In modern parlance, the word, “triumph,” indicates an outstanding success or achievement: a victory of one kind or another. Mostly forgotten is the ancient origin of the word, for “triumph” is directly from the latin, “triumphus,” and was the name given to a celebration in honor of a general who had led Roman troops to victory, especially in a foreign war. This celebration would entail a parade, with the victorious general arrayed in garments signifying divinity, riding through Rome in a chariot drawn by four horses. Accompanying the general would be his army, as well as a string of captives. Some of these captives would be publicly executed for their crimes against the Republic of Rome. Others would be magnanimously granted their freedom. As well, in the parade, there would be incense bearers, spreading various choice fragrances along the length of the march so that the procession was not only pleasing to the eyes, but to the nose as well.
The apostle Paul, in writing to the Corinthian church concerning his work to spread the gospel of Christ to the world, uses the imagery of the Roman Triumph to stir the imagination of his readers, and so still today, as we read the passage, if we understand the reference, we better appreciate the message.
“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. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? (2 Corinthians 2:14-16; ESV)”
Though we sometimes thing of Christianity as a spiritual battle between good and evil (cf. Ephesians 6:12), it is just as legitimate to recognize that the real battle has already been fought and Christ has unequivocally overcome. Like a general making a foray into enemy territory, Jesus took on flesh and came to this world, leaving His heavenly abode. Here, through His righteousness and the power of God, He died for the sins of His enemies, and rose from the dead, thus destroying the power of the evil one and freeing men from the fear of death (cf. Hebrews 2:14-15). Then, victorious, He returned to the Father, where He abides now, exalted on high.
Thus does the apostle liken the Christian faith, not to a battle to be fought, but to a parade celebrating the victory of Christ: a Triumph. And as Paul brings forth this imagery, he likens his own work as a minister of the Gospel to that of the incense bearer in such a parade, spreading the “fragrance of the knowledge” of Christ throughout the world. The Gospel of Salvation is the message that Christ has overcome sin and the world, and in His victory, we can find forgiveness and salvation.
Yet here is where the imagery gets a little more interesting, because Paul likens the recipients of the message to those who were prisoners, forced to march in the Triumph of Christ. Recall that when a Roman general marched through the city, they frequently brought captives of one sort or another with them, prisoners of war. Some of these captives would be executed, others would be let free. For those about to be executed, the parade was one of doom. For those to be freed, the parade was one which would conclude with life and liberty and a better situation. As each smelled the incense carried by the incense bearers, the odor was either one of life or one of death.
As sinners in the world, we should be mindful that we were not initially in the Lord’s army, but rather we were a part of the enemy He overcame. If we remain in rebellion against Christ, the Gospel is a message of doom and death, for Christ has already claimed the victory, and at the end there is only a certain judgment which we will not escape (cf. Hebrews 10:26-27; 2 Thessalonians 1:8). But the beauty of the message is this: we can repent of our rebellion, and be joined to Christ. We can choose to be amongst those granted clemency by the conquering Christ. For those that accept this message, the words of the cross are the power of God and the wisdom of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-24), a sweet-smelling fragrance of hope and life.
Which raises the question for each of us: how are we responding to the message of Christ? Do we react angrily towards it, finding its message of judgment to be displeasing, so that it becomes, for us, an unpleasant thing, a reminder of our own failings, and of God’s disapproval? Or do we respond to it as a message of hope and salvation, eager to be joined to the victory of Christ, celebrating the life that He offers?
If you desire to share in the Triump of Christ, the church of Christ invites you to worship and study with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio. Likewise, if you have any questions or comments, we invite you to share them with us at chapelhillchurchofchrist.org.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ.