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Bible ancient-futurenetThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

2 Corinthians 2:12-17

Triumph in Christ

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.

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In last week’s verses, Paul encouraged the Corinthians to forgive and allow a man whom they had excluded from fellowship to rejoin their congregation because he had gone through enough and repented.

In this week’s reading, we have Paul’s account of moving from despair to hope.

Paul had an intense love for the Corinthians, even though they were mired in sin.

He wrote them three letters, two of which are in the New Testament, and one which is not. John MacArthur calls the one excluded from the canon the ‘severe’ letter.

Yet, just as Paul despaired over their spiritual state, he knew that God had greater things in store for him.

Today’s passage addresses the same emotions of despair and hope.

Paul tells the Corinthians that he was awaiting the arrival of Titus in Troas and when he did not arrive as expected, Paul stopped preaching to the people of that city and went instead to Macedonia (verses 12, 13).

Titus was supposed to give him an update on the state of the congregation in Corinth, which troubled Paul greatly. While waiting, Paul preached to the people of Troas but was too dejected to continue. He really wanted to hear from Titus about the Corinthians.

MacArthur describes what was going on in Paul’s mind and heart at that time (emphases mine):

What a church, certainly a church to bring grief to a pastor’s heart.

It is that very grief that we feel in the text before us. Would he ever be welcome at Corinth again? Could he ever go back? He already planned a trip and then changed his mind in chapter 2 because he really didn’t want to have another sad visit. He wasn’t up to it. He couldn’t take any more pain. The last brief visit that he had there was very short and very painful.

On top of all of this, as we find the apostle Paul, he has been in Ephesus; and in Ephesus things weren’t going very well either. Some think he may have had a serious, even potentially, fatal illness, because he said, “We carry about in our body the dying of Jesus Christ.” Others think it was just the relentless persecution. It all culminated when a riot started that could have taken his life in Ephesus, so things weren’t going well where he was, and they were certainly going terribly where his heart was.

It’s not then hard to understand that there is some pathos  in this letter, there’s some grief in this letter. There’s some ache in his heart as he writes.

Paul’s visit to Troas here was not the same one in Acts 16, where he first met Luke. This was a second trip. MacArthur tells us more:

Now Paul had been to Troas before. Acts 16 records his first visit there in verses 8 to 11, and apparently on that occasion he did not found a church. It is also true that in Acts 20, and verses 6 to 12, we read that there is a church in Troas. There was not church there the first time he went. There was a church there in Acts 20. We assume then that the church was planted on this visit. It says – go back to verse 12: “I came to Troas for the gospel of Christ,” to evangelize the city which was the way you started a church. He had come with a purpose of evangelization, not just to meet Titus.

Now he may have come early because of the pressure from Ephesus. Titus may have missed his boat. And so while he is there waiting for Titus, he purposely evangelizes. And then he adds in verse 12, notice the last phrase, “and when a door was opened for me in the Lord,” – stop at that point for a moment before we finish that sentence.

He had commented about an opened door in Ephesus in 1 Corinthians 16:8 and 9. He loved opened doors. He said to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 16:8 and 9, “I have to stay at Ephesus because there is an open door. And even though there are many adversaries, I have to stay because the door is open.”

Well, it’s the same thing; here’s an open door in Troas. It wasn’t opened by human ingenuity – would you notice verse 12? – “It was opened for me in the Lord, by the Lord, in the power and strength of the Lord.” The Lord had given him a tremendous opportunity there.

Now in order to know that, he must have already preached. He must have preached with great blessing and success. And many people must have come to hear; and some believed, and more interested. How else would he know the door was open unless he had tested it? So we can assume when he arrived, he started to preach, and people believed.

Despite his success in Troas, his heart was still with the Corinthians. Note verse 13:

my spirit was not at rest

MacArthur says:

he really was preaching with a broken heart. He was a very distracted preacher. He was having a ministry in a place he didn’t want to be. His heart was so overwrought and burdened by the Corinthian situation that he had a very difficult time pouring himself into a ministry that was wide open to him. It was the discontent of his own heart that cut him off from that opportunity.

