So far in 2nd Corinthians, Paul has focused on assuring the Corinthians that God works in the mess, and that they can still trust him even if he had to change his travel plans, because he has always focused on copying Jesus. But now as we get to the end of chapter 2, Paul moves on from trying to smooth things over with the church family in Corinth, to reminding them of the glorious fact that God actually is committed to doing stuff through weak people like us.
God works through his complicated, messed-up, inconsistent, long way short of perfect people. God works through his church. We are not perfect, but God is working through us. Which is why he in 2:14, he starts talking about a parade, as he points out the first way in which God works through his church. His point isn’t complicated. It’s that..
GOD SPEAKS THROUGH US WHEN WE SPEAK THE GOSPEL
In Brisbane, parades aren’t really a big deal. There’s ANZAC Day, the Myer Christmas Parade, and that’s about it. I, however, grew up in a small nation which, for some reason, loved parades. In fact, parades were such a big deal that the Government had to set up a Parades’ Commission, to adjudicate on whether I my historic right to march down your street making a large amount of noise, over-rode your present right not to be annoyed by strangely dressed people marching past your home making to make a pseudo-political point. Now unless you’re from Northern Ireland, the whole marching thing will probably seem very weird. And unless you know a little bit about Roman Parades, the start of our passage this morning will seem a bit odd.
Here’s what Paul writes: 2 Cor. 2:14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. Now I hate doing this, but in this case I don’t really have an option. The way in which this verse is translated in the NIV, a great translation which we use, is really misleading. In fact it’s wrong.
The words ‘as captives’ aren’t in the text.
They are an interpretation which the translators have supplied to try to help us, but in doing so, they have actually mucked it up.
What it actually says in 2 Cor 2:14 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. Now why does this matter? It matters because it obscures Paul’s point, by changing where we fit in to this parade!
Paul is describing a very familiar picture of a Roman Pompa Triumphalis,
the victory parade granted to particularly successful generals, over 300 of whch are recorded in Graeco-Roman literature.
If you ever visit Rome, you can see a carving of one of these parades, celebrating the conquest of Jerusalem in the first century on the Arch of Titus next to the Coliseum.
Ancient accounts make it clear that there were usually 7 stages of these parades. First came a group carrying pictures of the battle, boards carrying the names of conquered cities and nations, as well as some of the plundered riches of the defeated. Next came some white bulls to be sacrificed to Jupiter. Thirdly, came the conquered peoples. In many cases, the key leaders of these people were taken to the Temple of Jupiter, and executed at the end of this happy celebration. Then rather obviously, appeared the successful general (the triumphator). In his wake came two more groups – in 5th position came those Romans, presumably now intensely grateful, who had been rescued from the barbarians in this campaign, before the general’s own troops brought up the rear.
So where do we fit in this parade? The NIV supplies those words ‘as captives’ – but that’s slightly problematic – because the captives were about to be killed by the victorious General at the Temple of Jupiter, which would be a very unusual, not to say depressing way of talking about being a Christian. So how are we to make sense of this?
The clue is actually right in front of our eyes in verse 14. There was actually another group of people who were part of this parade. They were the incense bearers:
Appian of Alexandria wrote this at the turn of the first century, describing just such a procession: ‘Next came a large number of incense bearers, and just after the fragrances, the general himself on a chariot inscribed with various designs, wreathed in gold and precious stones… ‘. That’s why Paul says that God through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. His point is that God works through us, as we spread the pungent smell of the gospel? Read on –
15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. Paul presses the image to say that not only are we the incense carriers, we are actually the smell itself, which has its source in Christ and rises up to honor God himself. And who breathes this in? Two groups of people – both those who have opposed the general and been defeated (and are, perhaps, even about to be executed) – to these people our message and our very presence is the stench of death – and those who have been rescued by the general and are skipping along, delighting in their newly restored freedom and even life.
