“But thanks be to God, who always leads us in His triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.” (II Corinthians 2:14)
Scripture ransacks the human language from many lands in its search for ways of conveying the fullness of the salvation which is in Jesus Christ.
At the end of the day, no doubt, the writers (who, of course, had no idea they were writing Holy Scripture) must have laid down their styluses (stylii?) in frustration at their total inability to begin describing all God has done for us in Him. As one said, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high; I cannot attain to it” (Psalm 139:6).
When the Apostle Paul wrote the Greek believers in Corinth of the triumph which is ours in Christ, he had a particular image in mind, one completely foreign to us, but which offers fascinating insights.
He had in mind a triumphal procession given to Roman generals after a great victory overseas on their return to Rome.
Over forty years ago, I discovered and delighted in the description and discussion of this from William Barclay in his commentary. Rather than regurgitate it in my own words, I want to quote him verbatim, then make a few comments.
Keep in mind: the text is II Corinthians 2:14-16. You will want to read that before continuing in order to grasp Barclay’s wonderful insights.
All right, then. Here is William Barclay….
Verses 14 through 16 are difficult to understand by themselves, but when they are set against the background which was in Paul’s thoughts they become a vivid picture. Paul speaks of being led in the train of the triumph of Christ; and then he goes on to speak of being the sweet scent of Christ to men, a perfume which to some is the perfume of death and to others the perfume of life.
In Paul’s mind there is the picture of a Roman Triumph and of Christ as a universal conqueror. The highest honor which could be given to a victorious Roman general was a Triumph. Before he could win it, he must satisfy certain conditions.
1) He must have been the actual commander-in-chief in the field.
2) The campaign must have been completely finished, the region pacified, and the victorious troops brought home.
3) Five thousand of the enemy at least must have fallen in one engagement.
4) A positive extension of territory must have been gained, and not merely a disaster retrieved or an attack repelled.
5) And the victory must have been won over a foreign foe and not in a civil war.
(Let me interrupt here for a second. In a biography of Cicero, the famous Roman senator, the author spoke of how generals in the field clamored to have their tiny victories celebrated in Rome as “Triumphs.” As Barclay said, most generals would never have such a grand parade given in their honor and those who did might be honored only once in a lifetime. This was a big, big deal.)
In an actual Triumph the procession of the victorious general marched through the streets of Rome to the Capitol in the following order:
First, there came the state officials and the senate.
Then there came the trumpeters.
Then, there were carried the spoils taken from the conquered land. For instance, when Titus conquered Jerusalem the seven-branched candlestick, the golden table of the shew-bread and the golden trumpets were carried through the streets of Rome.
Then there came pictures of the conquered land and models of conquered citadels and ships.
There followed the white bull for the sacrifice which would be made.
Then there walked the wretched captives, the enemy princes, leaders and generals in chains, shortly to be flung into prison and in all probability almost immediately to be executed.
Then there came the lictors bearing their rods, followed by musicians with their lyres.
Then there came the priests swinging their censers with the sweet-smelling incense burning in them.
And then there came the general himself. He stood in the chariot drawn by four horses. He was clad in a purple tunic embroidered with golden palm leaves, and over it a purple toga marked out with golden stars. In his hand he held an ivory sceptre with the Roman eagle at the top of it, and over his head a slave held the crown of Jupiter.
After him there rode his family.
Finally, there came the army wearing all their decorations and shouting “lo triumphe!” their cry of triumph.
As the procession moved through the streets, all decorated and garlanded, amid the shouting, cheering crowds, it was a tremendous day, a day which might happen only once in a lifetime.
That is the picture that is in Paul’s mind. He sees the conquering Christ marching in triumph throughout the world, and himself in that conquering train. It is a triumph which, Paul is certain, nothing can stop.
We have seen how in that procession there were the priests swinging the incense-filled censers. Now to the general and to the victors the perfume from the censers would be the perfume of joy and triumph and life; but to the wretched captives who walked so short a distance ahead it was the perfume of death, for it stood for the past defeat and their coming execution.
So Paul thinks of himself and his fellow apostles preaching the gospel of the triumphant Christ. To those who will accept it, it is the perfume of life, as it was to the victors; to those who refuse it, it is the perfume of death as it was to the vanquished.
Of one thing Paul was certain–not all the world could defeat Christ. He lived not in pessimistic fear, but in the glorious optimism which knew the unconquerable majesty of Christ.
There! I thought you would appreciate that! (They used to say of Alexander MacLaren that, after reading his sermon, you would either use his outline or take another text. That’s how many feel about Barclay’s writings here.)
Turn back a couple of pages in your Bible and you will land at I Corinthians 15, that majestic chapter devoted to a celebration of the resurrection, first of Jesus Himself, then of all who belong to Him. Toward the end, Paul seems to evoke the same image of the Roman Triumph when he says:
“Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (I Cor. 15:57)
Perhaps he envisions a day when just such a parade will be given through the gates of Heaven, with the Lord’s hosts standing on the streets cheering, while the Lord Jesus rides His flaming chariot bringing with Him all the redeemed. I want to be in that number when the Saints go marching in.
So, let there be no defeatism, Christian. No sitting on the bench while the play goes forward on the field with your head hung low as though the enemy were carrying the day. You are more than conquerors through Him who loved you! (Romans 8:37)
Sports fans will recognize that image. Just yesterday, I heard on sports radio that last Sunday, Carolina Panthers running back Steve Smith, a star on that team for years, rebuked his young quarterback Cam Newton for sitting on the bench with his head low and his facial expression registering defeat.
Is there cause for concern in our world these days? You bet. In a letter from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Franklin Graham writes: “It is clear that America is quickly hurtling down a road toward God’s judgment.”
Graham writes of a political convention which took place a few blocks from the BGEA offices in Charlotte in which the great majority of delegates opposed the inclusion of even the mention of “God” in their platform. He says, “This all happened on national television, and it sent goose bumps up my spine and shock waves across America. When the Prophet Jeremiah warned the Judeans of impending Babylonian captivity, he repeatedly reminded them that their exile would take place because they had forgotten God (Jeremiah 2:32; 3:21; 13:25; 18:15).”
But, as Paul said, “We (may be) cast down, but we will not despair!” (II Corinthians 4:8-9). We are more than conquerors. Christ leads us in His triumph. He gives us the victory.
“Lift up your heads! Your redemption draweth night!” (See Luke 21:28)
In the Life Application Commentary on Luke 21:28, we read: “Watch what happens when someone wins a gold medal in an athletic competition: she throws her hands in the air and lifts her face. It is so universal that it almost seems part of being human. Victory, or celebration of any kind, causes people to lift up their heads. Conversely, defeat or sorrow makes one’s countenance fall. Jesus said these signs of the times would be reason to “stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” As frightful as some of those signs will be, Christians need not cower and feel cast down…. Does your faith cause you to walk around with your head lifted up, or your face downcast? If you belong to Jesus, hold your head up. He’s coming back for you.”
“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” (I Cor. 15:58).
Amen. Even so, come Lord Jesus.