2 Corinthians 2:14 (ESV) … “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.”
Paul’s opponents liked to place him at a disadvantage. He was a failure, they alleged, not fit to be an apostle. No doubt they made maximum use of his recent difficulties in Ephesus, where, as Paul readily admitted, he and his co-workers had been ‘burdened beyond measure, above strength, so that we despaired even of life. Yes, we had the sentence of death in ourselves …’ (1:8–9). It seems that Paul’s rivals found it easy to portray him as a pathetic figure scuttling ignominiously from one defeat to the next. They, of course, were going from success to success.
The problem of triumphalism is still with us. Some churches boast about their numbers, as though a large congregation is, by itself, proof of God’s blessing while a modest gathering can only mean that God is displeased. Others feel that they are on the cutting edge of contemporary culture and are tempted to look down on other fellowships which seem dated by comparison. In the same way, a love for accurate exegesis and clear doctrine can also promote an unhealthy tendency to make comparisons: ‘We have it; the others don’t!’ In recent years, there has been a vogue for worship songs which portray the church as an army on the march, banners flying, strongholds of the enemy falling before the invincible onslaught of God’s crack regiments. A bit of wishful thinking is understandable, but a measure of realism would do no harm. If only the forces of darkness really were in full-scale retreat before the advancing hosts of the King of kings!
Verse 14 shows us how Paul responded to the taunts that he was an apostle in retreat: ‘God … always leads us in triumph in Christ.’ Whatever others might think of his achievements, he saw himself as part of a victory parade. When a Roman general gained a significant victory over one of the barbarian races which menaced the borders of the empire, the emperor would reward his achievement by granting him a triumph. The victorious general would ride in a chariot at the head of a long procession thronged by cheering crowds. Behind him came the regiments in their parade finery, their standards adorned with the new battle honour. Then came wagons loaded with the spoils of war and, bringing up the rear, captured enemy warriors in chains destined for execution, or, if the crowds were in a generous mood, slavery. To Paul, the progress of the gospel in the world resembled one of these triumphal processions. He did not see himself, however, at the front. God, not Paul, was the victorious general leading his hosts in triumph. Paul merely saw himself as one of the foot-soldiers who only had a small part in the total picture. He saw himself not as the hero at the head of the parade, but as an anonymous figure trudging along in the ranks. There is a lesson for us here: ‘For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith’ (Rom. 12:3).
Does Paul’s picture of the progress of God’s kingdom as a victory parade seem strange? To many modern believers, especially in Western nations, it doesn’t seem as though we are winning at all, but rather that the gospel has been in retreat for a century or more. But those who think like that have missed a vital dimension. First-century parades could not only be heard and seen; bystanders could smell them. This is why Paul made use of the words ‘fragrance’ (2:14, 15) and ‘aroma’ (2:16). It was the Roman custom to burn incense on either side of the processional route, and the general and his troops would make their way through clouds of it. To the soldiers on parade and the jubilant spectators, the cloying scent of incense was associated with the heady excitement of victory. To the manacled prisoners of war bringing up the rear, however, the same scent had a vastly different significance. The best they could hope for was slavery. Often the victory parade would end with the wholesale execution of captives. What spoke of success and celebration to one group spoke of defeat and death to the other.
According to Paul, believers ‘are to God the fragrance of Christ’ (2:15). This of itself is a powerful challenge. As God looks at Christians, he ought to detect something of the essence of his Son clinging to them.
 Arthur, J. P. (2004). Strength in Weakness: 2 Corinthians Simply Explained (pp. 60–62). Darlington, England: Evangelical Press.