Our team of 29 from church just returned from a one-week mission trip to Belize, where we worked with a local church on a variety of projects. The pastor of the church was gracious enough to ask our team to lead the Sunday worship service and I was very excited to have been asked to deliver the sermon. Below is a slightly retooled version that I thought might stimulate some conversation on my blog. I hope you enjoy and I am working on a blog that recounts our blessed week with the wonderful people of Pomona, Belize.
Do We Smell Like Jesus?
“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. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:14-15)(ESV).
Jim Cymbala is pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York City. I wanted to begin this post by sharing with you a personal experience he recounts.
“It was Easter Sunday and I was exhausted from the events of the day. A homeless man approached me as I began to sit down on one of the pews.
I nodded and gave him a weak little wave of my hand. ‘Look at how this Easter Sunday is going to end,’ I thought to myself. ‘He’s going to hit me up for money.’ That happens often in this church. ‘I’m so tired…’
When he came close, I saw that his two front teeth were missing. But more striking was his odor–the mixture of alcohol, sweat, urine, and garbage took my breath away. I have been around many street people, but this was the strongest stench I have ever encountered. I instinctively had to turn my head sideways to inhale, then look back in his direction while breathing out.
I asked his name. “David,” he said softly.
“How long have you been homeless, David?”
“Six years.” “Where did you sleep last night?”
“In an abandoned truck.”
I had heard enough and wanted to get this over quickly. I reached for the money clip in my back pocket.
At that moment David put his finger in front of my face and said, “No, you don’t understand–I don’t want your money. I’m going to die out there. I want the Jesus that red-haired girl talked about.”
I hesitated, then closed my eyes. ‘God forgive me,’ I begged. I felt soiled and cheap. Me, a minister of the gospel…I had wanted simply to get rid of him, when he was crying out for the help of Christ I had just preached about. I swallowed hard as God’s love flooded my soul.
David sensed the change in me. He moved toward me and fell on my chest, burying his grimy head against my white shirt and tie. Holding him close, I talked to him about Jesus’ love. There weren’t just words; I felt them. I felt love for this pitiful man. And that smell…I don’t know how to explain it. It had almost made me sick, but now it became the most powerful fragrance to me. I reveled in what had been repulsive just a moment ago.
The Lord seemed to say to me in that instant, ‘Jim, if you and your wife have any value to me, if you have any purpose in my work–it has to do with this odor. This is the smell of the world I died for.’
Every time I read this story, I get a little choked up. It’s just a powerful story, right? We could look at it from a number of different angles as it has a number of good lessons to draw from. I really had two purposes for sharing this story. First, I think it really demonstrates the stark contrast between just talking about Christ’s love and really feeling it and acting upon it in our lives in practical ways.
Think about it, this Pastor had just preached his Easter sermon, no doubt proclaiming how Jesus loved us so much that he willingly laid down his own life in a most torturously painful way and how the result of his perfect life and sacrificial death for us was a pathway for humanity to have eternal fellowship with their Creator. It is such a wonderful and encouraging message of love and sacrifice, the greatest story ever told….and then… he met this dirty, smelly homeless man and all he wanted to do was throw some money at him and get him to leave. But wow, when God convicted him through this man, that’s when he really felt the love of God wash over him. That’s when he genuinely desired to take care of this man, to love him, to share Jesus with him. And that’s also when David noticed the change in the pastor. He sensed the aroma of Jesus in Pastor Cymbala and the result was that he instantly drew nearer to him.
And that brings me to the second reason I wanted to share this story. It talks a lot about smells. The smell of the homeless man, for instance. At the end of the story, we see it compared to the smell of this foul, sinful, evil world, but at the same time it changed from initially being a revolting smell to the pastor into this powerful fragrance that he was drawn to when he realized the love of God within him. So, the story sort of tells a story of smells and how we react to them in a way that really grabs your attention. I won’t just leave you hanging, by the way, the story goes on and David gives his life to Jesus and the church gets him into a rehab program and his life turns around. So praise God for that.
Now, back to smells. The Scripture verse above is about smells. It’s about the aroma of Christ (or, the smell of Jesus). And it is a scent that, as Christians, we should all be wearing. The question we should ask ourselves is, Do I Smell Like Jesus?
