Second Corinthians 2:12–3:6 . . .

Fragrant Stationery; of Aroma and Letters

While visiting the average church today, we often sense that ministry is for the theologically trained, the eloquently polished, the biblically proficient. With the professionalism of ministry in the church, on TV, and in society, we "lay people" likely question our ability to minister. Like Paul, we ask, "Who is equal to such a task?" (v. 16). In today's passage, Paul tells us why all believers are competent for ministry in Christ. Here's the clearest explanation in all the Word of God of "the secret of the Apostle Paul's phenomenal ministry."

Paul had been speaking to the Corinthians about his and the Corinthians' pressures and problems. (He was waiting in Macedonia for Titus to return with news of what was happening in the Corinthian church.) He felt disturbed; there grew this magnificent description of the power by which he labored and lived. Similar to a spontaneous outburst from the apostle's heart, Paul counteracts the sense of failure and despair he was feeling then in his ministry, as shown in 2:12–13 (see passage below).

Paul's few words depict a tremendous experience in his life. He'd gone to Troas from Ephesus, to preach the gospel of Christ. This was his great joy wherever he went, knowing he'd find desperate people filled with darkness, their troubled lives governed by superstition and fear. Thankfully, Paul was joyful bringing the good news of Jesus Christ, (a) the one who understood the hurts of men, (b) the deliverer, (c) the healer of hurts, and (d) the one who had the power to touch and transform human lives. Paul tells us that he longed to preach the gospel everywhere he could, so that he could see the power of God free troubled people.

Coming into the city of Troas, the Lord opened a door for him, creating a responsiveness to his message. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people gathered wherever they could to hear him. Corinth was stirred as Paul came and preached; yet, he was unable to take advantage of it. Why? His heart was so troubled, his spirit so anxious for news of what was happening in Corinth, that he couldn't minister. He was so spiritually restless and troubled that he had to leave, likely gripped by a great sense of personal failure. So, to relieve his troubled mind, Paul left Troas for Macedonia instead, hoping to find Titus there.

Whether you're a Bible-study facilitator, small-group leader, teacher, minister, pastor, and so on, you've likely already experienced the difficulty of teaching, preaching, discussing the Word of God at times when your heart was so filled with anxiety and distress that you wondered if you could open your mouth. Sense what Paul felt as he so honestly shares v. 14 with us: "But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ's triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere." What an astounding verse! Paul cries out his grateful thanksgiving for a powerful and effective ministry after confessing his failure and weakness, his frustration and despair.

In vv. 15–16, following the juxtaposition of his depression, loneliness, and frustration with a bold, thankful acclamation, Paul further describes it as a spreading forth of the fragrance of Christ; the beautiful character of Jesus was becoming evident through the pressure on him. As he preaches this good news of Jesus Christ — the fact that Jesus is alive and can free men and deliver them from their inner torments and pressures — everywhere was a fragrance to God of the life of his Son. Wherever Paul went, God could smell the sweetness and beauty of Jesus in what Paul was doing. But, more than that, it was a fragrance of Christ to men.

Clearly, apart from our Lord himself, probably no other human being ever has made such a fantastic impression on human history as the Apostle Paul. He learned a secret that many Christians seemingly forget today; but it's the secret of the impact of this mighty life. See how he describes his ministry in this brief summary (v. 17).

So, no matter which type of "minister" you've been asked by God to become, you've been commissioned by him to "declare the light in the midst of the darkness." That's what Paul is talking about: not out to make a quick, soft living, raking in dollars by hawking some attractive concept, but proclaiming the truth of God, so that people become truly delivered and set free. So, ministers of the new covenant: Become confident that the God who is within you is able to accomplish his work and do his will through your efforts; that out of the fear, the frustration, and the failure, appear triumph and victory with the fragrance of Jesus Christ.

Have You Got What It Takes? — 3:1–6

It's hard to believe that a man who spent most of his ministry in jail, who never made enough money to buy a home, who never built a church building, who never spoke on television or radio, who traveled so much that he had no permanent residence, who admitted that he was a poor speaker and had a very unimpressive appearance, . . . could become a successful minister. He just doesn't fit the accepted scheme of successful ministry today. No wonder they had trouble with him in Corinth, and had difficulty believing that he was a genuine apostle. That's what they were thinking when Paul wrote this letter; that, perhaps, explains what's behind 3:1–3.

It's amazing — and unbelievable — that these people would think that Apostle Paul needed a letter of recommendation when he came back to them. After all, he'd led these people to Christ; yet here they suggest that the next time he came it would be good if he brought letters from John, or Peter, or James, or any real apostle. Paul is asking them, Do you really mean that? Don't you understand? You are our letter of recommendation. Christ has written it on your hearts; he didn't use paper, or deliver it on stones, as he did with Moses on Mount Sinai. He wrote it on your hearts, and the ink he used was the Holy Spirit. I, Paul, am nothing but the postman; I just delivered the letter; God did the work. Paul wanted these Corinthians to understand that the changes that had occurred in their lives — the freedom they were experiencing and their deliverance from evil habits, e.g., immorality, adultery, homosexuality, drunkenness, thievery — all happened because Christ had changed them.

Finally, Paul answers a question he'd asked in chapter 2. Christ, he said there, leads us in triumph. Paul saw himself as the commanding general, marching in triumph through the streets of Rome, having won great victories everywhere he went. In another beautiful figure of speech, he said that his ministry was like a bottle of perfume, the fragrance of which was spreading through the world, as the sweetness and fragrance of Jesus Christ himself. Paul's question was, "Who is sufficient for these things?" See his answer here (vv. 4–6).

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q.  The "old covenant" is Paul trying to do his best on behalf of God; the "new covenant" is God doing his best through Paul. What a difference that is! Do you see the triumphs that God has brought into your life?

This Week’s Passage
2 Corinthians 2:12–3:6

New International Version (NIV)
[You can view it in a different version by clicking here; you can also listen to chapter 2 and chapter 3.]

Ministers of the New Covenant

12Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, 13I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said goodbye to them and went on to Macedonia.

14But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ's triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? 17Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.

3 Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? 2You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. 3You 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.

4Such confidence we have through Christ before God. 5Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. 6He 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.