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The Fragrance of Christ

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 a sweet fragrance of Christ unto God… (2 Corinthians 2:14,15).

“And the Lord said to Moses, Take sweet spices – stacte, onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense, an equal amount of each – and make of them incense, a perfume after the perfumer’s art, seasoned with salt and mixed, pure and sacred. You shall beat some of it very small and put some of it before the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting, where I will meet with you; it shall be to you most holy. And the incense which you shall make according to its composition you shall not make for yourselves; it shall be to you holy to the Lord.” (Exodus 30:34-37).

All that we do should be fragrant with what we are. And what we are should be ‘a sweet fragrance of Christ’. There can be no question about the fragrance of the Lord Jesus. It was a part of His very nature. Wherever He went, whatever He did, whatever He said, the precious perfume of another world accompanied Him. It literally was that – the fragrant atmosphere of heaven. The secret was in His origin: He had come ‘out of the ivory palaces’; but, even more than that, He had a heavenly nature, a nature redolent with the beautiful perfume of the eternal glory. Moreover, the human walk on earth was so essentially one of communion with the Father, that He never appeared before men without a lingering sweetness of the Sanctuary about Him. And, like the incense, He was ‘beaten very small’; His fragrance was the result of His life of suffering. The Word tells us that “we are a sweet fragrance of Christ”. We certainly ought to be. It will not be out of place for us to enquire if we really are.

Fragrance Cannot be Described

Such an enquiry is made difficult by reason of the fact that perfume is indescribable. In the natural world this is so. We recognise and enjoy the comforting, satisfying, pervasive sweetness of what is fragrant, but no human words can adequately convey the effect of a sweet scent. It can be recognised, but it cannot be described. The incense had an unmistakable scent. No doubt, if any of the priests had detected it anywhere outside of the Sanctuary, they would have immediately set to work to punish the offender. Even in the remotest corner of the camp, even in the darkest and most hidden secret place, any imitation of the sacred incense must have been discovered at once. There would be no mistaking it. For us, happily, there is no blame, but only praise, if the fragrance of the Sanctuary is discovered in our dwelling. But how can we explain it, except by comparing it with other perfumes? What is it like? we ask. The fragrance of Christ is like the Father. It conveys the sweetness of the Father’s love, the glory of the Father’s character, the desirable loveliness of the Father’s goodness. All that we can say is that this fragrance was the quality which brought the Presence of God to men. And all that we can say to describe the fragrance of a truly spiritual life is that it reminds men of Christ, it brings the atmosphere of His Presence near to men.

It Cannot be Measured

We cannot measure fragrance. Nor do we need to do so. It is altogether a matter of quality, not of quantity. The world in which we live is a world which tends to value everything according to its magnitude. Even in the realm of spiritual things we are all too prone to enquire first about dimensions, and to prize that which is big and impressive. Fragrance cannot be treated in this way. A very little scent can fill a whole room. A very small quantity can exert a widespread influence. God shows little interest in the things which seem so impressive to men. He is not asking us to be what the world calls ‘big’ or ‘successful’. What He does seek is that which brings back to Him something of the sweet and satisfying perfume of the character of His Son. It is “to God”, in the first place, that we are to be a sweet fragrance of Christ, and if we bring pleasure to God in our ministry, we shall undoubtedly bring blessing and life to men. We shall be a ‘savour of life’.

The Effect of the Fragrance

While this fragrance is peculiar to the Sanctuary, and in the Old Testament was confined to that place alone, the pervading effect of it should be known in every place where the Lord’s servants go. It is more than a mere accompaniment of their ministry – it is an essential factor in it. The fragrance is attractive: it makes men yearn to possess the secret of this scent of heaven.

This is how it worked in the case of the Lord Jesus Himself. In His Presence, men were moved to desire and enquire after that walk with God which He so obviously enjoyed. What really made the devout Nicodemus seek out Jesus? None of us can know. His question was clearly connected with the Kingdom, yet his very first words suggest that the perfume had reached him and aroused deep desires in his heart for this kind of knowledge of God. ‘No man could do these signs unless God were with him’ (John 3:2). Perhaps, until Jesus came on the scene, he had been satisfied with his own attainments: if so, this life, fragrant with the atmosphere of heaven, had awakened in him a realisation of his own deep lack. Or it may be that already he was dissatisfied with all the best that keeping the Law could do for him, and had become convinced that there must be something which could bring him truly near to God. In either case, he was attracted and drawn by this atmosphere of the Presence of God which surrounded the Lord Jesus. God was ‘with Him’, and Nicodemus wanted to know more about it.

