The Savor of Life and Death
March 11th, 1956 @ 7:30 PM
THE SAVOR OF LIFE AND DEATH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2 Corinthians 2:14‑16
3‑11‑56 7:30 p.m.
Now we are in the second chapter of the second Corinthian letter. And the sermon tonight is in the fourteenth through the sixteenth verses of the second chapter of the second Corinthian letter. Now this is the text:
Thanks be unto God, who always causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savor of His knowledge by us in every place.
For we are unto God a sweet savor of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish:
To the one we are the savor of life unto life; [and] to the other the savor of death unto death—
[2 Corinthians 2:14-16]
which is one of the most unusual passages of Scripture that you could find in the Book, but back of it there is an imagery. There is a thing that Paul takes and applies it to a great truth, a great fact, about the gospel message. When you look at that, just reading it like I read it, as a text, why, its meaning is almost hidden, but looking at the imagery that he’s using to describe this great truth of the gospel message of Jesus, immediately, it opens, and it has a profound significance. So tonight, by God’s grace, we take this passage and seek to open its meaning to our hearts.
Now the first thing we will have to do is to look at that thing; he thanks God, “Who always causeth us to triumph in Christ.” Now to turn that word, translated there, “causeth us to triumph,” it would be better if we’d say it like this: “We are thankful to God, who leadeth us in triumph in Christ” [2 Corinthians 2:14]. And what he says there, and what he says following, is taken from the imagery, the parable, the simile, the likeness of a Roman triumph.
Now there never was anything in this world that ever rivaled the spectacle of a Roman triumph. If for no other reason, we don’t war anymore as they warred in that day and generation. A Roman triumph was an incomparable spectacle. There’s never been anything before; there’s never been anything since, to rival it in drama, in splendor, in everything that goes to make the panoply of the glory of the god of Mars.
Well, it was like this. A Roman triumph was voted on the part of the Senate to a great general or emperor who had won a decisive victory for the Roman people. The last Roman triumph was voted to Diocletian in 302 AD. But all through the history of the Roman people, you will find here and there and yonder the record of one of those great triumphs. For example, in 81 BC the Senate voted a Roman triumph for Pompey because of his conquest of Sicily and North Africa. In 61 BC the Senate voted a Roman triumph to Pompey again because of his conquest of Asia. He overcame Mithridates, the king of Pontus, and he added all of the eastern part of the Mediterranean world to the Roman Empire. That was when Judea was conquered, and Jerusalem was taken, and was made a province of the Roman Empire.
In 45 BC the Roman Senate voted a triumph to Julius Caesar because of his conquest of Gaul. In 70 AD the Senate voted a Roman triumph for Titus because of his conquest of Judea and Jerusalem. When you go to Rome, in the midst of the Roman Forum, you will see the Arch of Titus, erected to commemorate the great victory of the legionnaire over the Jews. On one side, in the fresco work of the Arch of Titus, you’ll see the emperor driving in triumph through the city. And on the other side you will see their Jewish captives and the loot that they took from the temple. There’s the only seven branched candlestick that you will find, the likeness of it, in the world. And there is a table of showbread, and there are the trumpets, the horns, and all the other things that they took out of the temple.
Now a Roman triumph, I say, was a spectacle beyond anything that this earth has ever seen. All Rome made a holiday of it. And sometimes those triumphs were so long that a man standing at one place, it would take three solid days for the great procession to pass that one vantage point.
The way the thing was done was this. Outside of the walls of [Rome], in the great flat plain, the Field of Mars—the Campus Martius, all of it was assembled. And then it followed that serpentine Via Sacra all the way through Rome, up to the Capitoline Hill, and it reached its end, its consummation, in the temple of Capitoline Jupiter. So it would start. First there’d be rank upon rank of trumpeters, blowing their trumpets and heralding the approach of the great triumph. Then behind them would come the magistrates and the senators and all of the great patricians of Rome. Then behind the magistrates and the great leaders of Rome, there would march the conquering army. And interspersed among the army would be wagonloads, wagonloads, wagonloads of loot, of plunder, from the conquered country, from the ravaged capital, from the defeated army.
