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Rather than fickle, as the Corinthians have charged, Paul has shown himself willing to adapt to their changing situation. He also acted for their benefit and not his own, choosing the course of action that spared them the most pain. Now in verses 12-17 Paul concludes his defense of his conduct by showing how even his efforts to preach the gospel in Troas were affected by his pastoral anxiety for the church. A friend of mine recently wrote that he has been grappling with the problem of "people or plans." While rushing to get an outline on the blackboard in the few minutes that remained before Sunday school, one of the church members stopped him to talk about a personal problem. The outline never made it to the board. In much the same way, Paul's plans for ministry in Troas were cut short because of his more pressing concern for Titus and his Corinthian friends. Friends or ministry strategies? People or plans? This is a tension that those in leadership roles in the church constantly face.
In what at first glance appears to be an abrupt change of topic, Paul at verse 12 recounts his travel itinerary subsequent to his return to Ephesus. A closer look, however, shows that he is still dealing with the charge of fickleness. When he left Ephesus and went to Troas it was not due to some sudden whim but in order to preach the gospel of Christ (literally, "for the gospel of Christ"). It is the gospel, not his own personal desires, that determines his travel plans. That Paul would plan an evangelistic outreach in the city of Troas is logical given its significance. Strabo, a first-century geographer, calls it one of the notable cities of the world. Troas was an Aegean seaport town located at the northwest corner of Asia Minor on a fifty-mile-wide promontory called the Troad. Founded as Antigonia in 334 B.C., it was renamed Alexandria Troas in 300 B.C. in honor of Alexander the Great. Construction of an artificial harbor provided for the first time a secure shelter within a few miles of the mouth of the Hellespont and led to the city's quick growth and subsequent prosperity (Hemer 1975:79-92).
Paul, however, is not merely interested in demonstrating that he went about the business of setting up his itinerary in a responsible fashion. His reference to Troas is important because it shows just how dear the Corinthians were to him. The severe letter that Paul wrote after his painful experience with the Corinthian church was carried to Corinth by Titus, one of Paul's coworkers. Shortly after, Paul made plans to travel to Troas to engage in a new work of evangelism. On his arrival in this bustling seaport town, Paul found that a door for evangelistic outreach "stood open" (NIV had opened; see the note) for him "in the Lord." An "open door," an idiom we use today for an opportunity set before a person, is how Paul routinely describes evangelistic opportunities (e.g., 1 Cor 16:9; Col 4:3). "Stood open" shows that this was more than an impromptu evangelistic foray. It had apparently been arranged that Titus was to meet Paul there with news about the Corinthian church. But after spending a short time in Troas, Paul became so disturbed that he did not find Titus there that he gave up a successful outreach to set out on the road toward Macedonia in the hopes of meeting him along the way (v. 13; see the introduction for further discussion).
Paul describes his psychological state while waiting for Titus at Troas as without peace of mind (v. 13; literally, "I had no relief in my spirit"). The word translated peace in the NIV refers not so much to "rest" (KJV, NKJ, RSV, NRSV) as to "relief" (REB, NEB) or "relaxation." The NIV of mind is, literally, "in my spirit"—the seat of human emotion and sensation (Plummer 1915:65). The JB "I was continually uneasy in mind" and TEV "I was deeply worried" catch the sense quite well. Today we would say that Paul was uptight—so much so that he said good-by to the new believers at Troas (to them) and went on to Macedonia. The word for good-by is literally "to take leave of" and suggests a reluctant departure. The reference to them indicates that Paul was at Troas long enough to establish a church (see Acts 20:6-12). That he would head for Macedonia probably means that he took the overland route hoping to catch Titus on the road that wound its way through the major cities along the Eastern seaboard of the province. It is quite possible that part of Titus's mission was to firm up the collection efforts among the Macedonian churches after his visit to Corinth.
At verse 14 Paul suddenly shifts from anxiety (I still had no peace of mind, vv. 12-13) to thanksgiving: But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession, v. 14). This shift has generated considerable discussion. Some argue that 2:14—7:4 is a letter fragment that the editor of the Pauline corpus inserted at this spot in our canonical 2 Corinthians (see the introduction). Others maintain that the shift is of Paul's own making. Explanations include a premature expression of his relief on meeting Titus, a shift in gears after a dictation pause, a sudden realization of the need to deal with themes that he failed to touch on in his opening eulogy and an instance of the Pauline theme of divine power overcoming human weakness. It is the last proposal that offers the best explanation. A look at the broader context of the letter shows that this kind of mood shift is part and parcel of Paul's repeated emphasis on God's ability to triumph over the frailties and fallibility of the gospel preacher (see the introduction). God's power is able to overcome any and all human weakness (Perriman 1989:39-41).
