"In Triumph Always"
(Delivered Palm Sunday, April 9, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)
Furthermore, when I came to Troas to preach Christ's gospel, and a door was opened to me by the Lord, I had no rest in my spirit, because I did not find Titus my brother; but taking my leave of them, I departed for Macedonia. Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ (2 Corinthians 2:12-17).
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I was drawn to this morning's passage for two reasons. One reason was because it's Palm Sunday. This is the day on which we commemorate a great event. It's the day we remember together the 'triumphal entry' - as we call it - of our Savior Jesus Christ into the city of Jerusalem to die on the cross for our sins.
A little over a week ago, I was in the chapel of Denver Seminary attending a conference. I was paying attention to the conference speaker, and taking good notes; but like a good pastor should, I was also pondering in the back of my mind the whole time long what passage of scripture would be appropriate to preach from on Palm Sunday. And when the speaker at a particular session I was attending quoted this morning's passage - and reminded all of us at the conference that it is God who always leads us in 'triumph in Christ' - my ears immediately perked up! "Ah!", I thought; "'Triumphal entry'; . . . 'always led in triumph in Christ' . . . "There's my passage for Palm Sunday!"
Now you know how 'sermon selection' sometimes happens! Isn't God good?
But that wasn't the only reason I was drawn to this morning's passage. It was because when this conference speaker quoted this passage, it's words truly ministered to me. In fact, they've been ministering to me ever since.
You see; I came to this conference a little bit worn out. And to be perfectly honest, I don't find that attending 'conferences' and 'workshops' is the kind of thing that refreshes me very much. And I found that, coming home, I really had to hit the ground running. It has been a very busy week - an overwhelmingly busy week, in fact. And yet - as this conference speaker reminded us through this verse - it doesn't matter how weak we may feel; or how inadequate we may be for the challenges that face us; or how overwhelming the tasks may be that God gives us in our service to Him. One thing is always true. One thing is always constant. No matter what, God always leads us in triumph in Christ!
The apostle Paul knew this by personal experience. God had given him a task that was far beyond human capability. He experienced lots of setbacks, and let-downs, and frustrations along the way. And yet, Paul ended the race in victory. God used him to change the world. And he lets us know his secret in 2 Corinthians 4:6-7; "For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us."
The power to face the challenges and fulfill the tasks that God gives us is not our own. It is His. We are but mere 'earthen vessels' - mere 'clay pots'! Sometimes, we are even 'cracked-pots'!! But God entrusts the glory of Christ to us to display in this world - and even lets the light of His glory shine through the cracks! - so that it's plain to everyone that the excellency of the power is of Him and not of us.
Paul thought about how God used him in his weakness to pass on the life of Christ to others; and he says,
We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed - always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. And since we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, 'I believed and therefore I spoke,' we also believe and therefore speak, knowing that He who raised up the Lord Jesus will also raise us up with Jesus, and will present us with you. For all things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound do the glory of God" (2 Corinthians 4:8-15).
Paul sums it up by saying, "Therefore we do not lose heart" (v. 16). He faithfully plodded along - trusting in the power of Christ. And what was his confidence in it all? He thanked God that it is always true - no matter what - that God always leads us in triumph in Christ!
Oh, how much I needed this word from God this week! I'm willing to bet you need it too.
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May I share with you what I believe Paul was thinking of when he mentioned the word "triumph"? I believe he was speaking of something that every Roman citizen of his day would have been very familiar with - and that is, the Roman Triumph.
The Roman Triumph was a remarkable thing. It was something that people might have only seen once or twice in a lifetime - but it was something that they never forgot. No one would have been able to say, "Oh; a Triumph happened the other day? I guess I missed it." It was as 'public' a public event as a public event could possibly be; and everyone in the vicinity would know about it when it happened.
The noted bible expositor William Barcley tells us much about this great event.1 Whenever a conquering Roman general returned to Rome from a campaign, and if he had fulfilled certain conditions; that is, if he - as the actual commander and chief in the field of battle - had successfully completed a campaign that had defeated a foreign enemy and had gained their territory for the Roman empire; and if his efforts resulted in the peace of Rome being established in that conquered region; and if he then successfully led his troops back home in victory - then he was honored with the highest honor the Roman empire could bestow. He was honored with the Triumph; and it was like the Superbowl, Oscar Night, and the Fourth of July all rolled up into one, huge celebration.
