The Dangers of "Triumphalism" (2 Cor. 2:14)
One of the more not-so-subtle delusions that exists in many corners of the professing Christian church is what I refer to as Triumphalism. I use that word rather than a more technical theological phrase (“Over-realized Eschatology”) lest I lose you up front.
The bottom line in triumphalism is the belief that the overt and consummate victories that we will experience only in the age to come are available to us now. I’m not saying that we as Christians shouldn’t rejoice in the daily victories we experience by virtue of the enthronement of Christ Jesus and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. Yes, we have authority over demonic spirits (cf. Luke 10:17-20). Yes, we have been blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3) and have been “raised” up with Christ and are “seated” together “with him” (Eph. 2:6). We who believe “that Jesus is the Son of God” have “overcome” the world (1 John 5:5). And Jesus himself promises great and glorious rewards “to the one who conquers” now (Rev. 2:7, 11, 12; etc.).
So the last thing I want to endorse or encourage is a defeatism that fails to embrace and act upon every good and glorious blessing secured for us by the Lord Jesus Christ. But where many often go astray is in their claim that such truths necessarily entail visible and irreversible victories in the present that result in a life free from persecution, suffering, or demonic assault. It’s the notion that since I’m a “child of the King” I have a right to live in financial prosperity and complete physical health, free from that “groaning” under the lingering curse of the fall which Paul appears to indicate will continue until the return of Christ (cf. Romans 8:18-25). I’m talking about that often arrogant and presumptuous triumphalism that belittles those whose “lack of faith” has resulted in a lingering, daily struggle from which Jesus came to deliver them.
What I want to articulate is a perspective on the Christian life that celebrates both our legitimate spiritual triumphs and our on-going daily trials. Nowhere in Scripture is this dynamic tension any more evident than in 2 Corinthians, where Paul can speak of being “afflicted in every way, but not crushed” and of being “perplexed, but not driven to despair” and of being “persecuted, but not forsaken” (2 Cor. 4:8-9). The life he envisions is one in which we “always” carry about in ourselves “the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:10).
Perhaps the best way to explain what I have in mind is found in Paul’s description of his own ministry in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17. In this meditation, I want us to look at v. 14. There Paul writes: “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.” Many will undoubtedly say: “But Sam. There it is! God always leads us in triumph! So why are you so down on triumphalism?” A closer look at what Paul means will help answer that question.
The Greek word translated "triumph" or "triumphal procession" (thriambeuo) is used in the NT only here and in Colossians 2:15. Most agree that the term refers to the Roman custom in which a victorious general would lead his conquered captives in triumphal procession, often to their execution. However, a number of other interpretive suggestions have been made.
The KJV renders this word, "causeth us to triumph" (a view embraced by Calvin: "Paul means that he had a share in the triumph that God was celebrating" ). However, as several have noted, the accusative following the verb is never the triumphing subject but always the object of the triumph.
C. K. Barrett popularized the view that the image is of a victorious general leading his troops, not his conquered enemies, through the city streets in a triumphal celebration. On this view, Paul is one among many soldiers, all of whom are triumphant conquerors.
Some have rendered this, "God triumphs over us," in the sense that all Christian converts are "conquered" by God at conversion. Paul, then, would be alluding to his encounter with God on the Damascus Road. Others acknowledge the imagery of the Roman triumphal procession but limit its application to the shame endured by those who were captured. Thus, Paul is simply identifying himself with the humiliation of those prisoners who were put on parade.
The most probable interpretation is the one which recognizes an obvious paradox in Paul's use of this 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. Paul Barnett provides this helpful explanation:
“There is paradox here, as implied by the metaphor ‘lead [captive] in triumph,’ which points at the same moment to the victory of a conquering general and the humiliation of his captives marching to execution. 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).
Thus Paul is not boasting of his victories but compares himself to conquered captives who are being treated rudely and subjected to humiliation while yet in the glorious service of God. Paul asserts that it is precisely in his weakness and suffering as a captive slave of Christ that God receives all the glory as the One who is triumphantly victorious. Compare this passage with how Paul described his apostolic calling in 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."
It was also customary for those being led in this procession to disperse incense along the way. However, the reference to "aroma" (vv. 14,16) and "fragrance" (v. 15) probably also points to the OT sacrifice and the odor of the smoke that ascended to heaven, in which God took unique pleasure. Thus Paul portrays his proclamation of the gospel of Christ as a strong fragrance, "unseen but yet powerful, impinging on all who encounter Paul in his sufferings as he preaches Christ wherever he goes. In the victory parade metaphor of this verse, the apostle is God's captive, whom God leads about spreading the knowledge of Christ – incense-like – by means of the proclamation of Christ" (Barnett, 152). Or again, "as God drags Paul around as his slave, the knowledge of Christ emanates from Paul wherever he goes" (Witherington, 366).
I love 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, a glorious reality that God makes known through the suffering and struggles of his children.
There is much that is already ours, spiritual triumphs to enjoy for which we give unending thanks. But there is also much that we do not yet possess, blessings that are reserved for the age to come. It’s not always easy to discern when we should, by faith, confidently claim our inheritance and when we should, in humility, embrace the weakness of living in a fallen world. May God grant us the wisdom to know the difference.