Smelling Like Jesus

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Having just returned from a global leadership conference where we heard testimonies from countries like North Korea and Iran, I am struck again by the verses in 2 Corinthians where Paul refers to us as the smell of Christ in the world.   Whether in the marketplace, the community, or even in prison, believers strive to be the pleasant aroma of Christ’s love in the world.

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal process in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him.  For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To the one we are the smell of death; to the other the fragrance of life.  And who is equal to such a task? (2 Corinthians 2:14-17)

Paul tells the Corinthians that they are the fragrance – the aroma – the sweet scent – of Christ.   He uses a vivid analogy that the Corinthians understood immediately, but we need some explanation.

He is describing a special parade that the Roman army did called a “Triumph.”  A victorious general who had led an on-field conflict, killed at least 5000 of the enemy, and extended the territory of Rome, would be honored with a victory march through the city of Rome to the capitol building.  The march would go like this:

  • The state officials would start the march, followed by the trumpeters.
  • Then would follow those carrying the spoils of war.
  • Others would carry symbols of the conquest – like models of citadels or ships which had been captured or destroyed.
  • Then came a white bull – to be sacrificed later.
  • Then captive princes, leaders, generals would be led through the city. They were chained together and headed for jail – or in most cases – execution.
  • Officers would follow and then the priests – carrying censors filled with burning incense.
  • The victorious general would come next in his glorious chariot.
  • And the parade concluded with the soldiers marching and shouting, “We have triumphed.”

From that analogy, Paul says that we are the aroma of Christ.  The risen Lord Jesus Christ is the VICTOR and we go into the world as part of his “Triumph parade” singing the words of the hymn,

“Thine be the glory, risen conquering son.

Endless is the victory.  Thou o’er death hast won.”

As his soldiers, we are led through the world in triumphal procession because our Lord has won the victory over death.  The fragrance is the fragrance of victory – but the passage also says it is the fragrance of death.  What does that mean?

Consider that parade.  If you were a returning soldier or a Roman citizen, the smell of the incense from the censors would mean victory.  But for the captives, who smelled the same incense, it was the fragrance of death – because it reminded them of their own imminent execution.

To the world, we are the fragrance of Christ.  Our Christ-like behavior, our attitudes, our work habits, our relationships, our service to other lingers in the air – like a beautiful perfume or cologne.  Did you ever enter the room 2-3 hours after someone wearing a strong perfume?  It lingers.  It creates a memory – even after the person is gone.

But our fragrance is not always well received.  To some we are the “fragrance of death” because Christ-like behavior makes them feel judged – even if we say nothing!   After we declare our loyalty to Jesus Christ, some people will apologize for their swears or curses or anything else that they consider “unchristian.”  And they’ll do this without our saying a word.  Why?  The presence of Christ in us carries with it both victory and condemnation.  Light illuminates darkness and reveals that which was hidden.  Salt stings as it heals.  A touch can bring pain – even if it’s part of the healing process.  To some, we will be the fragrance of death!

This idea of being Christ’s fragrance is obviously significant in countries where public proclamation is punished by prison or death.  Christlike behavior and demonstrated love in these contexts leaves a distinctive, often counter-cultural, aroma.

But being the “sweet smell” of Christ is also significant if we’re seeking to be a witness to people we’ve worked with for years or family members who’ve heard the message many times.  In these situations, I enter by breathing the prayer, “Lord Jesus, guide my words and my behavior today so that something about my life leaves the fragrance of Christ.  Help me to smell like Jesus today.”

What does the fragrance of Christ look like?

  • It could mean doing something anonymously in service to others – like raking a neighbor’s leaves or washing their car when they’re not home.
  • Practicing “random acts of kindness” to waiters/waitresses, flight attendants, desk clerks, service station people
  • Guiding co-workers or peers in ethical and moral decisions – even without a biblical explanation.

Being the fragrance of Christ in the world means action towards others that leaves the scent of Christ’s love lingering for others to ponder.