A great procession would march throughout the streets of Rome on the way to the Roman capital. In the lead would be the political leaders of Rome - the senate and other state officials. Behind them would be loud trumpeters blaring out songs of victory. Behind the trumpeters and musicians would be wagons and carts that hauled all the rich spoils and treasures taken from the lands that were conquered - all on display for everyone to see; all being taken to the capital as rich gifts given by the conquering general to the people of his empire. Posters and placards and paintings that depicted scenes from the conquered land would be carried along in the parade - along with models of enemy citadels that were conquered, and of enemy ships that had been captured - all telling the stories of the mighty victories of the conquering general. These were followed by bulls that were to be sacrificed to the gods in gratitude for the great victory that had been won.
Behind all these, the captives would be made to shuffle along in the parade. There were the political leaders and princes and kings that had been defeated; and then would come the conquered military leaders and soldiers - all shackled in chains; all made to walk in utter humiliation before the shouting and jeering crowds; all marching on their way to prison . . . and to almost certain and immediate execution.
And then, great excitement would fill the crowd as the lictors came along - those who held high the emblem and the banners of the Roman empire, and the insignia of the general who had brought all of this great victory about. Their presence called the crowd to prepare itself as the hero of the day approached. And then - at last - the great general himself appeared to shouts of praise!
The general came standing tall and strong upon a chariot drawn by four mighty stallions. He wore a purple tunic embroidered with golden palm leaves; and over him was draped a purple robe decorated with golden stars. Behind him stood a slave who held over his head the crown of Jupiter. In the general's hand, he held high an ivory scepter that bore the figure of the Roman eagle at its top. Behind him came his family; and behind his family came all of his victorious troops in full decoration - all shouting, Io triumphe! Io triumphe!
All of the streets and avenues and boulevards through which the Triumph marched on its way to the capital were decorated with banners and ribbons and streamers. People would be filling every spot along the streets - waving and cheering and throwing garlands of flowers to the members of the parade. Priests would march along with the throng, swinging censers of incense - filling the streets with its fragrance. And that fragrance would have a particular significance to you - depending upon how you were related to the empire and its mighty general. If you were a citizen of the empire, then the incense was greeted by you as the sweet smell of victory. But if you were a conquered enemy who was made to march along in the Triumph in humiliation, then the incense was like the stench of death.
All of this is what Paul was thinking of when he said, "Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place."
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Now, compare that with the event that we commemorate on Palm Sunday. Compare that with our Savior's ride into Jerusalem. I mean this in all reverence - Jesus' "triumphal entry" hardly seems like "triumph" in comparison.
He didn't ride into town in a chariot drawn by four mighty stallions. He rode in on the colt of a donkey. There were no great preparations - no garlands thrown in the streets. In fact, it seems that people acted hastily to throw something together. They cut down palm branches to lay before Him, or spread their cloaks on the ground before Him. He didn't ride into a great Roman capital, but just into humble Jerusalem. In fact, we're told that He came in, went to the temple, threw out money changers and animal sellers, and then went to stay overnight in the town next door! And it certainly wasn't to what people would call a mighty victory that He came into town. Rather - as someone put it to me the other day - He deliberately rode into an ambush! He came to die a humiliating death on a disgraceful cross just a few short days after arriving.
I have to confess - I don't know of anywhere in the Bible where Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday is called "the triumphal entry". That's a name that we have chosen to give it. And yet, it truly was "the triumphal entry". His death on the cross for us purchased for us the forgiveness of our sins. It achieved for us the victory over the grave. It was the foundational act that ushered in His eternal kingdom - a kingdom that will be realized fully upon this earth, and over which He will reign as King of kings and Lord of lords forever. And it guarantees for us that we who have trusted Him will live with Him and reign with Him throughout eternity.
It may not seem like a "triumphal entry" in this world's eyes. But nevertheless, what Paul says is true - that God always leads us in triumph in Christ! And one great day - a day soon to come - the world will indeed see Him come to this earth in glory. And then, it will see a Triumph like no other!
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Look a little closer at this passage, dear brother or sister. The first thing that I ask you to notice is that . . .
1. FROM OUR PERSPECTIVE, THERE WILL BE TIMES OF FRUSTRATION AND WEAKNESS (v. 12-13).
Paul certainly felt them. In fact, when he wrote these words, he had just come out of a time of great frustration and deep personal weakness.
