Missionaries are Incense Bearers

How Paul’s illustration of the Roman triumph defines missions

What is missions?

That is a simple question, but it is in fact one of the most disputed questions in the field of missiology today. It is a question that brings up many other questions such as, “What is the relationship of verbal proclamation of the gospel to compassion ministries?” Or, “Are we merely seeking to reach unreached people groups, or is long-term discipleship of believers also an important work of missions?” And, “What about confronting injustice in the world?”

For those who think less in terms of theory and more in terms of the practical, the question is nevertheless important. Ask: “What does my church call missions?” There are many Evangelical churches that claim to be deeply involved in missions, but their entire missions budget and service is focused on orphan care, digging wells, and development. Strangely, evangelism and church planting seem to be completely off their radar.

Of course, it is quite difficult to accomplish a mission if we can’t put it into words, or if the partners, both from among senders and goers, define their joint mission differently.

While this post won’t and can’t be a comprehensive answer to that basic question, I do want to draw our attention to what I believe to be one of the most important passages to help us answer the question — 2 Corinthians 2:14–16a.

Photo by Meejin Choi on Unsplash

Paul, the Missionary, writes to Corinth.

Paul lived in Corinth for a year and a half, planting the Corinth Church in A.D. 49. But since that time, the church had struggled to fully abandon their pagan worldview and practices in order to completely follow Christ. In 2 Corinthians, the primary problem Paul addresses is the influence of people whom he sarcastically calls “super-apostles” (2 Cor 11:5; 12:11). 

These men boasted that their speaking skills and knowledge made them superior to Paul, whom they identified as weak (for example, 2 Cor 11:4–6). To discredit these false teachers and defend his own ministry, Paul had to clearly define missions for the church and identify the marks of a successful ministry and a competent missionary.

Paul does the bulk of this task in 2 Corinthians 2:14–3:18. While we would certainly benefit from a careful look at this entire passage, in this post we will just examine the initial section, 2 Corinthians 2:14–16a. It is in these verses that he gives his initial definition of missions, a definition that he then elaborates on and adds to elsewhere in the book.

Before digging into what Paul writes, I should note that much of what Paul says in these sections applies to gospel ministry of every type, including, of course, pastors. Nevertheless, I think it is more precise to say that the direct application is to missions. Paul is not defending himself as the pastor of the Corinth Church. He is defending his apostolic (missionary) work in Corinth against those who view themselves as better apostles/missionaries than Paul. For this reason, what Paul describes here is not Christian ministry generally (although applications must certainly be made), but missions.

The Romans invented triumph.

Paul begins by comparing missions to a Roman triumph — God “always leads us in Christ’s triumphal procession” (2 Cor 2:14). The Roman triumph refers to the victory parade in which a Roman general, upon returning from a military campaign, would enter into the city of Rome as a celebration and culmination of his victory. 

The Roman triumph was the supreme tool of propaganda in the Roman Empire, and although very few people would ever witness a triumph in their lifetime, everyone knew what it was and who had celebrated them. In fact, a tablet in the Roman Forum listed the triumphs celebrated in the city, going all the way back to Romulus himself.

Not every victorious general could celebrate a triumph. The triumph was reserved for those generals who had conquered new peoples and places that had never been conquered by Rome before. Even Emperor Vespasian and his son General Titus had to re-invent history in order to allow for their triumph for conquering Judea and Jerusalem in A.D. 71. In order to boost their own credentials, they simply claimed to have conquered the territory for the first time, even though Judea had been conquered over a century earlier by Pompey, and everyone simply went along with it.

In a triumph, the general would enter Rome in his chariot, clothed in gold and jewels and surrounded by incense bearers. The wafting, aromatic smoke of the incense gave thanks to the gods who accomplished the victory through the conquering general, and it also honored the general as a god-like man through whom the gods worked.

Along with his army, the general was followed by two groups of people: those he had taken captive in the campaign, and those Romans who had been liberated from foreign captivity. Along the parade route, the general was sometimes praised as “savior” for giving freedom to his enslaved countrymen. On the other hand, many of the foreign captives faced execution at the end of the procession.

Paul’s most basic understanding of missions is quite clear. Missions is to spread the knowledge of God’s victory through Christ.

Missionaries are the incense bearers.

Paul says that God “leads us in Christ’s triumphal procession” (2 Cor 2:14), but one of the ongoing debates among New Testament scholars is where Paul locates himself and his fellow missionaries in the illustration. Some have seen us as the captives being led, following the triumphant general. This view fits with much of the emphasis of 2 Corinthians on suffering as a marker of genuine gospel ministry.

However, it is probably more likely that Paul sees himself as one of the incense bearers since he goes on to say, “…through us [God] spreads the aroma of the knowledge of him in every place” (2 Cor 2:14). God has won the victory already in Christ, and he is celebrating his victory throughout the world. We are the incense bearers who spread “the aroma of the knowledge of him” (2 Cor 2:14).1

This is the work of the churches of Jesus Christ, what we today call “missions” — to spread the knowledge of God’s victory to all the world — and it is the special calling of those gifted to be apostles or missionaries. Through us, God is displaying the extent and the extravagance of his victory for his own glory.

Yet, as we spread the knowledge of Christ, humanity is divided into two groups. Some are like the captives destined for execution. To them, our incense is the smell of death. The knowledge of Christ alerts them that they are spiritually dead and will face the eternal judgment of God once the triumph reaches its culmination. But to those who have been liberated from their captivity to sin, our incense is the sweet smell of life (2 Cor 2:15–16).

This then leads Paul to his next question, “Who is adequate for these things?” But that’s a question for another time.

The victory is won, but must be announced.

While there are other places where Paul uses military analogies to describe his ministry, it is significant here that Paul sees the campaign as already won. Christ is the victorious general. It’s not our job to “make Christ win.” He has already won. Our task is to spread the knowledge of his victory like the incense bearers, wafting the fragrance of their incense.

Perhaps further significance can be seen in Paul’s choice of illustration when we remember that the Roman triumph always celebrated the conquering of new peoples and territories. This is what separates missions from normal church ministry. Missions includes crossing cultural, linguistic, and physical boundaries to serve Christ at the front edge of the gospel’s penetration into new peoples and places. Paul makes clear in Romans, “My aim is to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named” (Rom 15:20).

Whether or not Paul had this in his mind when utilizing the illustration of the triumph, Paul’s most basic understanding of missions is quite clear. Missions is to spread the knowledge of God’s victory through Christ. There is much more that can and must be said, but we should never say anything less.

  1. George H. Guthrie gives the best discussion of this passage in his commentary. See 2 Corinthians, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 155–75. []
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Joshua Hutchens

Joshua Hutchens

Joshua Hutchens (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a missionary to Malawi and president of Gospel Life. Before becoming president of Gospel Life, he served as a pastor in Kentucky. He is married to Stacy Leigh, and they have five children.

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