This passage uses the Roman victory parade or “Triumph” as a word picture of Christ’s glory to the downtrodden faithful. It parallels the encouraging words of Romans 8:37, Ephesians 4:8, & Colossians 2:15; the contexts likewise parallel too, as they are all reference a more mature audience of believers who are suffering persecution for a steadfast exhibition of faith in Christ.
A Triumph typically coursed through all the most important streets of Rome to arrive at its most consecrated place, the temple of Jupiter. It had very high standards; the parade could only be given in honor of the highest of military officials (a general or the emperor himself), & it could only pay tribute to the most decisive victory- the kind that had vanquished an entire empire. It was never given upon the success of a mere battle, but only upon the complete subjugation of whole kingdoms. In addition to the leader of the victorious campaign, the procession included his army, the Roman Senate, trumpeters, incense burners, the conquered enemy leaders, & the spoils of war.
Therefore, it is in this context that Paul often alludes to this “Triumph”. He intends to convey to the believer the understanding that, although the battle seems ongoing & as yet inconclusive to the Christian under duress, Christ has indeed already achieved the victory…
Colossians 2:13-15 When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.
Consider the past tense here; Paul is stating the fact that though sometimes the battle seems untenable to the faithful, victory is assured, for Christ’s cross has already carried the day for us. Our spiritual foes, like the Japanese island defenders who sometimes fought & killed for years after their nation’s unconditional surrender, continue to wage war, though their cause is hopeless. God allows times like these, times of affliction & sorrow, to display our faith in our triumphant Victor to all.
Ephesians 4:7-8 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says, "WHEN HE ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES, AND HE GAVE GIFTS TO MEN."
Hallelujah, Christ’s victory of the cross culminated in a Triumphal procession of the spiritual sort, the only sort of any lasting significance, upon His ascension! This event was past tense for the Christians of Paul’s day, & it is for us as well! Our distress for the cause of Christ in this temporal realm is simply a result of God’s decree that we dwell in Christ in the everlasting spiritual realm! God “raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6). Martin Lloyd-Jones fleshes out the implications of Paul’s imagery of the first century Roman Triumph for us here in modern America…
2 Corinthians 2:15-16a For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life
The Father loves the Son beyond measure (John 3:35, 5:20), so too it pleases Him immeasurably to breathe in the consequence of His Son’s work as the world sets us alight & we burn with the sweet aroma of His Son. We worship God as we reflect the nature of His glorious Son, particularly in those times when we share in His suffering (e.g. Acts 5:41, 9:16, Rom. 8:17, Phil. 1:29, 1Peter2:20).
And this text also reveals that our witness of Christ in such times carries an impact in this earthly realm too. We witness to friend & foe alike as we put on display the reality of Christ’s glory at work within us. We proselytize both the faithful & unfaithful with a tangible demonstration of the spiritual Truth at work within us. What Christian is not entranced by the narratives of martyrs past? The witness of Tyndale’s prayer that the King’s eyes would be opened to Christ is etched upon the backdrop of his being burned upon a stake at that very moment. Understand, no matter the consequence of his prayer, in regards to whether or not the King would ultimately receive Christ, Tyndale accomplished his most important work- to simply exude Christ’s gloriously merciful nature towards his enemy in the midst of said enemy’s greatest act of violence against him (Rom. 5:10).
We never know what strength God has for us until the time of need, as Corrie Ten Boom’s father related to her in her distress over possible Nazi persecution…
‘Exactly. And our wise Father in Heaven knows when we're going to need things too. Don't run out ahead of Him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us will have to die, you will look into your heart and find the strength you need--just in time.’ ”