Paul’s introductory words of his second letter to the Corinthians reveals something of the nature of his ministry. He describes this ministry in terms such as, “affliction, suffering, sentence of death, deadly peril, distractions, painful, anguish, tears, punishment, sorrow, and discouragement.” It is difficult then to apprehend Paul’s summation of this ministry, when he writes,
“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.” 2 Corinthians 2: 14
I stare in awe of Paul’s words. Here, I want to yell, “Paul! Wake up! Your delusional!” “They have beaten you and chased you out of most of the cities of the known world!” “They’re hunting for you right now to throw you in prison and execute you!” “What triumphal procession?”
Paul’s description of his ministry of suffering was very accurate. We need only read the records of it in the Acts and through his letters.
“Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea…” 2 Corinthians 11
Yet he sees everything going just as planned. More than that. Just as when a Roman enemy had been defeated and the leaders celebrated, Paul insists the Gospel is being victoriously paraded in triumph. He is not hoping that someday his ministry will impact someone (although it has and will); he is basking in victory! He describes his ministry of suffering as a festive parade marching through the streets.
But then Paul knows an amazing truth. It’s a truth I should strive to learn. Paul knows that “in Christ,” victory comes in many shapes and forms, but it is always victory.
Paul has managed to see beyond the circumstances of a world at odds with his Lord. He sees the Gospel going forth and fruit being produced, and for him, that spells triumph. It’s not that his countenance is not affected by his suffering (see his letters to Timothy), it is that he has his eyes on a greater prize.
Paul was not caught off guard by his suffering. He heard the words of Jesus to him through Ananias, “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of My name” (Acts 9:16).
It has been said that we are most like our Lord when we are willing to suffer for His name. Paul seems to concur with that thought as he associates this triumphal procession with a pleasant aroma to God. He says, “…and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of Him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God…” Referencing the Old Covenant sacrificial system, Paul relates that his suffering for Christ identified him with Jesus. The satisfying aroma of Jesus’ sacrifice (the Gospel) flowed through Paul and produced a pleasant fragrance before God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Suffering then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his Master… That is why Luther reckoned suffering among the marks of the true Church. Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer. In fact, it is a joy and token of His grace.”
While many throughout history have, most will never be called to face the degree of suffering that Paul endured. Still, Paul prepares us with his words to Timothy.
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).