What Should Christians Smell Like? #261 + How Does God Love His people?

Happy Lord’s Day, friends! As is my habit, please allow me to invite you to join us this Sunday at 11am Pacific on Facebook at the VBC Salinas page for our church gathering. We will have a time of worship and we will hear God’s Word discussing how the resurrection of Jesus (1st Corinthians 15) leads to the deliverance and comfort of God spoken of in 2nd Corinthians 1. Sadly, due to horrible air quality in our city and an order only allowing us to meet outside, our church will be gathering online only this Sunday, and you are most welcome to join us.

Today, we are reading quite a few chapters: 2nd Samuel 8-9, Psalms 58 and 59, Ezekiel 16 and 2nd Corinthians 2. I’d like to focus on 2nd Corinthians 2, but before we do that, we need to focus on one of the most remarkable and gutting passages in the entire Bible – the love song of God to His people in Ezekiel 16. I suspect most Christians haven’t read Ezekiel 16. It is incredibly long – the 7th longest chapter in the Bible, and it is intense. Literally might be the most intense chapter in the Bible. This is a 60 verse declaration of God’s love for His people Israel, and His response to her repeated acts of spiritual adultery. Imagine being married to a spouse that you wholeheartedly love, and yet he/she is absolutely unfaithful to you with pretty much anybody that comes by. Most would abandon ship quickly in that situation and move on, but this is not what God does. He persists in love, and yet His punishment is rather terrifying. Ezekiel 16 is absolutely unsettling to read the intensity of God’s love and His passion at being jilted by His people. It is very, very metaphorical, and very poetic. I’m going to read the first part now – the declaration of love, and then we will read the latter part after our discussion of 2nd Corinthians 2. Prepare yourself.

Most people would not think or speak about God’s love in this manner, but I find it very interesting that this is how God speaks of His love. There is absolutely no doubt of His passion, and this gives us a new understanding of the deep and fiery feelings of God for His people. Wow.

Today’s focus question is intentionally a bit on the cheeky side, but we are indeed going to talk about what Christians should smell like…and the answer, of course, is Christ – metaphorically speaking, anyway. Let’s read 2nd Corinthians 2 and discuss.

I like what C.S. Lewis says about this passage:

Thus in Gal. 4:19, Christ is to be ‘formed’ inside each believer—the verb here used (μορφωθῇ) meaning to shape, to figure, or even to draw a sketch. In First Thessalonians (1:6) Christians are told to imitate St Paul and the Lord, and elsewhere (1 Cor. 11:1) to imitate St Paul as he in turn imitates Christ—thus giving us another stage of progressive imitation. Changing the metaphor we find that believers are to acquire the fragrance of Christ, redolere Christum (2 Cor. 2:16): that the glory of God has appeared in the face of Christ as, at the creation, light appeared in the universe (2 Cor. 4:6); and, finally, if my reading of a much disputed passage is correct, that a Christian is to Christ as a mirror to an object (2 Cor. 3:18).

C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper, EPub Edition. (HarperOne, 2014), 5–6.

And I’ll close with John Piper’s powerful reflection on this passage:

So Paul pictures his missionary life and ministry as spreading a fragrance of the knowledge of Christ. And the reason I say it is a picture of a sacrifice being offered to God is that in verse 15 he says that the aroma is first “to God.” It is like incense being offered to God: “For we are the aroma of Christ to God” (v. 15a). Not first to the world, but to God.

Ephesians 5:2 gives the best explanation of this picture: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” So when Christ died for sinners, it was like a fragrant offering that was very pleasing to God. Now here is Paul standing in the place of Christ as a missionary and suffering like Christ in the service of his conquering Lord, and he says, “We are the aroma of Christ to God.” In other words, when we suffer as missionaries in the service of Christ, it’s like Christ suffering for the lost, and God smells this fragrance of sacrificial love and it pleases him. That’s the picture so far.

But then comes the heart-rejoicing and heart-breaking parts of missionary service. This aroma of the love of Christ in the sacrificial service of the missionary may please God, but it does not please everybody. This aroma divides the world. Look at this division in verses 15–16, “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.”

The Heart-Breaking Side of Missions

In other words, some people smell the sacrificial love of Christ in the life of a missionary and it only smells like death. They hear the gospel and all they hear is death. They look at the cross and all they see is death. They see no life. No hope. No future. No joy. And so they turn away. And if they turn away forever, they die. They are the perishing. The smell of death leads to death. That’s the heart-breaking side of missions. They are people who don’t believe. They don’t see Christ as precious. They don’t see his suffering as a treasure. They don’t smell his death for sinners as the sweetest fragrance in the universe. It’s not a satisfying fragrance. It’s simply the smell of death.

The Heart-Rejoicing Side of Missions

But there is the heart-rejoicing side of missions. Verse 16: “… to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” Those who are being saved smell the death of Christ as the aroma of life. They see in his death the substitute that they so desperately need before God. The Son of God dying in their place is the fragrance of life. So they don’t turn away. They believe him and receive him and embrace him and treasure him and they live—forever. Smelling Christ as the aroma of life gives life.

Those are Paul’s two pictures of his life as a missionary. 1) God conquered him when he was his enemy. He is now leading Paul both in triumph and in suffering. There is reason to exult in this procession. And there is reason to groan in this procession. Paul’s calling is to show the sufferings of Christ to the world in his own suffering. 2) The other picture is of Christ as a sweet smelling sacrifice or incense to God, and Paul sharing in Christ’s mission and sufferings so that he becomes this very fragrance in the world—which some smell as life and live, but others smell as death and die.

Who Is Sufficient for These Things?

Now Paul asks at the end of verse 16—and I make it our closing question—“Who is sufficient for these things?” Who can bear the weight of knowing that the aroma of your Christ-exalting life will lead some to eternal life and others to eternal death? It’s as serious as if you walked down Nicollet Mall at lunch hour and some would smile and come in behind you and be saved, and everyone else would drop dead. Who could bear it? That’s what Paul asks.

In one sense, the answer is no one. But that’s not Paul’s main point. He said in 2 Corinthians 1:12 and Romans 1:5 that he carries out this very ministry by the grace of God. He is not sufficient—you and I are not sufficient—in ourselves. No missionary feels sufficient. But 2 Corinthians 3:5 says, “Our sufficiency is from God.”

So the utterly crucial question for many of you, as you have prayed and thought about giving your life, or a substantial part of it, to missions, is: Can I do this? Can I bear this weight of being the aroma of Christ in some new place? By God’s grace, you can.

John Piper, Sermons from John Piper (2000–2014) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2014).

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