Paul’s Service: A Life-Changing Sacrifice
A fragrant sacrifice (II Corinthians 2:14-17)
Despite all the trials and concerns, Paul has endured, he is thankful to God for leading all Christians to a triumphant celebration through the efforts of Jesus Christ. Victory cannot come without our Redeemer. And Paul is appreciative that God allows him and other preachers to spread the knowledge of that triumph everywhere.
From the scene of a triumphal celebration, Paul pulls out one aspect: the smell of incense being burnt to tie a series of thoughts together. The smell of incense burning gets carried on the breeze and can be smelled everywhere, not just near the celebration. That is likened to the spread of the gospel. It is spread everywhere and reaches places you would not think to find it.
Teachers of the gospel are a scent on the wind, bringing news of Christ both to those who accept the message and those who reject it (I Corinthians 1:21). Whether a person likes a particular fragrance doesn’t change the fact that it is present. It is one message but the perception of it and its acceptance is vastly different (I Corinthians 1:18). The difference isn’t whether God makes a person accept or reject. It is the message which divides people (I Corinthians 2:11-14; John 6:41-45; II Corinthians 4:3). This was what Jesus came to do (Luke 2:34; John 9:39; I Peter 2:7-8).
The image of a triumphal celebration continues. Those who lost the war and are being led into slavery or even death would find the smells nauseating Those who had won the war associate the smells with a victory. People who are perishing find the message of Christ offensive. People who are being saved find the same message thrilling.
To be a part of God’s plan to spread the message and see its effect on the lives of those who hear it is more than any preacher deems worthy of bearing. Mere men teaching a simple message and yet having a complexity of effects on the lives of people. Who is sufficient for this duty? Paul answers that question later in II Corinthians 3:5-6.
But there is one point that needs to be made at the moment: those who are spreading the gospel are teaching what they sincerely believe (Acts 20:20,27). They are not peddling the word of God. “The Greek figure is taken from the tavern-keepers who adulterate the wine they offer for sale” [The People’s New Testament Commentary]. Paul is saying that they give an honest offering of the gospel (II Corinthians 1:12). They haven’t adulterated it as many others have (Galatians 2:4; II Peter 2:1-3). Notice that even at this early time false teachers are numerous, not few (I John 4:1).
Always the true teachers of the gospel keep in mind that God is watching as they speak (II Corinthians 12:19; James 3:1; Hebrews 11:27). They speak “in Christ;” that is, with the authority of Christ. This is the solemn responsibility of teachers: they are speaking a message from God, in the sight of God, in Christ’s authority.
Life-changing letter (II Corinthians 3:1-4)
Perhaps some might read about Paul’s confidence in his conduct (II Corinthians 1:12), his triumphs (II Corinthians 2:14), or his sincerity in speaking God’s words (II Corinthians 2:17) and conclude that he is making empty boasts about his ability. Paul charges that the false teachers, who were peddling the word of God, needed letters of recommendation (Acts 18:27) as evidence of their abilities. He doesn’t need such letters because the proof of his ability is the Corinthian brethren. All can see how Paul being among them had affected them.
Paul light-heartedly talks about commending himself repeatedly through the letter. He didn’t need to pat himself on the back or have others pat himself on the back to know that he was doing what was right (II Corinthians 10:18).
Notice the interesting turn of phrasing in II Corinthians 3:2: The Corinthians were Paul’s letter of commendation written on Paul’s heart that is then seen and read by everyone (I Corinthians 9:2). In working in Corinth, Paul is stating that they had etched themselves on his heart, so deeply that others see their impact on Paul.
But they are also a letter of Christ, written by Paul on their hearts. The letter isn’t a physical one written with ink or engraved on stone (an allusion to the Old Testament) (Exodus 24:12), but one that is more personal – a letter that is lived. They were written by the Spirit of the living God; by this Paul means they were changed and shaped by the Holy Spirit to represent Christ (Hebrews 8:10; Galatians 5:22-25).
This is not to say the New Testament was not written. That is no more true than to say that the Old Testament was only physical (Psalms 40:8; Proverbs 3:3). The difference, however, is on the emphasis. The new covenant had a greater impact on people by shaping them spiritually (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26).
Paul had confidence in the work of shaping the Corinthians because it was done through Christ, aiming them toward God. With such means and goal, it is hard to go wrong (II Corinthians 4:1).
Literary Style: Woven Themes
Paul frequently takes a concept and weaves it into his descriptions. In II Corinthians 2:14-17, he took the smell of sacrifices being offered. In II Corinthians 3:1-4, letters of commendation become the foundation. Upon this, he uses phrases and words associated with the chosen theme to connect his points into a unified whole that is easily remembered.