This realization causes Paul to break out in a joyful exclamation of thanks to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession (v. 14). When the Spartans marched into battle, they advanced with cheerful songs, willing to fight. But when the Persians entered the conflict, you could hear the crack of the whips with which the officers drove the soldiers into the fray. It is no wonder that a few Spartans were more than a match for thousands of Persians. So it should be with preaching the gospel. "If we were enthusiastic soldiers of the cross," writes Spurgeon, "through God's help nothing would be able to stand against us." This was Paul's experience as he left Troas and moved on to Macedonia. Even though he had difficulty keeping his mind on his ministry because of gnawing concern for the Corinthian church, he knew that it is God alone who can claim the victory and overcome any deficiencies in his ministry.
Thriambeuo, the word translated in the NIV as leads . . . in triumphal procession, is a much debated term. The KJV "cause us to triumph" was not a meaning in use in Paul's day, so modern interpreters have turned to other possibilities. In classical and Hellenistic usage it can mean (1) to triumph over, (2) to lead in triumph, (3) to make a spectacle of and (4) to noise abroad. If we follow either "to lead in triumph" (NIV, RSV, NASB) or "to make a spectacle of" (Col 2:15; compare 1 Cor 4:9), Paul would be drawing on the picture of the Roman triumphus, where the victorious Roman troops led the conquered enemy down a processional route in the city of Rome to the temple of Jupiter. The route was lined with spectators who applauded as the victors passed by (Josephus Jewish Wars 7.5). Paul would then be thinking of himself and his coworkers either as God's willing captives (TEV, NEB) or as victorious partners with God (JB, Phillips) in the triumphal procession of the gospel. While this is an attractive possibility, it is more likely that he is using the term in the simpler sense of "to triumph over" and thinking of God's ability to overcome ministerial weaknesses and ineffectiveness. Regardless of Paul's state of mind while in Troas, the gospel message went forward. While God chooses to work through us in spreading the good news, he does not depend on our personal abilities—or even our stability—for the message to be effective in the life of the listener. In the final analysis, it is God who gets the job done.
What, then, is the nature of the gospel ministry? And what kind of competency do we look for in the gospel minister? These are too key issues that Paul introduces in verses 14-17 and develops in chapters 3—7. The task of the gospel preacher, Paul states, is to be God's instrument in advancing the gospel (v. 14). It is through us, he says, that the gospel spreads everywhere. The role of the evangelist is pictured as that of channel for disseminating the fragrance of the knowledge of him—an attractive idea expressed by means of a characteristically ambiguous string of genitive constructions. The first genitive can indicate the source of the fragrance, "the fragrance which comes from knowing him," or its content, "the fragrance which is knowing him." The former suggests that as our personal relationship with the Lord grows, we give off a fragrant odor to those around us—a provocative notion, to say the least. It is the latter construal, however, with knowledge depicted as a sweet-smelling perfume that permeates the world, that best fits the central thought of the gospel preacher as God's channel for spreading the good news. The second genitive provides the object of the knowledge—knowledge of him. But which him is Paul thinking of—God or Christ? Both are found in the context (vv. 14-15, 17). But God is the primary subject. When "Christ" occurs, it is in phrases like "the gospel of Christ," "the aroma of Christ" or "in Christ."
Knowledge of God reappears in chapter 4, portrayed as light rather than scent (4:6). Yet it is not knowledge of God in the abstract but "the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Christ." Indeed the light of the gospel (4:4) and knowledge of God (4:6) are presented as parallel notions. The point is not a trivial one. The emphasis among evangelicals today is, as it should be, on a personal relationship with Christ. And yet it is often forgotten that such a relationship is not possible apart from knowledge of God. J. I. Packer writes, "Knowing about God is crucially important for the living of our lives. As it would be cruel to an Amazonian tribesman to fly him to London, put him down without explanation in Trafalgar Square and leave him, as one who knew nothing of English or England, to fend for himself, so we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it" (1973:14).
The term in verse 14 for fragrance (osme) is used of both pleasant and unpleasant odors. In verse 15, however, Paul shifts to euedia, which refers only to agreeable smells, and further defines this odor as an aroma of Christ to God. A number of backgrounds that Paul may be drawing on have been proposed. For the Jew, Paul's language would immediately bring to mind the scent of burnt offerings, which in the Old Testament are described as a "pleasing aroma to the Lord" (for example, Lev 23:18; Num 28:2-6), while to the Gentile euedia would recall the smell of incense being burnt as a fragrant offering to the gods. If, on the other hand, the Roman triumph is in view, Paul might well be thinking of the smell of sacrifices offered when the procession reached the temple of Jupiter or the odor of incense burned along the processional route.
The focus shifts in the second half of verse 15 from the effect of Paul's preaching on God (a sweet-smelling aroma of Christ) to its effect on his audience. Among those who are being saved, it is the fragrance of life, whereas among those who are perishing, it is the smell of death. Paul divides humanity into too groups: those on the road to salvation and those on the path to destruction (compare 1 Cor 1:18). Because of the cross, "too roads diverged in a wood"—to reapply Robert Frost's familiar words—and all of humanity past, present and future travels one road or the other. This is a sobering thought. There is no middle ground here. And if we preach anything else, we do not preach the gospel. Jesus employed essentially the same image when he said to his disciples, "Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Mt 7:13-14).
