A Captive in Christ’s Triumphal Procession – 2 Corinthians 2:12-17

In contrast to the uncertainty Paul faced in his daily work, God is always leading him in a “triumphal procession” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16). Paul uses a series of metaphors to describe his ministry drawn from the Greco-Roman world. Paul uses a Latin loan-word (θριαμβεύω) which refers to the Roman military triumph. The same idea appears in Colossians 2:15, although Paul’s point is different there since God is leading the disarmed “powers and authorities.”

A Roman general who has conquered an enemy is given the honor of a “Triumph.” Like an American “ticker-tape parade,” virtually everyone in the culture knew what this event looked like, even if they never witnessed one themselves. This was a very special honor originally only granted by the Senate, but in imperial times the triumph was highly politicized in order to reinforce imperial authority and legitimacy.

During the triumph, the general wore a crown of laurel and a purple, gold-embroidered triumphal procession toga picta which identified him as near-divine or near-king. He rode a four-horse chariot, leading his army, captives and spoils war through the streets of Rome in unarmed procession. At Jupiter’s temple on the Capitoline Hill he offered sacrifice and the tokens of his victory to the god. The general was described as vir triumphalis (“man of triumph”) for the rest of his life.

At the time Paul wrote, had been no triumphs in Rome between the triumphal procession of Claudius for his conquest of Britain (A.D. 44, future Vespasian was awarded triumphal regalia as the general during this campaign); Titus will be awarded a triumph after his destruction of Jerusalem in 70 (and also a Triumphal Arch built by Domitian in 83). Even though Claudius’s triumph was more than ten years past, the imagery would have been clear in everyone’s mind. Roman power was on display in order to demonstrate to the entire empire how powerful the emperor and the empire was.

Is Paul using this metaphor in a positive sense (he is riding along with Jesus as the victorious conqueror) or is he a captive slave being led to his death? It is possible to argue both ways, but it the context Paul has been describing his dishonor as a suffering servant of Jesus (1:8, the “troubles in Asia” and later, 12:7, his “thorn in the flesh”).

Paul’s opponents in Corinth would expect to be sitting in a place of prominence in Jesus’ triumph over his enemies, but Paul pictures himself ironically as a capture slave being led away to his death!

The fragrance of the sacrifices in this triumph is the “knowledge of God.” A “fragrance” sounds positive, but the Greek word (ὀσμή) can refer to a pleasing odor or a stench. In v. 15 it is used for the positive “fragrance of life” and negative “odor of death.”  Paul’s ministry is to preach the Gospel of the Grace of God, a pleasant thing for those who accept Christ and pass from death to life, but a stench to those who reject it since the same knowledge of God condemns them.

Ralph Martin points out similar rabbinical views of the Torah. In b.Yoma 72b, the Torah is like medicine, which can heal or can be a deadly poison. For the Jewish people, the Torah is an elixir of life, but for the Gentiles is it is a poison. As with any use of the Talmud in New Testament studies, there are potential problems with dating this tradition, and it must be proven that one can move from an odor to a medicine for this analogy to really work.

To me, it is better to stay within the world of Paul’s metaphor, a sacrifice. The sacrifice might produce an odor that pleases the god, or offends the god. If the sacrifice pleases the god then the worshiper will find favor, if they offend the god they are in grave danger.

In the context, the sacrifice is Jesus’s death on the cross, which Paul describes as a “pleasing aroma” (εὐωδία, the same word for odor with “good” prefixed). This word is used in the Septuagint frequently for pleasing sacrifices to God. For example, in Genesis 8:21 Noah’s sacrifice after the flood pleases the Lord (רֵיחַ הַנִּיחוֹחַ). Paul calls the sacrifice of Christ on the cross a pleasing aroma in Philippians 4:18 and Ephesians 5:2 as well, but here Paul and his fellow workers are the “pleasing aroma.”

From a Greco-Roman perspective it would be shocking to describe a crucifixion as a sacrifice and even more shocking as a sacrifice which pleases God. This is counter-cultural and another example of God choosing a foolish thing from the perspective of the world to reveal his plan of salvation.

