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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
2 Corinthians 2

 

 

Verse 1

II.

(1) But I determined this with myself.—Better, I determined for myself. The chapter division is here obviously wrong, and interrupts the sequence of thought. St. Paul continues his explanation. He did not wish to come again, i.e., to make his second visit to Corinth, in grief, and if he had carried out his first plan that would have been the almost inevitable result. He consulted his own feelings (“for myself”) as well as theirs.


Verse 2

(2) Who is he then that maketh me glad?—The force of the “for,” with which the verse opens, lies below the surface. He had wished to avoid a visit that would cause sorrow to himself and others, and events had shown that he was right. But it might be said, perhaps had been said, that he didn’t seem to care about giving pain when he wrote, as, e.g., in 1 Corinthians 4:18; 1 Corinthians 5:2-7; 1 Corinthians 6:5-8. “Yes,” is his answer; “but then the pain which I inflict” (the pronoun is emphatic) “gives to him who suffers it the power of giving me joy, and so works out an ample compensation;” a thought to which he returns in 2 Corinthians 7:8. The abruptness of the question and the use of the singular number shows that he has the one great offender, the incestuous adulterer of 1 Corinthians 5:1, before his mind’s eye. He sees him, as it were, and can point to him as showing how well the course he had taken had answered.


Verse 3

(3) And I wrote this same unto you.—Here, again, we have to read between the lines. The pronoun, which does not refer to anything that has been actually said, shows with what definiteness certain passages in his first letter were stamped upon his memory. The question might be asked, “Why had he written so sharply?” And he makes answer to himself that the result had been what he had intended: that his motive in so writing as to give pain had been to avoid giving and receiving pain when he came in person. He wanted his visit to be one of unmixed joy for himself, and if so, it could not fail, looking to their mutual sympathy, to give his disciples joy also.


Verse 4

(4) Out of much affliction and anguish.—Men might think that it had cost him little to write sharp words like those which he has in his mind. He remembers well what he felt as he dictated them—the intensity of his feelings, pain that such words should be needed, anxiety as to their issue, the very tears which then, as at other times (Acts 20:19; Acts 20:31; 2 Timothy 1:4), were the outflow of strong emotion. Those who were indignant at his stern words should remember, or at least learn to believe this, and so to see in them the strongest proof of his abounding love for them. The heart of St. Paul was in this matter as the heart of Him who said, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten” (Revelation 3:19). The motive in such a case is not to give pain, but to lead those whom we reprove to feel how much we love them. On the word for “anguish,” see Note on Luke 21:25. Looking to the fact that it is used only by St. Luke and St. Paul in the New Testament, we may, perhaps, see in it another example of medical terminology. The anguish was like that of a tight pressure or constriction of the heart.


Verse 5

(5) But if any have caused grief.—The man who had been the chief cause of his sorrow is now prominent in his thoughts. He will not name him. He is, as in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, and here in 2 Corinthians 2:7, “a man,” “such a one.” The abrupt introduction of the qualifying clause, “but in part,” and the absence of any authoritative punctuation, makes the construction ambiguous. It admits of three possible explanations: (1) “If any have caused grief, it is not I alone whom he hath grieved, but in part, to some extent—not to press the charge against him too heavily—all of you” They, the members of the Corinthian Church, were really the greatest sufferers from the scandal which brought shame upon it. (2) “If any have caused grief, he hath not grieved me, save in part” (i.e., he is not the only offender), “that I may not press the charge against all of you—so that I may not treat you as if you were all open to the same condemnation, or had all caused the same sorrow.” (3) Combining parts of (1) and (2): “It is not I whom he hath grieved, save in part, that I may not lay the blame on all of you.” Of these (1) seems the simplest and most natural. In any case, it is important to remember that the position of the pronoun in the Greek, “me he hath not grieved,” makes it specially emphatic.


Verse 6

(6) Sufficient to such a man is this punishment.—Better, perhaps, this censure, or rebuke: the Greek word epitimia being different from those in Matthew 25:46, and in Hebrews 10:29. It is natural to infer that this was somewhat after the pattern of the course marked out in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5. A meeting of the Church had been held, and the man delivered to Satan. Possibly this was followed by some suffering of body, supernaturally inflicted, or coming as the natural consequence (not less divine because natural) of remorse and shame. It was almost certainly followed by ex-communication and exclusion from religious and social fellowship. St. Paul had clearly heard what it had been, and thought that it had been enough.

Which was inflicted of many.—Actually, by the majority. The decision, then, had not been unanimous. The minority may have been either members of the Judaising “Cephas “party, resenting what they would look upon as St. Paul’s dictation, and perhaps falling back on the Jewish casuistry, which taught that all the natural relationships of a proselyte were cancelled by his conversion; or the party of license, against whom the Apostle reasons in 1 Corinthians 6-8, and who boasted of their freedom. The Passover argument and the form of the sentence in 1 Corinthians 5 alike suggest the idea that the offender and those who defended him were Jews. On the other hand, see Note on 2 Corinthians 7:12.


