Believers on Display

Two people who witness the same occurrence may describe that experience very differently. If you talk to two people who witnessed an accident it may sound like they could not possibly have seen the same thing.

It is that way in all of life. Some people view trials as a curse, others see them as an opportunity. Likewise, some view the Christian life as a “burden to carry”, while others view it as a privilege to celebrate. The question to ponder this morning is: Which kind of person are you?

We can see from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians that Paul was a man who looked at life from a positive perspective. Even the hardships were seen by Paul as opportunities to prove God’s sufficiency and a chance for Paul to serve God more faithfully. Instead of dwelling on the hurts that were committed against him Paul focused on the opportunity to extend forgiveness as a representative of Christ.

In the short section of 2 Corinthians 2:14-17 Paul gives us three vivid word pictures that will help us to see with the eyes of faith rather than the eyes of defeat.

14 But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. 15 Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. 16 To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume. And who is adequate for such a task as this?

17 You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us. (2 Corinthians 2:14-17)

Picture #1: Led in Triumphant Procession

In small communities we are familiar with celebrations for victorious teams. We honor those who return with state trophies. You have perhaps witnessed celebrations in Chicago or St. Louis for professional championships. These always involve team members parading in front of people who cheer for them.

The picture Paul gives us is similar to that. In this case it was a picture of General coming home from war in victory. There were certain conditions Roman Generals had to meet to get a parade. First, you had to be the actual commander in the field, the war had to be over and the troops brought home, at least 5000 of the enemy must have been killed and the territory of the Kingdom must have expanded.

If these conditions were met the parade would include state officials, trumpeters, and some of the spoils of war would be displayed. The parade might include models of the conquered people or lands. Then the parade would include captive princes, generals and leaders who would be in chains who would soon be put in prison or forced to face the wild beasts in the coliseum (so it was not a good parade for these people). Then priests would follow swinging their incense and finally the general himself in a chariot drawn by four horses (kind of like Santa Claus in a Christmas Parade). He was followed by family and the members of the army. The parade was greeted exuberantly by all the citizens.

Paul says, “He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession”. The New Living Translation is actually making an interpretation here. Scholars debate whether Paul sees believers as those who were enemies of God who were conquered by God’s grace and are now His servants (one of Paul’s favorite designation is to call Himself a slave or servant of Christ); or whether he sees us as part of the Lord’s victorious army privileged to enjoy His certain victory with Him over our enemies, our sin, and our weaknesses.

Either picture works. The thing to see is that the Lord is victorious and His victory has impacted our lives. Max Lucado draws on this picture with these words,

The triumph of Christ is not temporary. “Triumphant in Christ” is not an event or an occasion. It’s not fleeting. To be triumphant in Christ is a lifestyle … a state of being! To triumph in Christ is not something we do, it’s something we are.

Here is the big difference between victory in Christ and victory in the world: A victor in the world rejoices over something he did—swimming the English Channel, climbing Everest, making a million. But the believer rejoices over who he is—a child of God, a forgiven sinner, an heir of eternity. As the hymn goes, “… heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.”[1]

This is a great picture to keep in mind as we do battle in the world: We are heirs of salvation. We are assured ultimate victory. Soldiers fight much more valiantly if they believe in the cause for which they fight. In the history of our country many have willingly given up their lives in battle because they believed the cause of freedom was worth the sacrifice. This should be our motivation as well. We are fighting a battle for the Kingdom of our God. It is the battle that is worth fighting. Any sacrifice is worth it in this battle. We will see this theme again and again in this letter by Paul. He reminds us that the trials of life may be painful but we need to endure them as necessary sacrifices for a greater purpose.

Picture #2: An Aroma

The second word picture Paul uses to describe the believer is that we “we spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God.” (2 Corinthians 2:14-15).

There are lots of smells which get our attention: a dead skunk on the road, something burning, cigarette or cigar smoke, or wet animals. All these are negative smells. But consider the smell of coffee in the morning, or the smell of Cinnamon rolls, popcorn at the movie theater, or a fresh pizza just out of the oven. These smells captivate us with positive thoughts and desires.

When a Roman General experienced a great victory of a prescribed magnitude, they were granted a parade, one part of the procession was priests burning incense. To the people of Rome, the smell of incense had become the smell of victory and triumph. Paul says that we are like the incense in the parade—as we live out our lives, people should associate how we live with Jesus Christ.

Jesus painted a similar image for us in the Sermon on the Mount,

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless.

14 “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. 15 No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.

Jesus uses the images of salt and light but the idea is the same: Followers of Christ are meant to impact the world around them just as Jesus did.

Paul warns us that not everyone is going to like what they smell in the believer. What some people find attractive others will find repulsive. Some people respond to the fragrance of Christ as a life-giving perfume. They are drawn to the message. When they hear the message of God’s mercy and grace they embrace it. They are grateful for the news that they have been forgiven by the work of Christ. Hopefully you are among those people.

For these people every time we hear the message of the gospel; every time we are reminded of the truth of God’s love it is a fragrance that reminds us of life and the blessing of God. Think of it like the smell sometimes of aftershave. Have you ever heard someone say, “You smell like my dad” (in the good way)? The smell of a familiar aftershave stirs up good memories. So, when we walk in the way of Christ, we stir up good memories in some and some are drawn to Jesus like a person is drawn to the concession counter by the smell of popcorn at a movie.