First, I want to talk a little bit about the sense of smell.
Scent is a very powerful force. It can influence us, it can trigger memories. We’ve probably all experienced this. You smell cigar smoke and maybe it takes you back to memories of your grandfather, you smell some certain cleaning product, like pine sol, and it takes you back to your childhood when your mom had just cleaned the floors.
Another thing about smell is that it can either attract people to you or can repel people away from you. Folks, if people think you smell bad, you probably aren’t going to have a lot of them hanging around. On the other hand, a nice fragrance can draw people in. Simply put, a smell can almost instantly make a person either at ease or extremely uncomfortable.
Look at the story I shared above. The pastor was taken aback by the smell of the homeless man, David. The smell disgusted him initially. He says he had to instinctively turn away just to breathe in. He was uncomfortable. Of course, his perspective changed later and the smell then became a powerful fragrance that put him at peace with God.
Just to give you an idea of how important smell is, look at how businesses get involved. They quite often use machines that put just the right amount of a certain scent in the air to achieve an effect that is pleasant and inviting. Why? Because it influences people, it brings them in, it makes them feel comfortable… and more likely to spend their money.
Advertisers know the importance of smell. They put cologne and perfume samples in magazines, for example. In fact, we even have scented billboards now. There is a billboard in North Carolina that smells like grilling steak. Why? Well, neuroscientists that study the brain and its reaction to senses tell us that aroma accounts for around 80% of taste. So just getting a whiff of that steak makes you start salivating and thinking how great it would be to have one. Once again, that smell influences people. It draws them closer to it.
You are probably familiar with this advertisement for a product known as Febreze. It’s this fragrance in a bottle that you can spray around your home, in your car, whatever, and supposedly it just works this incredible magic and can make a dirty, smelly, room smell like cupcakes, fresh mountain air, vanilla, lasagna, whatever (well, I don’t know if they have one for lasagna, but you get the point…and they should have one for lasagna!).
So in order for the makers of this product to demonstrate how great their spray is, they blindfold these different people and they bring them into just these nasty rooms, where they have piles of garbage, food that’s been sitting out for a week, dirty socks all over the place, you get the idea. Well, they spray some febreze in this room, then they bring the folks in and ask them to describe where they are. They say “wow! it smells like rainbows and peppermints in here. It’s wonderful! I just love it!” Then they take the blindfolds off and pow! The real world hits them in the face in living color. They see all this trash, this dirty mess around them. But…it smells really good in this room. Because they are in the same room with this terrific scent.
So, even though their little world around them is dirty and disgusting, they are drawn to the pleasant part of it, that sweet smell.
Now, keep that in the back of your mind while we go back to take a closer look at the Scripture verses.
Verse 15 says “for we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing”
Now, Paul here, when he talks about this aroma, is alluding to the Old Testament; to Aaron and the priests under the law, who were anointed with the anointing oil, which was poured on top of their heads, ran down their beards, and then covered their clothing, so that all over them was a fragrance, a sweet smell, a pleasant aroma. People recognized the aroma and connected it with God. These were God’s representatives to the people and this aroma became instantly recognizable to them. It’s like we talked about a moment ago. We smell certain smells and our mind connects it with something in particular. If we smell someone with paint on their clothes, we suspect they’ve been painting recently. If we smell cigarette smoke on someone, we might presume that person is a smoker. Well, this aroma that emanated from the priests indicated to people that they were priests, God’s representatives to man. The people are thinking “These are people I can talk to about God. They will teach me more about him.”
Paul compares our own aroma as believers to that of the Old Testament priests, saying that we have this sweet smelling perfume on us as new creations in Christ. We smell like Christ (or we should), in that, through Jesus, we have the gifts and graces of the Spirit of God, comparable to the fragrant and sweet smelling ointments of Aaron and the priests and these gifts are a means by which we are not only enabled but called upon to use in order to share the Gospel with others; in the way we speak, the way we act, the way we live our lives every day.
Now, as Paul says, we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. He is talking about our ministry of reconciliation. We are the body of Christ and we are tasked with spreading the love of Christ to a lost world. Some will be attracted to the Christ-like beauty of our lives and our message and will accept Christ; others will unfortunately dislike and reject it. But our responsibilities do not change. We need to think very carefully, then, about what Paul says in these verses and ensure our bodies are emanating that sweet aroma of Christ.
