When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, 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.
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. – 2 Corinthians 2:12-17 ESV
Paul seems to have felt it necessary to defend his movements since the time that he had sent his troubling letter to the Corinthians. He has already told them, “I wanted to come to you first, so that you might have a second experience of grace. I wanted to visit you on my way to Macedonia, and to come back to you from Macedonia and have you send me on my way to Judea” (2 Corinthians 1:15-16 ESV). He had already made one painful visit to the city of Corinth and had no desire of doing so again. “I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you” (2 Corinthians 2:1 ESV). In addition, he had been quite busy in the meantime, traveling to Troas and on to Macedonia. The Corinthians needed to understand that they were not the only fellowship for which Paul was responsible. He had many congregations over which he served as an apostle and their spiritual father. His dance card was full, so to speak. He was pulled in many different directions and always wrestling with the weight of the responsibility he felt for the spiritual well-being of the new believers who made up the churches he helped found. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he described his attitude regarding his relationship with them.
For even if you had ten thousand others to teach you about Christ, you have only one spiritual father. For I became your father in Christ Jesus when I preached the Good News to you. – 1 Corinthians 4:15 NLT
But at the end of the day, when all was said and done, Paul knew that his schedule was in the hands of God. He was the one leading them “in triumphal procession” as they followed the will of God and the example of Christ. There might appear to be setbacks and detours and there would most certainly be difficulties along the way, but the outcome was guaranteed to be a victorious one, because of Christ. Paul was content with being a means by which God spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ everywhere he went. Whether he ended up in Corinth, Troas, Macedonia, Asia, Palestine, Greece or Rome, it really didn’t matter. He knew that his mission remained unchanged – to share the good news of Jesus Christ to everyone with whom he came into contact.
But Paul was also painfully aware that the “fragrance” of the knowledge of Christ wasn’t always pleasant to everyone who heard it. He sadly states, “to those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom” (2 Corinthians 2:16a NLT). In his first letter, the apostle Peter refers to those who refuse to believe the gospel message as “those who do not believe” and who “stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do” (1 Peter 2:7-8 ESV). Because of sin, they are destined to condemnation and death – eternal separation from God. And in their condition the fragrance of the gospel comes across as a stench. It isn’t good news. As Paul wrote in his first letter, “…people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means” (1 Corinthians 2:14-15 NLT).
So what do they do? If the good news is incomprehensible to them, how do they get saved? It requires regeneration. Jesus told the Pharisee, Nicodemus, “unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3 NLT). Because of the fall, men are born spiritually dead. They are without spiritual life and condemned to remain spiritually separated from and dead to God for eternity, unless something happens to regenerate them. In his letter to Titus, Paul reminds us that God “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5 NLT). J. I. Packer describes regeneration as “the spiritual change wrought in the heart of man by the Holy Spirit in which his/her inherently sinful nature is changed so that he/she can respond to God in Faith, and live in accordance with His will.”
So until the Holy Spirit regenerates the unbeliever, opening his eyes and giving him the capacity to see and comprehend the truth of the gospel, he will find the good news onerous and odorous.
But to those who “are being saved” the gospel and those who share it are “a life-giving perfume” (2 Corinthians 2:16b NLT). And while Paul feels completely inadequate for the task, he knows he is being used by God. He has been an eye-witness to the power of the gospel as exhibited in the changed lives of countless individuals who were once dead in their sins.
Paul wasn’t in it for the money. He wasn’t out to make a name for himself or build up his own reputation. He was like a captive being led in a victory parade by the victorious Christ. His place in the line had been made possible by Christ. His role in the spread of the gospel was the result of Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross. So he gladly preached the word “with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us” (2 Corinthians 2:17 NLT). He had learned to go with the flow, to go where God directed him. He had learned to see apparent setbacks as nothing more than God’s orchestration of His divine will. He had learned to recognize his own weakness and God’s all-sufficient power. He was insufficiently sufficient, because he believed it when he said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV). And as he would tell the Corinthians near the end of this letter, “That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 NLT). As the old hymn so clearly teaches:
I am weak, but Thou are strong,
Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
I’ll be satisfied as long,
As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.
Just a closer walk with Thee,
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea.
Daily walking close to Thee,
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.