But there will be others who do not like what they smell. The message of God’s love, His Sovereignty and His declaration that we cannot be made right with God apart from Christ offends them. The call of Christ is a call to change the direction of their life (to repent). It requires that they abandon all hope of saving themselves. There are some people who do not want to hear that message. They don’t want to submit to anyone. They want to live as they want to live so the implied message of accountability and Judgment in the gospel is one that these people hate.

People who hate the message of salvation through Christ alone are also going to hate those who proclaim that message. We can’t do anything about this. What we can do is make sure that people are responding to the message and not our presentation of the message. In other words, we must make sure we are speaking out of love and trying to show the love of Christ as we live our lives.

Picture #3: Religious Hucksters

The third word picture that Paul uses is a contrast. He says,

17 You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us.

There are many reasons people claim to be Christians. Some do so to fit in with those around them.  In communities where “good people go to church” people may go to church to be viewed as one of the “good people”.

Some claim to be Christians because they think this is the way they can earn Heaven. They believe if they push the right buttons or “follow the right combination” they will be approved by God and will go to Heaven when they die.

There are still others who claim to be Christians to gain an edge financially. They may want to build their business, they might want to make important contacts, they might want to get into a church where they know certain people can help them reach their goals. In other words, they call themselves Christians because they hope it will further their careers.

My point is that people follow Christ (or at least claim to follow Christ) for different reasons. All of these people in some respect could be seen as “hucksters”, those who engage in showy acts to gain something.

Paul is not saying we should be like hucksters, in this picture he holds up the negative  picture of what we should be. In other words, rather than being people who serve Christ and proclaim Him to others out of ulterior motives, we should speak of Christ sincerely. We should speak what He tells us to speak (rather than fashioning the message to suit our purposes). And we should do so not worrying about how someone else is going to think or respond to US . . .we should only be concerned about telling them the truth.

Paul is primarily thinking about preachers or Pastors. He recognizes that are some Pastor’s who serve for the wrong reasons. They are really serving themselves rather than the Lord. I have known people who wanted to Pastor a church because: they thought it would be an easy job, or they liked the idea of standing up in front of everyone else. Some enjoy the drama of preaching. They are performers at heart and the church platform gives them a stage on which to perform. Some see a chance to make money, some just want to “help people”. Some Pastors tell everyone that the riches they have are the proof that God approves of their ministry!  It’s a scam!

We should be concerned about “hucksterism”

  • When we try to reach out because we need bigger offerings.
  • When we are willing to go into great debt to build something that will make us look good.
  • When we compete with other churches to be “the biggest church”
  • When we measure success by numbers rather than by faithfulness
  • When we begin to feel that we should control aspects of the lives of others.

Pastor A.W. Tozer describes one such experience,

I sat listening to a preacher one time, and right across from me was a young woman, maybe 22 or 23 years old. The only reason I noticed her was that she had on a pair of glass shoes. The preacher went on preaching, and he never, as far as I remember, said anything about the Lord. But he did tell us all about his father and his mother and how his father left home and the whole story. I watched this woman, then I would watch the preacher and then look at her again. At first she could not have cared less, but slowly he got hold of her. When it came to the point where the evangelist said in a tremulous voice that every time he faced an audience he hoped that his old father might be there, the girl broke down and went to pieces. From that moment she was eating out of his hand. He knew how to handle her psychologically. He got her, and she would have done anything for him.[2]

We respond to things emotionally all the time. We may be brought to tears by music, a movie, a great story or the singing of the National Anthem. I hope you respond emotionally sometimes to the message of the gospel. It’s appropriate. What made this man a huckster was that he claimed to be teaching the Word of God but was really just playing to the emotions. He was leading the listeners to think they were responding to God, when they were really just responding to stimuli.

Paul calls us to sincerity, to Biblical honesty, and to methods which honor the Lord.

Conclusion: A Staggering Reality/A Clear Commission

Paul has used three images to draw a picture of the Christian life for us:

  1. We are like those led in a Celebratory Parade
  2. We are a Clear Aroma (either good or bad to the world)
  3. We proclaim the message unselfishly seeking to honor Christ and reach others

They are marvelous pictures but they lead us to ask the same question Paul asked in verse 16:

And who is adequate for such a task as this?

The short answer of course is: no one . . . at least not in our own strength.  I am stunned by how God uses so many broken people. As you read through the pages of people you see brokenness everywhere. As you listen to the best Christian songwriters you discover that they sing from out of their pain. Perhaps their message is so powerful because they have learned that the answer is not found in them, but in Christ.

We don’t choose to join the processional; we are made a part of the parade by God’s rich mercy and grace. We can’t produce a God-pleasing aroma in our own strength. We can only make a stink! It is only as Christ begins to live in us and through us that we can see His influence in and through our lives. And finally, until God changes our hearts we will always ask the same question when it comes to serving the Lord: What’s in it for me? We naturally lean toward “hucksterism” until we see that true joy comes not from exalting ourselves but in losing ourselves in Him.

What Paul has done is give us a picture of the goal. He shows us what God has planned for us and invites to embrace it. We are invited to tell the world about Jesus. It is our honor and our delight to tell others about the forgiveness we have found and to invite everyone to be part of God’s wonderful family. We do not say to people, “Be like me and your life will be better”. No, what we say is: Come to Jesus with the broken pieces of your life and watch Him construct in you something that will blow your mind.

There is no higher privilege and no greater calling in life.

[1] Lucado, M. (1985). On the anvil (p. 154). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

[2] Tozer, A. W., & Eggert, R. (1998). The Tozer Topical Reader (Vol. 2, p. 108). Camp Hill, PA: WingSpread.

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