While there is debate in the case of Col. 2:15, it seems most probable that in both the Colossians passage and 2 Cor. 2:14 God is the subject of this verb thriambeuō in Paul’s letters. These are the only contexts in the New Testament where this verb occurs. The translators and writers of the Greek Old Testament did not use this verb, probably because it was just entering into Greek discourse at the end of the first century B.C., according to the citations in Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon. Nor does it occur in the writings of the Hellenistic Jewish writer Philo. The Jewish historian Josephus, however, used it in his description of the Jewish-Roman war, which he completed towards the end of the first century A.D.
In his ‘second’ letter to the Corinthian Christians Paul says explicitly that it is “God who always leads us in triumphal procession (thriambeuonti) in Christ.” Scott Hafemann, Suffering & Ministry in the Spirit (p. 16-34) provides an excellent description of the Roman “triumph,” which celebrated the significant victory of a Roman general over a major enemy. The “triumphator” was preceded through the streets of Rome with the sacrificial animals and spoils, and then followed by the prisoners of war, who often would be executed as the climax to the parade. The customs involved with a formal “triumph” would lead us to construe Paul’s use of this verb in 2 Cor. 2:14 as describing God to be the victorious leader and Paul as one of the enemy, a prisoner of war being led to death.
However, this interpretation is rejected by many as being incompatible with the context. Some argue that the form of this verb could indicate Paul used it in a “factitive” sense, meaning “cause to triumph.” Paul’s meaning then would be that God has caused him to triumph. Unfortunately there is no lexical usage to support this sense in the kind of syntactical construction used in this passage. Further thriambeuō is a transitive verb and verbs expressing a factitive sense normally are intransitive (Hafemann, 17). Others interpret Paul to be saying that he was part of the conquering army that participated in the triumphal procession. However, this again fails to convince because the enemy led in triumph is the object of the verb and the conquering army is not usually described in that way. Other interpretations are also offered, but each in its own way does not seem to comport with the syntax and context of 2 Cor. 2:14 or with the customs associated with a triumph.
Rather in 2 Corinthians Paul numerous times used metaphors to describe his new life-task as an ambassador of the Gospel. Consider 4: 11 where Paul says that “we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake,” or the metaphor of a “fragrant odour” expressed in 2:14-15, which is a reference to the incense-laden fragrance produced by the offering of sacrifice. Twice Paul gives a catalogue of the hardships he has experienced as “slave of the Messiah” (6:3-10; 11:21-29). As the former enemy of God and the Gospel, Paul, through his conversion experience and by God’s grace, is now part of the triumphal procession of God generated by the victory of Christ in the cross and resurrection. He is part of the spoils of the spiritual warfare! Yet this is not a bad thing for Paul because it has brought him into the context of God’s love, the Spirit’s wisdom and power, and the Messiah’s life. To be the slave of the Messiah is a great honour. To be part of God’s triumphal procession, even if it means death to self and sin, is a blessed thing. It may even be that Paul will have to surrender his life as a witness to the Gospel, but this, as he confesses in Philippians, only means that he goes to be with his Lord. This may be Paul’s way of living the challenge to “take up his cross daily and follow Jesus.”
Not all interpreters agree with this understanding, but it is the one that seems to give the verb thriambeuō its appropriate sense in this context, as difficult as the metaphor may appear to us.
The use of this verb in Colossians 2:15 applies to the transaction the Messiah was making at the cross. Whether God the Father or Jesus the Messiah is the subject of the action implied in the participle thriambeusas is debated. God is named as the agent responsible for the Messiah’s resurrection in v.12 and also seems to be the subject of the verb in v.12 which describes how God “made us alive together with him (i.e. the Messiah).” This in turn logically would make God the primary agent in the actions described in the nominative participle in v. 14a (“cancelling out, obliterating”) and the verb in v. 14b (“he took it away”). Similarly the main verb in v. 15 would continue with God as the subject, describing how he “boldly displayed them publicly, leading them in triumphal procession in him (i.e. the Messiah).” Another alternative is to consider the Messiah to be subject of the verb in v. 15, which would mean that the Messiah leads them in triumphal procession in the cross or in himself.
In either case the meaning of the aorist participle thriambeusas remains the same, but who leads the triumphal procession, God or his Messiah, remains uncertain. Those led as prisoners of war in the divine triumph are “the principalities and powers (tas archas kai tas exousias).” These are the powers opposed to the Messiah, who sought to destroy him at the cross. Now, however, through the resurrection of the Messiah, they are vanquished. According to the essence of this metaphor, it is probable that those led in this triumphal procession as prisoners of war eventually would be executed, particularly the leaders. So Paul’s language is not only depicting their defeat, but also implies their final destruction.
The sense of what Paul is talking about finds clear expression in Strabo’s account of the death of Adiatorix. “Caesar, after leading in triumph (thriambeusas) Adiatorix, with his wife and children, had resolved to put him to death together with the eldest of his sons” (Strabo, Geography, 188.8.131.52). The linkage between the procession of primary prisoners of war and their execution is plain. However, it is also the case that from time to time the victor would allow the vanquished to live — but this would be exceptional. Josephus (Jewish Wars, VII. 123-157) describes the triumphal procession in which Vespasian and Titus celebrated the Roman victory over the Jews. At the climax of the pageant Josephus tells us that “Simon, son of Gioras, who had just figured in the pageant among the prisoners” was led to the customary place of execution. Then the “announcement that Simon was no more” was made to the cheers of the Roman crowds.
Paul captures in his use of this verb two significant Christian themes. First, God is victorious over all powers, human and spiritual, but especially those that oppose him. He reigns and it is the execution of the Messiah through crucifixion, the most humiliating form of death, and the Messiah’s resurrection, that God’s glorious triumphal procession marches through human history. Second, believers are part of this triumphal procession, part of the plunder from Satan’s kingdom and now prisoners of war in the kingdom of grace. This gives them a status that is filled with honour, even though it may lead to death in the service of the Messiah. Both uses of this verb create audacious expressions of confidence in God’s ultimate victory at the end of the age. It is a victory already secured, but yet to be fully enjoyed.
i. do we see ourselves as Paul did, participating in God’s triumphal procession through history, but as his prisoners, thankful that we can serve God even in this limited capacity because of his mercy? We know that being the prisoner of war of God is far better than being the prisoner of Satan.
ii. if God can obtain triumph through such a terrible thing as the cross, then nothing can prevent God from accomplishing his plans. It may mean that God’s triumph will also require suffering on my part as a follower of the Messiah.