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2 Corinthians 2:14-16a:

Christ's Incense
BONNIE BOWMAN THURSTON
Institute for the Study of Christian Origins
Tbingen
The sense of smell is particularly evocative: grandmother's face pow-
der, bread dough in a friend's kitchen, rotting leaves in the garden, incense
in a convent chapel. Perhaps that is why the translation of 2 Corinthians
2:15a in the New English Bible is so striking. "We are indeed the incense
offered by Christ to God." In the New Testament context, what im-
mediately comes to mind is the pinch of incense to honor the Emperor
required of adherents of the Imperial Cults of Rome. But this is not Paul's
point of reference. He is making an important statement about how our
Uves are to be understood as witnesses to Christ's life. The thrust of the
message is spiritual and not moral or ecclesiological.
The whole statement in the NEB runs as follows:
But thanks be to God, who continually leads us about,
captives in Christ's triumphal procession, and everywhere uses
us to reveal and spread abroad the fragrance of the knowledge
of himself! We are indeed the incense offered by Christ to God,
both for those who are on the way to salvation, and for those
who are on the way to perdition: to the latter it is a deadly
fume that kills, to the former a vital fragrance that brings life.
The metaphors Paul uses here, procession and fragrance, are not familiar
ones today. Before discussing the spirituality commended in the passage,
an explanation of these two metaphors is necessary.
Triumphal Procession
The procession image in verse 14 arises indirectly from Paul's travels
in the previous two verses. Troas (vs. 12) is on the Aegean shore of Asia
Minor, about 10 miles from the site of ancient Troy. Here Paul received
his vision to go over to Macedonia (Acts 16:6-11), and here he sub-
sequendy preached at the missionary meeting at which Eutychus fell out
of the window (Acts 20:5-12). Troas is the place from which Paul traveled,
so that his journeys from there to Corinth can be seen as "a triumphal
procession
c
in Christ' giving off a fragrance of the knowledge of Christ in
every place that he reached."
1
Matthew Black and Rowley, eds., Peake*s Commentary on the Bible (London:
Thomas Nelson, 1967), p. 969.
66
RESTORATION QUARTERLY
The thanksgiving in verse 14 probably refers to Titus' success in
reconciling the Corinthian Church. The thanks is for good news from
Titus. A victory for God's cause at Corinth leads to general remarks on
God's victory.
2
The term "triumphal procession" (vs. 14, , present par-
ticiple from ) occurs only one other time in the New Testament-
in Colossians 2:15: O n that cross he discarded the cosmic powers and
authorities like a garment; he made a public spectacle of them and led
them as captives in his triumphal procession." (NEB) The Colossian refer-
ence reveals what is really going on in the Corinthians passage: a victory
procession of captives taken in warfare.
Definitive work on the triumphal procession as it comes to bear on
this passage in 2 Corinthians occurs in an unpublished Tbingen disserta-
tion by Scott J. Hafemann. While many commentators disagree,
Mr. Hafemann is correct that Paul sees himself led as a captive. Hafemann's
historical study of the triumphal procession is extensive, but only his
conclusions will be noted here. First, the purpose of the triumphal proces-
sion was twofold, to thank the deity who granted victory in battle and to
glorify the general who achieved the victory. Second, it was a well-known
Roman institution with stereotyped clothing, rituals, and so forth. Third,
in the literature always refers to the one conquered. Finally,
the function of the conquered was to show the strength of die conquerors;
he is being led to death (literally, to be sacrificed).
3
Jesus has conquered Paul on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9*, 22,
and 26). Paul subsequendy refers to himself as Christ's prisoner: "From
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus" (Phile. 1). The image of a prisoner leads
to Paul's use of the image of incense or fragrance in verse 15, for at one
time incense in the triumphal procession heralded the execution of the
prisoners and the celebration of the victors.
5
Fragrance
Two Greek words which the English translations variously render
"fragrance," "smell," "incense," and "fume" occur in the three verses with
2
James Thompson, The Second Letter of Paid to the Corinthians (Austin, Texas:
R.B. Sweet, 1970) p. 37.
3
Scott J. Hafemann, The Letter and the Spirit of 2 Corinthians 2.14-3.6 within
the Context of the Corinthian Correspondence as a Whole, Chapter Three, "Led unto
Death," pp. 29-32.
4
In Acts 9:15, Paul becomes Christ's instrument, or, literally, "vessel"
(). As in 2 Cor. 4:7, the word emphasizes Christ's dominion over Paul.
5
Thompson, p. 39.
THURSTON/CHRISrS INCENSE
67
different shades of meaning. The differences in the Greek serve to clarify
the usage in each verse.
Verse 14, literally translated, says "the fragrance of knowledge of him
manifested by us." The genitive of agent suggests the object of "by"(i*
) to be Christian workers like Paul and Titus. Clearly, the reference
is to Christians, the captives in Christ's procession. Here the word for
fragrance, , is from the verb and means simply "smell"
or "sense of smell."
6
In verse 14 the fragrance is the knowledge of Christ. This squares
with Paul's understanding of his ministry to the Corinthians as, at least
in part, that of dissemination of knowledge. It is interesting that, when
he describes his ministry in these terms, it is in the context of captivity
and submission.
. . . we demolish sophistries and all that rears its proud head
against the knowledge of God; we compel every human thought
to surrender in obedience to Christ; and we are prepared to
punish all in rebellion when once you have put yourselves in
our hands.
( 2 Cor. 10:5-6, NEB)
The point in verse 14 is that Corinthians manifest or make known
knowledge of Christ in all places.
