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.
The imagery in Paul’s mind was that of a Roman military parade. Mark Batterson describes this in his book All In:
After winning a great victory, the Roman army marched through the streets of Rome with captives in their train. The triumphal procession started at the Campus Martius and led through the Circus Maximus and around Palatine Hill. Immediately after the Arch of Constantine, the procession marched along the Via Sacra to the Forum Romanum and on to Capitoline Hill.
I’ve stood under the triumphal arch that spans the Via Triumphalis. It was erected by the Roman Senate to commemorate Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312. It wasn’t hard to imagine conquering armies returning to the pomp and circumstance of a military parade. More than five hundred triumphal processions passed under that arch during the reign of the Roman Empire.
Our triumphal procession begins at the foot of the cross. Christ is the Conquering King, and we are the captives in His train, set free from sin and death. But that is just the first step of faith. Going all in is following in the footsteps of Jesus wherever they may lead us, including down the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Grief.” But even on the way of suffering, God is leading us in triumphal procession.
Your life may not feel like a continual triumph. Mine doesn’t, and I bet Paul’s didn’t either. In fact, in this same letter he describes what he’s gone through:
Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, anger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
(2 Cor. 11:25-27)
That doesn’t sound like triumph, but it was. God redeemed those setbacks. God took them and worked them with other things for good in Romans 8:28. God had the final word in every case.
Apparent defeats. Actual triumphs. That’s the way God does it for His people. He always leads us in triumph in Christ. God will do it, not us. He will do it in Christ, never apart from Christ. He will do it always, not sometimes. And as He does it, the results spread the fragrance of Christ to a dying world. As Paul says, thanks be to God. Thanks be to God that we are part of Christ’s great triumphal procession.