Triumphant prisoners

Do reversals, failures and inconsistencies disqualify us as disciples? No. On the contrary they are consistent with the challenges associated with discipleship, they are part and parcel of the life of a believer. Rather than denigrate those who lives are seemingly full of reversals, or question God’s work with us due the burden of our own lives, we need to contextualise these experiences as normal for the faithful. Paul powerfully states such challenges are part of being Christ’s.

Suffering as disciples and 2 Corinthians 2

Paul was the apostle to the gentiles (Rom 11:13) and in this suffering demonstrated the life of Christ (Col 1:24). Such was the quality of his discipleship that he could instruct the Corinthians to imitate him as an excellent imitator of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 11:1). He is a towering figure in the New Testament. Following his conversion, Paul traversed much of the eastern region of the Roman empire. His work led to mass conversions and the establishment of faithful communities west from Antioch in Syria through to Italy. He was clearly an effective debater, able to go head to head with Jews in the synagogue through to Greek philosophers in Athens. He was conversant with the Septuagint as well as Greek thinkers and poets, weaving them into his discourse and letters as appropriate. As a theologian, Paul was clearly a standout as witnessed by his contribution in Galatians and Romans (insert your favourites here).

While we shouldn’t denigrate Paul, we also shouldn’t turn him into a caricature. While Paul overcame enormous obstacles, he was also human. Through his letters we occasionally see him in his weakness as well as his strength. This realisation, rather than diminishing the man, serves rather to demonstrate the power of faith.

Paul sees the challenges and failures in his life to be evidence of God working with him. While such instances were painful, humiliating, and gave ammunition to his enemies, Paul sees them as integral to the path of discipleship, a natural consequence of surrendering to the Lord Jesus Christ.

This provides both a challenge and opportunity to us to reframe our setbacks in a positive light – as necessary bumps on the road to the kingdom, rather than evidence of failure and unworthiness. We are a work in progress – but it is God’s work and He is highly invested in our success.

The Corinthian accusations and Paul’s answer

In 2 Corinthians, Paul addresses various accusations made against him. Specifically, his authority was called into question based on apparent changes in Paul’s plans and him being called unreliable. Paul’s response to these accusations is instructive. He doesn’t gild the lily but sets out the challenges he faced and confesses the challenges he faced.

In the first instance in 2 Cor 1:8-9 Paul deals with the trouble he had in Asia (Ephesus). Paul had faced serious opposition, the exact detail of which is lost to us. However, Paul, rather than minimise his troubles, owns them saying:

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, regarding the affliction that happened to us in the province of Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of living.

Indeed, we felt as if the sentence of death had been passed against us, so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.

He delivered us from so great a risk of death, and he will deliver us. We have set our hope on him that he will deliver us yet again,

Paul the apostle who sang hymns at midnight having been beaten and unjustly imprisoned (Acts 16:23-25) is here confessing to the Corinthians that he got to a point where he had given up, he was past his pain threshold. His perception, rightly or wrongly, was that the regional authorities had passed a death sentence against him. This is not the usual ‘Sunday School picture’ of Paul.

However, Paul sees in the reversal of his fortunes the hand of God. Why does he mention this? Partly it seems because his opponents saw the turmoil Paul stirred up and his subsequent retreat as some slur on his apostleship. Paul in contrast deems the removal of the death sentence (or it being rendered ineffective) as akin to the resurrection – i.e. the working of God in his life.

Paul’s opponents had more ammunition, which he goes on to address.

Paul had not kept his commitment to come to Corinth and was accused of vacillating. It seems his opponents are likely throwing Jesus words at him that our “yes” should be yes and “no” no (Matt 5:37). Proof texting and throw away quotes were used against Paul just as they can be used against any believer. While he had changed his plans, Paul explains this was to avoid further risk of conflict and pain in interaction with them (2 Cor 1:15-23). That he changed his plans he does not dispute.

Perhaps the most striking behaviour of Paul’s is the one he acknowledges in 2 Cor 2:12-13. Here the apostle to the Gentiles, the chosen preaching vessel of God walks away from a sterling opportunity to preach in Troas. Paul freely describes the opportunity as excellent, but his “spirit was not at rest”. His mind was not on the job – he was distracted by the absence of Titus and waiting to hear back on the Corinthian situation.

The honesty of discipleship

As Martin observes “No good purpose is served…in any Christian’s attempting a piece of service when his or her real interests lie elsewhere”[1]. Paul’s acknowledgement of the challenges he faced and his response is brutally honest. Yes there were reasons, but the opportunity he passed up in Troas was real and seemingly inconsistent with a man who felt a debtor to all to preach (Rom 1:14).