In verse 15, the word which the NEB renders "incense" is a more
specialized term, " " literally translates
"because we are Christ's fragrance to God."
7
Here, "fragrance" is ,
from , "to be fragrant, or smell sweet," especially of sacrifices.
8
Paul uses the language of sacrifice in which fragrance ascends to the gods
and engenders a favorable attitude toward humanity.
9
Here, too, Christians
are the incense or perfume; its essence is Christ. The odor is perceptible
to those being saved and to those being destroyed. Paul is, at this point,
making a statement of fact; no judgment is as yet implied.
6
Liddell and Scott, eds., Greek-English Lexicon, (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1958), p. 1261. Bauer translates it "Dufi" in Walter Bauer, Griechisch-Deutsches
Wrterbuch (Berlin: Verlag Alfred Tpelmann, 1958), p. 1161. For sweet smell
as a sign of the presence of the deity see F. Field, Notes on the Translation of the
New Testament, 1899, pp. 181ff.
^auer, "Wir sind Christi Wohlejeruch fur Gott," p. 652.
8
Liddell and Scott, p. 740.
'Lampe, Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), gives numerous
fascinating references for . See p. 585, especially "odour of sanctity,"
Apophth. Patr.
68
RESTORATION QUARTERLY
Paul returns, in verse 16, to the more general term for a smell, :
"a fragrance from death into death
55
and "a fragrance from life into life.
55
To those who have received knowledge of Christ, incense is a good smell;
to those who have rejected Christ, it is the smell of death. Prisoners who
are led with Christ (or "by
59
in the sense of "because of ) are already in
life and go to it eternally because of the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice
of Jesus. But the fragrance which heralds sacrifice is to prisoners without
Christ a terrible smell, a "fume.
55
They are already spiritually dead and
now must physically die. In the Roman world, this was ultimate finality,
eternally the end. Thus the acceptance or rejection Paid implies is decisive.
Peake
5
s commentary provides a succinct summary. The whole proces-
sion, he says,
marked the triumph of Christ, Paul being the victim sacrificially
offered as well as sharing in the victory. The fragrance was also
the knowledge of God shown in the Gospel, a fragrant spice
which brought life to the righteous and death to the unrigh-
teous. . . .
10
Christian Life
Second Corinthians 2:14-16a has important implications for under-
standing the Christian life as witness to the gospel. In order to comprehend
the spiritual meaning of the passage for witness, another Pauline reference
to fragrance and sacrifice must be recalled.
In a word, as God's dear children, try to be like him, and live
in love as Christ loved you, and gave himself up on your behalf
as an offering and sacrifice whose fragrance is pleasing to God.
(Eph. 5:1-2, NEB)
Paul has been giving the Ephesians rules for their new life as Christians.
He summarizes by saying Christians should imitate God
5
s love as man-
ifested in Chrisfs sacrifice of himself. Both Greek words for fragrance
appear in verse 2 as descriptions of Christ's sacrificial gift or offering
( ). Christfs self-giving
11
functioned as the sweet
smelling offerings of the Old Testament tradition.
12
10
Black and Rowley, p. 696.
n
Bauer, "das Opfer der Selbsthingable Jesus," p. 652.
12
See, for example, atonement rituals in Lev. 16:12 or Num. 16:46ff.; morning
and evening sacrifice 2 Chron. 13:11; Luke 1:10; Exod. 29:38ff.; 1 Kings 18:36ff.
The LXX is especially revealing. Paul uses this language in connection with gifts
from the Philippians. See Phil. 4:18. And it was clearly in the mind of the writer
of the Hebrew letter in 9: Uff.
THURSTON/CHRISrS INCENSE
69
The giving up of self ( ) which Christ
first offered is the model for the Christian's sacrifice to God. Paul urges
precisely this in the Roman letter. "Therefore, my brothers, I implore you
by God
5
s mercy to offer your very selves to him: a living sacrifice, dedicated
and fit for his acceptance, the worship offered by mind and heart
55
(NEB,
Rom. 12:1; RSV, "your spiritual worship
55
). The Christian life, sacrificially
lived, is incense in the nostrils of God. The content which causes the aroma
is Christ. He is known through Christians in all places where they reenact
his selflessness.
In an essay on Christian contemplation Thomas Merton made the
same point. "The man who lives and acts according to the grace of Christ
dwelling in him, acts in that case as another Christ... and thus he prolongs
in his own life the effects and the miracle of the incarnation.
5513
When one
"dies to self
5
and is filled by Christ, what is shown forth (or offered up)
is the Divine image (or, in this context, the Divine fragrance).
When "more for me,
55
self-glorification, ambition, and greed prevail
as models of "self-actualization,
55
self-sacrifice (in old-fashioned terms "put-
ting the other person first
55
; in PauFs terms having "equal regard for one
another,
55
Rom. 12:16, or looking "to each others interests and not merely
your own,
55
Phil. 2:4) is no easier than being led to death as a slave in a
Roman triumphal procession must have been. But our imitation of Christ
today, as Paul's in his day, functions as subtle, evocative, and real presence.
It transforms an apparently "negative
55
situation (loss of self) into an offer-
ing to God. The practical applications are easily seen.
We can be and leave behind a tangible reminder of Chrisfs presence
in the world. We who are Chrises captives in this age can incarnate the
genitive of agent in 2 Corinthians 2:14. The words of the prophet Malachi
can be fulfilled in our lives: "Everywhere fragrant sacrifice and pure gifts
are offered in my name; for my name is great among the nations, says the
Lord of Hosts
55
(Mai. 1:11).
13
Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience: Christian Contemplation III, Cis-
tercian Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3 (1983): 206.
^ s
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