To the former group the preaching of the gospel is, literally, "an odor from life to life." To the latter it is "an odor from death to death." But what does Paul mean by "from life to life" and "from death to death"? Most interpreters understand "to" (eis) as pointing to the end result. Acceptance of the gospel ultimately results in life, while rejection concludes in death. "From" (ek) is more problematic. Ek + genitive commonly defines source: "an odor issuing from death/life." But what in practical terms does this mean? It is also possible that ek defines the nature of the smell: "a deadly odor" or "a life-giving fragrance." It can likewise be a Hebraic idiom to express the concept of increase ("the odor of an ever-increasing death"; "the fragrance of an ever-increasing life") or suggestive of a condition that goes from bad to worse ("an ever-worsening odor") or from good to better ("a fragrance that gets better and better").
In any case, it is the progressive element that is primary. The idea is that the preaching of the gospel causes either death or life to become increasingly more rooted in the hearer. To those who are on the road to destruction the gospel is like a noxious fume that relentlessly carries the unwary to their death. To those on the road to salvation it is comparable to a compelling fragrance that invigorates all who come in contact with it. Jim Elliot once prayed, "Father, make me a crisis man. Bring those I contact to decision. Let me not be a milepost on a single road. Make me a fork, that men must turn one way or another on facing Christ in me."
Given the life- and death-wielding character of the gospel, Paul raises the question, Who is equal to such a task of being a gospel preacher? (v. 16). The expected answer is a resounding "no one" in and of themselves. Paul is very aware that his competency as a gospel preacher does not reside in himself but in God. It is God who triumphs over the weaknesses of Paul and his coworkers (v. 14), God who sends them out (v. 17, from God) and God who holds them accountable (v. 17, we speak before God).
There were those, however, who thought themselves quite capable to carry out the role of gospel preacher. Unlike so many, Paul continues, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. There is a subtle shift at verse 17 from answering the complaints of the Corinthians to responding to the criticisms of an as-yet-undefined adversary. Here we catch the first hint that behind the church's grievances against Paul lurk outsiders who have insinuated themselves into the good graces of the Corinthian church. Paul goes on the offensive against, literally, the many (hoi polloi) who preach for the sake of financial gain. The term translated peddle for profit (kaphleuo) means "to be a retail-dealer," "to drive a petty trade" (Liddell, Scott and Jones 1978). In Paul's day it was figuratively applied to those who made a trade of selling their teachings for profit. But it is not getting paid for preaching per se that is at issue. Paul argues at length in 1 Corinthians 9 for the right of the itinerant preacher to receive financial support, even though it was a privilege that he himself forwent. What he is concerned about is why one preaches the gospel. The motivation of the many was money. Like the Sophists of that day, the majority showed more interest in lining their wallets than in preaching the truth (LB, RSV/NRSV, NIV, NEB, NKJ). By doing so, they were in effect treating God's message like so much cheap merchandise (TEV).
This was not so with Paul. His motivation was not greed but sincerity (ex eilikrineias). Yet couldn't these visiting preachers ostensibly make the same claim? This is most likely why Paul goes on in the second half of verse 17 to shore up his claim with what amounts to an oath. He speaks as someone who has been sent from God, that is, as someone who has been commissioned like the prophets of old. But unlike them, he speaks in Christ, that is, as Christ's representative. Paul's commission as Christ's representative amounted to calling "people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith" (Rom 1:5; 15:15-16). He also speaks before God. "In God's sight" (katenanti theou) catches the sense better. The idea is that because Paul leaves himself open at all times to God's scrutiny, the truthfulness of what he says can be divinely verified.
That Paul would need to appeal to divine witnesses to assure the Corinthians that his motives in preaching the gospel are honest ones says more about his culture than about any criticisms that may have come his way. In Paul's day, many made their living by their skill at speechmaking. Sophists in particular were known for their ability to move an audience through their artistry and rhetoric. It was how they said it rather than what they said that impressed the average listener. So Paul is attempting to distance himself not so much from those who sold their gospel "wares" for a living as from those who were out to make big bucks from preaching. If we take an even closer look at Paul's language in verses 14-17, we find that he chooses his words in light of the impact that these money-motivated preachers were having on the congregation. The Corinthians were being influenced by the triumphalist tone (v. 14) of those who claimed professional competency (v. 16) and were out to make a good show (v. 14) with culturally approved credentials (see 3:1-3).
We face much the same problem today. Evangelists and preachers can get easily sidetracked either by the lucrative potential evangelistic ministry presents or by the praise and applause a skillfully wrought sermon elicits. In many respects it is we the audience who are to blame in that congregations are increasingly placing more value on the art form than on the message. An article in Christianity Today highlights the consumerism, or "McChurch," mentality that pushes pastors to market themselves and their church competitively. Many people nowadays approach a sermon the way they approach fast-food restaurants. Today it might be McDonald's, tomorrow Burger King and the next day Wendy's (Colson 1992:29).