6 thoughts on “A Captive in Christ’s Triumphal Procession – 2 Corinthians 2:12-17

  1. Throughout reading this blog post what comes to mind is the world we live in and the violence that takes place. For example, the several school shootings we have had at least in the years I have been alive. Perhaps September 11, 2001 could fit in this category also. The individuals who caused 9/11 and murdered themselves along with the hostages misinterpreted what a “triumph” is. They thought they were successful in killing and causing so much damage. A lot of the time people have a different perspective on what triumph means. For Paul it was serving the Lord and obeying what He was called to do. In 2 Corinthians 2:12-17 Paul discusses the triumphal procession and spreading the fragrance of knowledge everywhere. The metaphor he uses is different, but it is true. As we are spread like an aroma, a fragrance around the world, it is in a positive aspect, not negative.
    The darkness that is in this world is considered a bad aroma. People that think they are doing good are causing more trouble. I think that is why God chose Paul and used him to travel all around. Another perspective is that Paul was Saul and Saul was not a good example of a sweet aroma. God changed his name and his whole world. Paul is such a good example of being renewed and made new by Christ. We need to be sincere and speak in Christ as we have been called. As scripture calls us to be the salt and light of the world. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14). Loving others but trying to change hearts and minds from the darkness, the violence. Regarding Paul’s metaphor, I think he uses it in a positive way. His metaphor allows for a better understanding of who God has called us to be.

    • Danielle, good job on your blog post this week. I liked your example of Paul being Saul and having two different aromas. I think this idea of aroma stands true today. As Christians we have the power of aroma, whether it is good or bad. For example, we could be like the “super-apostles” who claimed to be Christians yet still caused confusion and trouble for Paul in order to receive own self-gain (Longenecker, pg. 152). Or we could be like Paul who birthed churches, spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth. When it comes down to it, our aroma all depends on whether we truly want to live for Christ or for ourselves. P Long explains in his blog that Paul is using a metaphor of Jesus dying on the cross and that it is a “pleasing aroma”. Obviously, this would be the most pleasing aroma of all since it is the base of our faith. 1 Peter 3:18 “For Christ died for sin once and for all, a good man on behalf of sinners, in order to lead you to God. He was put to death physically, but made alive spiritually.” However, can you think of any ways we as Christians can let off such a pleasing aroma? Maybe we could give more to missionaries, or help Christian organizations by volunteering? It is funny because everything you can think of doesn’t seem to compare to the pleasing aroma of Jesus dying on the cross but, in the end, I don’t think God cares about that. God knew what Jesus was called to do and He knows what we are called to do (Jeremiah 29:11). Therefore, we shouldn’t worry about how “big” or “pleasing” our aroma is, rather, we should just be considered with whether it is a pleasing or non-pleasing aroma to God.

    • Great job, Danielle! I had truly not thought about the aroma as two-sided within the same person, Paul. I realize that the aromas are simply a symbolism for the way someone accepts the gospel. Paul thanks God for leading them in triumphal procession through Christ (2 Cor. 2:14a). As you mentioned, he writes that we are vessels used to spread the fragrance of the knowledge of God everywhere (2 Cor. 2:14b. As a Latina, fragrances are part of everyday culture. Women will wear their signature scents, and men will always make sure they smell amazing when they leave. Delicious scents are very attractive and sometimes can cause a man and a woman to speak even though they may not have spoken before. Aromas are used before to symbolize satisfaction in the eyes of God. In Ephesians 5:1-2, Paul or a close companion of Paul wrote that walking in love, “as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” is a fragrant offering or a sacrifice to God, (Longenecker & Todd, 2014, p. 244, 254). Isaiah 39:2 shows a similar positive association with spices and precious oils. In the cultural context, everyone would have associated great smells with positive and bad scents with negatives.
      In our culture, if a scent is too harsh (or bleh) or too strong, it can cause headaches and even nausea. Something that I learned in the USA is that many people are actually allergic to fragrances of any kind meaning that doctors and nurses or anyone working in that field is not allowed to wear perfumes or even lotions that have perfume. There is no distinction between “good” and “bad” within the medical field since all may potentially hurt the patients. In this case, the perfume is toxic to them even though for me, perfume is something amazing. Likewise, even if the “aroma” of the gospel is good, people who were “allergic” due to their spiritual lives did not believe it to be the case. Paul says that the good news is poison to those who are not uplifted by the gospel but for the Jews (we are supposing here that the Jews find the aroma pleasant), it is a good fragrance (Long 2019). This idea can be found in the OT before Paul’s time. In Proverbs, Solomon writes, “Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the good sense of your words,” (Proverbs 23:9). For me, what Paul is saying is similar to this verse because it is not necessarily Jews and Gentiles that may find the gospel toxic. Those whose hearts are not prepared to hear it seems to be the ones that may hate it the most.

