Setting

Paul has mentioned his missionary journeys a few times in previous passages. He experienced debilitating affliction in Asia (1:8–9). Instead of coming to Corinth as he had originally planned, he decided to write them a letter (1:15–16, 23; 2:1). Now, he relates his recent experience in Troas. Acts does not provide us information about this particular missionary effort by Paul. But Paul tells his readers that he cut short his stay in Troas despite the evangelistic opportunities there. The reason was that he did not find Titus there. Paul will resume this narrative in 2 Cor 7:5, where he will write about the great comfort he received when Titus brought him good news from Corinth.

Key Verse

(3:2–3)

Did You Know...?

  1. Troas (1:12) was a large port city in Northwest Asia Minor. It was here that Paul received the vision of the Macedonian call (Acts 16:8–10).
  2. Titus (1:13) was Paul’s fellow missionary (2 Cor 8:23). Paul calls him “my true child in a common faith” (Tit 1:4) probably because Titus accepted the faith through Paul’s preaching. Titus plays a key role in Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians. Paul has urged Titus, who also cared deeply about the Corinthians, to visit the church in Corinth and to collect the gift the Corinthians had promised to give to the brethren in Jerusalem (2 Cor 8:16–17; 12:18). Titus was warmly received by the Corinthians and has returned to Paul with a very encouraging report (2 Cor 7:6, 7, 13–16).
  3. Triumphal procession (1:14): The Greek word thriambeuō (θριαμβεύω), translated here as “lead (someone) in triumphal procession,” occurs in the Bible only in this verse and in Col 2:15. In Greco-Roman literature, this word and its related words are most often associated with a particular form of the triumphal procession awarded a Roman general. As a part the procession, incense bearers carrying incense baskets and burners offered incense in celebration of the victor. [ref]
  4. Fragrance and aroma (1:14–16): In the Bible, the term “fragrance of aroma,” formed by pairing the two Greek words, osmē (ὀσμή) and euōdia (εὐωδία), alludes to the pleasing aroma of sacrifices offered to God (e.g. Ex 29:18 LXX; Eph 5:2). In Greco-Roman literature of the period, these two words are used of the pleasing aroma of incense, including that used in a triumphal procession. [ref]
  5. Sufficient (2:16; 3:5, 6): This word is found the Greek translation of Exodus 4:10, where Moses answers the LORD that he is not “eloquent.”

Outline

  • Restlessness in Troas
    (2:12–13)
  • Triumphal Procession
    (2:14–17)
  • Sufficiency from God
    (3:1–6)

General Analysis

  • 1.

    How is Paul’s question, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2:16), answered later on in the passage?

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    In this passage Paul depicts the power of his ministry. His claim is not self-promotion, nor does he need any letter of recommendation to support his claim. Rather, his confidence is through Christ and his sufficiency is from God, not from himself (3:4–5).

     

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Segment Analysis

  • 2:12–13

    1.

    Inferring from 2 Cor 7:6–16, why did Paul have no rest in his spirit when he could not find Titus in Troas?

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    When Paul went to Macedonia, he finally met Titus and heard from Titus the wonderful news that the Corinthians had a change of heart toward God and toward Paul. The news brought Paul great comfort and joy (2 Cor 7:6–16). Based on this narrative in chapter 7, we may infer that Paul had no rest in his spirit when he could not find Titus in Troas because he was anxious to learn of the Corinthians’ response to the letter Paul had written them (cf. 2:3–4).

     

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  • 2:14–17

    2.

    If Paul is using a triumphal procession as a metaphor in this segment   a. How are the ministers of the gospel like those who carry the aroma?   b. How does the fragrance bring both death and life?

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    a. If Paul is using the analogy of a triumphal procession, an analogy that his readers would have immediately recognized, then he is comparing the ministers of the gospel to the incense bearers during such procession. Just as the incense bearers in a triumphal procession celebrates the victory in war by offering the incense with its fragrant aroma, the ministers of the gospel spread the fragrance of the knowledge of God everywhere. The gospel is the power of God that brings salvation and destroys spiritual strongholds (Rom 1:16; cf. Acts 19:11–20; 2 Cor 10:3–6). Consequently, by bringing the gospel with its mighty power to the world, the ministers are the aroma of Christ celebrating the victory of the gospel of Christ (2 Cor 2:15).

     

    b. Continuing with the analogy of the triumphal procession, those who are being saved would be the Roman citizens whose general has brought them victory and delivered them from their enemies. Those who are perishing would be the captives of war on display who would eventually face execution. Just as the same aroma would be a fragrant aroma to the Roman citizens but an aroma of death to the captives, the aroma of Christ is both an aroma of life to those who are saved and an aroma of death to those who are perishing. The gospel declares not only salvation but also future judgment (cf. Rom 2:16). Therefore, the preaching of the gospel brings about two drastically opposing outcomes, depending on how a person responds to its message. He who believes in Christ will have eternal life, but he who does not believe is condemned (Jn 3:16–18; 12:48; Mk 16:15–16).

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  • 3a.

    Why is the knowledge of God a fragrance (2:14)?

