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2 Corinthians 2:16

ESV to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?
NIV To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?
NASB to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things?
CSB To some we are an aroma of death leading to death, but to others, an aroma of life leading to life. Who is adequate for these things?
NLT To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume. And who is adequate for such a task as this?
KJV To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life. And who is sufficient for these things?

What does 2 Corinthians 2:16 mean?

Prior verses have painted a beautiful and startling word picture—or, perhaps, something more accurately called a "nose picture." Paul has described Christians as "the aroma of Christ" on earth. He so permeates our being that the essence of Him travels with believers into their relationships with everyone they know. This is true whether those who a believer knows "are being saved" from hell—through faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sin—or "perishing"—on the road to eternal destruction in punishment for sin. Those are the only two options—there is no middle ground (John 3:16–18).

One origin for this metaphor was the use of incense during Roman victory parades, when captives would be marched to give evidence of triumph. To those in the crowd who hated and feared Rome, that smell would evoke thoughts of death and defeat. For those who allied with Rome, it was the smell of victory.

In that vein, Paul adds that "the aroma of Christ" smells differently to these two opposed groups. To those on the path to hell, "the aroma of Christ" is the odor of death. Their rejection of Him is the rejection of the opportunity to move from eternal death to eternal life. Evidence of the reality of Christ's influence is, to them, a source of condemnation and conviction. Believers, on the other hand, sense from each other a reassurance of life in "the aroma of Christ." He is the source of all life and faith in Him is the path to eternal life.

Paul expresses that this influence—this unseen impression—which Christians carry is a privileged burden. "Who is sufficient for these things?" is Paul's rhetorical statement about how potent this idea really is. In other words, who is worthy to carry such a fragrance? Arguably, nobody is truly worthy (Romans 3:10), but in this sense Paul implies that such influence is only appropriate for those truly sent by God—not the false teachers or false Christians who had infiltrated the church (2 Corinthians 2:17).
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