You see, Paul loved the people to whom he wrote - the believers in the ancient city of Corinth. If you read both of the New Testament letters he wrote to them, you clearly see that he loved them with a very sacrificial love. He longed for them to walk faithfully and obediently with Christ.
But as you read these letters - and particularly his first letter to the Corinthians - you also see that the church in Corinth was a church that was plagued with problems and difficulties. They fought among themselves, they tolerated gross sin in their midst, they dragged one another off to court and sued each other, they had messed up marriages, they conducted themselves atrociously during times of public worship, they had a goofed up theology, they were too enamored with the fads and fashions of the day, and were - in many ways - sinfully wrapped up in the values and priorities of the culture around them. Paul had to be very harsh with them at times.
Apparently, there was someone in the church who had been engaging in a very gross and very open practice of sin; and the church was not dealing with it. And Paul had to write a particularly harsh letter to them. The content of this letter isn't known to us; but it must have been a very grievous letter for him to write. Paul was not afraid to speak the truth to those he loves; but he felt great sorrow over having written it. He wrote it out of "much affliction and anguish of heart", and "with many tears" (2 Corinthians 2:4). And he became fearful that - as a result of having sent this very necessary but very stern letter - the Corinthian believers would no longer love him and would completely reject his exhortation. He was fearful most of all that they would not repent of their sin, and would not receive his call to be faithful and obedient to the Lord Jesus.
He even kept put off coming to them. He didn't want to come to them in further harshness. He feared that he would cause them even more sorrow at a time when he himself needed to be encouraged by them. But he as also afraid that they would misunderstand his failure to come to them - thinking that he is fickle and unreliable.
He sent his assistant Titus to go to them and find out how they were doing; while he himself stayed in Troas to minister. But what would Titus find? Would he find that they rejected Paul's acts of tough love toward them? Would he find that they had refused to deal with the sin problem in their midst?
Paul gave Titus instructions to come back to him and give him a report. But Paul found it difficult to wait. He was anxious in his heart over the Corinthians. His concerns for them became very intense - so intense, in fact, that he found it difficult to fulfill his ministry as a preacher and an evangelist. Even though a great door for the gospel had been opened up to him and his co-workers in Troas, he just couldn't do it! He had no rest in his spirit.
I have to tell you - this is a feeling that pastors and church leaders know all too well. A pastor often has to confront sin in the lives of the people he loves - otherwise, he's not being a faithful shepherd and servant of the Lord. But it's always a deeply painful thing to do. A pastor has to have that 'talk' with someone that he doesn't really want to have; or a church leader has to write that difficult letter or email, or make that unpleasant phone call. And there's always the fear: "Did I overdo it? Was I too harsh? Did I make matters even worse?" The fact is that pastors and leaders in church often have to suffer this time of 'restlessness of soul'. There are sleepless nights in ministry!
And I'll bet some of you have had those sleepless nights too. I'll bet there are times when you have had to fulfill your part in the work of the kingdom in ways that you felt woefully inadequate for. There are times when you felt frustrated and weak in your service to Christ; and when you felt as if you did more harm than good.
Look at what Paul says:
Furthermore, when I came to Troas to preach Christ's gospel, and a door was opened to me by the Lord, I had no rest in my spirit, because I did not find Titus my brother; but taking my leave of them, I departed for Macedonia (vv. 12-13).
Even though a door was widely opened to him by the Lord, he didn't feel he could go through it with any rest of soul. He couldn't stand it anymore. He left the work, went to Macedonia, and anxiously sought out his dear brother Titus - hoping to find out how it was with his beloved Corinthians.
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As an aside, I learn something very important from Paul's example. He shows me what it's like to be a caring servant of Christ. There are lots of folks in ministry who are mere 'professionals'. In the final analysis, they couldn't really care less whether or not the people that have been entrusted to them fall off the edge of the earth. But Paul was not that way. He was not dispassionate. He was not indifferent. The welfare of the people God had entrusted to him mattered greatly to him - so much, in fact, that he was willing to leave what seemed like a great opportunity elsewhere and find out how they were.
And find out he did! Sorrow turned to great joy! He later writes to them and says;
Great is my boldness of speech toward you, great is my boasting on your behalf. I am filled with comfort. I am exceedingly joyful in all our tribulation. For indeed, when we came to Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were troubled on every side. Outside were conflicts, inside were fears. Nevertheless God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming, but also by the consolation with which he was comforted in you, when he told us of your earnest desire, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced even more (2 Corinthians 7:4-7).