Now please do notice where Paul goes with this. Paul is not saying ‘Just allow the aroma of your life to permeate society’. There is no warrant here or anywhere else in the New Testament for saying all we need to do is smell for Jesus. In fact, Paul is saying the reverse. He says we need to speak. Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God. His point is that God has equipped us and uses us to get the message of Christ out, and he will work, bringing people to new life in Christ, and confronting people in judgement.
How do we know this is supposed to be reassuring? Look at the little question tucked away in the middle of verse 16 And who is equal to such a task?
His answer is a loud and resounding WE ARE! Now I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure that Paul depicts us as the incense bearers because, and I don’t want to annoy the incense bearers’ union here but , being an incense bearer didn’t require a terribly high degree of expertise. All you really needed to do as an incense bearer was walk along and let the thing waft! Perhaps you needed to blow the smoke occasionally, or fan it in the direction of the crowds, but that’s about it. The incense bearer doesn’t have to create the aroma – he or she just shows up and holds it up, and the smoke does the rest! And this is the role that God gives to us. Are we up to the task of gospel ministry? Yes we are. Because God gives us the message. God changes us through the message. God enables us to speak the message. All we need to do is waft!
According to the Roman Lucian ‘The philosophers sell their teaching like tavern keepers, and most of them mix their wine with water and misrepresent it‘, but not Paul, and not us. Instead we spread the fragrance of Christ by speaking the gospel of Christ, knowing that God speaks through us when we speak the gospel. Who is sufficient for this? We are It would be good to remember that the next time you think that you have nothing to say to your friend or family member who isn’t a Christian. It would be good to remember that the next time you think anyone why would anyone listen to me?’ It’s not actually about us. Or our personality. Or our giftedness. Or our knowledge. It is about God speaking in Christ through us. That’s the first reason we can forget about ourselves and get on with serving Christ, expecting him to work through us, his church And the second?
GOD CHANGES PEOPLE THROUGH THE GOSPEL
It’s not just that God speaks through the gospel as we speak it to others, he also changes people. Here’s how chapter 3 starts:
Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? 2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. 3 You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
When we read verse 1, I think we’re expecting the answer ‘no’ – because for us, commending ourselves (like boasting last week) has negative commendations. But the verse actually has the sense ‘Am I commending myself? You bet I am!’ In 2:16, he’s already said we are up to this, because God has said he will speak through us. Now he goes a step further and says you can trust me – and trust God – because he changes people through the message I preach.
I suspect that as he writes this, Paul feels pretty much like every Christian who ever has to write a CV. It’s a weird experience. Here is everything I have achieved, here is how fantastic I am, but please give me this job because I am humble, servant-hearted and completely dependent on Christ for my sufficiency. That’s the space Paul’s in as he writes this letter. Yes, he’s commending himself, backing himself, but only because God uses weak people to bring his life-changing message. So he says Yes, I’m commending myself. Or, would you like me to add some letters of recommendation to you, or from you?
Presumably, every Tom, Dick and Socrates who showed up on the philosophy circuit had references proclaiming their genius. Paul relies on something else: 2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone.. These are the only credentials that Paul needs. Paul knows that people matter to God, and people matter to him. That’s why he describes God as having inscribed this letter on his heart and those of his team. It’s a graphic picture. And it’s a striking reminder that authentic ministry is about people. People whom God has changed through the gospel spoken by you. For Paul, that included the Corinthians. Even with all the grief that they caused him, he writes this: 3 You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
Christ writes the letter, and Paul got to deliver it. I suppose to be strictly accurate, Paul could have said that God wrote on their hearts through the gospel which he delivered, but you get the point. This morning we need to remember that God changes people through the gospel.