Verse 7

(7) Ye ought rather to forgive.—The indignation which St. Paul had felt has passed, on his hearing of the offender’s state, into pity and anxiety. The time had come for words of pardon and comfort and counsel. What if he should be “swallowed up,” and sink as in the great deep of sorrow? Suicide, madness, apostasy, seem to float before his mind as but too possible results.


Verse 8

(8) That ye would confirm your love.—The word for “confirm” (better, perhaps, ratify—comp. Galatians 3:15) suggests the thought of an act as formal and public as the rebuke had been. The excommunicated man was to be re-admitted to fellowship by a collective act of the Church.


Verse 9

(9) For to this end also did I write . . .—The tense of the Greek verb, which may be what is known as the Epistolary aorist, used by the writer of the time at which he writes, would not be decisive as to what is referred to, and the words may mean: “I write to you thus to see whether you are as obedient now as you were before—in one line of action as in the other.” If he refers to the First Epistle, it is to intimate that he gave the directions in 1 Corinthians 5:3-7, not only for the removal of a scandal and the reformation of the offender who had caused it, but as a test of their obedience. On the whole, the former interpretation seems preferable. It scarcely seems like St. Paul to make the punishment a trial of obedience. There is a characteristic subtle delicacy of thought in his suggesting that, having shown obedience in punishing they should show it also in forgiving.


Verse 10

(10) To whom ye forgive any thing, I forgive also.—The procedure of 1 Corinthians 5:3-7 is again, obviously, in his mind. Though absent in body, he had made himself a sharer spiritually in that censure. He now, anticipating their compliance with his request, makes himself a sharer in the sentence of absolution.

For if I forgave any thing.—Better, if I have forgiven; and so in the following clauses. The case is put hypothetically, though he has an actual offender in his thoughts, because he had, in 2 Corinthians 2:5, all but disclaimed the character of being an aggrieved person. He confines himself, therefore, to saying: “So far as I was aggrieved, I have forgiven; so far as I have forgiven, it is for your sake as a body, not merely for my own and that of the offender.”

In the person of Christ.—Literally, in the face of Christ (See Note on 2 Corinthians 1:11.) In the presence of Christ is, therefore, a possible rendering. The English version is probably correct, the phrase conveying the same sense as “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” in 1 Corinthians 5:4, but in a somewhat stronger form. He had forgiven, as though Christ was acting in or by him. The forgiveness would be as authoritative as the censure. It will be noted that he claims in its fulness the authority given to the Apostles of Christ in John 20:23.


Verse 11

(11) Lest Satan should get an advantage of us.—Literally, lest we should be cheated (or out-maneuvered) by Satan. The phraseology is that of one who is, as it were, playing a game against the Tempter, in which the souls of men are at once the counters and the stake. The Apostle’s last move in that game had been to “give the sinner over to Satan” with a view to his ultimate deliverance. But what if Satan should outwit him, by tempting the sinner to despair or recklessness? To guard against that danger required, as it were, another move. Stratagem must be met by strategy. The man must be absolved that he may be able to resist the Tempter.

We are not ignorant of his devices.—The language comes from a wide and varied experience. St. Paul had been buffeted by a messenger of Satan (2 Corinthians 12:7); had once and again been hindered by him in his work (1 Thessalonians 2:18); was ever wrestling, not with flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:12); and so he knew how the Tempter could turn even the rules of an ascetic rigour, or the remorse of a sin-burdened conscience, into an occasion of yet further and more irremediable sin.


Verse 12

(12) Furthermore, when I came to Troas.—The article, perhaps, indicates the Troad as a district, rather than the city, just as it does in the case of Saron. (See Note on Acts 9:35.) The case of the offender had come in as a parenthesis in 2 Corinthians 2:5-8. He returns to the train of thought which it had interrupted, and continues his narrative of what had passed after he had written the First Epistle. (On Troas, see Notes on Acts 16:8.) A Church had probably been founded in that city by St. Luke, but St. Paul’s first visit to it had been limited to a few days, and there are no traces of his preaching there. Now he comes “for the gospel’s sake.” That there was a flourishing Christian community some months later, we find from Acts 20:6.

A door was opened unto me.—Opportunities for mission-work, as we should call them, are thus described in 1 Corinthians 16:9. There is something of the nature of a coincidence in his using it of two different churches, Ephesus and Troas, within a comparatively short interval.


Verse 13

(13) I had no rest in my spirit.—Instead of coming himself straight from Ephesus, as he had at first intended, and had intimated probably in the lost letter of 1 Corinthians 5:9, or by Timotheus (1 Corinthians 4:17), or pressing on through Macedonia, as he purposed when he wrote the First Epistle (1 Corinthians 16:5), he had sent on Titus (himself possibly connected with Corinth: see Note on Acts 18:7) to ascertain what had been the effects of that Epistle on the Corinthian Church. Titus was to return to him at Troas. Not meeting him there, St. Paul, in his eager anxiety to hear something more than Timotheus had been able to tell him, left Troas, in spite of the opening which it presented for his work as a preacher of the gospel, and hastened on into Macedonia. Taking the route that he had taken before, he would probably go to Philippi, where he would find St. Luke; and we may conjecture, without much risk of error, that it was there that he and Titus met.


