Everywhere one turns in the New Testament there appears kingdom imagery. It is as though we are intended to become so immersed in its presence and glory that we are not really conscious of being in it, but to simply live in it, using its blessings as naturally as one breathes air without being conscious of it being there. Then there are other pointed reminders of its splendor and glory such as the following exultant remark by the apostle Paul …
This verse serves as a counterpoint to the picture we looked at in our last two posts where Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Philippi and allows them to glimpse something of what they would be facing as his kingdom ambassadors. They would have seen the sordid spectacle of idolatry and the kingdom founded on it as well as the demonstration of rule by brute force as exemplified by Roman military might. It was as though Jesus was saying to them, “This is what you are going to be up against when you begin preaching the kingdom of God.”
The apostle Paul was one who, perhaps more than any other of the apostles, would have seen and experienced the power of the things to which Jesus exposed his original apostles in that brief excursion. In 2 Cor. 11:23-33 he gives an extensive list of the things he suffered for the sake of having preached the gospel of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Yet it was this same man who wrote the verse quoted above.
The idea of a triumphal procession was that of a conquering king leading his armies home following a successful military campaign. Long before they came within the gates of the capital city, citizens would meet him with cheers and celebration. The roadway would be lined with people rejoicing for the victory of the king over his enemies. All along the way there would be garlands of flowers and burning incense giving off a veritable cloud of fragrance. Paul compares the kingdom citizens to that rejoicing crowd who through their praise of the king “spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.”
Jesus had commissioned his followers in Matthew 28:19-20 that as they were going into the world they were to “make disciples of all nations” and after baptizing these disciples to teach them “to observe all that I have commanded you.” The making of disciples required the imparting of a certain kind of knowledge. It is the same knowledge Jesus offered in his “great invitation” of Matthew 11:29 where Jesus offers the knowledge of himself as the remedy for the burdens of life and legalistic religion. Many mistakenly interpret this as an invitation to learn lessons from Jesus – to receive a body of knowledge he is seeking to impart to them – a body of knowledge about the secrets of successful living in the world. Actually the subject matter is not a broad curriculum of doctrines but of the person of Jesus. “Take my yoke on you, and learn of me that I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matthew 11:29 (GNV). This makes it plain that the subject matter is Jesus and not a course of instruction he was offering in his rabbinic school. I really like the way the modern paraphrase The Message has this invitation from Jesus.
Matthew 11:28-30 (MSG) “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
This is what it means to become a disciple of a rabbi! This was the knowledge Paul so longed for.
Philippians 3:8-11 “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
When we have the kind of knowledge of Christ that Paul spoke of and so desired we will internalize that knowledge and will take on his image. In our life – in everything we do – instead of seeing us, people will see the likeness of Christ. We will radiate the fragrance of life as God always intended it to be lived.
Paul expands on this idea of the Christian’s life being the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ in 2 Corinthians 2:15 …
“For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?”
He says we are the “aroma of Christ” to both those who are being saved and to those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, those who exult in or who rejoice over the victory of Christ are the aroma of death that leads to or produces death. How is that so?
If we may return to the imagery the apostle is employing in this passage it will help us understand the point he is making. Still using the figure of a conquering hero returning to his capital amidst the praise and adulation of his adoring citizens, Paul now introduces another element that often was a part of such a triumphal return of a conqueror. Such processions often included some of the conquered enemies, perhaps the king, perhaps one or more military figures, who were made a public spectacle and then executed. Jesus and his people are not seen by the conquered enemies who are also being led along in this procession as a source of rejoicing. They are on their way to their own execution! The conquered know by the swelling throng and the increasing pungency of the cloud of perfume that they are nearing their end! Just so, the world knows by the evident likeness of Christians to their Savior that their judgment is sure! Christians are judging the world by their righteous lives and deeds done in the likeness of Jesus.
The apostle then asks a very pointed and pertinent question; “Who is sufficient for these things?” The answer, of course, is that none of us, neither apostles nor anyone else, are sufficient within ourselves for this great responsibility. Paul continues the thought and answers this question in chapter 3:5-6 …
The apostles were the special ambassadors of Christ to the world. But in a broader, more general sense, every Christian represents our King and his kingdom. We are like citizens of a country traveling in a foreign land. Their homeland, their society, will be judged by the residents of their host country.
Christians are pilgrims, traveling to our ultimate home. We would like to have, not only the good will of the people among whom we sojourn, but would like even more to have them claim citizenship in the heavenly kingdom and come with us on our journey to that “better country.” If those people do not receive a favorable impression of what kind of place it is to which we are going and what kind of people live in that distant country, they very likely will not desire to go there. But if they can see in us the beauty of the land we call home and the desirability of living under the government of the great King, then we will have fulfilled our role as ambassadors for Christ. But even if they do not recognize the desirability of the Lord’s rule due to their own skewed values or limited vision, we still will have done our duty as citizens of the Kingdom.