The delicacy and sweetness of fragrance is enticing. Fragrant scents, whether floating in the breezes of meadows or crushed into oil or other compounds, add, through their signature aromas, variety and fascination to our lives. A summer walk through flowers in high meadows, a stroll through a pine forest in early winter, or a visit to a greenhouse of orchids shortly before Easter can spark our imaginations and stir waves of nostalgia. In contrast to those pleasant fragrances, however, there are also unpleasant odors whose characteristic aura we find distinctly offensive.
Substances that emit fragrance played an important role in the Old Testament sacrificial rites. The sacrifice was the central feature of worship for God’s people as they approached His holy presence. As we read Old Testament scriptures, we see the call for daily sacrificial offerings in order to atone for sin (Lev. 1:4). The sacrificial animal was slaughtered, and its blood atoned for sin.The aroma of the sacrifices that were consumed on the altar was a sweet smell, pleasing to the Lord (Lev. 1:9,13,17 NIV).
These paradoxical images of destruction and acceptability in God’s sight appear in the most compelling prophetic passage that points to the atoning work of the Great Sacrifice, Jesus Christ. “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:4-6). “For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12).
These Old Testament institutions and the prophetic voice all found their complete fulfillment in the atoning work of Christ. He was both sacrifice and high priest (Hebrews 9). Further, His resurrection means that the finality of death has been removed from us and we can anticipate living forever with Him. It is the culmination of the glory of Christian hope, and as adoptees, we have been promised inheritance, which is beyond our greatest imagination—we will share in the glory of Christ forever—a sweet fragrance indeed.
I am intrigued by the Apostle Paul’s use of this imagery in 2 Corinthians 2:14- 16: “Thanks be to 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.”
God has prepared us to be vessels through which the fragrance of Christ, notably the knowledge of Him, is spread. Just as fragrance diffuses from its source with differing degrees of intensity, so also we, each as a unique creation of God, are called to spread that precious fragrance in our own ways. The Lord Jesus shapes our beliefs, behavior, and character. Our confidence rests in Christ and the message of His transforming work, and, as a sweet savor, these are pervasive.
Paul points to the saved in Christ and then to those who are perishing. The fragrance that we bring in the gospel message is life-giving to the former but to the latter is a deadly smell. It is our challenge to make certain that we do not allow the subtle temptations of the world to pollute the savor but instead remain dedicated to serving with justice, mercy, and humility.
The following statement was included at the time of publication (Wheaton Magazine, Winter 2001)
Dr. Dorothy F. Chappell, Dean of Natural and Social Sciences, is deeply committed to Christian higher education and served on the faculty of Wheaton College for 17 years. Following a five-and-a-half-year term as academic dean at Gordon College and serving on Wheaton’s Board of Trustees, she is now in her second year of full-time administrative duties at Wheaton. She has received awards for research and teaching and has interests in the biochemistry and ultrastructure of green algae; ethics; and Christian faculty scholarship.