The Apostle Paul had spent long and valuable time to establish the church at Corinth, left there, and then the church turned off the right path in numerous ways that you can read in 1 and 2 Corinthians. It was a wreck. The latest and greatest travesty was a mutiny against Paul by false teachers who would take over and destroy the church.
Paul had sent Titus to find out the church's reaction to a letter that he had sent actually between 1 and 2 Corinthians, what some call the "severe letter," a non-inspired epistle meant to help them again with problems. He had not heard word of how the people had responded to the correction. Between his health, the terrible persecution in Ephesus, his concern to hear from Titus, and his desire to preach elsewhere, Paul left Ephesus to Troas. The plan was to rendezvous with Titus in Troas, so while there, Paul preached the gospel and we can see from 2 Corinthians 2:12 that he was seeing results there, a door was open unto him. However, because of his discouragement over Corinth, he didn't stay with the new converts in Troas, but ditched them to go meet up with Titus somewhere between Corinth and Troas. I can visualize Paul standing on the pier of some sea port madly jumping and waving as Titus's ship neared port.
Paul was seeing himself as a loser in the ministry. He had not given up, but he had taken the step of forsaking an open door to preach and make disciples. He "had no rest in his spirit" (v. 13). Why keep preaching if the result is going to be another group that just goes down the tubes again? How would that be worth it? But Paul didn't stay down, and he elaborates on what got him out of his condition before he ever even saw Titus. He did see Titus and we read the results of that reunion in 2 Corinthians 7. His letters had their desired effect and that did bring Paul great happiness. However, in this intermediate time, he had to get himself out of this poor state of mind. He did that by turning his attention upward toward God and thanking God for certain realities, certain truths.
In Philippians 4, Paul writes about how he remains content despite bad conditions. A major solution was maintaining the right thinking and focus. Here in 2 Corinthians 2, Paul ticks off the thoughts that carried him out of the duldrums. They do represent a philosophy of ministry for him. Paul's thinking and thanking revolve around an event the people in Corinth would have understood: the Roman Triumph. When a victorious Roman army returned from battle, the celebrants would let loose a victory fragrance, women would throw down cut flowers at the feet of the returning soldiers, that crushed under their feet would also release a sweet smelling savour. That smell would follow the victory train everywhere it went for the enjoyment of everyone in its path, and finally would waft into the nostrils of the emporer himself at the end of the procession. Paul uses this picture to communicate what delivered him from discouragement.
Paul's attitude changes when he thinks of the reality of the triumph God had given him in Christ that he could bring to every place when he preached. Paul's horizontal circumstances were not his reality. He wasn't a loser. He was a winner. And how was he a winner? He not only brought the fragrance of Christ's Triumph to all those he met in his work for God, but he was sending it to God Himself (v. 15), who in the metaphor would be the emporer. That fragrance of Christ's triumph would rise to the nostrils of God with both those who were saved and with those who would perish.
Success in ministry for Paul did not depend on people being saved. He would also succeed when people were not saved. In the procession were the victorious soldiers and then the captured prisoners. Both would carry the fragrance of Christ's triumph to the nose of the heavenly Father. If you know that you have succeeded no matter what the reaction to your gospel preaching, as long as you preached a true gospel, then you are a success no matter what. And Paul is communicating that here in 2 Corinthians 2.
The prophet in Isaiah 55 said that God's message will always fulfill its intended purpose. God is glorified by the savor of death or of life. Both are part of the triumph in Christ. Those who receive and those who reject are both part of the success. That means that even if Corinth did collapse and not make it (which it wouldn't), Paul would still triumph. He would always be a winner.
This passage does not guide the modern church growth movement where the only success is reception. If the only triumph is life (and not death), then strategies and techniques will be utilized to insure victory. Instead of being satisfied with Christ's triumph, measures are taken to guarantee numeric success so to alleviate the savor unto death that God also enjoys.
(to be continued)