Paul uses a pair of interesting and significant contrasts in chapter 2:14-17 to compare himself and his ministry among the Corinthians with some who were troubling the church there. The comparisons here highlight the distinctive character that should set the genuine Christian apart from the rest of the religious world.
Paul begins with an image of Jesus as the victorious general of His army, displaying His conquest and success in a triumphal parade (vs. 14). This image was very familiar in the Roman Empire, and in this “parade,” the Christians are the “spoils of war” won from the enemy (Satan) by our belief, repentance and conversion to Jesus. Just as clouds of burning incense would have perfumed the parade route of a Roman general, so the knowledge of Christ (i.e., the gospel) flavors the world through the presence and influence of His disciples. The first contrast is in verses 15-16 – this “aroma of Christ” is the sweet smell of salvation for those who are saved, but is perceived as the stench of death by those who reject Him (and thus judge themselves unworthy of eternal life, cf. Acts 13:46).
The second contrast shows the vivid difference between Paul and those who “competed” with him for the hearts and minds of the Corinthian saints (for influence over them). In verse 17, the expression corrupt the word of God (KJV) is a Greek figure of speech that describes a huckster or peddler – someone trying to pass off an inferior product as a genuine article by fast talk and sleight-of-hand; a “snake-oil salesman!” While the “corrupter’s” motive is money (or control), Paul’s own motive was the sincere desire for the Corinthians to be saved. The religious huckster appealed to a person’s lust or sense of self-interest, but Paul spoke as God’s commissioned representative (i.e., only what the Lord authorized him to say). The “denominational” (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-17) peddler’s message was tailored for each person’s taste or ego, but Paul’s was the same for every person.
Chapter three gives us a detailed comparison of the weaknesses of Moses’ covenant and the strengths of Christ’s. Paul stresses that the new covenant gives life, where the old covenant had produced death, and he emphasizes that the Corinthians’ hope of eternal life could only arise from their having embraced the law of Christ (despite efforts by some to turn them toward the law of Moses – vv. 2-3). In verse 7, Paul describes Moses’ law in a way that many “ten commandments” promoters in modern Christendom might find shocking; he calls it the ministry of death (ESV)! Paul is in NOT showing any disrespect for the old law; rather, he is properly describing its effect (national) Israel’s relationship with God! Identifying sin and specifying its penalty made that law a “server” of death. In itself it offered no hope for ultimate redemption; instead, it pointed ancient Israel toward the ultimate and perfect sacrifice of Jesus as the fulfillment of the sacrifices it prescribed, and the embodiment of the hope and glory it could not (by itself) provide.
Paul again spotlights the fundamental difference between his own ministry and the false teachers troubling the Corinthian church in chapter four (and, in a larger sense, the essential difference between Christians and those in the world). Ours is a ministry of scrupulous honesty, verses 1-2. Paul includes the Corinthian Christians in his labor by his frequent use of the plural “we” – in effect, encouraging them to “align” with the Lord instead of some “favorite” teacher or “minister.” Note the blunt way he contrasts his own works with those of his “competitors” in verse 2 – Paul has “given up,” thrown away, the idea of using trickery and deception to persuade people. Instead, he has chosen to rely on the open statement of the truth. The result is that only those whose minds have been closed, “blinded” by the “god” of the world (i.e., by the influence of Satan) are prevented from seeing clearly what God is offering them in Christ (vv. 5-6).