Paul likens his Apostolic ministry to the victory parades of Roman generals. After a triumph, these generals would take their captured prisoners of war through a city in a procession celebrating the win, and the prisoners scattered incense to draw attention to the victory. Similarly, Christ parades throughout the world Paul and the other Apostles, who spread the fragrance—the gospel—that announces Jesus’ victory over the devil (2 Cor. 2:14).
Adding another layer to this image, Paul in today’s passage says that he is the fragrance or “aroma of Christ to God” (v. 15). The picture is from sacrifices of the old covenant. When those sacrifices were offered rightly and burned, the scent of animal flesh on the altar was “a pleasing aroma to the LORD” (Lev. 1:9). Paul and the other Apostles in their preaching and suffering for the gospel are a pleasing fragrance to the Lord, an offering to Him connected to salvation. Of course, Paul does not mean that the Apostles’ sacrifice supplements the sacrifice of Jesus that alone purchases our salvation. Instead, he is highlighting how the preaching of the crucified Christ creates servants who suffer, in a sense, for the sake of our salvation, and this suffering is pleasing to God. The sacrifice of the Apostles does not save, but it points us to Christ’s sacrifice as a living picture of His travails.
Under the old covenant, the aroma of the sacrifices was a sweet smell of life for the repentant worshiper, for it signified divine forgiveness. But the only scent that the unrepentant experienced was the smell of death, for they did not know God’s pardon. The fragrance of the Apostles and their message operated similarly, and even now the same is true of believers in general. The suffering heralds are a sweet smell to those who believe, for by their preaching the mercy of Christ is received. The message is a horrible smell of death to those who reject it, for the graciousness of God in Jesus is being spurned (2 Cor. 2:15–16). This reminds us that the gospel, when preached rightly, is not received the same by all. Some believe, and some do not, and we may not change the gospel to bring about the effect we desire. John Calvin comments, “Whatever may be the issue of our preaching, it is, notwithstanding, well-pleasing to God, if the Gospel is preached, and our service will be acceptable to him; and also, that it does not detract in any degree from the dignity of the Gospel, that it does not do good to all; for God is glorified even in this, that the Gospel becomes an occasion of ruin to the wicked.”