Second Corinthians 2:15 says, “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.” To understand what the apostle Paul meant when he said that Christians are the “aroma of Christ,” we must look at the verses immediately surrounding the expression: “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. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To 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?” (verses 14–16).
For Jewish people, the apostle Paul’s analogy of “the pleasing aroma of Christ” would present an immediate association. In the Old Testament, the scent of burnt offerings was described as “an aroma pleasing to the Lord” (Genesis 8:20–21; Leviticus 23:18; Numbers 28:27). For the Gentiles, this phrase would suggest the scent of incense being burned as an offering to the gods. However, Paul had a more specific picture in mind.
The apostle was speaking to the Corinthians about recent events in his ministry of evangelism. Despite all the difficulties and disappointments he’d faced while traveling from city to city spreading the gospel, Paul was able to reflect on God’s goodness with thanksgiving. The apostle then compared this ministry of evangelism to the triumphal military parades that were common at that time in the Roman world.
Paul’s metaphor would be readily understood by his audience, with the apostle and his co-laborers portrayed as victorious soldiers in a triumphal procession. During these Roman military parades, captives of war would be marched through the streets as garlands of flowers were carried and incense was burned to the gods. The aromatic perfumes wafted on the air as spectators and those in the procession breathed in their fragrance. At the parade’s finale, many prisoners would be put to death. Thus, the aromas were pleasing and life-giving to the victors, but they were the smell of death to those who had been defeated.
In Paul’s analogy, he separates humanity into two groups: those on the path of salvation and those on the road to destruction. The aroma spread everywhere by the ministry of evangelism was the knowledge of God as victor. Christians who spread the gospel are members of God’s victorious army led by Jesus Christ. Believers are like the aroma or fragrance spread during the victory processions. Both the victors and those perishing smell the aroma; however, it has a different meaning for the two groups. For the victorious army and its peoples, the aroma would relate to the joy of triumph. But for the prisoners of war, the fragrance would be associated with defeat, slavery, and death.
This brilliant metaphor contrasts Christian and non-Christian responses to hearing the gospel. To non-Christians, those on the road to destruction, believers who preach the gospel spread the smell of death, as it were. To Christians, those on the path to salvation, they produce the fragrance of life.
Overwhelmed by the extreme importance of this ministry of spreading the gospel, Paul exclaimed, “And who is equal to such a task?” The implication is that no one is worthy. Paul was astounded that God would appoint humans to share in this task. Later, in 2 Corinthians 3:5–6, Paul affirms that our ability rests solely on God: “Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He 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.”