  2. We have learned that Paul is uncomfortable with boasting because he believes it goes contrary to the gospel that he wants people to learn (Longenecker & Todd, 2014, p. 151). Paul explains that if he must boast, he will boast in his weakness where Christ can be glorified (2 Cor 12:9). In his weakness, he is able to see God and trust him further, which in return, makes him strong through God’s grace. In later chapters, Paul deals with “infiltrators” of the Christian communities that wanted to create tension and deviate the people from Paul’s teachings, (Longenecker & Todd, 2014, p. 153). In this, Paul corrects the teachings and deals with the repercussions of outside influence within the church, (Longenecker & Todd, 2014, p. 152). Paul had a lot to deal but when it came to deciding between traditional culture versus Christ, Paul chose Christ and often explained his reasoning. He always pointed back to Jesus even when dealing with the infiltrators. Paul did not follow the culture of the day and made sure to constantly lead his followers to Christ. His focus and gospel of Christ, “even in its lack of ‘worldly’ credentials, is the vehicle through which the power of the creator God is made accessible,” (Longenecker & Todd, 2014, 152). Due to this, if Paul describes his dishonor as a suffering servant of Jesus, is that not a way of going against the culture in his time where “honor” is simply a cultural term of power? Then, dishonor in the culture could be honor in Christ as weakness in the culture was strength in Christ. If the context is a “suffering servant of Jesus” (Long 2019), then this could be an example of Paul boasting in his weaknesses. It seems to me that both sides would be positive. Whether Paul rides next to Jesus who is a victorious conqueror which is quite obviously positive or if Paul is led to his death within the eternal perspective, both appear to be positive (I may be wrong). In Philippians 1:21, Paul writes “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Paul eagerly expects hope in Christ and prays that he will have enough courage so that no matter what, Christ will be exalted through him (Longenecker & Todd, 2014, p. 204). Thus, whether Jesus leads in triumphal procession with him or whether he is a suffering servant being led to death, Paul’s number one concern is whether he is glorifying God through it all.

  3. Before today, I had not considered the possibility that Paul’s metaphor of the triumphal parade could be referring to himself as a captive rather than a proud ally of the victor. Although the context of the concept does indicate that Paul’s suffering is a sign of his victory, I still read the triumph metaphor as placing Paul among the group of victors. Looking at both interpretations, I favor neither one of them, if anything, I think I am inclined to argue that Paul intends both meanings. We see this pattern of victory in loss throughout the Bible. You use the example of the crucifixion becoming an image of hope. The cross (a torture instrument) becomes a symbol of Christ. It reflects the message of the Gospel in a sense. Death is defeated through the death of Jesus. Christ’s death is victory. The Messiah was supposed to be a conqueror and overthrow Rome, instead he was a teacher nailed to the cross who came from humble beginnings. Nothing about the Gospel is straightforward. And it means that Paul’s sufferings only further prove his status as a true apostle of Jesus Christ.

  4. I learned about Paul’s metaphor for a triumphal procession this summer at camp when we were going through the book of 2 Corinthians as a staff. The difference was that the person who described it at camp said that the fragrance was the believers in the triumphal procession. I thought that the fragrance that is referenced was the cross, but I was told that I was wrong. So, I am glad that I might be at least a little right. I love how the Bible uses things that would be seen differently by the culture to talk about the death and resurrection of Christ. To me, it is not hard to understand the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice. That’s why it is hard for me to see the struggle to understand that it was hard for them to see that. But in the context, they would never think that a hero would sacrifice himself for those who are less than them. I also love the idea of the “aroma” that surrounds Jesus being life to life for the believer and death to death for the unbeliever. Those who hear the gospel either respond in a way that brings them to life, or they respond in their ignorance to deny the life that they hear and it only smells of death. God has given the world chances to smell the fragrance and believe, but unless he steps in to have them be brought to life, they will only smell the fragrance of death.

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