The earliest Christians who followed Jesus’ teachings and confessed him as Lord (over all!) were thoroughgoing imperialists. All signs point unanimously to this attitude originating with the historical Jesus himself. Centuries earlier the Old Testament prophetic witness, so crucially formative in Jesus’ own messianic self-consciousness, had itself breathlessly anticipated a future epoch when the God of Israel would extend His sovereign rule to “the ends of the earth.”
This is, admittedly, a radically unpopular line of thinking for those of a more liberal bent in our society, but any historical-critical method that is even remotely objective (that is, that seeks to see what is there rather than what we prefer was there, no matter the personal cost or level of existential discomfort) must acknowledge it. The evidence is simply overwhelming that the earliest Christian self-understanding included at its epicenter a world-wide mission calling all the nations to repentance and obedience in the kingdom of God as announced and enacted by Jesus Christ. In the Christian vision of reality, the risen Jesus will one day be king over all the (new) earth, and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father and to the everlasting joy of the redeemed . This state of affairs is at the heart of the Christian hope, for the “good news” of the gospel proclamation is intimately bound up with the dawning of the reestablishment of the reign of God over His rebellious, fallen creation (cf. Isaiah 52:7-10, Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 24:14, Mark 1:14-15, Luke 4:43, Acts 8:12).
However, if the imperialistic nature and aims of orthodox Christianity rub our secular, pluralistic intuitions (so deeply ingrained as they are) the wrong way, it is equally true that the manner in which the coming of the kingdom occurs is profoundly foreign to and radically at odds with many of the more conservative, religious sentiments of our culture. The dominion of God did not arrive in Jesus, nor will it continuously advance and be extended in and through his followers, by means of politics or power or wisdom as construed in merely human categories (Zechariah 4:6). That would leave intact the possibility of human beings boasting in God’s presence. In keeping rather with God’s designs, this kingdom was once for all planted and even now continues to blossom through suffering. Resurrection comes through death; the cross precedes the crown. Despite the gigantic conspiracy theory currently at work in the American church to obscure this reality, it nevertheless remains the case that suffering is not merely the way God saves us through Jesus (though it is always that first), but is also the path upon which he leads all of His children in Jesus and the manner by which He causes the kingdom to grow up to its fullness. Tertullian spoke well when he pointed out that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. If we find ourselves surprised or taken aback by (or just completely missing) this ubiquitous pattern in the New Testament, we have not been tuning our ears to the logic of the gospel.
One of the most remarkable passages in which this ironic fusion of wildly conflicting values happens—imperialism with humility, power with weakness, victory with defeat, authority with service—is in 2 Corinthians 2:12-16. Throughout this remarkable and complex pastoral letter, Paul is at pains to defend his God-given apostolic ministry to the Corinthians in the face of fierce accusations from a group of false teachers who are masquerading as super-apostles in Corinth. In particular, the chief point of their contention seems to have revolved around Paul’s suffering. From the perspective of these angelic servants of Satan (11:12-15), Paul’s gruesome and persistent suffering in his ministry is Exhibit A in the public legal case against his authenticity and authority. Significantly, Paul is not content to downplay or deny his suffering, nor even to merely state that there is nothing about such suffering that would disqualify him outright from being an apostle. Paul’s strategy throughout the letter is far more counter-intuitive: he boldly contends that it is actually his suffering itself, endured in the service of Christ and borne for the sake of the gospel, which most peculiarly qualifies him to be God’s ambassador in furthering the kingdom (cf. 1:3-11, 4:7-12, 6:3-10, 11:16-33, 12:1-10, 13:3-4).
In 2:12-13, Paul mentions off-hand what would seem to be one of the more insignificant burdens he is maligned with: his anxiety over Titus’ well-being. No doubt his opponents harped even upon this as one more proof of Paul’s lack of favor with God and of the absence of the Spirit’s power in his ministry. Yet unexpectedly Paul shifts gears (without resolution on Titus forthcoming), turning to praise the God who leads him in triumphal procession in Christ. By means of this victory parade in which Paul participates, the fragrance of Jesus is being distributed among those observing with interest from the sidelines. Paul’s life is, in fact, the aroma of Christ both to those who are perishing (to them, Paul reeks of the rancor of death) and to those who are being saved (to them, Paul carries the scent of life). At first glance, this sounds triumphalistic—and many have often understood it in this fashion, hurriedly applying its “promise” to themselves for the perceived personal benefit. Yet not only does such an interpretation contradict the overall thrust of Paul’s message in 2 Corinthians, but it also ignores the critical historical background to which Paul alludes.