Verse 14

(14) Now thanks be unto God.—The apparent abruptness of this burst of thanksgiving is at first somewhat startling. We have to find its source, not in what the Apostle had written or spoken, but in what was passing through his memory. He had met Titus, and that disciple had been as a courier bringing tidings of a victory. The love of God had won another triumph.

Causeth us to triumph.—Better, who always leads us in His triumph. There is absolutely no authority for the factitive meaning given to the verb in the English version. In Colossians 2:15, it is translated rightly, “triumphing over them in it.” It is obvious, too, that the true rendering gives a much more characteristic thought. It would be unlike St. Paul to speak of himself as the triumphant commander of God’s great army. It is altogether like him that he should give God the glory, and own that He, as manifested in Christ, had triumphed, and that Apostle and penitent, the faithful and the rebellious, alike took their place in the procession of that triumph.

The imagery that follows is clearly that of the solemn triumphal procession of a Roman emperor or general. St. Paul, who had not as yet been at Rome, where only such triumphs were celebrated, had, therefore, never seen them, and was writing accordingly from what he had heard from others. Either from the Roman Jews whom he had met at Corinth, many of them slaves or freed-men in the imperial household, or the Roman soldiers and others with whom he came in contact at Philippi, possibly from St. Luke or Clement, he had heard how the conqueror rode along the Via Sacra in his chariot, followed by his troops and prisoners, captive kings and princes, and trophies of victory; how fragrant clouds of incense accompanied his march, rising from fixed altars or wafted from censers; how, at the foot of the Capitoline hill, some of the prisoners, condemned as treacherous or rebellious, were led off to execution, or thrown into the dungeons of the Mamer-tine prison, while others were pardoned and set free. It is not without interest to remember that when St. Paul wrote, the latest triumph at Rome had been that solemnised at Rome by Claudius in honour of the victory of Ostorius over the Britons in A.D. 51, and commemorated by a triumphal arch, the inscription on which is now to be seen in the court-yard of the Barberini Palace at Rome; that in that triumph Caractacus had figured as a prisoner; and that he and his children, spared by the mercy of the emperor, had passed from the ranks of the “lost” to those of the “saved” (Tacit. Ann. xiii. 36). According to a view taken by some writers, Claudia and Linus (2 Timothy 4:21) were among those children. (See Excursus on the Later Years of St. Paul’s Life, at the close of the Acts of the Apostles.

The savour of his knowledge.—There is obviously a reference to the incense which, as in the above description, was an essential part of the triumph of a Roman general. It is there that St. Paul finds an analogue of his own work. He claims to be, as it were, a thurifer, an incense-bearer, in the procession of the conqueror. Words, whether of prayer or praise, thanksgiving or preaching, what were they but as incense-clouds bearing to all around, as they were wafted in the air, the tidings that the Conqueror had come? The “savour of his knowledge” is probably “the knowledge of Him:” that which rests in Him as its object.


Verses 14-16

The Triumph of the Vanquished

But thanks be unto God, which always leadeth us in triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest through us the savour of his knowledge in every place. For we are a sweet savour of Christ unto God, in them that are being saved, and in them that are perishing; to the one a savour from death unto death; to the other a savour from life unto life.—2 Corinthians 2:14-16.

1. The text in its immediate connexion presents a striking instance of a peculiarity in St. Paul’s style of writing. He often drops the subject in hand and goes off, at the suggestion of a word, into a digression which has little apparent relation to it. In the thirteenth verse of this chapter he says that he left Troas in deep distress at not having met Titus there, and came into Macedonia. But, notwithstanding his sorrow, at the mention of Macedonia he startles us by an outbreak of thanksgiving, “But thanks be unto God, etc.” He does not explain this outburst of thankfulness, and tell us why he thus breaks forth. But we happen to know why. In Macedonia he received Titus, whom he expected at Troas, with news from Corinth, which he had anticipated with dread, but which, as it turned out, instead of confirming his fears, filled him with joy. He feared the Corinthians might have resented the faithfulness of his dealing with them in his former letter, and been hardened by it, instead of being made penitent, but Titus brings him news of their repentance and reformation, and he is overwhelmed with joy. He finds he has achieved a triumph when he half dreaded a defeat, and he cannot help expatiating upon it at the mention of the name of the place where Titus met him. And in doing so he generalizes the thought to the expression of this truth—that the exercise of sincerity and faithfulness on the part of a Christian minister, in “speaking the truth in love,” is always a triumph in the sight of God, whatever may be its effect upon the persons addressed. He therefore enlarges the sphere of his joy, and thanks God, “which always leadeth us in triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest through us the savour of his knowledge in every place”.