MacArthur continues:

All the churning of all of that in his own heart created the anxiety that debilitated him. He didn’t know the answer to the aching questions, and he had no freedom to minister. So he said, “I have no rest for my spirit, not finding Titus, my brother.” Without some kind of word from Titus, he was really useless, he was so troubled. And I’m sure he imagined the worst. So here we find this marvelous man in the pits.

So Paul left Troas for Macedonia.

Imagine the disappointment of the people of Troas:

he turned away from the open door, verse 13. Isn’t it amazing? “But taking my leave of them,” – them? Who is them? The church that he had planted there, the baby infant church, the believers and those who were eager yet to hear. “I turned my back on them, and went on to Macedonia.”

This was so unlike Paul, the epitome of apostolic resilience.

Paul normally prayed for — and received — divine guidance. However, in this instance, he says nothing of that. MacArthur asks:

You notice the absence of any prompting of the Holy Spirit here?

There is another question to be asked, which is, how did he know where Titus would be?

MacArthur explains:

You see, he knew the route that Titus would take. It was a five-day boat trip across the northeast corner of the Aegean Sea. He could leave Troas and be where he needed to be, and then get on the trail. And in ancient times when people traveled they made sure that everyone knew their travel plans, and they could be tracked, and they sent word ahead and left word behind about their movements. Paul set out then on a gloomy journey trying to intersect Titus; he couldn’t wait any longer. He had to know. He had to know.

Then Paul changes the tone.

The next three verses are some of the most marvellous in the New Testament. Note the change in language and the hope. Why did Paul use such poetic words?

The answer is in the title of this passage: ‘Triumph in Christ’, specifically ‘triumph’, which was an elaborate Roman procession to celebrate a general who had won a major victory.

A triumph involved fragrance from flowers and incense. The procession ended when those in it arrived at the emperor’s throne.

MacArthur gives us a splendid description:

The Romans had what was called a “Triumph;” that’s what they called it. A Triumph was when the Roman government and all of its people honored a great general.

The honor could be bestowed on a victorious Roman general only under certain conditions. Before he could win it, he must have been the actual commander-in-chief of all the troops in the field. The campaign must have been completely finished, the region completely pacified, and the victorious troops brought home. At least 5,000 of the enemy must have fallen in one engagement. A positive extension of the territory of the kingdom must have been gained and not just a disaster retrieved or some attack repelled. A victory must have been won over a foreign foe and it could not be in a civil war. And now and then, maybe once in a life time, a general might have that kind of Triumph given to him as his honor. In the actual Triumph, there would be a procession through the streets of Rome to the capital where an offering would be made to the gods.

First there would come the state officials, and there would come the senate in this great Triumph. Then there would come the trumpeters. Then there would come those carrying the spoils from the conquering, all the wealth and the treasures. Then there would come the white bull which was to be offered in a blood sacrifice to Jupiter. Then there would come the captives, the prisoners in chains who would be headed to prison and to death.

Then there would come the priests. The priests would be swinging censers full of incense that was smoldering and smoking, and the fragrance of the incense would fill the air all along the way. And in addition, women would line the street and throw garlands of flowers to be crushed under the hooves of the men on the horses, and thus the fragrance would mount. In the homes of the people, they might light incense lamps, so that the fragrance would fill the entire city.

Then there would come the general himself, and he would be riding a chariot pulled by four horses; and he would have a purple toga marked out with golden stars, and over it he would have another purple robe; it would be embroidered with golden palm leaves. In his hand he would have an ivory scepter crowned with an eagle. And all the people would shout, “Triumph, triumph, triumph, triumph” …

The great emperor seated on the high throne at the capital at the end of the parade would smell the wafting fragrance. It was not only sweet to the victorious troops who had been the means by which the smell of victory had come to pass, but it was very sweet to the emperor himself.

Paul uses the triumph as a metaphor for evangelising for Christ, our leader in the procession. Paul gives thanks to God for Christ, who, through us, spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Himself everywhere (verse 14).

MacArthur captures the eternal hope of that verse:

Don’t look at the circumstances. Don’t look at the difficulties. If you want to turn your discouragement into joy, look at your privileges. And you have the privilege of being led by the sovereign God who is involved in every detail of your life and ministry. Just the contemplation of the privilege of being led by the greatest Commander-in-Chief and being associated with the Lord Jesus Christ and being in the ranks of others who have served Him through the years also under His sovereign leadership should be enough to bring back the joy.

