“Ooh, The Smell!”
“And so it shall be: Instead of a sweet smell there will be a stench (Isaiah 3:24a).”
More than 22,000 visitors filed through the Denver Botanical Gardens, some waiting five hours, to see (and smell) the blooming “corpse flower.”1 These plants can grow up to 20 feet tall and usually bloom only once every 7 to 10 years and then for only 48 hours. But when these giant flowers are in bloom they put off the strong odor of rotting animal flesh. The smell has been likened to “the carcass of a chicken in a trash bag inside a metal garbage can left outside for a sunny few days.” And this is an attraction drawing tens of thousands who will wait for hours?
In that line, awaiting their turn to “experience” the corpse flower, there certainly must have been some individuals who were also emitting an odor. This is not an indictment of their personal hygiene, but merely a statement of spiritual truth. Paul wrote that through those who proclaim the gospel, God “diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place (2 Corinthians 2:14).” To God, Christians give off the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing (v.15). “To the one we are the aroma of death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life (v16.)” Hugo McCord rendered it, “To some, indeed, a fatal stench.”
The allusion Paul draws from is a Roman triumph, in which many processed through a long line which could last an entire day. These military parades included flowers and incense and sweet aromas. For the conquerors, the smell of victory was indeed sweet. But for those captured troops at the rear of the line, the perfumes were not sweet but rather their last whiff on their way to execution.
God often uses the illustration of strong odors to express his pleasure or dissatisfaction with men. When Noah disembarked, he immediately built an altar and offered burnt offerings to God. “And the LORD smelled a soothing aroma (Genesis 8:20-21a).” Under the Law of Moses, those sacrifices were described as a “sweet aroma” to the LORD (Exodus 29:18, Leviticus 1:9, etc…).
When God received these sweet smelling sacrifices His covenant people were blessed. But God warned against offering these sacrifices but failing to keep covenant; “I will not smell the fragrance of your sweet aromas (Leviticus 26:27-28, 31b).” Rather than receiving blessings, His disobedient people were cursed even to the point that God sent the smell of death into their dwellings seeking to restore Israel to faithfulness (Amos 4:10). The idea being that such a powerful stench should rightly move anyone to remove the cause of the malodor. But there are too many who are not even repulsed by the thing that God finds so stinky, in fact they will line up for it and even choose to live in it.
Christians are commanded to put on their spiritual deodorant. We are to always walk in the same love that Christ has demonstrated towards us by His death which was a sweet smell to God (Ephesians 5:2). Our service for other Christians is even said to be “a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God (Philippians 4:18).”
The flower that attracted so many visitors in Denver has now died. But for many of those who stood in that line, who are also perishing, they still may be attracted to that life giving fragrance that gives eternal life. Christian, are you diffusing the knowledge of Him in every place (Matthew 28:19-20)?
“Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil (John 12:3).”