There’d be wagonloads of gold and silver coins piled up high. There’d be wagonloads of adornment, of jewelry, of all kinds of garment and raiment. There’d be wagonloads and train loads of art, paintings, sculpture, statues, plunder. When Mummius, the Roman general, plundered Corinth in 156 BC, I have forgotten how many shiploads—it was an astounding number—how many shiploads of the Greek treasures that Corinth had assembled for the thousand years, all of it plundered, taken by the Roman army and placed in that triumph in the great day of the Roman holiday.
Then behind the Roman army, with all of its loot and all of its wagonloads filled with plunder, behind them came the captives. They picked the best, the strongest, the finest of the captives of the people, and they marched along, in strange garb and strange speech and strange language. And then last of all was the hero of the hour, the conquering general of the day; might be Julius Caesar; might be Pompey; might be Diocletian; might be Titus, but here he comes. He’s in his chariot; he’s dressed in the purple and golden robes of Capitoline Jupiter himself. And looking there on that fresco in the Arch of Titus, there’s a woman standing behind Titus there with a wreath of victory, holding it over his head, as he drives his chariot pulled by four great horses through the streets in the triumph. And then many times, chained with a golden chain to the chariot of a conquering general, was the general or the king or the queen that the man defeated.
Do you remember the story about Cleopatra? The reason she studied how to commit suicide the most painless way was she had a foreboding, an intimation, a presentiment of an awful calamity in her life. And she found that the easiest way to die was to be bitten by an asp, a little tenuous, small serpent. So, when she was conquered by Octavius Caesar—Augustus Caesar, lest she grace the Roman triumph of Augustus Caesar, she held to her bosom that little tenuous asp, and she died. That’s the reason she committed suicide. Had she not done it, she would have been paraded through the streets of Rome in the triumph that was accorded Augustus Caesar.
Now, the consummation of that unusual spectacle was this. Up there on the Capitoline Hill, in the great temple of Jupiter, that’s what the Latin’s call—Jove. In Greek, in Attica, it would be Jove. In Rome, it’s Jupiter. There in the great temple of Jupiter on the Capitol Hill, the Capitoline Hill, there, first, the emperor would sacrifice to the god that had given him that incomparable conquest. Then after that, all of his soldiers were rewarded wonderfully, generously, that loot, gold, silver. I remember Hannibal, when he conquered the Roman army, he sent back to Carthage bushels and bushels and bushels of rings that he had taken off, cut off of the hands of the defeated army. All of the loot and all the plunder was divided between the soldiers, and then they were dismissed to go home to their families and to their towns, to be heroes in their community, and to talk about the great conquest in Pontus or in Gaul or in Africa. Then last of all those captives that were taken from those foreign lands were either slain in the dungeons there close by, rock hewn, or else they were presented in gladiatorial combat with wild beasts and otherwise made spectacles of before they were killed.
Now there was a thing that they did in those Roman triumphs that made it, among other things, very memorable. One of the differences between us and the world outside, beyond us is this: there’s not very much of a tendency on the part of our people in any kind of a great convocation to use incense, fragrance, perfume. We may do it personally, but as convocation, a great meeting of some kind, we rarely ever do it.
When you go outside the United States and you attend these great, tremendous functions in foreign countries, one of the things you’ll notice is this, that almost at every one of those great services there’ll be incense there, there’ll be fragrance, there’ll be the burning of some kind of perfume. When you go into the great churches of Europe and their kind over here, you’ll find that. When you go into those idol temples of India or of Japan or of China, you’ll find that.
Now, that characterized a Roman triumph. From the beginning of the way, clear to its consummation on the Capitol Hill, all the way through, there would be great, burning braziers here, and there, and there. And inside of them, somebody kept pouring perfume, incense, and not only that, but here and there and yonder, as the great army marched by, there would be people swinging those censers. Consequently, the whole route, and the whole city, smelled of that perfume, of that incense. It was everywhere along the way.
Now, the smell of that, and we, I say, we do not emphasize that in our lives, but a savor, an odor, a fragrance will bring back to your mind easily the memory of where you first smelled it. We are much of an inclination to identify a thing like that. Now, this great triumph had all through it, that fragrance, that perfume, those braziers, filled with burning incense. And as they marched through it, why, it was a great, great triumph for those who were victorious, for those who were in conquest. And the smell of it, the odor of it, the savor of it brought to their minds the great achievement and the glory of what the conquest had brought to Rome.
