29) The Perks and Pleasures of Spiritual Triumph (Revelation 3:1)
If the surrounding culture declares that we are alive but Jesus says we are dead (Rev. 3:1), something’s seriously wrong with our standard of success. Our discernment is seriously flawed. Worse still is when we ourselves think we’re alive but in fact are dead. All too often, the criteria by which we judge success and the criteria employed by God are vastly at odds. What constitutes good, effective, Christ-exalting ministry is one thing to the world, even the church, and another thing altogether to God.
As we saw in the previous meditation, this was the case in the church at Sardis, where Jesus declared that they had the “reputation of being alive” but in fact were “dead.” By “dead” Jesus didn’t mean altogether lifeless or utterly hopeless. Later, in v. 4, he indicates that the church in that city still has “a few . . . who have not soiled their garments.” And his appeal to the church that it “wake up, and strengthen what remains . . . and repent” indicates that all is not lost. There is one final chance for renewal and life and hope for the future. But the church is in a sorry state: filled with religiosity, hypocrisy, in many respects only nominally Christian.
That a church could be widely known for its activity and influence, all the while “dead” in the estimation of Christ, is a frightening, sobering reality. Obviously, what impresses men does not necessarily impress God!
Jon Bloom, director of Desiring God ministries, reminded me in an e-mail that “since our hope is in the God who chooses the smallest seed in the garden to produce the largest tree, chooses a shepherd for his greatest king, chooses fishermen for apostles, and chooses to become a carpenter from Nazareth in his incarnation, we should be encouraged by every advance of the gospel, but very careful about what we judge as impressive or fruitful for long-term.”
This ought to make one cautious on reading The Church Report’s most recent list of “The 50 Most Influential Christians in America.” Some of the individuals are certainly deserving of that label and I pray their influence would spread. But in the case of others, perhaps even the majority, one has to ask: influential for doing and saying and accomplishing what?
Nowhere is the disparity between human and divine standards of judgment more vividly seen than in Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17.
“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. 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. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.”
“There it is!” shouts the preacher of prosperity, health, and wealth. “Triumphal procession! God wants us to win, to have it all, to celebrate in a victory parade our triumph over low self-esteem, low wages, shattered dreams, and all forms of suffering!” Well, that’s what many on the list are preaching on a regular basis. Evidently they’ve convinced enough people to subsidize million dollar salaries, vacation homes, private jets, and whatever else is “essential” to the fulfillment of their “ministry”.
Perhaps we should look at Paul’s words a bit more closely. In all likelihood they refer to the Roman custom in which a victorious general leads his conquered captives in triumphal procession, typically to their execution. There is an obvious paradox in Paul's use of this familiar metaphor. On the one hand, it is God who leads Paul (and by extension, others who likewise preach the gospel as he does) in triumph. Yet, on the other hand, to be led in triumph by someone else implies captivity and suffering and humiliation. Paul Barnett provides this helpful explanation:
"The metaphor is at the same time triumphal and anti-triumphal. It is as God leads his servants as prisoners of war in a victory parade that God spreads the knowledge of Christ everywhere through them. Whereas in such victory processions the prisoners would be dejected and embittered, from this captive's lips comes only thanksgiving to God [v. 14a], his captor. Here is restated the power-in-weakness theme (cf. 1:3-11) that pervades the letter. . . . [Thus], to be sure, his ministry is marked by suffering, but so far from that disqualifying him as a minister, God's leading him in Christ as a suffering servant thereby legitimates his ministry. Christ's humiliation in crucifixion is reproduced in the life of his servant" (150).
Or, in the words of Ben Witherington, Paul "is not saying that he is being led around in triumph, but rather that, like the captives in a triumphal process, he is being treated rudely while in the service of God" (366). Thus Paul asserts that it is precisely in his weakness and suffering as a captive slave of Christ Jesus that God receives all the glory as the One who is triumphantly victorious. Compare this passage with 1 Corinthians 4:9,
“For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men.”
How many so-called “apostolic” ministries do you hear citing that verse today (see also 1 Cor. 4:10-13)?
But there’s more. It was also customary for those being led in this procession to disperse incense along the way, perhaps an allusion to the OT sacrifice and the odor of smoke that ascended to heaven, in which God took unique pleasure. Thus Paul portrays his proclamation of the gospel as an unseen yet powerful fragrance permeating the lives of his hearers. “As God drags Paul around as his slave, the knowledge of Christ emanates from [him] wherever he goes" (Witherington, 366).
Observe Paul's imagery: knowing Jesus is like a sweet aroma! There is a spiritual and emotional pleasure in knowing Jesus that can best be compared to the physical delight we experience when our nostrils are filled with the fragrance of the choicest of perfumes or the soothing aroma of our favorite food. Simply put, knowing Jesus smells good!
Those who hear this message are divided into two, and only two, groups: "those who are being saved" and "those who are perishing" (see 1 Cor. 1:18). The message of Christ is itself responsible for dividing the hearers in this way. Neutrality is not an option. To the one, Paul's message is a fragrant aroma, a life-sustaining spiritual oxygen; to the other, a repulsive stench, a poisonous gas that suffocates and kills.
Note well: the preacher (whether Paul or you) is a pleasing fragrance to God simply for being faithful to proclaim Christ Jesus. We are a fragrance to God even when our message is rejected. Whether our efforts lead to "life" or "death", we remain "an aroma of Christ to God" (v. 15a). We have succeeded when we preach Jesus truly and biblically. It is not within our power to convert our hearers. Our success, ultimately, is not measured by the number of our converts, or the proportion of saved to lost, but by the integrity and faithfulness with which we preach the gospel of Christ crucified.
Paul contrasts his philosophy of ministry with those who, according to v. 17, are “peddlers of God’s word.” The word translated "peddling" (kapeleuo) is found only here in the NT. The related noun form (kapelos) was virtually synonymous with the idea of a "merchant" who regularly cheated his customers by misrepresenting his product in order to increase his profit. Thus the idea is of someone who tampers with the gospel, perhaps eliminating (or at least minimizing) its offensive elements, or altering certain theological points, so that the finished "product" will be more appealing to the audience. Their aim is to gain as great a reputation, as large a following, and as lucrative an offering as possible.
I fear that the triumphalism so prevalent in our pulpits today is a far cry from what Paul had in mind in 2 Corinthians 2. But don’t many of these 50 “most influential Christians” have impressive credentials that authenticate the validity of their ministries? Perhaps, but I’m more impressed by the “credentials” Paul cites in 2 Corinthians 11:23-33 to vindicate his apostolic authority when he was challenged by the false teachers in Corinth. What does the apostle list on his resume? Well, let’s see:
“far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”
Ah, the perks and pleasures of spiritual triumph!