Titus gave a great report! "They still love you, Paul! They have earnestly repented before the Lord! They respect your apostolic authority; and are obedient to the Lord's call upon their lives!" What good news this was! Paul calls it 'comfort from God'! He almost bursts with happiness; and goes on to say,
Therefore we have been comforted in your comfort. And we rejoiced exceedingly more for the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all. For if in anything I have boasted to him about you, I am not ashamed. But as we spoke all things to you in truth, even so our boasting to Titus was found true. And his affections are greater for you as he remembers the obedience of you all, how with fear and trembling you received him. Therefore I rejoice that I have confidence in you in everything (2 Corinthians 7:13-16).
And the lesson that Paul had reaffirmed to him in all of this is that there may be times when we are frustrated and feel weak in the things that God has called us to do . . .
2. BUT FROM GOD'S PERSPECTIVE, WE ARE ALWAYS LED IN TRIUMPH IN CHRIST (vv. 14-16).
Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place (v. 14).
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Look carefully at that verse, dear brothers and sisters. It's good medicine for the weary soul.
First, notice that he gives thanks to God for the fact that God leads us in triumph in Christ. I hope that you appreciate Paul is not saying that God enables us to be triumphant. It's true that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Phil. 4:13); but that's not what Paul is saying. Rather, he is saying that God leads us in Christ's own "Triumph"! Christ is the Triumphant One - and we are led by God in triumph in Him and because we are united to Him! As the New International Version puts it, "But thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ . . ."
Second, notice when the case - always! You and I may not feel very triumphant at times. Paul certainly didn't. He felt very weak and frustrated. But the fact is that, even then, He was being led in Christ's triumphant procession. He was able to say - at the end of his life, as he sat in prison awaiting execution - I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing" (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
You and I may not feel very victorious at times. You may even feel worn out and defeated and ready to quit. You may feel deeply overwhelmed with feelings of frustration and weakness. But here's the fact: even then - even then, and always - you are being led by God in Christ's triumphal procession! You are on the side of victory! You belong to the Winner! The triumphal parade may not have appeared on this earth yet, but you are already in it.
And there's one more wonderful thing I'd like you to notice. It's the promise that, no matter what, Christ is letting the world know about Himself through you. Paul says that He not only thanks God for the fact that he is lead in triumph in Christ, but also that He "through us diffuses [or "spreads"] the fragrance of His knowledge in every place".
Now this is not, of course, saying that it doesn't matter how you live. It doesn't give any of us permission to live carelessly - all with the thought that, "It doesn't matter what I do. God will spread the fragrance of His knowledge everywhere through me no matter what." If you think that way, you'd better reexamine whether you are in Christ in the first place!
But what this is assuring us of is that, even at those times when we sincerely seek to follow and serve Christ and yet feel so horribly frustrated in our efforts - even at those times when we feel weak and inadequate and far too incapable of doing any good to His cause - even at those times when we feel like we've blown it, or even when we have stumbled and sin and failed Him; God still spreads the knowledge of Himself through those of us who love Him, everywhere He puts us!
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Dear brother or sister in Christ; we are in a Triumph procession! You don't march in one of those because you are intending to go on somewhere and do something victorious. You march in one of those because the victory has already been won! The Bible has already told us, ". . . In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us" (Romans 8:37).
The heartfelt affirmation of this fact, I believe, is what gave Paul the encouragement to keep on faithfully serving Christ and working with confidence on God's call upon his life. And this leads us to a final point; that because we are assured that we are always being led by God in triumph in Christ, . . .
3. THEREFORE, WE CAN BOLDLY PROCLAIM CHRIST IN THIS WORLD WITH CONFIDENCE AND INTEGRITY (v. 17).
The realization of his secure position in Christ's triumph procession is what energized Paul. He says, with great confidence;
For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing (v. 15).
This makes us think of the 'incense' that characterized the Roman Triumph; doesn't it? The fragrance of that incense wafted throughout the imperial city; and it proclaimed the glory of the mighty, conquering general who was being honored. To some, it was the sweet smell of victory! But to others - that is, to those who had been conquered - it was the stench of death.