But there’s another side to it, says Paul. Not only is that savor one of conquest, and one of life, one of victory and achievement, but that savor is also a hateful and a terrible thing to those who have been defeated and who were being marched through the streets of Rome to inevitable death. Now he takes that imagery, and he applies it to the gospel of the Son of God. As the gospel is preached, the message of Christ presented, to some it is the savor of life unto life, its victory, its achievement, its salvation, its glory forever, but to others it is the savor of death unto death [2 Corinthians 2:15-16]. The whole thing is redolent of the judgment, of the wrath of the great and final condemnation of Almighty God.
Now let me read that text, seeing those great burning braziers, seeing that great group passing by. This is it: “God causeth us to triumph in Christ, and maketh manifest the savor of His knowledge in every place. For we are unto God a sweet savor of Christ, in them that are saved, in them that perish” [2 Corinthians 2:14-15]. Both alike, going between those clouds of perfume—some to death, some to life, “To the one we are the savor of death unto death; and to the other we are the savor of life unto life” [2 Corinthians 2:16].
And this is what he means: there is a double working of the gospel message of the Son of God. It is sometimes the instrument of life; it is sometimes the instrument of death. It is sometimes salvation; it is sometimes damnation. The same message and the same gospel, it works doubly.
May I point out just a few instances of that, the double working of the message of Christ; “And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary His mother, Behold, this Child is set for the fall, for the rising again of many in Israel; for a sign that shall be spoken against” [Luke 2:34]. There this Child that has come to be the Savior of the world will be the means of the fall of some, the destruction of some.
Look again, here in the Book of Matthew, “Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to other people. And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it shall grind him to powder” [Matthew 21:43-44].
The gospel message: if a man can find it the keystone of his life, he can build a temple upon it. But if he falls upon it, it will grind him to powder. “On whomsoever it shall fall . . . grind him to pieces” [Matthew 21:44].
Let’s just take once again a typical one:
Jesus said unto them, For judgment I am come into the world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.
And the Pharisees said when they heard Him, Are we blind?
And He said unto them, If you were blind, you would have no sin: but you say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.
The gospel message of Christ works twofold. It works for life; it works for death. And it is one or the other. It is a means of salvation, or it is a means of infinite and illimitable and vast condemnation. The same fire that will melt iron will harden clay. The same sunlight that will bring joy to our eyes will hurt a man with diseased eyes. The same honey that tastes sweet to us when we’re hungry may nauseate us when we’re sick. There is a double working of the gospel of the Son of God, and I see it everywhere.
Look, when the gospel message is preached, when a man stands up and he proclaims the story of the Son of God, there’ll be people there who will love to listen to a man preach a gospel sermon. They’ll just sit there, and their hearts will vibrate, and every chord in their soul will respond when you stand up and preach the gospel of the Son of God.
I remember a man who had moved away from our church, and he’d been where there wasn’t any Baptist church and there wasn’t any gospel church at all. And after he’d been gone about four or five years, he came back. And he sat out there in front of me for the first time in four or five years, and he listened to a message of Jesus our Savior for the first time in four or five years. And from the minute that I began to preach until I closed that sermon, he sat there and the tears just rolling off of his face. And after the service was over, he said to me, “I couldn’t help, I couldn’t help, I couldn’t help crying. Oh,” he said, “I cannot tell you how starved has been my soul and how hungry is my heart.”
Now, may I contrast that? There came to see me a blessed, consecrated, Christian, Baptist girl, and she had a little child. And by her side, coming to see me was her young husband. She had married across the lines of her faith, and the husband was asking for a divorce. And that poor girl, Christian and given to God, did not want to break up her home. And she had that little child with her, and she was pleading with her husband not to break up the home.
And when I asked the husband about it, this is what he said. He said, “In order to marry this girl, I promised her that I would go to church.”
And he said, “For these few years, I have sought to keep that promise. But,” he says, “I absolutely refuse any longer to be bound by any such promises I made.”
Well, I said, “Why? Why couldn’t you go to church once on Sunday morning?”