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    Those who have not received the gospel or walk contrary to God do not know God (cf. Rom 1:28; 1 Cor 1:21; 15:34; Gal 4:8; 2 Thess 1:8; Tit 1:16; 1 Jn 4:8). But those who accept and obey the gospel have come to know God (cf. Gal 4:9; 1 Jn 4:6–7). With the knowledge of God comes grace and peace (1 Pet 1:2). Wherever the gospel is preached, the knowledge of God is spread like an aroma, drawing people to God and changing lives.

     

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  • 3b.

    How do we spread this fragrance everywhere?

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    We may spread the fragrance of the knowledge of God by telling others about God and what He has done for us. Coupled with preaching with words, we ought to also exemplify the knowledge of God with good conduct so that people who see our good examples may be drawn to God (cf. Mt 5:16; Php 2:14–16; Tit 2:1–10; 1 Pet 3:1–2).

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  • 2:14–17

    4.

    Why does Paul ask the question “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2:16)

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    Using a triumphal procession as a metaphor, Paul writes that we are the aroma of Christ to God. The effect of the aroma carries great power. To those who are saved, we are an aroma of life, but to those who are perishing, we are an aroma of death. Such marvelous power is far beyond our own abilities. Paul’s rhetorical question, “who is sufficient for these things?”, implies that no human being is capable of such power.

     

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  • 5.

    Why is speaking God’s word truthfully in Christ so important? (2:17)

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    Our preaching is not about ourselves. We are merely vessels that convey God’s word (cf. 2 Cor 4:5–6). The word of God is powerful. It can penetrate the soul, regenerate, build up, and grant eternal life (cf. Acts 20:32; Heb 4:12–13; Jas 1:21; 1 Pet 1:22–25). When the preacher speaks God’s word faithfully and without any selfish motive, God’s word is able to transform people’s hearts and produce fruit in their lives.

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  • 3:1–6

    6.

    How are believers a letter of recommendation (3:2)?

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    The transformed lives of believers are a testimony to the power of the gospel as well as to the credibility of the ministers (cf. 1 Thess 1:4–10). The believers are a letter written on the hearts of the ministers in the sense that the ministers of the gospel speak the word of God from their hearts and care for the believers in their hearts. God has shone in their hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6). As such, they serve in the ministry with the hearts which God had shined upon. Like the names of the sons of Israel that were engraved on the twelve stones on Aaron’s ephod (Ex 39:14), the believers are engraved on the hearts of the ministers. Furthermore, the letter is to be known and read by all (2 Cor 3:2). This metaphorical expression means that everyone is able to see the transforming power of the gospel when they witness the new life of the believers (cf. Php 1:27).

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  • 7.

    How do the ministers deliver this letter from Christ (3:3)?

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    The Greek verb for “deliver” is also translated “minister.” As ministers of the gospel, we are to minister to the believers by speaking God’s word faithfully, be good examples for them, carry them in our hearts, and pray for them (cf. Acts 20:27–35; 1 Cor 11:1; 2 Cor 11:28–29; Eph 1:15–21; 3:14–19; Php 1:22–26; 3:7; 4:1, 9). This letter is written by Christ, meaning that it is Christ and His saving works that give a new life to the believer (cf. Rom 8:1–11; Eph 1:3–14; Col 3:3). By preaching Christ and imitating Christ, we as ministers of the gospel are agents that bring God’s work to fruition in the lives of believers.

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  • 8.

    How is the letter written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God?

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    The message of the gospel is “not in plausible words of wisdom but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:4). The preacher speaks words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit (1 Cor 2:13). It is by the Spirit of God that our preaching can take effect in believers.

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  • 9.

    How is the letter written on tablets of human hearts?

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    As ministers of the gospel, we need to serve God and the believers with a heart of sincerity rather than doing so outwardly to please men (cf. Rom 1:9; 2 Cor 1:12; 2:17; 6:11; Gal 1:10).

     

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  • 10.

    In what ways has God made you sufficient in your ministry?

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  • 11.

    Why is Paul’s ministry called a new covenant (3:6)?

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    In this passage and the following, Paul contrasts the old covenant under Moses and the new covenant under the ministers of Christ. Paul is a minister of the covenant because the gospel he preaches brings about a new relationship between God and his people that is unlike the relationship between the Israelites and God in the Old Testament. The prophet Jeremiah has foretold of this new covenant and spoken about its contrast to the old covenant (Jer 31:31–34).

     

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  • 12.

    Explain the contrast between letter and Spirit.

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    The old covenant was carved in letters on stone (3:7). The outward engraving is symbolic of the Israelites’ superficial and passive relationship with God (cf. Jer 31:32, 34). Like the tablets of stone on which the old covenant was engraved, the hearts of the people were as hard as stone. They were unable to keep God’s covenant with them, resulting in condemnation (cf. Gal 3:10; “ministry of condemnation” in 2 Cor 3:9). This is what Paul means by “the letter kills” (2 Cor 3:6).

     

    The LORD promised that he would one day remove the heart of stone from his people and give them a new heart and a new spirit. The result is that they would walk in God’s statutes and be careful to obey His rules (Ezek 36:26–27). This inward, active inclination to obey God is exactly the new covenant Jeremiah describes. Paul borrows this language when he writes about the true Jew who obeys God’s law from the heart: “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.” (Rom 2:28–29).

     

    Hence, “letter” represents an outward and passive compliance which only bring about death. On the contrary, “Spirit” represents the inner working of God’s Spirit within those who have received a new life in Christ that results in a proactive and heartfelt obedience to God.

     

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