The phrase “leads in triumphal procession” is a single word in Greek: thriambeuo. It only occurs once elsewhere in the NT. The term itself, however, was in widespread use in the ancient Greco-Roman world:
“…the verb often rendered ‘lead in triumph’ (thriambeuo) is actually a technical term that refers to the Roman institution of the triumphal procession. This portrayal of God’s leading Paul in such a procession is the key to the meaning of 2:14 and therefore to what follows. The triumphal procession was a lavish parade conducted in Rome to celebrate great victories in significant military campaigns. Like a St. Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago, these were major cultural and civic events. Everybody in the Roman Empire knew about these parades, which were represented on Roman arches, reliefs, coins, statues, medallions, paintings, and cameos, not to mention the approximately 350 triumphs that are recorded in ancient literature. They were ostentatious celebrations, filled with valiant soldiers, the spoils of war, and the most theatrical pomp and circumstances Rome could muster. Moreover, the triumphal procession demonstrated Rome’s prowess as the victor not only by parading the spoils of war, but also by leading in triumph the most important leaders and intimidating warriors of the enemy, now presented as conquered slaves. The highest honor any Roman Caesar or general could receive would be to lead one of these parades. Conversely, to be led as a prisoner in such a triumphal procession signaled one’s utter defeat.” (Scott Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, p. 107)
In other words, Rome had a devious proclivity for showing off its splendor, especially whenever it conquered another foreign territory. The “triumphal procession” allowed the empire to indulge in frequent self-glorification by parading recently humiliated and defeated warriors through the city streets as captives. As Hafemann goes on to write, “the role of those led in triumph was to reveal the glory of the one who had conquered them, ultimately through their public execution and death.” (p. 109). This background, to be sure, makes perfect sense of the only other occurrence of thriambeuo in Colossians 2:15. Here Paul depicts the cross as the instrument by which God has publicly paraded in Christ the hostile rulers and arrogant authorities in a triumphal procession, manifesting His glory through utterly defeating and destroying His enemies. Their defeat shows forth His victory, their dishonor highlights His glory, and their weakness magnifies His strength–just as the Roman custom was intended to also do. It is an apt metaphor here.
What is absolutely shocking, however, is that in 2 Corinthians 2:14 it is Paul and those who minister with him who occupy the same shameful position that the defeated enemies of God do in Colossians 2:15. Both Paul and the defeated enemies of God are the direct objects of thriambeuo in these two texts, just as in both cases God is the subject and “in Christ” is the unexpected context. [Importantly, the verb thriambeuo is in the past tense in the Colossians text, but in 2 Corinthians it is in the present tense, signifying an ongoing action that continues to take place in Paul’s ministry.] Thwarting our expectations, Paul turns out not to be leading the victory parade, nor is he even in the chariot with Christ gloating over others. Rather, Paul himself is revealed to be the figure who is led in triumphal procession (the humiliating position of the conquered) by God (the mighty conqueror) in Christ (the sphere in which this death march takes place):
“This fact is so startling because in 2:14 Paul is the direct object of the verb, not its subject. Paul is not the one leading the triumphal procession; he is the one being led in it like a prisoner of war!…By using this well-known cultural event to describe his own life as an apostle, Paul’s point is that, as the one ‘being led in triumph,’ God is leading Paul to his death…As the enemy of God’s people, God had conquered Paul at his conversion call on the road to Damascus and was now leading him, as a ‘slave of Christ’ (his favorite term for himself as an apostle), to death in Christ, in order that Paul might display or reveal the majesty, power, and glory of God, his conqueror…In all these passages [i.e. about Paul’s suffering as an apostle in 2 Corinthians], as in 2:14, Paul’s suffering, as the corollary to and embodiment of his message of the cross, is the very thing God uses to make himself known…Far from calling his apostleship into question, Paul’s point in 2:14 is that his suffering, here portrayed in terms of being led to death in the Roman triumphal procession, is the means through which God is revealing himself…In other words, God continually leads Paul to death in a triumphal procession and in this way everywhere reveals the knowledge of him.” (Scott Hafemann, pp. 108-10)
Recall again that this “triumphal procession” is precisely the way in which God spreads the aroma of Christ to the world through Paul’s life. Now it begins to make sense. How could it be any otherwise? Imagine, for example, if Paul routinely showed up in Ephesus or Thessalonica clothed in fancy, expensive garments and enjoying the most luxurious living arrangements. Imagine if the message being preached came forth from an alternative Paul who possessed a remarkably clean bill of health across the board, who was inflicted with no painful worries due to valued relationships and no really marked disappointments or bitter heartbreaks in life, and who had subsequently gained enormous popularity in the eyes of a glowing fan club that remains ever loyal to him, with no dissenters or mockers. Ponder now the impression such a man would leave behind. How could all that prosperity and blessing and sunshine ever smell of Him? How would those enviable experiences be transformed into the aroma of the crucified Jesus–the man of sorrows–in the nostrils of those who listen to his proclamation?
Such a pattern of life will communicate something. But it will not communicate Him. You cannot have every worldly desire perpetually fulfilled and a spiritualized form of the American dream coming to regular fruition in your life and—at the same time—hope to communicate anything accurate about Jesus Christ through your life to the watching world. But if we dare to (joyfully) endure suffering with our Savior by faith and daily choose the path of self-denial for the sake of others–if, like him, we intentionally set our faces like flint to go to Jerusalem, voluntarily placing ourselves in the path of suffering for the sake of others–then a massive correspondence will erupt between our message and our ministry, between our lips and our lives, between the place of the cross in the gospel and the place of the cross in our experience. Then the presence of Jesus will be manifested with power through the Spirit in our lives and mediated to others in supernatural ways. Then we will share in His triumph, realizing afresh that the victory of God is extended through us in precisely the same way it was inaugurated in Jesus: through voluntary suffering in service to God and others. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (I Peter 2:21).
And who, you might reasonably ask, is sufficient for these things?