A Sweet Savour of Christ

R North, Portsmouth

All quotations are from the Revised Version

Some Christians place all the emphasis on the spread of the Gospel; others place it on the welfare of the saints. The greatest hindrances to the progress of the Gospel are the lack of unity and spiritual progress on the part of the saints, together with the baneful practice of making merchandise of the Word of God from Paul’s day to our own. Paul went to Troas for the Gospel of Christ that was so dear to his heart, 2 Cor. 2. 12, but the absence of Titus with news of the spiritual condition of the saints at Corinth kept him in such a state of unrest that he left this open door and went into Macedonia. The immediate occasion for the outburst of praise and thanksgiving that follows was his meeting with Titus and the joyful news that he brought. Deferring his recital of the details until later in his letter, 7. 6-7, Paul’s heart characteristically and instantaneously expands to embrace all his ministry as he exclaims: ‘But thanks be unto God, which always leadeth us in triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest through us the savour of his knowledge in every place’, 2. 14.

The triumph was God’s, not Paul’s. It is characteristic of Paul to give God the glory. From the moment of his conversion Paul, who had been a bitter opponent of the Gospel, and had persecuted the church of God making havoc of it, counted it a transcendent honour to be led in triumph by such a glorious Victor, diffusing the savour of His knowledge in every place. The metaphor is taken from the triumphal procession of a victorious general; but, whereas in an ordinary triumph the captives had no share in the victory, here the willing captives led by God join in His triumph.

‘The savour of his knowledge’ is an allusion to the fragrance of incense floating over the triumphal procession, being scattered far and wide by the incense bearers, and rising from wayside altars along the route as the victor passed by. By a change of metaphor Paul regards himself and his fellow-workers as incense bearers. Wherever they went, the savour of the knowledge of God, as revealed in Christ, was made known.

The ‘sweet savour’ sacrifices in the Old Testament were called by this name in order to express their acceptability before God. To an infinitely higher degree was the giving up of Himself by Christ for us ‘an offering and a sacrifice to God for an odour of a sweet smell’, Eph. 5. 2. Similarly, the fragrance of the gifts of the saints in Philippi was ‘an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God’, Phil. 4. 18. Likewise Paul thought of his great mission in life as ‘a sweet savour of Christ unto God, in them that are being saved, and in them that are perishing; to the one a savour from death unto death; to the other a savour from life unto life’ (that is, an odour of death, ending in death; an odour of life, ending in life), 2 Cor. 2.15-16. Not only the message that we proclaim, but, Paul says, are a sweet savour of Christ unto God’.

In contemplating the eternal issues involved, no wonder he asks ‘And who is sufficient for these things?’. The answer is implied in verse 17, but sensing that his detractors may seize the opportunity of insinuating that he is beginning again to commend himself, he disclaims all self-sufficiency and declares ‘not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God’, 3. 5.

‘Corrupting the word of God’ combines the ideas of adulterating and making merchandise of it for the sake of base gain. Paul did not retail the Word of God, watering it down to suit his hearers, dispensing it so as to please men, or adulterating it for his own selfish ends. The preciousness of Christ to God was too real, and the consequences to his hearers were too serious, for Paul to be a mere pedlar of God’s Word like the ‘deceitful workers’ to whom he refers later in his letter, 11.13.

Note what he claims for himself and his co-workers:

  1. ‘but as of sincerity’; whose character will stand the test of the searching gaze of God; whose conscience bore witness ‘that in holiness and sincerity of God ... we behaved ourselves in the world and more abundantly to you-ward’, 1. 12; whose letters made it clear that he was not a burden on any man, 11. 9; who could say ‘I seek not yours, but you’, 12. 14.
  2. ‘but as of God’, hearing and speaking the words of God (cf. John 8. 47; 1 John 4. 6).
  3. ‘in the sight of God’, consciously in His presence and before His all-seeing eye, who proveth our hearts, 1 Thess. 2. 4.
  4. ‘speak we in Christ’, serving the interests of Christ and not promoting his own interests.

So may we, in days when adulteration of the pure Word of God abounds, count it our highest honour to be led in triumph in Christ, the savour of His knowledge being made manifest through us wherever we are. As the house at Bethany was filled with the odour of the ointment with which Mary anointed the feet of the Saviour, John 12. 3, so may we be a sweet savour of Christ unto God.