2. The image before the mind of the Apostle is the triumphant entry of a Roman general who, after some victorious campaign, has returned to the capital laden with spoils. The civic dignitaries met him at the gate. The long vista of the Sacred Way that led to the Temple of Jupiter—the most venerable spot in the imperial city—was lined with crowds of spectators. The route was strewn with flowers, and adorned with various devices. The doors of the temples were flung wide open, and from innumerable altars clouds of incense were wafted into the streets. There also fragrant spices were burnt till the air was filled with the rarest perfumes. As the stately procession advanced, with its troops of prisoners and trains of waggons, a shout of universal joy rent the air. It was the moment when the proud and boastful confidence of the people tasted its most exquisite gratification, when the wine of their exultation was quaffed to the dregs. But amid all the rejoicing and smoking of incense, there were some whose hearts were full of ominous forebodings. The captives who enhanced the glory and lustre of the victor were destined to taste the severity of their masters. Arrived at the temple, which marked the termination of the route, some were mercilessly slain, to show how Rome rewarded her opponents, while some were spared, to remember what they owed to her haughty generosity. To the one the pageantry of the spectacle with its far-spreading odours was a savour of death unto death, to the others a savour of life unto life. So, says St. Paul, has it been with us. God has led us about “from place to place in the train of His triumph to celebrate His victory over the enemies of Christ.” By us He has made known the reality of His might, in us has been seen the evidence of His conquest; and wherever we have gone there we have been a living testimony to His prevailing prowess. Just as the prisoners who were paraded through the streets of Rome showed that the victorious general had been engaged in no sham warfare, so we have been led from place to place as proofs of the saving vigour of the gospel of His grace.

A couple of centuries earlier, Corinth had fallen before the military prowess of Rome. The ruin of the city had been completed by a conflagration in which, as St. Paul had before reminded them, the hovels of the vast slave population, built of “wood, hay, stubble,” had been consumed. But in addition, Mommius, the victorious consul, had collected many of the pictures and statues of the city to adorn, together with a train of captives, his triumph. Perhaps the ancestors of some of those to whom St. Paul wrote had been of that throng; the memory, at least, of that humiliation could not have died away. Yet the blush of shame which the mention thereof brought to the face must have been lost in astonishment at one who rejoiced in his defeat, and exulted in that he was led captive—and that always—by the conquering grace of God.1 [Note: J. T. L. Maggs, The Spiritual Experience of St. Paul, 45.]

I

The Conqueror

1. God Himself is the great Conqueror. It was God who in the Person of Christ had entered into conflict with the enemies of man, and having spoiled principalities and powers, had made a show of them openly. Our triumphs only begin after God has triumphed over us, after He has brought us to follow in the order of His progress, and so to testify to the riches of His grace. He had begun His triumph over the Apostle when He changed him at Damascus from a bitter foe into a faithful servant, and there also the triumphs of St. Paul himself had commenced. Every service he had rendered since, every hardship he had suffered, every deed he had dared, had only attested how thorough and complete that victory had been. And so it must be with us all. So long as we prevail and carry everything before us, so long are we really suffering defeat. We are straining our efforts to win inferior and worthless prizes, while we allow the only good ones to remain unsought. And attainment in such a case is worse than failure. It confirms the soul in its false pursuit, hardens it into a habit of selfishness, and, while deceiving our hearts with the plaudits of a triumph, rivets upon us the fetters of the slave. Only when God checks us in our wilful course and shows us the folly of our doings, only when He baffles us and brings us to see, through the ruin and dim perplexity of our defeated aims, the nobler purposes He has called us to embrace, do we begin to master our worst foes and win our truest victories.

2. How does God gain the victory over us? As was said about the first Christian emperor, so it may be said about the great Emperor in the heavens, “In hoc signo vinces”—“by this sign Thou shalt conquer!” For His only weapon is the cross of His Son, and He fights only by the manifestation of infinite love, sacrifice, suffering, and pity. He conquers as the sun conquers the thick-ribbed ice by raying down its heat upon it, and melting it into sweet water. So God in Christ fights against the mountains of man’s cold, hard sinfulness and alienation, and turns them all into rivers that flow in love and praise, by the warmth of His own radiation. He conquers simply by forbearance and pity and love.

Petrus Venerabilis approached the Moslem, as he says, “not with arms but with words, not by force but by reason, not in hatred but in love”; and in so far he was the first to breathe the true missionary spirit toward the Saracens. But he did not go out to them. It was reserved for the Spanish knight to take up the challenge and go out single-handed against the Saracens, “not by force but by reason, not in hatred but in love.” It was Raymund Lull who wrote: “I see many knights going to the Holy Land beyond the seas and thinking that they can acquire it by force of arms; but in the end all are destroyed before they attain that which they think to have. Whence it seems to me that the conquest of the Holy Land ought not to be attempted except in the way in which Thou and Thine apostles acquired it, namely, by love and prayers, and the pouring out of tears and of blood.”1 [Note: S. M. Zwemer, Raymund Lull, 52.]