A healthy community of faith is one where people can be honest with themselves and each other – to express their need for space and/or assistance. At any point there are inevitably people around us who need a little extra grace, a more generous interpretation of their behavior and/or circumstances. Paul had the courage to be straight with the Corinthians – but this honesty also requires a response of making allowance for the reality of all disciples being human.

As in Acts 18:5, Paul demonstrated he was not a robot but rather was impacted by both companionship and concern for others. The Lord in Matt 10:42 promised even those who provided a cup of cold water to a laboring disciple would be rewarded. We can underappreciate the value and power everyone has to encourage. Simple studies have shown close to 20% improvement in physical performance when basic encouragement is provided[2] as long as it is consistent[3]. Discipleship is a marathon (Heb 12:1) – providing encouragement (rather than criticism) is a simple, effective, and valued contribution.

Turning problems to praise

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 2 Cor 2:14 (ESV)

Paul goes on in 2 Cor 2:13-14 to turn around from recounting his challenges to praising God. Why the sudden shift in subject? Because as Hafeman notes – In turning to praise God, Paul turns his attention to the main point of his defense against those who have called his ministry into question because of his suffering.[4] – Far from suffering and failure invalidating his discipleship and apostleship, they PROVED it. The so-called prosperity gospel (health and wealth follows faith) is a myth. We are called to the kingdom through much suffering (Acts 14:22) – an easy thing to say in good times, but the context of Paul’s statement was after being stoned to the point of death. Try saying it through a smashed face, with a few teeth missing unable to open one eye, spitting out teeth, unable to feel the left side of your body, and weak with loss of blood!

Practically this presents a real challenge. Generously interpreting the situation of people’s lives and our own, we should see setbacks as evidence of God’s ongoing interest in our journey.

Paul provides a remarkable picture of himself (and by extension us) as in a triumphant procession in 2 Cor 2:14. Note that a number of older translations suggesting that the verse means we triumph in Christ are incorrect. They reflect Martin Luther’s rejection of the actual Greek – he thought the image too shocking so changed the sense to one of Paul (and us) being triumphant.[5] However the Greek in non-biblical settings plus Greek grammar demonstrate the figure is Christ leading us in His triumph (see for example Martin[6], Brown[7] and Latin examples of this figure from Seneca[8]).

The scene of a victorious general’s parade is known to us from history:

  • McDonald records Augustus boasting of his victories: “In my triumphs nine kings or children of kings were led before my chariot” (Acts of Augustus [Res Gestae] 1.4, Danker, trans). Defeated generals or kings endured the march before their public execution[9]
  • Malina quotes Josephus describing “the Romans forced seven hundred captured Israelite warriors carrying confiscated Jerusalem temple vessels to march through the streets of Rome to mark the victory of the Romans over the Israelites (Josephus Wars 7.5.3–6). This triumphal procession culminated in the execution of the “popular messiah” Simon ben Giora, one of the Israelite leaders of the revolt. A representation of the forced march can be seen today on an inside facade of the famous victory Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum, erected in 81 e. (Duling 2003:206–7)”[10]
  • MacDonald also refers to Appian who indicated trumpeters led the booty followed by animals and even dancers and before the victorious general “came a number of incense-bearers” (Punic Wars 66, LCL).[11]

In Paul’s mind he was saying ‘I have been conquered by Christ. I am his prisoner. The misery I experience now, the retorts from the crowd, the mocking is because now I am his. And I praise him’. We don’t want to push this too far – Paul is using a metaphor not a one-verse summary of truth (e.g. prisoners of war were usually killed). However it is language of total surrender to the victory of Christ and also to our mirroring of Christ. Christ suffered, we do too, and in so doing we witness to him. Is our life a shambles? Do we sometimes feel the impact of those who deride our life? Do we question the rationality of our belief and our personal walk? Good (kind of). This is the path of discipleship.

The perfume of the knowledge of Christ

Paul’s use of the imagery of the aroma (Greek = osmen) and fragrance (Greek = euodia) is not unique. McDonald notes a positive and negative use per below:

Sirach: “Like cassia and camel’s thorn I gave forth perfume [osmen], and like choice myrrh I spread my fragrance” (Sir. 24:15). This is similar to a contrast in 2 Baruch: “for so far as Zion has been delivered up and Jerusalem laid waste, the idols in the cities of the nations are happy and the flavor of the smoke of the incense of the righteousness of the Law has been extinguished everywhere in the region of Zion; behold the smoke of impiety is there” (2 Apoc. Bar. 67.6, OT Pseud 1:644)[12]

It very much depended on your perspective and position in the parade as to whether the incense was a good smell or an unpleasant one (or at least one of your last ones!). However again we should not limit Paul to one metaphor as he appears to switch gears here and reverse the picture somewhat.

