"But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere."
(2 Corinthians 2:14)
In this section (2 Cor. 2:14-17) Paul uses the metaphor of a Roman triumphal procession to describe his work as an apostle. He expresses his gratitude (“thanks be to God”) that God is able to display his magnificent power through Paul's weaknesses (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9-10). This emotionally charged illustration provides us with a beautiful picture of the victory we all share in Christ.
In ancient Rome, when a battle was won, the victorious general and the conquering army would lead the defeated captives through the city in a celebratory victory-march (although, from the captives' perspective, it was a death-march).
History records more than 300 of these “triumphal processions” between Rome’s founding (7th century BC) and the reign of Vespasian (1st century AD). The Emperor would ride a two-wheeled chariot pulled by a team of four horses through an ornamented triumphal arch with the defeated captives in tow. The arch of Titus, which still stands in Rome today, celebrates his conquest over Jerusalem in AD 70.
A triumphal procession would have been an amazing sight. A time for Roman citizens to celebrate the power of the Empire with pride, pomp and circumstance. There is nothing quite like it that happens today but American sports, with admittedly much lower stakes 'conquests,' can sometimes catch the spirit of it.
Though there is some debate as to how Paul meant his metaphor to be understood, I believe the picture he paints goes something like this: Jesus, in defeating sin and death in the resurrection, is the victorious King of kings returning home from battle. He has conquered sinners by his love (Rom. 5:10) and parades his captives before the world as his trophies of divine grace.
Some, who were once Jesus' enemies, willingly submitted to his reign through the power of his divine love and resurrection and have been reconciled to him in the cross (2 Cor. 5:18-19; Eph. 2:3; Col. 1:21-22). Now, all those who follow Jesus by faith share in his glorious victory as they march, not to their death, but towards their eternal life.
And just as the captives in the ancient world scattered sweet-smelling incense as they marched along in the parade, Jesus' willing captives disperse the beautiful fragrance of the “knowledge” of him in every place as they live and share the good news of his victory. As Peter puts it, they "proclaim the excellencies of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light." (1 Pet. 2:9)
But Jesus was not only victorious over the repentant. In Colossians, Paul uses the same word "triumph" to describe God’s victory over enemies who persist in their rebellion against him. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (Col. 2:15)
All things must eventually come under the reign of Jesus whether they like it or not. The resurrection and ascension sealed Jesus' kingly rule forever. Because his victory was universal all things must be brought under his rule (Eph. 1:20-22; 1 Cor. 15:25-27; Heb. 2:8).
By humbling himself to the point of death on a cross, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-10)
Jesus is the victorious general. He conquered our sinful hearts with His divine love and eternal life. Today, he leads us in triumphal procession before the world as his trophies of grace. And as we follow him by faith in this victory march we leave in our wake the fragrance of the gospel leading others to him. (2 Cor. 2:15-17)
Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Someone once said, “I don’t want to live in the past, but it is nice to visit for a while.” Memories are like that: places we can go for comfort, instruction and renewal. It is tragic when, as we age, more and more of those precious memories slip away. But while we have them, memories are there for us to draw upon like water from a well.
Memory was a vital part of Israel’s corporate life and worship. God warned them of the danger of forgetting where they came from (Deut. 4:9, 23; 6:12; 8:11, 14, 19; 9:7, etc.). To prevent this, God designed Israel's worship to reenact the past through symbolic festivals, rituals, and sacrifices as a way to keep those memories alive. Sadly, all it took was one generation after Israel entered the Promised Land to forget their heritage and plunge the nation into ruin (Jdg. 2:10-11).
Memory is a necessary tool for us, so long as we are looking back at the right things in the right way. Like Israel, the people of God today are called to remember their past (Eph. 2:11-12) through retelling the story of their deliverance and taking part in symbolic actions like eating the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:26).
But memories can also be poisoned and hinder our faith. For example, suffering in the present has a way of altering our memory of the past (Num. 11:4-6; cf. Ex. 14:11-12). This kind of mental distortion can even warp our minds enough to lure us back into old destructive habits that lead us away from God (Heb. 3-4; 2 Pet. 2:22).
Or we may be seduced into creating versions of the past that never existed. The Preacher exhorts those of us prone to creating these fantasy memories, "Say not, "Why were the former days better than these?" For it is not from wisdom that you ask this." (Ecc. 7:10) Contrary to the opinion of many, the past was not altogether better than the present. All it takes is reading the Bible, the newest documents of which are some 2,000 years old, to see that despite many advancements people haven't really changed much.
Even if our memories are clear and accurate we can grow so fond of the past that we begin to mentally “live” in the past at the expense of our future. But faith requires us to look to things “hoped for” in the future (Heb. 11:1). Faith, by its nature, is forward thinking and is therefore forward acting. We live in accordance with the "new" person that Jesus has created in us through his resurrection (Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24). We are meant to live resurrected lives in anticipation of our bright future (Rom. 6:3-4). In Jesus' resurrection and ascension God's glorious future has come rushing right into the present so that we may taste the "powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:5).