II

The Captives

1. St. Paul thinks of himself and of his coadjutors in Christian work as being conquered captives, made to follow the Conqueror and to swell His triumph. He is thankful to be so overcome. What was deepest degradation is to him supreme honour. The image implies a prior state of hostility and alienation. St. Paul was one who had resolutely kicked against the pricks. He had stood out against the claims of the new faith and allegiance to the sway of Christ. “I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” This rebel heart Jesus would win. As there have been men whose defeat has seemed essential to the extension of the Kingdom of God, foemen whose boldness or strength of character has marked them as heroes in the ranks of wickedness, so was this enthusiast for Judaism a foe whom Christ would vanquish and bind, and then win over to Himself. As Captain of our salvation He entered upon the campaign, and in the broad plain outside the gates of Damascus there was struck the decisive blow that broke down the persecutor’s resistance, vanquished him in the struggle, and led him away a conquered man. Yet learning that this loss was gain, that in his defeat by Christ it was as though he had won a splendid victory, he cries: “I thank Him who leadeth me in triumph.”

St. Paul rejoices that he is led in the train of his conquering Lord. This, he declares, is the real significance of his apostolic ministry. Across rivers and seas, over mountains and across plains, into cities and through wildernesses, among cultured yet degenerate men, among hardy highlanders is he led, the trophy of Divine grace. Yet in that service he never wearies, but loses himself in the joy of the victorious Lord. His wanderings are not self-chosen; he is but a captive following the Conqueror’s car. Men gaze at him spending his life, sacrificing his comfort and all else to diffuse a faith he once resolutely opposed; they see the unshrinking, unmeasured devotion which dedicates his very being to his apostolic work. Well, he is but a vanquished man, whose whole work now is to adorn, as best he may, his Conqueror’s triumph. If men would know the invincible power of the Lord of armies, let them mark him who now attends His triumph, the former champion of Judaism, of old the persecutor of the Church; and let them listen to his boast, “I thank Him who always leadeth me in triumph.” For the hand of Jesus bound up the wound, assuaged the aching smart of his discomfiture; the victory of Divine might became the victory of Divine love; and the submission of defeat grew into the allegiance of devotion.

2. And why does he rejoice? Because the captives led by God share in the great triumph. They may be a spectacle to angels or to men. Sometimes in the stocks: often accounted the off-scouring of all things; yet, in the spiritual realm, they are made to triumph always. Conquered, they conquer; enslaved, they are free; last in this world, but in the front rank of heavenly society. God has first triumphed over them, and is now making them partners of His triumph. Conybeare and Howson thus translate the language of the text: “But thanks be to God, who leads me on from place to place in the train of His triumph, to celebrate His victory over the enemies of Christ; and by me sends forth the knowledge of Himself, a stream of fragrant incense, throughout the world.” A pretty free translation, it is true; but embodying, no doubt, the precise meaning of the writer. St. Paul regarded himself as a signal trophy of God’s victorious power in Christ; his Almighty Conqueror leading him about through all the cities of the Greek and Roman world, as an illustrious example of His power at once to subdue and to save. The foe of Christ was now the servant of Christ. Grace Divine had subdued and disarmed him. The rebel, the persecutor, the conspirator with hell, was brought into subjection, and rejoiced in his burden as a blessing. As to be led in triumph by man is miserable degradation, so to be led in triumph by the Lord of Hosts is highest honour and blessedness.

3. The number and the quality of the captives who walked in the triumphal procession of any Roman general were the measure of the magnitude of the victory won by him. People could argue from the multitude and the rank of the captives up to the skill and prowess of the victorious general. In much the same way the power, the subduing and resistless power of Jesus, is revealed by the captives He takes, by the multitude of prisoners who walk before His triumphal car. In imagination one can see the triumphal procession of which the Apostle here speaks. And when it comes to the trophies of victory, they are a multitude which no man can number; they are of every kindred and tribe and people and tongue; they are of every colour and speech.

All these centuries Jesus Christ has been casting His spell upon the great thinkers of the world, and taking captive their hearts. Augustine, Galileo, Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Locke, Samuel Butler, Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning—they are all in the procession. People tell us that in these days science is discarding faith. Some loud and blatant folk tell us that no man of any intellect now believes. They forget that the greatest scientists of our day and time, and other master-minds like the late Mr. Gladstone, all delight to own allegiance to Jesus. And though there be some who seem to repudiate His authority for the moment, like that great and candid soul, G. J. Romanes, they will return to Jesus before long and gladly acknowledge Him as Lord and King. St. Paul in the procession is a tribute to the mighty power of Christ. St. Paul in the procession is a proof—if proof were needed—that we shall yet see all things put under Him; that the kingdoms of this world must become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ.1 [Note: J. D. Jones, The Gospel of Grace, 180.]

III

The Incense-Bearers

In the second clause of the fourteenth verse the figure abruptly changes. Any attempt to explain the phrase “maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge” as referring to the captives is forced. The incense was carried, not by the captives, but by the incense-bearers, and St. Paul uses this feature of the procession to illustrate the work of the Christian for God. As captives God leads us in triumph in Christ; as incense-bearers it is ours to make manifest the savour of the knowledge of Christ.

