Smell may be the most mysterious of the senses. As recently as 2006, researchers in Seattle found an entire class of previously undiscovered smell receptors. They are still unclear about how exactly these receptors work.
In 2 Corinthians 2, Paul uses this mysterious sense of smell to illustrate an even greater mystery. God, the perfect and all-powerful Creator of the universe, uses fallible humans to make Himself known! God can reveal Himself in the most astounding ways, such as by communicating His nature through the very fabric of creation (see Rom. 1:20). And yet, God chooses us—stinky, smelly, and unpleasant as we are—to spread “the pleasing aroma of Christ” (v. 15).
Reflecting on our limitations and the extraordinary calling God has given us, we may well ask, “Who is equal to such a task?” (v. 16). Not just anyone. Those who would carry forth God’s sweet-smelling mission must renounce the stinky, smelly, and unpleasant tendencies that commonly characterize human behavior. Among these is the tendency to turn every chance into a money-making opportunity, which leads “so many” to “peddle the word of God for profit” (v. 17). As Jesus said, we cannot serve both God and money (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13).
To spread the aroma of Christ, we must give ourselves completely to Him. As Paul puts it, we must become “captives in Christ’s triumphal procession” (v. 14). This is not our parade but Christ’s. Our only hope to participate is as captives, those whose bondage to sin has been overcome by captivity to Christ. Along the route of Christ’s triumphal procession we may feel we are being consumed, burned up. Even still, we have faith that in the process we will produce a pleasing aroma that “brings life” (v. 16).
Later in 2 Corinthians, Paul returns to theme of captivity, again emphasizing how completely we are to give ourselves to Christ. We are to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (10:5). Examine your thoughts, especially those that occur frequently. Are they serving Christ? If not, what would need to change to make them so?