August 30, 2017: Verse of the day


But thanks be to God, who always leads us (2:14a)

Recognizing the Lord’s sovereign leading is foundational to a pastor’s (or any believer’s) joy, and it is the undergirding strength of his ministry. Paul’s confident hope was that God … always leads believers, through every circumstance of life. No matter what trials or persecutions he endured in Corinth, Ephesus, or anywhere else he ministered, Paul rejoiced that God was in control.

The apostle never lost his sense of wonder at the privilege of belonging to the ranks of the sovereign Lord, of marching behind the Commander in Chief in His Triumph. To Timothy he wrote,

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. (1 Tim. 1:12–16)

Contemplating the marvelous privilege of being led by God instead of fretting over his circumstances contributed to turning Paul’s discouragement into joy.

paul was thankful for the privilege of promised victory in christ

in triumph in Christ, (2:14b)

In keeping with the imagery of the Roman Triumph, Paul proclaimed that God leads believers in triumph in Christ. They follow the all-conquering Commander in the victory parade, sharing in the triumph of His decisive victory over sin, death, and hell. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus spoke of His ultimate victory over Satan and the forces of hell: “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” His followers share in His victory, as Paul declared in Romans 16:20: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” The writer of Hebrews also spoke of that victory: “Since then the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, so that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). In 1 John 3:8 the apostle John wrote, “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” Christ won that victory on the cross: “When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him” (Col. 2:15). As Paul wrote to the Romans, “In all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37). Believers are not only coconquerors with Christ, but also “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17; cf. Gal. 3:29; Eph. 3:6; Titus 3:7; James 2:5). They follow behind their Commander in the Triumph, bringing the spoils of war—the souls of men and women “rescued … from the domain of darkness, and transferred … to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13; cf. Rom. 8:18–25, 28–30).

Though they may suffer setbacks and discouragement, believers’ ultimate triumph is certain. They will march victoriously in the Lord Jesus Christ’s Triumph on that glorious day when the heavenly choir cries out, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). Believers will forever reign with Him (2 Tim. 2:12; 1 Peter 1:3–5).

paul was thankful for the privilege of having influence for christ

and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. (2:14c)

The sweet aroma of the Triumph arose from the incense-filled censers carried by the priests in the parade and from the garlands of flowers that were thrown into the streets. The fragrance speaks of influence; Paul’s point is that God, in wonderful condescending grace and mercy, manifests through believers the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Christ in every place. He uses human preachers to give off the sweet aroma of the gospel, to influence people with the saving knowledge of Christ. To the Romans Paul wrote, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things’!” (Rom. 10:14–15).

It is not that believers deserve such a high privilege of being influences for the eternal gospel. Paul was keenly aware of his unworthiness for such service to God. In 1 Corinthians 15:9 he wrote, “For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” To the Ephesians he added, “I was made a minister, according to the gift of God’s grace which was given to me according to the working of His power. To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:7–8). As previously noted, he expressed to Timothy his wonder that Christ chose him, a persecutor of the church, to preach the gospel:

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life. (1 Tim. 1:12–16)

No preacher should take lightly his inestimable privilege of proclaiming the saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Whether or not preachers are successful, achieve popularity, or fulfill their ambitions is immaterial. The satisfaction of having an eternal influence for Jesus Christ should be sufficient. The issue is not results, but privilege. The disheartened preacher is disheartened because he focuses on circumstances; the joyful preacher is joyful because he focuses on the eternal worth of his service to God. The disheartened preacher considers his difficulties; the joyful preacher considers his privilege.[1]

14 Paul likens the irresistible advance of the gospel, in spite of temporary frustration, to a Roman triumphus (“triumph”) in which the victorious general, along with his proud soldiers, used to “lead in triumphal procession” (thriambeuō, GK 2581; see Notes) the wretched prisoners of war, who were thus exposed to public ridicule. Paul sees himself and his fellow apostles not as exultant soldiers who share in their general’s victory pageant but as willing, joyful captives who count it a privilege to be part of God’s “triumph” and as vocal witnesses to the General’s victorious strength. Paul’s implied prior “defeat” will be his Damascus encounter when he surrendered to God or Christ (Php 3:12). In this context, “in Christ” will mean “through our union with Christ” or “in the cause of Christ,” though it may possibly mean “in Christ’s triumphal procession” (NEB, REB). The only other NT use of the verb thriambeuō is in Colossians 2:15, where the despoiled powers and authorities are seen as unwilling, sullen captives driven before the triumphal chariot of God, silent witnesses to the General’s power and majesty.