But, just how do we do that?
Well, we know that Jesus, in his earthly life, presented us with THE perfect model to follow.
Jesus had a consistent message for how we are to live. In John 14:12, He told us to “do what He did”; in 1 Jn 2:6, He says to “walk as He walked”, and Phil 2:5 says we should think as He thought. Elsewhere in Scripture, we are instructed to serve as He served, love as He loved, etc., and the list goes on. He is our ultimate perfect example.
When we learn to do as we are taught in Scripture, we not only glorify God, we emanate a powerful spiritual aroma that draws people to us and, through us, to God. We are the Febreze bottle spraying out God’s love on unsuspecting bystanders! People are not going to be attracted to us and our message if we are angry, snappy, violent, overly argumentative, etc, so be careful. We want to attract people to God, not repel them from his message.
Another important aspect of learning to smell like Jesus is that it results in us living a life of virtue and integrity that are of utmost importance in maintaining a strong Christian witness.
Paul understood this as he said, “imitate me as I imitate Christ” (I Cor 11:1). Paul led a life that, although imperfect, was founded on a complete love for Christ and desire to imitate him and he is telling the Corinthians here to use him as a human example of how to live in Christ. He backed this life up by his actions.
For example, one of the primary reasons that Paul wrote the first letter to the Thessalonians was because his character was coming under attack by false teachers who were persecuting the Thessalonian church. These opponents of Paul were questioning his motives for coming to Thessalonica (saying he was only in the ministry for profit, that his message wasn’t truly from God, that he didn’t care about the Thessalonians, etc.) So here Paul is way over in Corinth (about 186 nautical miles). He hears about this mess and he pens a letter to the Thessalonian church that I envision is a sort of slap to the back of the head to church members. He reminds them how he and his team acted while there:
1 Thess. 2:5-12 (ESV):
“You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. 6 We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority.7 Instead, we were like young children among you.
Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, 8 so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. 9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children,12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.”
Paul’s Christ-like life gave him the ability to effectively counter those who would attempt to attack his character and his God. He was able to remind these people of how his life was one of integrity and how, when he had lived among them, he had been completely committed to sharing Jesus with them. This was extremely effective, as all indications are that this essentially ended the influence of the false teachings that were beginning to pervade the Thessalonian church.
Paul’s life smelled like Jesus. The Thessalonians were reminded of that smell and it drew them away from the dirtiness and smelliness of these false teachings. It returned them to sound doctrine and a proper relationship with Christ.
Just like Paul, our lives are our witness to others and we should seek to be that pleasant aroma that attracts people to us that we may share Jesus with them. We must smell like Jesus both as a testimony to his love for us and as a proper witness to a lost world, a witness that can withstand and defeat attacks on our character and integrity.
How will people smell us? How do we live with this smell emanating from us?
Let’s look at a few verses from John:
“On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” John 7:37-39 (ESV).
“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” John 15:8 (ESV).
As new creations in Christ, we are given the Spirit so that out of our hearts will flow rivers of living water. So, we need only seek to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit such that we would bear the fragrance of Christ, the smell of Jesus, in our lives.
What are these fruits? Paul lists them in Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV) “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
So Paul says the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, as we begin to conform to the mold left us by Jesus, should produce this sweet-smelling fruit.
Let’s take a brief look at how Jesus demonstrated these fruits, then, that we might follow his example and smell like him.
Jesus’ Love – Jesus’ entire ministry was characterized by love. And the greatest demonstration ever of that love was the sacrifice He made for all of us.
Our Love – We are called to have that same sacrificial love toward God and others. An active love for God in seeking to be obedient to him and sacrificing our own selfish desires. An active love for our neighbors such that we seek their well-being above our own.
Jesus’ Joy – Amazingly, just before He suffered, instead of thinking of His own upcoming suffering, Jesus encouraged his disciples “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy might be in you, and that your joy may be full” John 15:11 (ESV).
Our Joy – This is rejoicing in all kinds of circumstances. This isn’t happiness, which is fleeting. This is an inner joy that comes from deep, abiding faith in the sovereignty of God and trusting that “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” Rom. 8:28 (ESV). People watch Christians to see how they react to difficult circumstances and these are opportunities for a strong witness.