In the gospel which announces God's heavenly reign come down to earth we are invited to live as part of that kingdom (Mt. 28:18-20). Even though God's reign is currently contested (Heb. 2:6-8) we live in view of his victory over death experiencing all the spiritual blessings of that victory here and now (Jn. 5:24; Eph. 1:3). Yes, even though things aren't perfect now, we dare to live in “hope” for a brighter future where death will be no more (Rom. 5:3-5; 8:24-25).
Remember Lot’s wife who, after escaping from the destruction of Sodom toward God’s salvation, “looked back” and was destroyed (Gen. 19:26). We cannot afford to be like her - frozen in the act of looking backwards. An unhealthy fixation on the past will immobilize us in the present and cost us our future.
Our Lord demands this kind of single-minded, forward-looking devotion: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 9:62) When it comes to our commitment to Jesus, we never forget our past but we must also confidently progress toward our future with our eyes fixed on him.
"I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live..."
Sometimes God is accused by critics as having created evil based on passages like Isaiah 45:7 which reads, "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things" (KJV) However, what the King James Version renders as "evil" is speaking more broadly of the distress and disaster which people experience as a result of their sin (Ex. 34:6-7). In this passage, God is not claiming to be the author of moral evil but rather that he has the power to bring calamity as a just judgment (Amos 3:6). But if Isaiah 45:7 doesn't teach that God created evil is he no at least responsible for its existence?
Let’s examine a few possibilities of God’s creation of the universe of which there can only be four:
- That God would create nothing - where there is no possibility for good or for evil to exist.
- That God would create an amoral universe - where there is no such thing as good or evil.
- That God would create a universe without freewill - where there is no possibility of evil.
- That God would create a universe with freewill - where there is possibility of both good and evil.
The only universe in which love can exist is the fourth possibility, a universe where we have the power of choice. This is the universe God chose to create, a universe filled with human beings who are designed both to love and be loved by others. Love is the supreme ethic and the deepest longing of every human heart, hence the echoes of the great commandments (Mt. 22:34-40).
If we erase freewill, we also erase the possibility of giving and receiving love. These two concepts, love and choice, depend on one another. For love to truly be love it must be expressed by freewill and not by force. Love cannot be coerced or cajoled only given freely.
However, while freewill opens the door to love it also opens the door to suffering. The possibility of love makes us all extremely vulnerable to pain and loss, the effects of sin. In a close relationship, love is what makes loss and betrayal cut so deep. But those of us who have loved deeply will agree to keep the heart open is well worth the temporary pain (cf. 2 Cor. 6:11; 7:2-4). Tennyson said it well, "'Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."
In human relationships, love can be fickle and tenuous, depending on meeting certain criteria. Not so with divine love, which has no expiration date or conditions. To receive the eternal benefits of God's love, however, is a choice of freewill. Eternal residence either with God or away from him is ultimately a choice God has left to us.
C.S. Lewis once famously stated, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”
A father who takes his son to the doctor for a vaccination may appear cruel from the son's limited perspective. But the father’s decision that once perplexed and angered the son is clearly understood when he is safe from the disease ravaging his town years later.
Time and trust are necessary components to making sense of the evil in our world and the existence of our all-powerful and ever-loving God. In time, those who choose to wait on the Lord will understand their pain and learn to even rejoice in it (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Thank God for His love and the ability he has given each of us to return it.
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
The phrase “set your mind/heart” is used throughout Scripture to describe the orientation of one’s thoughts, will and affections. It is a metaphor for fixing one’s life-attention on a thing (1 Sam. 9:20). A heart may be “set” to do God’s will or one’s own. It may be “set” on things above or below (examples - 1 Chron. 22:19; 2 Chron. 11:16; 12:14; 19:3; Ezra 7:10; Col. 3:2; Mt. 16:23; Rom. 8:5; Phil. 3:19, etc.).
Whenever I hear this phrase “set your mind”, I always think of tuning a radio. Growing up a Cleveland Indians fan in the 1990’s meant hearing the voice of Tom Hamilton. It was imperative to find the exact frequency on the radio so that all the distortion would fade away until his voice was crystal clear. When I got my own radio, I would flip back and forth between my preset FM music stations and AM 1100 for the Indians game with the push of a button. It was that easy. One click from Pearl Jam to MLB playoffs, from Eddie Veddar to Tom Hamilton. Would that tuning our hearts and setting our minds could be so easy!
Echoes of God's voice can be heard throughout creation (Psa. 19) but the voice itself is only clear on one distinct frequency, the Scriptures. We are tasked with tuning out all the distortion of the world to find the heavenly frequency of our Shepherd's voice. And once finding that divine voice to "set" our hearts and minds diligently upon it.
