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Smells Bring Back Memories

II Corinthians 2:12 – 3:6

Smells can bring back memories, sometimes of things you don’t even remember.  Sometimes when I am at the pool in Niger and somebody is smoking, the smell of cigarette smoke mixed with the chlorine of the pool water takes me back immediately to childhood visits to the pool in Ilorin where we used to go when we’d go to the big city on shopping trips.  I don’t specifically remember people smoking there; in fact, I remember very little about the pool other than that it was the highlight of our day.  But that memory tells me that, indeed, there were people smoking around the pool.  Normally I don’t even like the smell of cigarette smoke, but I kind of like it when it’s just faint and mixed with a chlorine smell.

When John and I were on our honeymoon in Washington DC, we were walking down the sidewalk.  Suddenly we both stopped, sniffed the air, and said, “Mount Sanderson!”  That was a hill behind our boarding school that we could climb. 


It was covered with a flowering bush whose flowers had a very strong smell.  As we stood there in the middle of Washington DC, we were transported back to the top of Mount Sanderson and the smell of that flower … which we now realize is called “lantana”.  

Photo from

When I am in a grocery store and smell guavas, I just have to have one.  The smell itself reminds me of Africa and delicious fresh fruit.  On the other hand, the smell of mangoes is disgusting to me as it brings back a memory of a kid at boarding school throwing up mango all over the place.  Many people love the smell of mangoes, but for me it evokes a horrible memory.  (An interesting article on smell and memory can be found here.)

Paul says that
“God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him.  For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To the one we are the smell of death, to the other, the fragrance of life.  And who is equal to such a task?  Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit.  On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.”
A Roman Triumph by Andrew Carrick Gow, 1905
Paul is referring to something his readers would have seen often:  Roman troops returning from battle.  Incense would have been burned as they paraded through town.  For some, this would have been a triumphant procession, but for those who had lost a father, brother, husband, or lover, the smell from then on would bring back the memory of his loss.  For others when Paul wrote this, they would have thought of incense burning in the synagogue or in a pagan temple.

Paul asks us what we smell like.  No, not literally, but our testimony, our life.  It should be a sweet smell to our Father; but it may be a stench to those who don’t love our Father.  He is also reminding us that we are marching in triumphal procession.  We aren’t weak or defeated, but are the triumphant winners.
Paul continues to say that their testimony, their manner of life among the Corinthians, should be enough for them to know that he is really an apostle of Jesus.  They seem to suddenly want proof.  Where’s his letter?  Paul says you are my letter.  You are proof that Jesus changes life and that Paul has been his messenger.

It should be obvious to others that we are living for Jesus.  It should be seen in our fragrance and known by others as their lives change because of our ministry for Jesus to them.  It should be obvious that we are living a new covenant, not the old law.


Chris said…
Great post! I can totally relate. Certain smells can even put me in a different mood....honeysuckle makes me so calm and happy. I love that smells can transport us to another time and place but not when they are your mango smell. But you take the good with the bad and that is all part of it. Thanks for the reminder to be fragrant for Jesus.

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