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 includes a curious metaphor in this verse. The metaphor is a picture of Christ leading “us” (believers) in triumphal procession. The type of procession that Paul is alluding to is like that of a military victory. But, the term Paul used does not refer to “us” (believers) as being in the army that has just won a great battle. No, Paul refers to this term in a different way for “us”. This is how one commentator explains Paul’s use of this particular metaphor.
The metaphor refers to the celebration after a major military victory in which the spoils of war, rolling stages presenting battle scenes, and pictures of the cities that were sacked were paraded on chariots through the city of Rome to the Capitoline hill and the Temple of Jupiter. Most relevant for Paul’s use of the image is the train of eminent captives who were marched in chains through the streets to their execution at the end of the route.
Essentially, Paul refers to himself and fellow believers as the captives of an army that has just conquered them.
The imagery presupposes God’s prior victory and fits well with Paul’s theology that before becoming followers of Christ we were all “enemies of God” (Rom 5:10). Paul himself bemoans his past as a persecutor of the church of God who sought to destroy it (1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13). Christ had to conquer him and did.
The purpose of the Roman triumph was to flaunt the power of the victorious army and nation and gods. The celebration reinforced the mythology of “the ruler as the invulnerable victor and guarantor of the world order.” The victory was “ ‘proof’ of the unique and godlike nature of the ruler” and reaffirmed for one and all that the gods were on their side. Captured prisoners were exhibited to exalt the might of the triumphant general and bring glory to the gods who won for him the victory. By applying this image to God, Paul asserts that the Roman ruler is not the invulnerable victor and guarantor of world order. That role belongs only to the God who is fully revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and proclaimed by the apostles. The image points to God’s absolute sovereignty over the world. Later in his argument, Paul will say that we have this treasure, the knowledge of God’s glory, “in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (4:7) and that the purpose of “the grace that is reaching more and more people” is to “cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (4:15). Paul pictures himself as a previously defeated enemy of God being led in a triumph that reveals and heralds God’s majesty and power.
Paul’s joyous thanks to God derives from his understanding of the paradox of victory in Christ (see 1 Cor 15:57). The image of the conquered slave exhibited as a showpiece of God’s triumph matches his assertion in 12:10: “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” His conquest by God actually allows him to take part in God’s triumphant march as one now reconciled to God. Paul’s theology is remarkable for its sense of paradox. He suffers with Christ in order to be glorified with him (Rom 8:17, 37). Victory comes in defeat; glory, in humiliation; and joy, in suffering (Col 1:24). The wise must become fools to become truly wise (1 Cor 3:18); the rich one becomes poor so that the poor might become rich (2 Cor 8:9).
Garland, D. E. (1999). 2 Corinthians (Vol. 29, p. 147). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
There is a spectacular image in this verse. We can be humbled, along with Paul, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). While we were sinners, we were enemies of God and were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, Jesus Christ (Rom 5:10). Christ is the victorious General parading through the streets putting his captives on display. He has conquered us and our sin through his victorious death. We belong to him now.
In this paradox, as the commentator has mentioned, we find that being conquered by Christ is the best thing that could ever have happened to us. Because of Christ, we can take part in the triumphant march with Christ as one reconciled to God. No longer are we God’s enemies, but are his children. His Son’s death has made us captives to him who can experience true everlasting freedom. What a glorious paradox!