conquering hero of Rome. Dressed in a purple toga and borne in a gilded chariot, he would be carried to the Temple of Jupiter — Rome's god of war — for a wild celebration at which the defeated general and other captives were executed. The Romans knew how to stage a spectacle.

Although an apart-from-context reading of these verses has led many interpreters to see a victorious Christ leading his mighty apostles, prophets, and evangelists in a chest-pounding parade down the golden streets, that doesn't fit the context. Christ is triumphant all right, but for Paul to cast himself as a conquering hero riding beside him in triumph over his enemies would more nearly confirm his critics' charge of arrogance.

In this epistle, Paul sees himself not as a mighty warrior in victory robes but as someone who shares in the "troubles" and "sufferings" that come with following Jesus (1:3-7). He even speaks of his "hardships" that had recently brought him to a state of despair (1:8). He was a humble man who saw himself as a clay vessel given the honor of bearing the precious gospel. Listen to him on this point: "But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us" (4:7).

Paul does not cast himself in the role of a co-conqueror with Christ here. To the contrary, he views himself — and other faithful believers — as being among the captive slaves in a Roman victory parade. He is being exposed to ridicule for following Christ. He is being jeered at, derided, and cursed by people along his route. How, then, is he "triumphal" in this march? It is the paradox of strength through weakness that was on display in his life and ministry — just as in ours!

How They Became "Winners"

The central truth of the gospel is that Jesus fought a battle that was not rightly his so we could share in a victory that is not rightly ours. What is that chorus we sing?

He paid a debt he did not owe;
I owed a debt I could not pay.
I needed Someone
To wash my sins away.
And now I sing a brand-new song
"Amazing Grace";
Christ Jesus paid the debt
That I could never pay.

Christians are often chided as "losers" in this world. In the first century, believers were reminded that not many of them were wise, influential, or of noble birth. The point of that reminder was not to humiliate but to affirm! God has deliberately chosen to take the despised and weak things of this world and to transform them into beautiful and mighty things. But it is God who does this mighty work and who receives the glory for it. Thus any beauty, honor, and power they have do not corrupt their human possessors but become the very basis for their winsome humility. It's the Pauline paradox again.

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.' (1 Cor. 1:26-31).

In our immediate text for today, the paradox of loss-become-gain, weakness-become- power, and defeat-become-victory is affirmed under a powerful metaphor. Paul, just who do you think you are to undertake leadership in the church? I am only Christ's slave (cf. Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:10) and I'm walking behind him and in his shadow. And what is your task in the parade? I simply sing the praise and spread the fragrance of my Master and Lord along the route. The scent that reaches your nose may have the unpleasant body odor of sweat as I serve him in hard places, but I believe it reaches God's nostrils as a fragrance of my love for him! But don't you care how others view you in that process? It's inevitable that the story I tell will be hated by some and loved by others — just as Jesus was reacted to in both ways. To unbelievers, my message has a stench of death; to believers, it is the sweet perfume of life. And just what makes you equal to such a task? Oh, it isn't my rhetorical skills or diplomas or magnetic charm. I would never take such a task to myself or attempt it in my own strength but was called to it by God and make competent by his strength at work in me (cf. 3:4-6).

Self-Image Is Important

We've learned in the past few decades how important self-image is. And we've done some pretty silly things to try to enhance the self-image of children and adults — in the hope that a sense of enhanced self-worth will lead to better educational performance or social function. But it doesn't make children better students to give everyone an A or make anyone behave better to affirm questionable-to-rotten behavior. What doesenhance one's sense of self-esteem and worth is progress. What does improve character is transformation and empowerment. And that is God's specialty!

Paul's claim for himself and us is that we walk toward ultimate triumph over all our adversaries "in Christ." This little prepositional phrase may be taken as the key to everything that is Paul's theology. It occurs more than fifty times in his letters. If a straw blowing in the wind tells you something about the source and direction of the wind, the expression "in Christ," "in our Lord," or "in Jesus" exposes the heart of everything Paul held dear.

Need some authentic boost to your self-esteem? On the basis of the Word of God, I am able to tell anyone who is in Christ Jesus that . . .

- you are not under the judgment and condemnation of sin (Rom. 8:1).

- you are blessed with every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3).

- you have been predestined to be adopted as God's child (Eph. 1:5).

- you may approach God with freedom and confidence (Eph. 3:12).

- you have been redeemed and forgiven of all your sins (Col. 1:14).

- you are a new creation in God's sight (2 Cor. 5:17).

- you cannot be separated from the love of God (Rom. 8:39).

"Like a victorious locker room," says Philip Yancey, "church is a place to exult, to give thanks, to celebrate the good news that all is forgiven, that God is love, that victory is certain." If you are in Christ, you are a member of the winning team! And have you ever noticed how the rejoicing is after a World Series, Super Bowl, or Pee-Wee Soccer Match? The players who made errors, missed assignments, and dropped passes are just as excited and happy as the ones who hit home runs or kicked winning goals! Because we are on Christ's team, because we belong to God's family, because we are slaves in Jesus' victory parade, we all have reason to rejoice.

That's no exaggeration of your status in Christ. Listen to Paul one more time on this point: "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 5:16-18). "But my health isn't good!" protests someone. "I'm on the verge of losing my job, and I don't know how I'm going to keep from losing my house!" cries another. "My divorce will be final in just nine more days!" says someone else, "and I never meant to be alone at this point in my life!"

Hey, you're not a "loser" — not if you are in Christ. Even if you are distressed and humiliated, cast down and forsaken, experiencing sleepless nights and facing the loss of everything, you are still a child of God, an joint-heir with Christ to all heaven holds, and the possessor of eternal life. These very words, in fact, merely echo Paul's own self-evaluation found at 2 Corinthians 6:4-13.

Conclusion

Do you know anything about sports memorabilia? A baseball that otherwise would be worth a few dollars is worth several thousand — if Babe Ruth once held it in his hands and put his signature on it. A football that might sell for $20 is worth $350 — if Troy Aikman has held and signed it. It depends on whose hands it's in.

Most baseball cards are worth the paper on which they're printed. Because of the number printed and his degree of success to date, a Brian Hunter card isn't that valuable. But a signed Ted Williams card my son has in his collection is worth more than $300 because the legendary player once held that card and signed his name on it. It all depends on whose hands it's been held.

You're just another high school student or mom of a pre-schooler, right? You're just another sales rep, computer programmer, or secretary, did you say? You aren't wealthy and don't make headlines? You're embarrassed about something in your past? You're scared of something in your future? You're selling yourself short! If you are in Christ's hands and have the signature mark of the Holy Spirit on you, you are part of God's eternal purpose to bring many men and women to glory. You are spreading the aroma of Jesus everywhere you go by living the faith you believe. And you are saved.

If you aren't already in Christ, it's time for you to accept God's free gift in him (Rom. 6:23b), be baptized into him (Gal. 3:26-27), and begin living in him (Col. 2:7).



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