1. Like incense-bearers, Christians are to spread wherever they go the knowledge of the grace of their Divine Conqueror. The captives in the procession through the streets of Rome were in a way a testimony to the general. They were a tribute to his prowess and military skill. They revealed him as a general to be feared and dreaded. And their death at a certain stage in the procession was a testimony to his pitilessness. St. Paul, too, was a testimony to his Captor. But not to His pitilessness. And not simply to His prowess. St. Paul was a testimony to His grace and mercy and love. He manifested the savour of the knowledge of God in every place. The savour of it! The sweetness and winsomeness and charm of it! A look at the captive made men realize the love and grace of the Captor. People looked at St. Paul, and they fell in love with St. Paul’s Master and King. For St. Paul was a man full of radiant peace and joy. He went through the world with a singing heart and a shining face. And this was how he accounted for it: “By the grace of God I am what I am.” It was his Conqueror who gave him his peace and his joy. St. Paul’s speech, his looks, his life, all commended his Gospel; they gave charm and winsomeness to his message. He manifested in every place the savour of the knowledge of God.

T. H. Green had been a Fellow of Balliol for twenty years or more, and for about twelve years he was Tutor in Philosophy in the College. His lectures on the Ethics of Aristotle were said to be quite the best lectures given in his time. And his personal influence was even greater than his influence as a lecturer. “I never go to see Green without feeling that I ought to be ashamed of myself, and by Jove, I am ashamed of myself,” an undergraduate of these days said to me. It was not by any peculiar grace of speech or manner that he acquired this influence; his instinct was to be silent and shun society; and few of his sayings are recorded. His strong and simple character seemed to need no words to express it; he lived his thoughts, not “moving about in worlds unrealized.” but carrying his convictions into practice.1 [Note: The Life and Letters of B. Jowett, ii. 192.]

It is personal influence that determines the size of a life; not words, or even deeds.2 [Note: R. W. Barbour, Thoughts, 72.]

2. The incense-bearers can manufacture no incense of their own; they derive all the incense from Christ. “We are a sweet savour of Christ unto God.” By this must be meant that we may so live as to recall to the mind of God what Jesus was in His mortal career. It is as though, as God watches us from day to day, He should see Jesus in us, and be reminded of that blessed life which was offered as an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour. It is a gracious encouragement, “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit.”

A joiner wielding a hammer, a ploughman making a furrow, a mariner guiding his bark on the ocean, a merchant conducting his business, a medical man attending his patients, a judge administering justice, a teacher instructing the young, a boy or a girl attending school, a woman whose duties lie specially at home, may each of them, in every act, be unto God a sweet perfume of Christ, because they do everything in His name, animated by love to Him, relying on His grace, and seeking His glory.3 [Note: J. Kelman, Redeeming Judgment, 235.]

In speaking on one of the Beatitudes, Dr. Moberley says that the men who exercise the greatest personal and abiding influence upon their fellows are not the great men of history, but sometimes the inconspicuous men who have lived together in the shade and have cast upon the world some sweet song, some deep thought, which lived after they were gone. He takes as illustration the names of two men who lived about 200 years ago. One of them was the famous Duke of Marlborough, who had the greatest influence perhaps among his contemporaries in setting William the Third on the throne of these realms, who became afterwards one of the greatest generals in history, who won great victories over the Grand Monarch, which will never be forgotten so long as the British flag floats anywhere in the world; and he compares with him who occupied a foremost place in the history of his day, in their present influence over the hearts and souls of men, a certain bishop—Ken—who, because he could not take the oaths of William the Third, was expelled from his bishopric, who lived in poverty, and was regarded with suspicion, but who was the author of two immortal hymns—the simple morning and evening hymns which we all know—

“Awake, my soul, and with the sun

Thy daily course of duty run,”

and the other,

“Glory to Thee, my God, this night,

For all the blessings of the light.”

And Dr. Moberley asks—which of these two, the Duke or the Bishop, exercises the greater power in the world to-day? I have no hesitation in replying, he says, it is the inconspicuous bishop, whose name is not even mentioned in some of the standard works of the period. He lives in his hymns.1 [Note: Memories of Horatius Bonar, 69.]

IV

The Incense

The Apostle has viewed himself and his coadjutors as captives, and then as incense-bearers. But now he regards himself and them as the incense itself. In the Roman triumphal processions the incense arose to the gods who had given the victory; our service rises as incense to the one true God. And because our service is the outcome of our living union with Christ, it is at the same time Christ’s incense arising to God.

1. To St. Paul’s view all those to whom he preached were divided into two classes—those who were being saved, and those who were perishing. The former were being increasingly delivered from sin, from unbelief, from unrest, from all the power of evil. While iniquity was surging around them on every side, they were becoming more and more confirmed in the choice of all good; were attaining to a remarkable beauty and nobleness of Christian character; and were free and joyful in the love and service of God. In striking contrast with the community around, they were being saved. The latter were giving themselves up to licentiousness and vice, were undergoing a process of rapid deterioration, and coming increasingly under the power of evil. Their moral nature, not to speak of their spiritual, was falling into utter wreck and ruin. In a word, they were visibly perishing.