And he said, “I’ll tell you why. I hate everything about it.”
I said, “Why, man, you don’t mean that; the beautiful choir, their singing, the people and the friends that you make down there?”
He said, “I mean, I hate everything about it!”
He said, “I hate the sermon, and I hate the music, and I hate the choir, and I hate the people. And I don’t want them to speak to me, and I don’t want to be friends to them, and I don’t want them to be friends to me.”
“Well,” I said, “what are you going to do with your life?”
He said, “I have my own friends, and I make them down there.” And he told me where he made them.
And he says, “I like them, and I like to be there. And I like that life, and I’m going in that direction. And I’m going to break up my home.”
Well, all you could do is pray. There is nothing to say, there is nothing to do. I pled and did pray, all to no end and to no effect.
That’s what the gospel of Christ does to a man. When you listen to it and you listen to it, you’ll either love the Lord, and you’ll give your life to the Lord, and you’ll love the message of the Lord; or it’ll get more hateful and distasteful until you just die. That’s the difference.
Well, our people—by the way, I hope in that new hymnbook we’re going to buy, our blessed people, I hope that song is in that hymnbook: “More, More About Jesus.” I hope it’s in the book.
More, more, about Jesus.
More of His saving fullness see,
More of His love, who died for me.
[“More About Jesus,” Eliza Hewitt, 1887]
There are some people that love to go to church, love to listen. There are some who’d hate it and despise it, and you couldn’t get them inside of a church if you were to hogtie them and hobble them and bring them in.
Now the response to the message of Christ is that same way. I’m not going to expatiate on that because I have one other thing I want to speak of. When you preach the message of Christ, there’ll be some people—and I can’t tell you why—there’ll be some people who’ll respond. Their hearts will be opened wide. Just into that aisle and down here to the front, and they’ll take the pastor by the hand, and they’ll just give their heart to Christ.
I remember a boy in Japan that moved my soul. He had on a uniform, and he came down and took me by the hand, and heart searchingly, eagerly said, “Oh, sir, do you think that I could be saved? Could I be saved?” He knew enough English to talk to me. On the other hand, there are those that when they go to church, they just get harder and harder and harder. And they don’t come back, and they don’t respond, and they don’t propose to open their hearts to the Lord Jesus. There’s a double response when you preach the message of Christ.
Now may I turn to my text and say this final word? In this message that Paul writes, “To the one we are the savor of death unto death; and to the other the savor of life unto life” [2 Corinthians 2:16]; that’s a very, very striking and pungent thing. Ek thanatou, eis thanaton, ek zoēs, eis zoēn. Ek thanatou, “out of death”; eis thanaton, just the genitive and the accusative, the same word. Ek thanatou, “out of death”; eis thanaton, “into death,” ek zoēs, “out of life”; eis zoēn, “into life.”
Now this is what he means by that: the man who listens to the gospel message of Christ and turns it down—oh, that thing is accumulative; it’s death, and then more death, and then piled up death. The man not only has sinned in himself, but he sins against light; he sins against opportunity. The message that was made of God for his salvation is turned into a sentence of death itself, out of death into death, more death; death piled on death; a cumulative death. It’s like this: everything about the message of Christ pleads with a man to give his heart to God.
That spire out there points a man toward God. These stained-glass windows with their pictures plead with a man for God. These blessed hymns that we sing, they sing to touch a man’s heart for God. This reading of the Word and this pleading by the preacher make an appeal to a man’s heart to give himself to God. Then in the great judgment day, these things rise up to condemn him.
Said the spire, “I tried to point him to God, but he wouldn’t look where I pointed.” Said the hymn, “I tried to touch his heart, but he hardened his heart against me.” Says these beautiful stained‑glass windows, “I tried to place my beautiful colors of glory in his way, but he wouldn’t look at my rainbow.” And says the preacher, “I pled with him and tried to show him the way, but he hardened his heart against me, and he wouldn’t listen.” And the tears and prayers of his friend, everything rises up against that man to witness against him, to condemn him.