I’d been an Assistant Minister for a couple of years, and was very discouraged. In particular, I was discouraged because I hadn’t seen any of my friends become a Christian for years. I hadn’t seen anyone in the church where I was on staff become a Christian for years. And so I had come to the not unreasonable conclusion that it was my fault. At that point, my boss made me lead a Christianity Explained course. I announced it half-heartedly for a couple of Sundays, and showed up half-heartedly, expecting no-one to turn up. I mean I wouldn’t have if I’d known I was leading it. As it turned out, there were half a dozen people there, which was good. After I’d started, another lady turned up late. She had those scared ‘caught in the headlights’ eyes, and, despite my best efforts, was clearly utterly confused by what was going on. It became pretty obvious that she didn’t have a clue. She didn’t know there were two testaments. She had clearly never opened a Bible before. In fact, it turned out she had only come because the day before her teenage daughter had called her a hypocrite for making her go to the Girls Brigade when she didn’t even go to church. When she left an hour later, I thought to myself ‘it will be miracle if she came back’. The next week she was there ten minutes early, and all I can say is that it was obvious that God had brought her to new life in Christ – she looked like a different person! I have to say it was ever so slightly annoying, because after week 1 of Christianity Explained, you don’t really have enough information to become a Christian properly yet, but God clearly had other ideas. But that night I realized like never before that it is God who changes people through the gospel. He does the heavy lifting. He makes the difference. And that takes all the pressure off us, and also refocuses us on people. Because God changes people through the gospel.
I wonder if we need to be reminded of that this morning? In a way, it’s a no brainer because God changed us. We’ve seen it happen. But we forget all too easily. When we rub shoulders with those we love, and they’re not listening, or even worse, hardening themselves, shutting us down, it can be very discouraging. But hear this: God changes people through the gospel.
And that’s why Paul can writes what he does in verse 4: It is because God changes people that Paul can write 2 Cor 3:4 Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Christ has called Paul, sent Paul and enabled Paul, and because of Christ, Paul can be confident of God’s approval. It is God who underwrites everything he does: 5 Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant-not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. It’s that word competence or sufficiency again. How do we know that God can use us? There is nothing to trust in or about ourselves. But God has done all that it takes and more – for people like us to be involved in his great work of bringing people to new life. And what has he done?
Stick with me here, because verse 6 unlocks everything that Paul says in the rest of this chapter. His basic point is that our adequacy comes from the fact that God has equipped and appointed us as ‘ministers or perhaps emissaries of a new covenant’, that is, a covenant under which God actually changes people.
The contrast Paul is working with is a relatively simple one – God worked through Moses back on Mt Sinai, and that was great, but now God has, through Christ, 6 He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant-not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. New Covenant ministry is of the Spirit, rather than the letter, and brings life rather than death. Now God brings people to life through the gospel – this message is the power of God to salvation.
According to verses 7 and 8, Moses’ ministry on Sinai was pretty impressive, but the ordinary people like us speaking the gospel in the power of the Spirit blows that out of the water! I would love to have seen and heard Moses preaching from behind a mask (a veil actually) on Mt Sinai (Exodus 34). It must have been epic. But it didn’t actually have the power to change anyone – the fact that there was a rebellion while he was up there and 3000 died, even though they already had letters written on stone directly from God shows that there was still something missing.
And, according to verse 8, if the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? if the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!
Do you get his point? When we speak the gospel to our friends, our stumbling words are more powerful, our ministry carries more punch than Moses standing on Mt Sinai with his face glowing with God’s reflected glory.
That’s because God changes people through the gospel spoken by us. It brings righteousness – real time, actual, God-honouring, moral righteousness. A clear verdict that we are innocent in God’s sight. Our ministry brings real change. It so far outstrips old covenant ministry that Paul can say, For what was glorious (Moses’ face) has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. 11 And if what was transitory came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts. One light bulb on its own looks bright, but set beside the floodlights at the Gabba and it is completely overwhelmed. Such is the difference between what happened on Sinai, and the ministry which God has given to us.
So Paul says that we can hold our heads up, and get on with gospel ministry because God himself has given us a ministry which is mind-blowingly superior even to that of Moses. Our ministry is wider, deeper and more effective than that of Moses
Because God changes people through the gospel. This is how He works. This is the new covenant ministry to which God has called us – and this is the second reason why we can set ourselves up to keep serving Jesus in the long haul. Not only does God speak through us when we speak the gospel, but he changes people through the gospel. There’s one more thing. You can see that in 3:12-18 – God reveals his glory through the gospel.