At the foot of the Capitoline Hill the ancient triumph divided. Some of the captives were led off to the dark precincts of the Tullianum, where they were put to death. Others were reserved to live. The same fragrance was associated with the perishing on the one hand and the saved on the other. Thus it is in all gospel preaching and holy living. The sun that melts wax hardens clay; the light that bleaches linen tans the hands which expose it; the cloud is the light to Israel, and darkness to Egypt. Those who have life are helped to intenser life, and those who lack it are only driven to further excesses of sin. To one we are the savour of life unto life, to the other of death unto death.1 [Note: F. B. Meyer, Paul, 78.]

2. The message, which is the sweet perfume of Christ to both classes, becomes in the one case life tending unto life, and in the other death tending unto death. That is to say, things are to us what we are to them. Opposite effects follow the same cause. The gospel that blesses some condemns others. The gospel has this peculiarity—that it touches the deepest point in our nature, and affects our character more profoundly than anything else can. It does not deal with passing phases of our life merely, or with the accidents of our environment: it bears directly upon our eternal welfare. It speaks with a clear, authoritative voice, resolving its whole message into one supreme offer whose terms can hardly be misunderstood. And as every truth carries with it a certain authority just because it is truth; and the authority becomes more distinct the higher the truth is; so in the gospel—which is the highest truth of all, corresponding most entirely to the sum of human needs, and thus attesting the oneness of its origin with that of the humanity which it has come to redeem—so in the gospel, there is felt to be an authority, unique of its kind, and its rejection is marked with the deepest dye of guilt.

(1) “To the one we are the savour of life unto life.” The ministry of the grace of God in Christ is the breathing forth of a spiritual essence fragrant with life. It has the power of life, of the sweetness of life, of the joy of life, of the beauty of life. As ministers of “the Word of the truth of the Gospel,” “as truth is in Jesus,” we are sowers of living seed which grows from life to life; from life quickened to life raised up; from life liberating itself from the bondage of death, cleansing itself and putting on its beautiful garments—as summer life frees itself from its winter imprisonment—to life free, fully clothed, putting forth its blossoms and breathing out fragrance; from life weighted and restricted by its “foundations in the dust” to life which has put off all weight, free to rise in its own living vessel, and that vessel eternal in the heavens—from life to life, life natural to life spiritual.

The gospel is a perfume tending unto life, because its successful progress tends to the strengthening and developing and enlarging of the Christian life—“that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” Conversion is a daily, hourly thing. It is the “continuous revelation of sin met by the continuous revelation of Christ.” Is not this the deep pathos of life, that within each of us is going on direst contest between the sin-principle and the Christ-principle? Thus it is that Christ for us is “life unto life.” The more life, the more it creates. The more of Christ, the more of life; the more of life, the more of love.

I will go to that fair Life, the flower of lives;

I will prove the infinite pity and love which shine

From each recorded word of Him who once

Was human, yet Divine.


Oh, pure sweet life, crowned by a godlike death;

Oh, tender healing hand; oh, words that give

Rest to the weary, solace to the sad,

And bid the hopeless live!


Oh, pity, spurning not the penitent thief;

Oh, wisdom stooping to the little child;

Oh, infinite purity, taking thought for lives

By sinful stains defiled!1 [Note: Sir Lewis Morris, Songs of Two Worlds.]

(2) “To the other the savour of death unto death.” St. Paul felt acutely that he could not be the minister of the word of life to men without increasing their responsibility and aggravating the condemnation of those who rejected it, who, comparatively, might have had no sin if this light of life had not shone upon them, but who now would have no cloak for their sin. For, in proportion to its quickening power of life in those who receive it, does it work death in those who refuse to accept it. Just as the balmy, life-giving breezes of spring bring life to the constitutionally sound, but death to those radically diseased, so is it with the gospel. To some it is life to hear it, to others death; to the one the sweet breath of life, to the other the odour of death—“of death unto death,” the death of indifference unto the death of obduracy; the death of hopelessness unto the death of despair.

As the foul malaria of a swamp tells of the presence of death, and is itself creative of more death, so an un-Christlike man reveals his moral condition as one of death, and, in revealing it, involves others in his fate. This is the law of spiritual influence. No act or thought dies, but is a living force, germinant of good or evil. Cast your deed or speech into the current of the world’s life, and it will affect that current to its utmost bound. Speak but a word for God or man into the listening air, the winds will seize it and waft it adown the centuries, and men in distant lands and times, feeble and tempest-tossed, hearing it “will take heart again.” The reverse holds good. Selfishness and meanness, narrowness of thought or vision, mammon-worship, indifference to the eternal realities around you let these things mould you, and you become not only dead yourself, but a bearer of death to others, a sower scattering with careless hand seeds of anarchy and ruin.2 [Note: S. McComb.]

