By Bruce Green
But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession. (2 Corinthians 2:14). This clearly seems to be an allusion to the Roman Triumph. It was the military version of the parades that cities give today for their team when they win the Super Bowl, World Cup or some other important athletic event. When a general won a notable military campaign they were rewarded with a Triumph. They would ride in a chariot surrounded by their soldiers who carried the plunder and prisoners captured in battle. There were priests waving their censers of incense. It was the aroma of life to the Romans and the aroma of death to the prisoners who were on their way to be executed. It’s a picture that works and the Corinthians would have been familiar with it.
Yet as obvious as this all appears to be, I think there is a procession that better suits Paul’s purposes for what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. I think he has in mind God’s triumphal procession in Psalm 68. The psalm celebrates Yahweh’s victory march from Egypt to Sinai to Jerusalem (v. 6-7, 24-25). He is spoken of as “a father to the fatherless, defender of widows” (v. 5). He sets prisoners free (v. 6). All of this reflects the redemptive nature of Paul’s ministry much better than a Roman Triumph would.
More to the point, God leading Israel out of Egypt also fits Paul’s personal situation quite well. His travel may have seemed as haphazard as Israel’s to the Corinthians (see 1:12ff), but God was leading him as surely as He led Israel. Even more, by introducing Israel (and Moses), he sets up a comparison between himself and Moses and the Corinthians and Israel.
Once Paul has introduced God leading Israel (and Moses) through the wilderness, it’s not difficult to see as McGuiggan suggests, the rebellion of Korah and company in the background as well (Numbers 16). Korah and 250 men accused Moses of lording his authority over them (v. 3)—the same thing the Corinthians had accused Paul of doing (2 Corinthians 1:24). These men were told by Moses to bring censers filled with incense and burning coals the next day to the tent of meeting. They did this and fire came out and consumed them, while their families were swallowed up by the earth.
The next day Israel grumbled about what had happened and a plague came upon them until Aaron took his censer, went into the midst of the people and “made atonement for them” (v. 47). Put it all together and you have people who opposed Moses carrying censers with the aroma of death, while that same aroma in Aaron’s censer brought life. Paul is saying that as with Moses, he is led by God to spread the aroma that is life to some and death to others—depending on their response to his message. It’s as powerful as it is subtle.
It resonates even more when you consider that Paul is competing with self- proclaimed “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5,13, 12:11). They knew nothing of weakness, meekness or suffering—they were above all of that.
They were the first century version of the health, wealth and prosperity gospel. All they claimed to know was one success after another. In other words, they were very much the Roman Triumph rather than being part of the procession led by God that cared for orphans and widows and knew hardship, suffering and weakness. In this light, the Roman Triumph becomes a parody of the true procession of God.
All of this speaks to our expectations of how God will lead us. In our lesser moments, we would like him to lead us in a way that works out to . . . well, unending health, wealth and prosperity. In our better moments, we know that’s as inauthentic of a gospel now as it was in the first century. Like Israel and Paul, we are part of God’s triumphal procession through the wilderness.
There will be both wonder and hardship, joy and suffering, and probably more than a few things that won’t fit neatly into any category. But there will always also be the presence of God, His power in our weakness and the promise of a future.
It is the triumph of the broken and burdened.
Bruce has written an entry level book on Revelation called The Thrill of Hope. It is available through Amazon.