And then Paul gave thanks for a second thing: gave thanks for the privilege of promised victory in Christ. Not only the privilege of being associated with Jesus Christ under the sovereign leadership of God, but the privilege of promised victory with Jesus Christ. Look at it, verse 14: “God who always leads us in His triumph in Christ.” He’s not only always leading us, but He’s always leading us triumphantly. We’re always marching in the great parade. We can never lose. We follow the conquering Hero in the victory parade through life, not as captives, not as prisoners headed to judgment, but as co-conquerors in the great triumph over sin and death and hell.

It’s just wonderful to be a part of the triumphant parade, even if I just shot one guy over the corner and he was only barely wounded. It’s just wonderful to be associated with the victory, isn’t it? Jesus Christ is a conqueror, and in Him we are more than conquerors. And He came into the world, and He conquered sin and death and hell, and triumphantly He will march the redeemed troops into eternal glory, and you and I will be behind Him in His train as those who were with Him in the battle. And the issue is not how many we got, the issue is the triumph; and we’re swept up in the victory parade, we’re swept up in the glory moment.

Paul says that we are the aroma from Christ to God in equal measure to those who are alive in Him and to those who are condemned (verse 15).

For some, it is a fragrance of eternal death, and, for others, it is fragrance that gives eternal life; but who among us is able to convey the message alone (verse 16)?

Matthew Henry explains the effects of the Gospel on those who hear it:

The different success of the gospel, and its different effects upon several sorts of persons to whom it is preached. The success is different; for some are saved by it, while others perish under it. Nor is this to be wondered at, considering the different effects the gospel has. For, (1.) Unto some it is a savour of death unto death. Those who are willingly ignorant, and wilfully obstinate, disrelish the gospel, as men dislike an ill savour, and therefore they are blinded and hardened by it: it stirs up their corruptions, and exasperates their spirits. They reject the gospel, to their ruin, even to spiritual and eternal death. (2.) Unto others the gospel is a savour of life unto life. To humble and gracious souls the preaching of the word is most delightful and profitable. As it is sweeter than honey to the taste, so it is more grateful than the most precious odours to the senses, and much more profitable; for as it quickened them at first, when they were dead in trespasses and sins, so it makes them more lively, and will end in eternal life.

Henry also explores the sufficiency of the preacher of the Gospel. No one can do it alone. We require God’s help and grace to work through us:

Tis hikanos–who is worthy to be employed in such weighty work, a work of such vast importance, because of so great consequence? Who is able to perform such a difficult work, that requires so much skill and industry? The work is great and our strength is small; yea, of ourselves we have no strength at all; all our sufficiency is of God. Note, If men did seriously consider what great things depend upon the preaching of the gospel, and how difficult the work of the ministry is, they would be very cautious how they enter upon it, and very careful to perform it well.

Paul returns to the false teachers in the Corinthian church, calling them ‘peddlers’ of the market stall type: hawkers. He contrasts such men with himself and Titus, who preach with earnestness and sincerity, commissioned by God, always aware that they speak of Christ under the watchful eye of the Father (verse 17).

Henry says:

Though many did corrupt the word of God, yet the apostle’s conscience witnessed to his fidelity. He did not mix his own notions with the doctrines and institutions of Christ; he durst not add to, nor diminish from, the word of God; he was faithful in dispensing the gospel, as he received it from the Lord, and had no secular turn to serve; his aim was to approve himself to God, remembering that his eye was always upon him; he therefore spoke and acted always as in the sight of God, and therefore in sincerity. Note, What we do in religion is not of God, does not come from God, will not reach to God, unless it be done in sincerity, as in the sight of God.

What a wonderful passage, taking us from sharing Paul’s despair to his triumph in Christ.

Thus ends 2 Corinthians 2.

Much of 2 Corinthians 3 is in the Lectionary, but a short passage discusses ministry further. It has the same theme of eternal glory in Christ Jesus.

Next time — 2 Corinthians 3:7-11

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