There seems to have been a similar wistfulness about the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17). There was an attraction which drew him – he ran to Jesus. There was a majesty which humbled him – he knelt before he spoke. And there was an awareness of His lovely fragrance, for the ruler addressed the Lord as ‘Good Master’. He did not say, ‘Wise Master’, nor even ‘Great Master’, but ‘Good Master’. It seems that he ‘scented’, as it were, the loveliness of such a life, and yearned to possess it.

This was the effect of the presence of the Lord Jesus as He moved among men. He carried everywhere with Him such a fragrance of the Sanctuary that even the most devout and godly men who met Him became dissatisfied with their present experience and longed for a closer walk with God. If this was true of the godly, how much more true was it of the common people. Some, it is true, came perhaps because of the experience or advice of others, but most seem to have been drawn irresistibly after Christ – drawn not merely by the words He spoke or acts He performed, but by the indefinable ‘something’ which we can only describe as the fragrance of the Sanctuary. It would be true to say that the ministry of Christ was often made possible by people being so drawn to Him, for they themselves sought Him out.

The lovely perfume of His life not only aroused longings and desires in men’s hearts – it also seemed to inspire hope. Just as a sweet scent may inform us that there are beautiful flowers just beyond our sight, so this fragrant Son of Man suggested to the sons of men that God had something more for them if only they would press forward to receive it. Even in their defilement and bondage they were made to feel that there must be – there is – an answer from God. God is not afar off, distant and unmoved; He is very near, able and willing to impart His love and life to the needy. The fragrance did not heal them, but it made them draw near, it gave them new hope, it prepared the way for the ministry of healing. It made men feel that, if only they drew near enough, there would be a mighty provision from heaven to meet their deepest need.

We cannot heal men. Only the Lord can do that. But is it not true that we should carry with us, as did our Lord, something of that indefinable fragrance of the Sanctuary, that makes men believe that after all there is hope for them in Christ? Is it not this that Paul referred to? It is true that the Apostle had a very large spoken ministry, both in public preaching and private conversation; but, whether public or private, vocal or silent, there was something about him of an atmosphere of heaven, which made men long for a knowledge of God and at the same time filled them with an expectation that such a knowledge was available.

The Secret of the Fragrance

The Old Testament typology concerning the incense may help us to understand something of the secret of this fragrance. In the type, ‘the shadow of the true’, it had to be kept unique: any kind of imitation was expressly forbidden. In the reality, it is unique, for nobody can imitate this fragrance. It is essentially one of nature: it derives from the heavenly origin of Christ. It was not the result of His birth at Bethlehem, but of His heavenly origin which was veiled in the human frame. This was the explanation of that perfect balance, that Divine blending of all virtues, indicated in the instructions that the ingredients of the incense were to be mixed ‘in equal amounts’ as well as to be absolutely pure.

The Lord Jesus did not have to try to be fragrant: it was a characteristic of His very inner nature that it gave forth the atmosphere of heaven. He has given this heavenly life to us. In our case also there is a sense in which we do not have to ‘try’ to be fragrant. We live out the life of the Lord Jesus, which carries with it everywhere the sweet scent of the character of God. To imitate it brings death, not life. To make any use of it other than for the glory of God alone, to seek some gain for ourselves out of it, also means bringing in death. We have the unique life within us. If only we can live it out, the fragrance will be found wherever we go.

Then, of course, this was the special scent of the Sanctuary. As we have said, it was not only His heavenly origin, but His heavenly walk, that made the life of the Lord Jesus to be so fragrant. He belonged to the Sanctuary. He was a Man of the Sanctuary. Though His life was as busy and full as any of ours, indeed busier and fuller than any other, yet He never allowed the calls and distractions of life, not even of His work for the Father, to entice Him away from the hidden union and communion of life within the veil.

Probably the High Priest of old carried at least a hint of that Sanctuary perfume wherever he went. Even when he left the Holy Place and moved in common circles, something of the fragrance lingered. It cannot be otherwise in the case of the spiritual incense. There is a fragrance which is only obtained in the Sanctuary. It can be found nowhere else. In most cases the one concerned may have no consciousness of it. Probably the High Priest would be so familiar with the scent that he would not be aware that it clung to him. But others would know. It is the background life of fellowship with God which maintains this unique and lovely atmosphere of heaven.