GOD REVEALS HIS GLORY THROUGH THE GOSPEL
Listen to what Paul says – 3:12 Since we have such a hope – that God speaks and changes people through the gospel-, we are very bold. Because we have this solid hope that God has changed us and will change us and others through the gospel, we keep speaking – and we do so frankly, openly. The word is the same one used right at the end of Acts, where Paul is happily preaching the gospel to all and sundry in Rome without any restriction – and in particular, without any veil to stop people seeing the reflected glory of God.
Verse 13 is a little tricky: but the point is clear: our ministry is not like that of Moses, We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away.. Moses’ veil was to prevent people seeing not just Moses’ own face, but the glory of God which made his face glow. We don’t have to wear a mask, because now God works to reveal his glory in the gospel. Despite all the positive things we could say about Moses’ ministry, it led to people’s minds being hardened, not transformed.
And even today, says Paul, this is what is played out when Moses’ words are read without reference to Jesus
But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But what happens when we speak the gospel? God works to reveal his glory to people like us in a way that would have blown even Moses’ mind! Back in Exodus the veil meant the glory shining from Moses’ face didn’t have any effect – now the veil is rendered useless, and we get to gaze on the splendour and majesty of God himself in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Glory is a small word which carries huge significance. It is all the Godness of God packed in to two syllables – and Oh I hope you can see this – the ministry which God gives to us is one in which people like us get to see the glory of the Father in the face of the Son through the Spirit.
Whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.
God reveals his glory through the gospel.
And that’s exactly what Paul says in the last two verses of the chapter: 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit… Paul is saying that it was actually God the Spirit who was doing the revealing at Sinai – and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. The Spirit is the one who shows people God’s glory – and now, in these new covenant days, it is the Spirit who removes veils –
18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
One writer sums up what Paul is saying beautifully: ‘Unveiled hearts allow the message to be heard, understood and responded to. Unveiled faces have open access to God’s presence and thus are contemplating the glory of the Lord as they are in a constant process of transformation by the Spirit.’ What Paul says here about what he does through people like us is staggering.
First, God reveals his glory in Christ through the gospel. Have you got that? When we speak about Jesus, God works by the Spirit to show people how stunningly gloriously beautiful he is. And there is nothing better, nothing more satisfying, nothing more important to see in the universe than this. When we speak the gospel, when we teach the Bible, this is what’s going on. God is revealing himself in Christ -and that should be more than enough to re-energise us, and sober us, and excite us, whether we are struggling to get 17 unruly kids to engage with God’s word, or stumbling our way through a home group on a bad night, or standing in front of God’s gathered people, This is what’s happening – God is revealing himself through the gospel. And as he does that..
The second staggering thing in verse 18 is that God is transforming us by observation. According to Paul, as we gaze at the image of Christ, we become like him, until that day when we shall be like him, and shall see him as he is. Now at one level, I wish I could change my physical appearance just by staring really hard at someone with more hair, a smaller nose and ears with less character, but sadly, I can tell you, it doesn’t work like that – unless we are gazing at the Lord Jesus Christ himself in all his glory. When we stare at him, it rubs off. To use Paul’s phrase, we are transformed gradually but dramatically even as we speak – we are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, Through the ministry which God has given us, God reveals his glory to us, and changes us through exposure to this glory.
So hands up, which of is worthy to share in a ministry like this? A ministry which involves the God of the universe speaking to people through the gospel, changing people through the gospel, revealing his glory through the gospel in a way which remakes us in the image of Christ – who is sufficient for a new covenant ministry like this?
Am I? Are you? Oh yes we are: 5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. God has spoken – who are we to argue? So in our weakness, our insecurity, our hypocrisy, our brokenness, let’s get on with it, and take this life-giving, glory-revealing, heart-changing gospel to a world which desperately needs in, in the strength which our God supplies, for the glory of the Lord Jesus.