“Led In Triumph”
"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)