In the reference to the diffusion of “fragrance,” Paul may simply be developing the imagery, for perfumes were sometimes sprinkled or incense burned along the processional route. Through the apostles God was spreading far and wide the fragrant knowledge of Christ (Php 3:8, 10).[2]

2:14 / Paul’s defense commences with a thanksgiving to God for his apostolic ministry as revelatory mediator. We note here again Paul’s use of the so-called apostolic/literary plural (us) with reference to himself, since Paul’s apostleship is the main issue in this section. This verse is so pivotal to Paul’s argument and yet so difficult to interpret that we will need to give it special attention.

The main problem is the interpretation of thriambeuein, which is correctly translated leads in triumphal procession. For some interpreters, this usage of the term conjures up an image of the apostle that seems quite unlikely, coming as it does as part of a thanksgiving at the very beginning of his defense for the legitimacy for his apostolic ministry. Further, Paul would thus seem to be portraying himself as a complete disgrace, a prisoner of war who is led by the conquering general (God!) in a triumphal procession that culminates in the apostle’s death. Many scholars have sought to avoid this interpretation either by proposing an idiosyncratic usage of thriambeuein (e.g., “make known” [G. Dautzenberg]) or by assuming the use of a rhetorical strategy whereby the meaning of verse 14 is ultimately positive. More recently, however, the trend has been to recognize the unequivocal usage of thriambeuein, with its negative implications for Paul, and then to correlate the passage with Paul’s apostolic self-conception as expressed elsewhere, particularly in his admissions of personal weakness and suffering in the Corinthian correspondence (cf. 1 Cor. 4:9; 2 Cor. 4:10–11).

Whereas most interpretations of 2 Corinthians 2:14 consider the metaphor of triumphal procession only with respect to Paul, no interpretation so far has examined the metaphor with respect to God as the acting subject. In order to grasp this we will first recall a basic motif of the Roman triumphal procession, with its focus on the triumphant general and his chariot. Then we will investigate how Paul uses this imagery metaphorically in our text.

The Roman triumphal procession was originally led by the victorious general appearing symbolically as the living image of Jupiter. By the time of the empire, however, the procession was celebrated to honor the gods in thanksgiving for the victory. The Roman magistrates, the Senate, people carrying booty from the campaign, the priests leading the bulls for sacrifice, and enemy captives (who were executed at the end of the ceremony) entered the city, followed by the victorious general on a chariot leading his army. Normally, the chariot was a quadriga, that is, a two-wheeled chariot drawn by four horses harnessed abreast, although four elephants were sometimes used instead (cf. Plutarch, Pompeius, 14.4; Pliny, Natural History 8.4). Since Roman imperial coins frequently included images of the emperor in a triumphal chariot, the concept of triumphal procession was familiar throughout the Roman Empire. What do these findings imply for our text? If, by using thriambeuein, Paul portrays himself as being led by God in a Roman triumphal procession, then the image is one of God riding in a quadriga.

The metaphor in 2 Corinthians 2:14, as with all metaphors, presents us with two thoughts of different things—tenor and vehicle—active together and supported by a single word or phrase, whose meaning is a result of their interaction (“two ideas for one”). The “tenor” is the underlying subject of the metaphor, and the “vehicle” is the means by which the tenor is presented. In our passage, the vehicle is the idea of a Roman triumphal procession in which a conquering general rides a quadriga. However, the underlying subject is different. Paul merely uses the idea of the Roman triumphal procession in order to convey another set of associations—the thought that God on his throne-chariot leads the apostle captive.

The divine throne-chariot is found in both the ot and Jewish tradition. Quite commonly, the “chariotry/chariot of God” in Psalm 68:17–18 is taken to refer to the merkabah in which God descended to Mount Sinai. Ezekiel’s prophetic call-vision by the river Chebar (Ezek. 1:4–28; cf. 10:1–22; 43:1–4) gives us a cryptic picture of what later came to be known as the throne-chariot of God. In Jewish tradition, Ezekiel’s vision is interpreted as a reference to a merkabah or “chariot,” drawn by the four living creatures/beasts. This comes out most explicitly in a midrash (Exod. Rab. 43:8) focusing on the golden calf incident, which refers to the chariot of God as a “four-mule chariot.” Also, in Habakkuk 3:8 Yahweh is said to drive a horse-drawn merkabah (cf. M. Haran).

In sum, we have seen that by using thriambeuein, Paul evoked the image of a triumphal procession in which the triumphant leader rode in a four-horse chariot. This, in turn, suggested the familiar idea of the merkabah, which was commonly viewed as a chariot drawn by the four living creatures/beasts of Ezekiel 1. We should not be surprised that Paul would use Roman imagery to suggest an ot idea. Paul, who does not like to discuss his visions and does so only under compulsion (cf. 2 Cor. 12:1ff.), uses a metaphor in order make his point without being overly explicit about ineffable matters.

