By John Fitzsimmons
Series: Holy Spirit
Key Bible Text: 2 Corinthians 2:12--3:18
I can’t stand the smell of air fresheners. To me they do not freshen air; they pollute it & make me choke. If I want fresh air I open a window or go outside. When a new air freshener is put in the car I drive with the windows down even if it is snowing outside. In our hall at home at the minute there is one of those air fresheners with a sensor on it. If it senses movement at all it goes off... So every time I walk past it I try my best to sneak by it to prevent it going off. It’s like mission impossible. For Joanne it makes the house smell better, for me it is the fragrance of death.
The very mention of fragrance in verses 14-16 would have brought different images to the minds of the Christian’s in Corinth... One such image that fits with these verses was when a king, a general, or some other significant leader won a notable victory. In such an occasion the whole city would come out to welcome him & his soldier’s home. They would bring with them prisoners they had captured, making clear to their people they had been victorious. All kinds of rituals were involved in such a procession including the burning of incense. Paul is either implying that Christian’s are trophies of Christ’s victory being paraded in this procession or he is implying they are his soldiers in the victory parade. If we take the first view, which most do, then it’s important to point out the freest people in the world are those who have been captured by the King of Grace...
To the victorious king & his kingdom this incense would be the smell of victory, but to others it would be the smell of death. No matter what way we view the analogy the point remains: As God’s triumphal procession makes its way through the world announcing the victory of King Jesus, to some it is the smell of victory & to others it is the smell of death. To those who are being captured yet liberated by the power of the gospel it fills their lungs with the hope of new life, but for those who dislike the gospel & the advancement of Christ’s kingdom it is the smell of death.
Paul says God uses us to spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ everywhere. Paul is taking specifically about his call as a preacher, apostle & minister & when he says “us” or “we” he is primarily thinking of fellow ministers like Titus who he has just mentioned. However it is also true of every Christian at some level. We may not all be preachers, apostles or pastors like Paul & Titus but we are all ministers of a kind & God wants to use all of us to spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Jesus wherever we go. We do this by sharing who Jesus is & what he has done for us & the world & we do so by living lives worthy of the gospel of grace... God wants us to be a fragrance of hope to people, a fragrance of grace in a graceless world, a fragrance of Good News... This may well cause us to ask like Paul: “And who is equal to such a task” (NIV) or “who is sufficient for these things?” (ESV). Paul goes on & tells us exactly why we are equal to & qualified for the task.
3: 1-3 “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”
Let me quickly overview what was going on Corinth. A group of people who didn’t like Paul, who wanted control of the church, where out to discredit him. They wanted to cut his influence. Large parts of this letter are written to address this issue which is why Paul gives defence of his ministry. These people were saying Paul & his colleagues needed letters of recommendation if they were to continue to have input in Corinth... Paul however says, actually we don’t, because we founded the church & are still responsible for overseeing it. So our letter if you like, is your very existence & growth. In that sense you yourselves are our recommendation – the fact you exist authenticates our ministry. You are “the result of our ministry.”
Now this is very encouraging in at least two ways. Firstly the Church in Corinth was far from perfect, it was one of Paul’s most difficult to deal with churches. However in spite of all the issues, division & charismania he still felt confident there was enough evidence of God’s working to authenticate his ministry. For Paul a messy church was evidence of the gospel of grace at work in the lives of real people. That is very encouraging! There is no such thing as a perfect church because there is no such thing as perfect people. Hence the whole concept of grace!
Secondly it encourages us because it teaches that as we faithfully minister, as we faithfully do our thing, the Holy Spirit will work in people’s hearts. As Paul faithfully preached the gospel of grace the Holy Spirit worked in the hearts of people & Jesus built his Church! Paul was seeing fulfilment of something prophesied in Jer. 31:31-33;
“The days are coming”, declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, declares the Lord. This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord: I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
Or Ezekiel 36:26-27 “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
So Paul did not need a letter written with ink when the Holy Spirit had already recommended his ministry by writing something of the reality of the new covenant on human hearts. So Paul continues & says:
V4-6 “Such is the confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. H has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Paul saw himself & others as sufficient, competent, qualified in God. In 2 Cor. 12:9 he reveals that God told him directly, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul was able to write to the Colossians that the Father “has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light” (1:12). We are qualified for ministry & heaven because of God’s sufficiency & grace, not for any other reason. God has given us his stamp of approval & he has provided us with all we need for life! God is able to make us what we are not. He has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant. This is the confidence we can have because of Christ’s complete work on our behalf & this is the confidence we can have because of the Spirit’s presence in our lives & in the Church.
In 3:3 Paul describes believers as a “letter from Christ” because the Spirit is working in their hearts. He also describes the Spirit as the “Spirit of the living God.” Paul wants us to understand true Christianity is alive & enlivening because of the presence of the Spirit of the living God. We can be ministers of life, spreading the fragrance of life everywhere, because the Spirit of the living God is in & with us wherever we go. So as we spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Jesus we should expect the Spirit to work in the minds & hearts of people.
In 3:6 Paul continues the same theme but adds that while the Spirit is life & gives life, the letter kills. When Paul talks about the letter he is not talking about the Scriptures which are living & active, but specifically the law given to Moses. The Law identifies & points out sin, warning of the consequences...
The Spirit however empowers believers to overcome sin & guilt by bringing gospel hope & energy to condemned & enslaved hearts. The letter brings no hope & therefore no life, it simply highlights the problem. But where the law points out the problem & failure, the Spirit gives the solution – life in Christ... The Spirit gives us all the hope & energy we need by connecting us to life in Christ!
Paul then contrasts the Old & New Covenants in 7-16. Read & note how Paul contrasts the Old & New covenants. He calls the new covenant “the ministry of the Spirit” (v8). Then the chapter finishes with verses 17-18. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
The law will focus us on our failure but the Spirit will focus us on Jesus... The Spirit has come to bring freedom to our lives by focusing us on Jesus. Freedom to live... Freedom from being under Law... Freedom from inadequacy & expectations... Freedom from fear & failure... Freedom from competitiveness & comparing... Freedom from whatever... This is what we want to see in our lives & others... The freer we are the more alive we are... Think of how a prison is made to contain lives in one space, it's designed to stop people from living fully, as a punishment... We can be in prison spiritually, the prison of fear or guilt or failure or depression... When the Spirit come into your life he comes to shatter the walls that confine your living to one small space, he comes to make you fully alive & free... Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom...
This is the vision: To see people fully alive in Christ... This is the vision I've be captured by as I have prayed, thought & studied this last month - PEOPLE FULLY ALIVE IN CHRIST. What would that look like? What would it look like in your life, your family, your community, our church? This is a vision 100% dependent on Holy Spirit, but God wants to involve us by using us to spread the fragrance of life everywhere!