We have already mentioned the instruction that before use the incense had to be beaten ‘very small’. The constituents were all gathered, they were perfectly blended, the latent possibilities were provided, but still there lacked this further process to produce the fragrances – “You shall beat some of it very small”. He who was of heavenly nature, He who lived in constant heavenly communion, had to pass through experiences of bruising and crushing, and through the very fires, before the full fragrance of His love was released to God and to men. His sufferings were not extra to His ministry; they were not an unfortunate accompaniment of His service for God; they represented the essential process by means of which the latent preciousness was released and became available to others. The pervasive power of the Spirit, which aroused men to a sense of need and a desire for God, and led them on to vital faith, was the result of Christ’s being pounded in the crucible of suffering.

Our Ministry of His Fragrance

This, then, is the background of the Apostle’s claim that we, too, spread abroad the heavenly fragrance of Christ wherever He leads us. The verse is all part of a larger metaphor based on Roman triumphal processions. There is no need for us to consider that now. Nor is there need here to dwell on his reminder that such a fragrance can have a deadly message for the unbelieving as well as a vitalising one for those who turn to Christ in faith. Our present emphasis is concerning this essential background to all ministry – this fragrance of life from heaven, which is so satisfying to the Father and such a blessing to men.

The secret will be the same for us as for the Lord Jesus. In the first place it must be the expression of a nature. “We are a sweet fragrance of Christ unto God”. There is a sense in which we are only the incense-bearers, for Christ alone can be the true incense; yet, since He is the very inner life of our life, it is impossible to describe our ministry as though we were merely utensils for carrying the fragrance around. By new birth we, too, have the heavenly deposit within us, and it is that heavenly life which provides the fragrance of Christ, for it is His life being lived out through us. Paul speaks of this cloud of sweet smelling incense being diffused “in every place”: it goes where we go, for it is a very part of our inner life. Perfumes are not affected by their surroundings; they do not take on their scent from what is round about: their fragrance is the liberation of their essential being, released freely without taking account of their surroundings. It is good to notice that, in this letter about ministry, Paul lays such stress on the unconscious and spontaneous background of all labours for the Lord. In chapter 2 it is described as fragrance, and in chapter 3 as radiance. Without this, the ministry will lack that most essential quality of all, which was so characteristic of Christ.

Both the fragrance and the radiance are the results of a life in the Sanctuary. As we have remarked concerning the Lord Jesus, He not only had an inner life of fragrance, but He appeared among men always as One whose first and chief sphere of ministry was not among men at all, but ‘unto God’. “We are… unto God”. In the Old Testament days it was forbidden to imitate this scent of the Holy Place. In spiritual reality it is impossible to imitate it. Almost everything else in Christian service can be artificial, the product of our own skill or earnestness, but this fragrance of Christ can only be acquired by those who live in the place of communion with the Lord. We may say the right things, do the right things, give the right impression, but if we have lost touch with the Lord there will be no fragrance of Christ about us. This scent is not pungent, it is very delicate. Only by constant renewal in the Secret Place can we possess it. It is easily lost; it cannot be produced or recovered by any effort of ours. It belongs to the Sanctuary and is only found there.

Lastly, it is best released by being beaten “very small”. As with Christ, so with us, there is no substitute for suffering, if we would carry the consoling balm of Christ’s fragrance to needy ones around us. Suffering is not an ‘extra’ to our ministry, any more than it was to His; it is the Divinely chosen means to its fulfilment. This letter of ministry is also the letter of suffering, but the one is the direct result of the other. It is the bruising and the crushing which bring out the fragrance.

Some of us in this place live a rather ‘cloistered life’; so that, when a brother or sister comes straight from town, with the smell of smoke clinging around them, we meet the shock of another world. The one concerned cannot help it: they have travelled in the rush hour, public transport has been crowded and they have been unable to avoid the smoke. But to us it is the aroma of another world. They may not be aware of it, but the smell clings around them. Is there not a reverse of this ‘other-worldly atmosphere’? May we not go out with a different kind of scent clinging to us – the blessed sweet fragrance of the other world? Instead of it coming as an unpleasant reminder of the existence of this world about us, with its unsavoury scent, may there not be a blessed and inspiring reminder to many in the unhappy world around that there is ‘another world’ – the world of Christ? We need to be a people of the Sanctuary, able to move about in the power of the Lord’s Presence, spreading abroad “the fragrance of His knowledge in every place.”

Published in “A Witness and A Testimony” magazine, 1958.

Harry Foster