We might look like losers but in Christ we benefit – pleased to be strong in HIS victory. The incense might to some be the smell of defeat (and consistent with the initial metaphor it would be) but to us it is life. No matter what others might think we know the value of our conqueror.

The aroma of the knowledge of Jesus is a beautiful image. Paul says we are the perfume of Jesus and God breathes it in and is pleased by it. Sometimes we understate the love of God for His son. God publicly declared his love at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration. Those who are privileged to be parents understand the all-consuming love for a child. However God didn’t wait 9 months for his son. The heir of the world only appeared 4,000 years after Adam and Eve – God waited a long time (Heb 1:1-2). Jesus was not an ordinary son who brought joy and frustration; this boy suffered because he wanted to implement the Father’s plan to save to the utmost those who came to God through him. When the moment of sacrifice came we can see the Father’s pain in the darkened sky, the shredded vail and shaking of the earth. Grief and anger were expressions of his love.

So how do we spread the perfume of Jesus in the earth for the pleasure of God?

The same word and idea is used in Eph 5:2 of Jesus being a fragrant offering and sacrifice which as the NET says is:

not two offerings but a fragrant sacrifice – Grk “an offering and sacrifice to God as a smell of fragrance.” The first expression, προσφορὰν καὶ θυσίαν (prosphoran kai thusian), is probably a hendiadys and has been translated such that “sacrificial” modifies “offering.”[13]

The other use is Phil 4:18 where Paul describes a gift of money to support his ministry as a fragrant sacrifice/offering.

What does this suggest?

  • Our life of sacrifice (Rom 12:1) and our acts of love is effectively perfuming Christ in the earth
  • God notices these things and is delighted, they echo the life of his beloved son and spread that news
  • We are filling the earth with the knowledge of the glory of God NOW in how we live and how we live for each other.

Who is up to the task of perfuming Christ in the earth?

Well that’s all good in theory but perfuming Jesus in the earth? Me? With my problems? It’s a pretty heavy challenge! That’s exactly what Paul observes – although it is a rhetorical question with the clear answer being “yes you can”.

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. 2 Cor 2:16b-17 ESV

Hafemann notes the language of sufficiency is a likely hat tip to the Exod 4:10 where the LXX uses the same wording to Moses[14]. In that case God made Moses sufficient. He gave him power and provided him with Aaron to act as his spokesman. Are we capable of bearing up, of honouring Christ as his willing prisoners? Are we capable of spreading the knowledge of him, like perfume in the earth? Yes! Like Moses God can give us power and already has given us each other. Yes we are made sufficient for the task. No we aren’t superhumans, untouchable, and unstoppable. However we are perfectly right to bear the precious knowledge of Jesus and to share that with others

Conclusion or re-beginning (of sorts)

We are commissioned by God just like Paul was – not because we are world-storming, irrepressible preachers, impervious to doubt and fear; but, because we are disciples. We are captives of Christ and should see our lives through this lens. We also should be open to support those who are suffering or walking in ways that seem contradictory to us. Part of our service is building a community where we can confess our faults, fears, and needs to each other. Most of all we all have to recognize we have a precious perfume to spread to make the world a better place and we know our God will perfect His strength in our weakness.

God commissioned us for this task. He will make us sufficient to carry the name of his beloved son, and we know he is incredibly personally invested in our success because of his love for his son.


  1. Martin, R. P. (1998). 2 Corinthians (Vol. 40, p. 42). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
  4. Hafemann, S. J. (2000). 2 Corinthians (p. 107). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
  5. Ibid., 108.
  6. Martin, R. P. (1998). 2 Corinthians (Vol. 40, p. 46). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
  7. Brown, D. R., Twist, E. T., & Widder, W. (2013). Lexham Bible Guide: 2 Corinthians. (D. Mangum, Ed.) (2 Co 2:14). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  8. Furnish, V. P. (2008). II Corinthians: translated with introduction, notes, and commentary (Vol. 32A, p. 175). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
  9. McDonald, L. M. (2004). 2 Corinthians. In C. A. Evans & C. A. Bubeck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: Acts–Philemon (First Edition, p. 386). Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook.
  10. Malina, B. J., & Pilch, J. J. (2006). Social-science commentary on the Letters of Paul (pp. 136–137). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  11. Ibid., 387-388.
  12. McDonald, L. M. (2004). 2 Corinthians. In C. A. Evans & C. A. Bubeck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: Acts–Philemon (First Edition, p. 388). Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook.
  13. Biblical Studies Press. (2005). The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible. Biblical Studies Press.
  14. Hafemann, S. J. (2000). 2 Corinthians (p. 113). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

Author: Daniel Edgecombe