2 Corinthians 2:12-17

12 When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, 13 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.

14 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. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? 17 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.

Even if what a tiny percentage of what the Bible says about heaven is true, it is a marvel that when we get older, we are still desperate to hang onto this life. The apostle Paul knew what it was like to be in the presence of the resurrected Messiah Jesus. Therefore, he had tasted of Heaven’s sweetness and had no fear of death. His lack of fear makes what he writes in this passage seem completely upside down to us.

Those who trust into the perfectly-lived life and blood-shedding sacrificial death of the risen an ascended Messiah Jesus can experience the sweetness of growing older. Paul wrote to the church in Philippians that it is always “far better to be with the Lord (Phil. 1:23). To Paul, death is merely the toothless servant who opens the door to eternity with Jesus. Death is chapter one of the delightful story that goes on forever in which every chapter is better than the one before.

There is another spiritual reality in this section we need to understand. A vivid spiritual life is a procession of death in which we repeatedly die to self-trust and self-sufficiency and are forced to live in greater and greater subjection to Messiah Jesus. That is the path forged by Christ. It is the course of Paul’s life, as he wrote in 1st Corinthians 15:31, “I die every day!” This is what Paul celebrates in his description of the triumphal procession in our text.


One of the criticisms against Paul was that he vacillated and changed his plans. To his critics, this showed that his ministry was fleshly and definitely not of God. Yet again, Paul gives his reasons for his change of plans. “12 When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, 13 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.

Paul had been so surprised and hurt by the opposition he received in his second visit to Corinth that he cut short his visit and retreated to Ephesus to write a tearful, severely reproachful letter to them. Anxious to hear from Titus as to how the Corinthians had received his letter, Paul traveled to Troas where he and Titus had agreed to meet up. Paul had great pastoral anxiety. That is the trademark of all spiritual leadership. The future of the church at Corinth was at stake and Paul was on and needles for Titus’ return.

As Paul waited in Troas, his ministry continued to grow. Paul used the same metaphor of an “open door” to describe his explosive ministry in Ephesus where he founded a church and spread the gospel throughout Asia (1 Cor. 16:8-9; Acts 19:1-10). Paul’s ministry exploded in Troas. He was desperate to hear from Titus and reluctant to leave the new ministry in Troas. But as the season for sea travel closed, Paul had to decide to leave and find Titus or spend several more months in Troas cut off from any information about the situation in Corinth.

At this point in his Apostolic ministry, his anxiety was overwhelming. Troas was at the center of Paul’s most exhausting sufferings. He even describes it as the height of his sufferings in 11:28, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” He agonized, “13 my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there.

When Paul could no longer stand the emotional torment, he said goodbye to his converts in Troas: “So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia.” Not even a change of scenery could quiet Paul’s anguish. He writes in 7:5, “For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within.[1] He was experiencing terrible turmoil and pastoral anxiety.


Paul uses his story of anxiety as background scenery to restate his central theme of the letter: “14 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.” The phrase “triumphal procession” is a technical one. Its use extends back to the pre-Roman Etruscan dynasties. These parades featured the conquering general riding in a chariot drawn by four horses, or in some cases elephants. The general would be clothed in a purple toga and a tunic bearing an elaborate pattern of palm leaves. He carried a scepter crowned by an eagle in his hand and his face was tinted with red makeup in allusion to the god Jupiter.[2]

In Paul’s day, Rome had elevated the triumphal procession to an occasion of grand theater, complete with a train of conquered subjects in their native costumes, and parade floats laden with the spoils of war: coins, statues, captured arms, ramming beaks of enemy ships. Conquered kings, administrators, and generals were led in procession. Pagan priests burned incense and musicians played the cultic tunes.

However, the image cannot, in and of itself, explain what the triumphal procession meant to Paul. How did Paul see himself in relation to this spectacle? Contrary to some speculation, Paul did not see himself as a victorious general, but as a conquered subject! As upside down as this idea may be to us, the application moves into shocking territory. Conquered enemies (or a representative group of them) were put to death at the end of the processional as a sacrificed to the Roman gods. So, Paul saw himself as God’s captive being led to death.

We know this is Paul’s meaning because the only other time this word, “triumphal procession,” is used in the New Testament is found in Colossians 2:15. There Paul uses it to describe God leading the triumphal procession that shames and destroys the rulers of this age. Paul, who was once an enemy of God’s people, was conquered by Messiah Jesus on the Damascus Road. Now he was being led by Christ as a slave to die in Christ so that he might display the majesty, power, and glory of God who conquered him.

The context of this letter is a constant motif of suffering. Paul speaks of death as a metaphor representing suffering in our earthly lives. He restates this idea in 4:8-12:

 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you. [3]

In 6:8-10 Paul writes:

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. [4]

Christ demands that we die to our self-sufficiency and self-reliance and human wisdom. He told his followers:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? [5]

Suffering and death (“his cross”) are the agents God uses to make himself known. Paul’s point is that his suffering, which he pictures here as being led to death in the Roman victory procession, is the means through which God is revealing himself. Paul is saying that his intense suffering, far from being a mark of a false apostle, is the medium through which God reveals himself as the glorious conqueror. Nothing could be more opposite from the health and wealth preaching that plagues the church today.