That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “The men of Nineveh will rise up in the day of judgment, and condemn this generation: for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and, behold, a greater than Jonah is here” [Matthew 12:41]. That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “The queen of Sheba, the queen of the South, shall rise up in the great judgment, and condemn this generation; for she came to see the glorious Solomon, and behold, a greater than Solomon is here” [Matthew 12:42]. Everything conspires against you. It’s damnation and judgment and accusation! It’s all of these things condemning you at the end of the way. Ek thanatou, eis thanaton, out of death into death, and more death, and death piled upon death. When a man sins against life, against opportunity, there’s no recourse. That means another thing, and you look at this awful thing; out of death into death [2 Corinthians 2:16].
In Daniel 12:2, “[These] that sleep in the dust of the ground shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Raised from the dead for the what, for that purpose: to be plunged into a second death! [Revelation 20:14]. You see that same thing over here in the Revelation and all of those: the sea gave up the dead, and Death and Hell delivered up the dead, and they were judged by that book, and whosoever is not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire [Revelation 20:12-15]; raised from the dead to be cast into death—Ek thanatou, eis thanaton, raised from the dead in order to be cast into a second death! [2 Corinthians 2:16].
I listened to a professor when I was over there in South Carolina. He spoke just before I did. I listened to a professor, and this is what he said. He said, “This thing of preaching the judgment of God, and the wrath of God, and all of those things that pertain to the perdition of the soul,” he says, “all that does is just frighten people and fills their souls with horrors, and complexes, and inhibitions, and theories, and fightings within, and tremblings.” He said, “What we ought to preach is the love of God, and the grace of Christ, and the mercy of Jesus. That’s what we ought to preach.” Well, that’s right. That’s right. We ought to preach the grace of God, and the love of Jesus, and the mercies of the Father, but, my soul, my soul, what are we going to do? What am I going to do when I look around me and I see damnation everywhere? What am I going to do when I look around and I see death everywhere? What am I going to do when I look around me and I see the judgment of God upon people and upon nations? And what am I going to do when I open the Book and read things like that in this Book? What am I going to do? What am I going to do?
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” [Hebrews 10:31]. It is an awful, awesome thing to die without Christ, to face the judgment in eternity without a hope and without a Savior, ek thanatou, eis thanaton, out of death into death, just to die, and to die, and to die, and to die forever! [Revelation 20:14]. Thank God, there is a hope for us who die. But to some, the message of Christ is the savor of life unto life, ek zoes, out of life; eis zoēn, into more life; more life, and still more, life heaped upon life. Life glorified in life [John 10:10]. Life lightened by life. Life now! Life beyond the grave! [John 11:26]. Life in resurrection day! [John 6:39-40]. Life in eternity! Life forever and forever and forever [John 3:16].
“Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be kings and priests unto God” [Revelation 20:6]. Life now, raised out of the dead into life and more life, the glory of God, the salvation of Jesus Christ; world without end, with Him forever; that’s the double working of the message of the Son of God, to some, the savor of death unto death, turn it down, pass it by, “No, preacher! No.” But to others, the savor of life unto life, “Yes, pastor, by God’s help and with His grace, yes. Yes! Yes!” [2 Corinthians 2:16].
Life now. Life in the morning. Life in the evening time. Life at midnight. Life in death. Life in the resurrection. Life in the world to come. Life unto life, heaped on, abundant overflowing, everlasting life in the hope and promise of Jesus Christ. That’s what we offer when we preach the message of the Son of God. Would you say yes?
“Yes. Yes, Lord, yes. Yes, pastor, here’s my hand. I have given in faith and in trust my heart and my life to Jesus Christ.” Would you do it? Would you do it? “Feeble and humble, still I’ll trust Him. With all of the things for which I have no answer, still I will trust Him. With all of the things that overwhelm me on every today, still will I trust Him.” Not that I am able, but that He is. Not that I’m worthy, but He is. Not that I am strong, but He is. Accepting the proffered mercy and pardon of God in Christ Jesus according to the Word, “Here I come, and here I am.” Would you make it now and tonight, would you so? Somebody you, somebody you, into the fellowship of this blessed church, a family of you, you, a father and a mother, you, as God shall say the word and make the appeal, while we sing the song, would you come? Would you make it now, tonight, “Here I am preacher, and here I come,” while we stand and while we sing.