“The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers… My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” (Jn. 10:3-5, 27) Sheep follow the comforting sound of their shepherd's voice. In the same way, we are to recognize and follow the sound of our Shepherd's voice.
Later, the apostle John wrote of the distinction between the different voices and audiences of teachers, “They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us...” (1 Jn. 4:5-6) Spiritual frequencies are constantly competing for our attention. One can tell where one is "from" based upon who one chooses to listen to. Children "of" or "from" God "know" Him and, like a child, can pick their Father's voice out from a crowd. The truth has a certain ring to it, a familiar flavor, a distinctive tone.
However, it is entirely possible to tune into the "heavenly" station for only a few hours in a week while allowing the world to win our attention the rest of the time. We may flip back to God’s station on Sunday but tune out heaven’s song throughout the week in favor of the seductive rhythms of the world.
The attention of our heart and focus of our mind are ours to give to whomever or whatever we will. We must be careful to tune into the right frequency. The Lord warns us to “take care then how you hear… My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Lk. 8:11-21, esp. vv.18, 21) Those who devote themselves to do God’s will are those who are spiritually “tuned-in” to God’s voice. They listen actively, deliberately, and carefully.
Also, true listeners of the heavenly station hear evangelistically. That is, what they hear they also proclaim to others (Mt. 10:27; 1 Pet. 2:9; Phil. 2:15-16; 1 Jn. 1:1-3). So, today, do not harden your hearts or stop your ears but "tune in" to and "set your mind" on the voice of Jesus! (Psa. 95:7-11; cf. Heb. 3:7-11, 15; 4:7; Deut. 4:36; Mt. 17:5)
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
In the beginning, God placed the first human in the perfect living conditions, a literal paradise where all his needs were met. His work in tending the garden (Gen. 2:15) was a joy until, because of a foolish decision to mistrust his Creator, he was forced into exile away from paradise and away from God Himself (Gen. 3:22-24). Not only this, but the once pristine ground had become “cursed” and his cultivation of it burdensome (Gen. 3:17-18). In a manner of speaking, Adam was sent “into the wilderness.” His mistrust of God resulted in him trading life in a perfect world for life in a much harsher, corrupted one.
A “wilderness” is a desolate and lonely place devoid of vegetation. Theologically, it is the place where the Satan, represented by the serpent in the garden, took up his domain as “ruler” (Jn. 12:31; 14:30 etc.). The Bible consistently depicts the “wilderness” as a place of judgment. Let’s notice a few examples that demonstrate this.
When Abraham's wife Sarah punished her servant Hagar, she “treated her harshly and she fled from her presence” (16:4-6). And where did Hagar run? Into the “wilderness” (16:7; 21:14, 20-21).
When Moses’ attempt at revolt in Egypt failed he fled to the “wilderness of Midian” away from the presence of Pharaoh to escape a death sentence (Ex. 2:15; 3:1).
The entire Exodus generation was forced to “wander in the wilderness forty years” as a punishment for their unbelief (Num. 32:13).
David fled from Saul “to the hill country of the wilderness” to escape persecution (1 Sam. 23:14). Later in life, David fled again “to the wilderness,” this time from his own son Absalom (2 Sam. 15:23).
The nation of Israel was carried off into Babylonian captivity because of their rejection of the Lord and His covenant. While in Babylon the land of Israel literally became a “wilderness” (Isa. 64:10).
But Isaiah prophesied of a time when a voice would cry, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (40:3). He described Israel’s spiritual condition metaphorically as a desolate land. But God promised that He would “[make] her desert like the garden of the LORD” (51:3). God was going to transform the barren, desert-like lives of His people into a flourishing garden. Israel’s rejuvenation would, in a sense, bring them back to the garden and back to the presence of God.
But first, God had to send His “messenger” who would “clear the way before” Him (Mal. 3:1). What better place to “prepare the way of the LORD” than in the wilderness (Mt. 3:3)? This messenger, John the Baptist, lived in the “wilderness” of Judea as a symbol, meeting Israel where they were spiritually, in a desert of sorrow and sin (Mt. 3:1).
Then the Lord finally arrived! After he was proclaimed God’s “beloved Son” (Mt. 3:13-17) we find Him being “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt. 4:1). Jesus did not accidentally stumble "into the wilderness." He wasn’t there fleeing from some evil like David nor was he being punished like Israel. He was “led” there “by the Spirit” for a purpose: to confront evil at its source. The lying serpent who started this whole mess in the first place was about to meet his arch nemesis in Jesus (cf. Gen. 3:15).
While in the “wilderness,” Jesus suffered greatly at the hands of the evil one but overcame temptation as a human, succeeding where both Israel and Adam had failed and opening up for us the pathway back to Paradise. In Jesus, we are no longer doomed to wander in a barren land but are being drawn back to the Garden and to God!