And did you know that that's the very same impact we have on the people of this world? God diffuses, through us, the fragrance of the knowledge of Himself everywhere we go. He lets everyone know - through us - that He is there and that He is to be honored and worshiped!
But it's not received in the same way by everyone. To those who are being saved, the fragrance of the knowledge of God that is diffused by us, as we march along through this world in Christ's triumphant procession, is good news. It is a sweet aroma of life. But to those who are perishing - to those who do not and will not give honor to God or welcome His mighty conquering King - this same fragrance is the stench of death. It reminds such people of their need for a Savior; and it arouses in them a hatred for that Savior, whose cross condemns their sin. And that's exactly what Paul says in verse 16;
To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life (v. 16a).
I heard about an evangelist to had just completed preaching the gospel message to his audience. And when he was through, he told them something like this: "Now; you have just heard the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as I have just expressed it to you. And if you now go on to reject that message, then I want you to know that I have just become your worst enemy. I have just diffused to you the fragrance of the knowledge of God in the only way He can be known - that is, through Christ Jesus. You could have received that message; and if you had, then it would be to you the aroma of life. But now, you have chosen to rejected it; and so, I have just diffused to you the aroma of death. And if you continue to reject it, you will bear that horrible stench in your nostrils throughout eternity. I have therefore just become your worst enemy."2 He was absolutely right!
You see; we sometimes think that it's our great responsibility to be as acceptable to everyone in our Christian faith as we can be. But this is not true! We have not been left in this world to be its "air freshener"! We are the fragrance of Christ in this world. But to some, that fragrance is a fragrance of life leading to life; and they welcome it, and follow after it, and live. And to others, that fragrance is a fragrance of death; and they hate it, and reject it, and are condemned by it.
And it's not up to us to decide whether we will be one or the other. It's up to us only to be the fragrance; and to leave it to God to work His will in people's lives through it.
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Paul asks, "And who is sufficient for these things?" (v. 16b). And the answer is obvious. Not you. Not me. Not even Paul. Not one of us is - in and of ourselves. But that brings us back to the point we made before - that "we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God and not of us" (2 Corinthians 4:7).
If it were up to us, we would try to be a sweet-smelling aroma to everyone. And in order to do that, we would have to leave things out of the gospel. We would have to try to modify it and make it acceptable to the people of this world. We would have to eliminate the "aroma of death leading to death" aspects; and add things that accentuate the "aroma of life leading to life" aspects.
But look at Paul's great confidence and integrity with the gospel message. He knows that - no matter what - he is being led in triumph in Christ; so he says,
For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God . . . (v. 17a).
. . . that is, he was not trying to make it 'an easy sell'. He was not, as someone said, 'trying to put only the best strawberries up on the top of the grocery store shelf'. Instead, he said;
. . . but of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ (v. 17b).
In other words, Paul and his co-workers sought to be the genuine thing. They sought to be the 'real deal'. They didn't try to modify the gospel, or market it, or try to make it easier for people to hear. They cut it straight, and trusted God to work His will through it.
Frankly, you can afford to be confident and to speak with full integrity when you are led in continual triumph in Christ!
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So; Christ's entry into the city of Jerusalem many years ago truly was a triumphant entry. But it was a humble entry into the city upon a donkey's colt. It was an entry that would lead to His death on a cross. This entry is called "triumphant" only because it then brought about a great triumph that was fully realized later.
But His second entry will not be like the first. And may I close by sharing with you what Christ's truly "triumphant" entry into the city of Jerusalem will look like? It's described for us in Revelation 19:11-16; where it says,
Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written:
KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS (Rev. 19:11-17).
Dear brother or sister; remember that you and I are - right now, as far as God Himself is concerned - riding in that very Triumph with Christ! We will have times when we will feel inadequate and frustrated and defeated in the work He has called us to. But that's only because of the limited perspective of the flesh. From God's perspective, we are - in spite of how we may feel, in spite of what our circumstances may seem to be - always led by God in triumph in Christ. We are already in the victory parade! We have great reason to rejoice and give thanks to God right now; knowing that one day, that triumph will be fully realized at Christ's return.
Therefore, let's now - while we can - boldly proclaim Jesus Christ in this world with full confidence and integrity. We cannot lose!
1William Barcley, The Letters to the Corin
thians (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), pp. 183-4.
2Adapted from Dr. J. Vernon McGee's "Through the Bible" radio broadcast.
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