God’s ministry of revelation through suffering/death produces a diffuse and universal fragrance. “14 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.” R. Kent Hughes writes:

The triumphal procession (during which the incense offered to the gods wafted over the processional) left its aroma lingering over the spectators long after the parade had passed by. So, it was with the fragrance of Paul’s ministry, so redolent with suffering and death. The apostolic procession smelled of God and his lingering grace.[6]

Fragrances are intrusive. If a skunk gets displeased somewhere close to your home, you will surely know it. If your dog is the cause of the skunk’s displeasure, you will be dealing with an intrusive fragrance for a long while. If you have ever been near a slaughterhouse and rendering plant, then you know something about the odor of death. If you were an Israelite camped around the Tabernacle with its constant burnt offerings, you would have worn the odor of death and lived with it constantly. Yet, God considered that a pleasing fragrance. So, it is when our lives manifest the crushed fragrance of suffering and daily death.

When God led Paul in triumphal procession, God’s fragrance infused the 1st century world. It could not be washed off. Grace lingered in the air. Even the imperial palace was infused with it and all the saints from Caesar’s household will greet you in heaven because God used the apostle Paul’s suffering. This is so contrary to how we want to think about the Christian life and Christian ministry. We prefer to be the ones riding in the chariot like a conquering general. In other words, we prefer to be God. We manage our flesh in failed attempts to obtain what we think is good while sprinkling Jesus-language on our efforts.

Think for a moment about which ministers most people prefer to follow. What train do they jump on? Certainly not that of the weak and dying. Most people jump on the train of personality and performance and the apparent success of a big crowd. We like messages with technique and technology delivered in an exciting worship environment where the leaders are skilled in corporate management and so-called vision casting. Those kinds of ministries often leave little place for Christ, who bids us to come and die.


In verses 15-16a, Paul further develops the metaphor of incense he introduced in verse 14. Only here, he uses a different word for fragrance that is translated “aroma” or “sweet aroma.” Paul and his fellow apostles where the sweet aroma of Messiah Jesus rising up to God, regardless of the human response to their message. As they preached, the smoke of Christ’s sacrifice ascended to the Father, and he was well pleased. The heavenly audience was glorified.

The aroma of the Apostolic gospel message did not simply rise to heaven. It spread out to all the people who heard: “To one a fragrance from death to death, to the other of fragrance from life to life” (16a). The smell of incense in the Roman victory procession would have been received differently by the members. To the victors it was a reminder that they had lived through countless battles in the campaign. To the captives, it was a reminder that some or all of them would be put to death as sacrifices to Rome’s demon gods.

Christ’s coming brought either death or life. When the elderly Simeon held the baby Jesus in his arms in the temple of Jerusalem he prophesied: “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34). Those who heard the Apostolic preaching and trusted into the perfectly-lived life of Messiah Jesus for their righteousness before God, and into his sacrificial blood-shedding death as the only payment for their sins could smell the sweet aroma of life. Those who refused to submit to the Son will never see life. The wrath of God ways down upon them.

Nowhere is this sad phenomenon more apparent than at a funeral. When I preach Christ at a funeral I can look out over the crowd and see those who smell the sweet aroma of life and those whose sour faces reflect the stench of death because they hate what they’re hearing. The same aroma is to some a sublime sweetness, but to others it’s the skunk in the room. How does the aroma of the gospel smell to you this morning? Does it smell like life, or does it smell like death?


Given this stark picture of following Christ in his triumphal procession, captive to death embodied in suffering and weakness, the question arises: “Who is sufficient for these things?” (16b). Of course, the answer is, “No one!” The kind of death of which Paul writes is the opposite of self-sufficiency, self-reliance, and human wisdom. Paul’s sufficiency, and our sufficiency, is in Christ. Paul will write in 3:5: “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God.

Paul declared his sufficiency both negatively and positively. Negatively, he wrote “for we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word” (2:17a). This denial referred to his detractors who actually viewed their version of a “gospel” as a commodity to be sold. The word “peddle” refers to traders who diluted their wine with water or used false weights and measurements. Paul suggests that these religious peddlers are watering down the gospel for personal gain. Paul never watered-down scripture to make it more appealing. He never cared which way the emotional wind was blowing. He never preached according to consensus. He never held back.

Positively, whenever Paul preached, he was completely sincere. His eloquence was his sincerity of heart. In 5:18-19 he writes:

18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.[7]

Paul’s commission came directly from Messiah Jesus, and that is exactly how he preached. He ministered the Word “in the sight of God” (2:17), literally “before God.” He preached humbly and with trembling and with no thought of personal gain. He spoke “in Christ.” That is, he spoke in union with Christ. His preaching flowed from his being united into Messiah Jesus. His sufficiency was entirely from God and set the standard for all who would minister the gospel.

Paul wants the people in Corinth to embrace the triumphal procession (which is the heart of this great letter) and live its death principle to the fullest. We are to understand that weakness, suffering, and death are the mean by which the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ infuses to the ends of the earth. We are not to fight against weakness and humility. We are to embrace it! Paul will write:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. [8]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 7:5.

[2] Hughes, 2nd Corinthians. Kindle Edition.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 4:8–12.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 6:8–10.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 16:24–26.

[6] Hughes, op. cit.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 5:18–20.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 2 Co 4:7.