Let’s face it – no one wants to smell bad. An unpleasant odour makes it hard enough for people who are already your friends to endure your presence, but it’s even worse when you’re trying to make a first impression. Perfume, cologne and deodorant companies make a fortune out of humanity’s widespread desire to replace our unappealing, natural body odour with sweeter, synthetic fragrances.
But how do you smell? I’m not talking about physically, but spiritually…
In reading 2 Corinthians this week, I was reminded that Christians simultaneously manage to smell sweeter than anyone else in the world and stink with an overpowering stench. How can this be?
Paul’s words explain:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ, and who reveals the fragrance of the knowledge of him through us in every place.
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to those on the one hand an odour from death to death, and to those on the other hand a fragrance from life to life. (2 Cor 2:14-16, LEB)
When Christians live as Christ’s ambassadors on mission in the world – like Paul and his gospel-partners did – we carry a very distinctive spiritual scent with us wherever we go. “The fragrance of the knowledge of Christ” accompanies us as we proclaim the gospel and the truth concerning Christ is revealed through our testimony.
But this fragrance is a bit like the scent of jasmine flowers – regarded by many as an incredibly pleasant aromatic perfume – and yet nonetheless having detractors who find it overwhelming and repugnant. Or the smell of what many South-east Asians call the “King of Fruits”, the durian: which is so potent that many who catch a whiff of it can’t bear to be in the same suburb as the offensive odour – while some of the fruit’s loyal devotees find the smell drawing them irresistably to its source.
Christians who live and proclaim the truth of Jesus – the gospel – emit such a scent. It’s a potent, powerful and even inescapable spiritual force.
For one set of people, it is the worst kind of smell possible an “odour from death to death.” These people hate God – as all with sin within them do in some respect – and are already spiritually dead in one sense (Eph 2:1-2) and yet they are perishing: continually falling away from the life-giving grace of their Creator towards a terrible, final state of everlasting destruction. When they encounter the knowledge of Christ (or to use Paul’s metaphor, smell it emitting from Christians), they condemn themselves by further hating God as He reveals Himself to them in His Son. The gospel and those who share it don’t smell sweet to these people – because the odour they smell spells death for them. Many will therefore naturally express their disdain for such an odour and be so repelled that they distance themselves from it as much as possible.
But for the other group of people, the same fragrance is received very differently. It is a sweet-smelling aroma and signifies their wonderful spiritual journey from life to life. Though these people also hated God in one form or another, they have smelt His sweetness revealed to them in His Son Jesus. They have come to love Him and He has granted them an abundant, spiritual vitality – which begins now with an amazing renewing of their souls and continues to blossom and bloom into a more and more glorious and enjoyable life throughout eternity. Like the durian-devotee who is not put off loving a smell that so many find repulsive, because she is convinced it spells good news for her: something glorious awaits her if she follows that aroma!
But anyone in this second category received the fragrance and its accompanying life through the faithful ministry of the gospel. But this isn’t merely a message to say Christians think other Christians smell sweet. Or that church members should regularly compliment their ministers on their pleasant, spiritual aroma.
As Paul engages in gospel ministry he seeks to put himself and the Corinthian Christians in the right frame of mind concerning the mixed response that the apostles and other agents of the gospel will receive from people. If some are turned off by the revelation of who Jesus is and reject Christians for smelling too much like their Master, it’s because God has not granted them life in Christ. The gospel is bad news to those who love their sin and refuse to turn from it under any circumstances. The more they see (or smell) of Jesus and His people, the more agitated they are by the claims the gospel makes over their lives and the more condemned they will stand before God if they continue to spurn the message and Saviour that could have brought them forgiveness and eternal life.
But Paul’s readers are to take encouragement from the fact that although we may meet many people like this in the course of seeking to live for Jesus – there will be people who are attracted to God and Christianity as the fragrance of Christ reaches them through us. Paul knew he would be rejected and despised by many and seemingly get nowhere with a significant number of people he ministered to. Yet he leaves that reality in the hands of God, while taking heart in the fact that many will be drawn by the sweetest aroma in the universe and embrace its source: the Lord Jesus.
If you’re a Christian, those around you should be able to smell the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ in your life – especially if you faithfully seek opportunities to share the gospel. But how good or bad you smell doesn’t depend on whether you discovered a secret spiritual equivalent of the perfume or cologne you might use to make a good impression on a date. If you’re growing in Christ-likeness, some people you meet will find you refreshing, while others will think you’re putrid.
It’s up to God and the people in question as to how they respond to this fragrance. The most important thing we can do is carry the scent of Christ and look forward to seeing God bring people to life through it.