Thought’s holy place is like a sepulchre;

The wine of love’s communion cup is spilled;

The House of Life is like a tavern filled

With harlots, slaves and strangers, and the stir

Of dancing feet before the flute-player,

Of shallow voices shrill and counterfeit:

And there the smoky lamps of lust are lit,

And faith is frail, and truth is sinister.

Yet, in the sacred chambers of the mind,

He lies as in his grave who is the Lord.

No rumours vex him, and his eyes are blind

As death, and he is dead—like Lazarus!

What Christ shall resurrect him with a word?

What Saviour bring him back to being thus?1 [Note: G. C. Lodge, Poems and Dramas, ii. 139.]

The Triumph of the Vanquished

Literature

Burrell (D. J.), The Church in the Fort, 276.

Cross (J.), Old Wine and New, 161.

Hodge (C.), Princeton Sermons, 314.

Jones (J. D.), The Gospel of Grace, 172.

Kelman (J.), Redeeming Judgment, 224.

Maclaren (A.), Creed and Conduct, 375.

Maggs (J. T. L.), The Spiritual Experience of St. Paul, 43.

Manning (H. E.), Sermons on Ecclesiastical Subjects, 223.

Moinet (C.), The Great Alternative, 279.

Parker (J.), City Temple Pulpit, ii. 89.

Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, vii. 249.

Spurgeon (C. H.), New Park Street Pulpit, i. (1855), No. 26.

Whitworth (W. A.), The Sanctuary of God, 179.

Christian World Pulpit, xxxviii. 349 (S. McComb); xxxix. 81 (F. W. Farrar); lvii. 385 (W. C. Doane).

National Preacher, xxv. 185 (E. F. Hatfield).

Preacher’s Magazine, xi. (1900) 209 (G. A. Clayton).


Verse 15

(15) We are unto God a sweet savour of Christ.—If we believe this Epistle to have been written from Philippi, it is interesting to note the recurrence of the same imagery of a “sweet savour” in the Epistle to that Church (Philippians 4:18). Here the mind of the writer turns to the sterner, sadder side of the Roman triumph. Some who appeared in that triumph were on their way to deliverance, some on their way to perish (this is the exact rendering of the words translated saved and lost), and this also has its analogue in the triumph of Christ. He does not shrink from that thought. In his belief in the righteousness and mercy of Christ, he is content to leave the souls of all men to His judgment. He will not the less do his work as incense-bearer, and let the “sweet savour” of the knowledge of God be wafted through the words which it has been given him to utter. All things are for His glory, for His righteousness will be seen to have been working through all.


Verse 16

(16) To the one we are the savour of death unto death.—As with other instances of St. Paul’s figurative language, we note the workings of a deeply, though unconsciously, poetic imagination. Keeping the image of the triumph in his mind, he thinks of the widely different impression and effect which the odour of the incense would work in the two classes of the prisoners. To some it would seem to be as a breath from Paradise, giving life and health; to others its sweetness would seem sickly and pestilential, coming as from a charnel house, having in it the “savour of death,” and leading to death as its issue.

And who is sufficient for these things?—The question forced itself on St. Paul’s mind as it forces itself on the mind of every true teacher, Who can feel qualified for a work which involves such tremendous issues? If we ask how it was that he did not draw back from it altogether, the answer is found in other words of his: “God has made us able (sufficient) ministers of the New Testament” (2 Corinthians 3:6); “our sufficiency is of God” (2 Corinthians 3:5). It is obvious that even here he assumes his sufficiency, and gives in the next verse the ground of the assumption.


Verse 17

(17) For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God.—More accurately, We are not as most, as the greater number. There is a ring of sadness in the words. Even then the ways of error were manifold, and the way of truth was one. Among Judaisers, and the seekers after Greek wisdom, asserters of license for liberty, questioners of the resurrection: how few were those who preached the true word of God in its purity! The word for “corrupt,” formed from a word which signifies “huckster” or “tavern-keeper,” implies an adulteration like that which such people commonly practised. We, says St. Paul, play no such tricks of trade with what we preach; we do not meet the tastes of our hearers by prophesying deceits. The very fact that we know the tremendous issues of our work would hinder that. Comp. St. Peter’s use of the same figure in “the sincere (the unadulterated) milk of the reason” (1 Peter 2:2). It is doubtful whether the imagery of the triumph is still present to his thoughts. If it were, we may think of the word “corrupt” as connected with the thought of the sweet savour: “Our incense, at any rate, is pure. If it brings death it is through no fault of ours. It is not a poisoned perfume.”

As of sincerity, but as of God.—The two clauses are half connected, half contrasted. To have said “of sincerity” alone would have been giving too much prominence to what was purely subjective. He could not feel sure that he was sincere unless he knew that his sincerity was given to him by God. (For the word “sincerity,” see Note on 2 Corinthians 1:12.)

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 2:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/2-corinthians-2.html. 1905.

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