The sense of smell, which is sometimes taken for granted, affects several different areas of our lives, sometimes positively, sometimes negative-ly. The difference is often indicated by the word that is used to describe the smell. For instance, the words “odor,” “stench,” and sometimes even the word “smell” itself, have a negative connotation. On the other hand, the words “aroma,” “fragrance,” and “scent” are almost always used in a positive way.

One thing affected by the sense of smell is our sense of taste. For instance, the smell of freshly baked bread can almost make one’s mouth water for the taste, while a person who has a stuffy nose and cannot smell a thing, will often say that most foods seem to have no taste at all.

Another thing that smell can affect is mood or attitude. The perfume industry depends on this, for their aim is to design, market, and sell fragrances that can evoke feelings of romance or attraction.

Smells can even affect our actions. For example, some odors are so strong and so disgusting that they can make people sick to their stomach.

In 2 Corinthians 2, the apostle Paul is led of the Holy Spirit to use the concept of smell or fragrance to illustrate how the testimony of believers can affect the lives of others.

“Furthermore, when I came to Troas to preach Christ’s gospel, and a door was opened to me by the Lord, I had no rest in my spirit, because I did not find Titus my brother; but taking my leave of them, I departed for Macedonia.” (2 Cor. 2:12-13)

Paul first makes reference to a time of stress in his life. He had come to Troas to preach the gospel and, though the Lord provided an opportunity for ministry, Paul found no rest in his spirit. He had hoped to see Titus there, but the young man, whom Paul described as “a true son in our common faith,” never arrived. Though Paul was disappointed and somewhat distressed about this situation, he emphasized that there is always triumph in our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.” (2 Cor. 2:14)

The illustration Paul uses here is that of a Roman triumphal procession; a parade to honor Roman generals who won great victories in battle. The victorious general, when he returned home, led a procession through the city streets, riding in his golden chariot. The procession was followed by the conquered captives, most of whom were destined to die in the arena. During the parade the Roman priests would burn incense. The aroma of the incense paid tribute to the victorious general and his army.

Paul thanks God for the triumph that we have in Christ; the victory that He won over sin, over death, and over Satan through His sacrificial death and His powerful resurrection from the grave (1 Cor. 15:57). Because of His finished work on the cross of Calvary, the Lord Jesus Christ always leads us in triumph at all times, even in times of distress or disappointment. Not only that, but we can thank God that “through us” He “diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.”
It is truly amazing to realize that God chooses to work through us, mere sinners saved by His grace. Even though we live in earthen vessels (2 Cor. 4:7), God can fill and use these vessels as instruments for His service (Rom. 6:13).

Paul speaks of God using us to “diffuse the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.” The word “diffuse” literally means to make manifest or known. Like the aroma of the incense burned by the Roman priests bore testimony to and honored the triumph of the victorious general, so our lives are to bring glory and honor to our victorious Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. The fragrance we are to diffuse is that of His knowledge, or, more literally, “the knowledge of Him.” This knowledge is found in God’s Word. This is why, as God’s children, we are told to: “Preach the Word!” (2 Tim. 4:2).

“For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.” (2 Cor. 2:15)

Believers are, to God, “the fragrance of Christ.” The word “fragrance” means a good smell or “a sweet smell.” The idea is seen in Leviticus chapter 1, where we read of the burnt offerings the children of Israel were to bring to the Lord. As the sacrifice was burned on the altar, the smoke that rose up from the fire carried a “sweet aroma to the Lord” (Lev. 1:9). As the burnt offering was “a sweet aroma” to the Lord, so Christ’s death on the cross for our sins was “an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (Eph. 5:2). God was propitiated (satisfied) through Christ’s finished work on the cross for our sins (Rom. 3:25-26). His holy and righteous requirements being satisfied, we can now be “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6). When we trust Christ as Savior, God places us “in Christ” by the baptism of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). When God sees us, He sees us “in His Son,” and, we are, to Him, “the fragrance of Christ”—a sweet smell of satisfaction.

God also sees us as “the fragrance of Christ” in our testimony to others, “among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing.” Just as certain smells can affect people, “the fragrance of Christ” can affect people in an even more powerful way. We are to manifest the “fragrance of His knowledge” to other people. The fragrance we manifest is the same to everyone, the knowledge of Christ and His finished work of redemption, but the response is not always the same.

“To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life.” (2 Cor. 2:16a)

Some respond to the “fragrance of Christ” like the crowds who welcomed and cheered the Roman general as he led the victory procession. To them the aroma of the incense burned by the priests was a wonderful smell, a smell of great triumph, not just for the general, but for them as well. Likewise, to those who hear the Word of God and believe it, trusting in Christ as their Savior, the “fragrance of Christ” is truly a sweet smell. It is an aroma of life to them, and embracing it as such, it leads them to life eternal and to great triumph in Christ.

Others respond to the “fragrance of Christ” like the conquered captives, the slaves who were on their way to die in the arena. To them the smell of the burned incense was not a sweet smell at all, but an odor of impending death. Thus, to those who hear the Word of God, but reject Christ as Savior and Lord, the “fragrance of Christ” has no attraction for them. It is nothing more than a smell of death, and they remain in their sinful state, perishing.

As believers, we must realize that we cannot control a person’s response to the Word of God. As much as we want people to believe and be saved, we cannot force them. We can only “diffuse the fragrance of His knowledge in every place” we go. We can proclaim the truth of Christ and Him crucified. We can share with people the wonderful gospel of God’s saving grace. We can show people the joy and the great triumph we have in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. What a tremendous service and responsibility this is! This leads us to question, as Paul did:

“And who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16b)

The answer to this question is given in 2 Corinthians 3:5: “Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God.” We must not make the mistake of thinking that we are sufficient, in ourselves, to do anything for the Lord. Our ability to serve the Lord comes from Him, and from Him alone.

“For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ.” (2 Cor. 2:17)

Many in Paul’s day (and in our day too) were “peddling” the Word of God, not preaching for the glory of God, but for their own dishonest gain (1 Tim. 6:5). Men like this have no concern for the truth and accuracy of God’s Word and will often twist and corrupt the Word if they feel it will be more profitable for them.

Paul emphasizes that true ministry stands in stark contrast to these “ped-dlers.” We are to speak in sincerity, not for our own selfish gain, but for the glory of the Lord. We are to speak as from God, or literally “out of” God. We must remember that the message we have been entrusted with is the Word of God. It is not to be corrupted or handled deceitfully, but presented for what it is—the Word of truth (2 Cor. 4:2). It is also vital that we realize our dependence upon the power of God in our lives, yielding to His Holy Spirit to work in and through us. Finally, when we speak, we are to speak “in the sight of God,” being concerned with pleasing Him and not with pleasing men (Gal. 1:10).

What about you? Are you manifesting “the fragrance of Christ” among the people you come in contact with each day? Or, is your life diffusing a different kind of smell — an indistinct smell, maybe even a foul odor? God desires to diffuse the fragrance of His knowledge through you, a fragrance that will certainly have an impact on the lives of those around you. What type of impact will your life have?