Furthermore, it is possible that in 2 Corinthians 2:14 Paul is alluding specifically to Psalm 68:17–18. According the lxx version of this psalm, when God in his chariot ascended from Sinai into his holy sanctuary on high, he led captivity captive and received gifts among humanity. Ephesians 4:8 actually applies Psalm 68:18 [lxx 67:19] to the ascension of Christ and the spiritual gifts, including apostles (v. 11), which he gave to the church (cf. G. B. Caird). This kind of interpretation of the psalm would, of course, be very congenial at the beginning of Paul’s defense of his apostolic office in 2 Corinthians 2:14–7:4. The use of Psalm 68:18–19 in Jewish tradition provides further evidence that Paul may have had this passage in mind when he wrote 2 Corinthians 2:14.

In Jewish tradition Psalm 68:18 refers not to God’s ascent on high, corresponding to his merkabah descent to Mount Sinai in verse 18, but to the ascent of Moses, who took captive the Torah and gave the gift of Torah to humanity. Thus, for example, the Targum interprets Psalm 68:18 as a reference to Moses, who ascended into heaven, received the Torah there, and brought the Torah to the people (cf. Exod. Rab. 28:1). According to Midr.Ps. 68:18, Moses ascended to the divine beings and there received the Torah as a “gift” for Israel. In the Jewish tradition, therefore, Psalm 68:17–18 refers to Moses’ merkabah encounter with God on Sinai and the revelation that he mediated to humanity.

Paul might be making the same connection between merkabah encounter and revelation in 2 Corinthians 2:14, for here also God both leads him in triumphal procession and “reveals” (phanerounti, spreads) through him the fragrance of the knowledge of God. In other words, Paul is presenting himself here as a mediator of divine revelation on par with Moses, summarizing the whole basis for his apostleship in this one verse. Hence, if metaphor is speaking about one thing in terms suggestive of another, then by speaking of a Roman triumphal procession in connection with divine revelation, Paul evidently suggests the throne-chariot of God and the powerfully complex tradition of Psalm 68:17–18. According to this tradition, God descended to Sinai in his merkabah and revealed himself to Moses and all Israel. Moses, in turn, ascended on high, took the Torah captive, and gave it as a gift to humanity. Although Paul’s image turns this tradition on its head by making the apostle a captive rather than the triumphant one (cf. 2 Cor. 11:30; 12:5), it nevertheless preserves the idea that an encounter with the merkabah effects a revelation to humanity through a mediator. Paul’s claim is especially crucial in the situation at Corinth, where his opponents evidently claim to have numerous visions and revelations (cf. 12:1).

Paul’s thanksgiving in 2:14 (But thanks be to God) fits well in the context of merkabah tradition. The visionary often observed and sometimes participated in the angelic hymns before the throne of God, the praises of the heavenly beings being viewed as the model and example for heavenly worship (cf. 1 En. 71:11–12; Apoc. Ab. 17:4–18:1; K. Grözinger). How much more, then, is Paul’s praise warranted and justified, since his encounter with the merkabah rivals even that of Moses.

If God is said to be leading the apostle in triumphal procession in Christ, then we will do well to recall Martin Hengel’s idea of the conjoint activity between the Father and the Son. As a result of being seated at the right hand of God at the resurrection, the Son now sits in the divine throne-chariot with the Father, and both together, occupying the same throne, now carry out activities together (cf. Mark 14:62). Hence, just as “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19), so also here God “in Christ” leads the apostle in triumphal procession.

Once we recognize the traditional background of our text, it is not difficult to suggest why Paul would refer to his revelation as the fragrance of the knowledge of God. Jewish tradition associates wonderful aromas with the merkabah vision. For example, in the third heaven (= Paradise), where Paul encountered the merkabah (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2–4), the fruit trees are said to be ripe and fragrant, abundant crops give off a sweet smell, and the tree of life itself is indescribable for pleasantness and fine fragrance (2 En. 8:1–3). In sum, 2 Corinthians 2:14 presents God as revealing the knowledge of himself to the world through Paul. In connection with his ongoing encounter with the merkabah, Paul, as minister of the new covenant (cf. 3:6), becomes a revelatory mediator who infuses the world with an aromatic, Torah-like knowledge of God through the Spirit.[3]

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2003). 2 Corinthians (pp. 70–72). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] Harris, M. J. (2008). 2 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 455–456). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[3] Scott, J. M. (2011). 2 Corinthians (pp. 60–64). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

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