Jesus’ Peace – Jesus was a man of peace. One of his actual titles, from Isaiah 9:6, is “Prince of Peace.” Jesus talked about this fruit of the Spirit at the last supper when He said in John 14:27 (ESV) “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
Our Peace – Our peace is that given to us by Jesus; a peacefulness and serenity of character and striving to be a peacemaker among people; not stirring up animosity, but seeking to help people come together with one another and with God.
Jesus’ Patience – Jesus exhibited this fruit throughout His earthly ministry. The apostle Paul described it this way in 1 Timothy 1:16 (ESV): “But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.”
Our Patience – Once again, our lives are our witness. The change in our lives as we become new creations in Christ are examples to others of Christ’s patience with us and love for us, in that He forgave and forgot our past and is now sanctifying us in him. We, in turn, demonstrate patience with others, some of whom may not be easy to get along with, in the hopes that our lives will witness to them, will be a pleasant aroma that attracts them to a proper life in Christ.
Jesus’ Kindness – Kindness was another characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. Paul talked about this fruit as he wrote in Titus 3:4-5 (ESV): “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
Our Kindness – We are called to emulate that kindness, that mercy shown to us by God, toward others, so that once again, Christ “appears” in us that it may be seen and desired by others.
Jesus’ Goodness – Peter states about Jesus’ ministry in Acts 10:38 (ESV) “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.”
Our Goodness – We are anointed with the Holy Spirit and also tasked with loving our neighbors, caring for others and always seeking the Spirit’s guidance in how we should apply our God-given talents to better serve the Lord’s purpose in our lives.
Jesus’ Faithfulness – Jesus had complete trust in and reliance upon God the Father and He was faithful to the responsibility the Father gave to Him. Even as He stated that He was in anguish due to His approaching crucifixion, He resolved to stay with the plan of redemption to the very end. He said in John 12:27 (ESV) “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.”
Our Faithfulness – When our faith is strong, we are strong. We are firmly planted in God’s Word and living out his plan for our lives. That faithfulness reveals itself to God in our faithfulness in relation with him and then to others as a faithfulness and dependability that we demonstrate in committing ourselves to be good neighbors.
Jesus’ Gentleness – The Greek work is praus, with a basic meaning of gentle, humble and meek. Jesus said in Matthew 11:29 (ESV) that He was “gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Our Gentleness – Gentleness and meekness in accepting God’s will and in dealing with others. It is the ability to peacefully interact with others in all kinds of circumstances. Again: Gentle, humble, and meek.
Jesus’ Self-Control – The last fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23 is self-control. This is sort of related to gentleness in that it is the ability to control one’s behavior and how we react to circumstances. John 5:22 tells us that the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, Now, I can imagine there were times during Jesus’ ministry that he certainly could have called down enormous power at any time against His enemies. But instead He exercised self-control throughout His ministry.
Our Self-Control – We need to exercise self-control in our lives and use the power of prayer to bring us patience and gentleness of spirit in our interactions with others.
In sum, Jesus exemplified all the sweet-smelling fruit of the Holy Spirit throughout His ministry and He has provided us with the same opportunities. Galatians 2:20 (ESV) says “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Following His example, we should be manifesting this aroma, the aroma of Christ, through the sweet-smelling fruits of the Holy Spirit living within us.
It is by these that people should automatically sense our connection with God and be drawn to us so that we may share with them the love of Jesus Christ.
Fellow believers, we live in a dirty, rotten, dying, sinful world. We are called to be the aroma of Christ in this world so that non-believers are drawn to him through us. So that they can learn about Jesus and have their own relationship with him that brings them the peace, joy, comfort, and eternal fellowship with him that we have. Our smell is either going to turn people away from us or draw them to us. We are the aroma of Christ to God. Let us, then, live our lives in a manner worthy of this scriptural truth so that people see Jesus in us, in all that we do.
David Earley and David Wheeler, Evangelism Is…How to Share Jesus with Passion and Confidence (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2010).
Pop Parables, http://popparables.com/2011/09/smells-like-jesus/
Vince Szymkowiak, “The Perfect Example of the Fruit of the Spirit: Jesus Christ,” http://www.ucg.org/christian-living/perfect-example-fruit-spirit-jesus-christ/