Affliction and Comfort
2 Corinthians 1:1–11 – 2 Corinthians: A Testimony to Suffering in the Power of God
Second Sunday of Easter – April 28, 2019 (am)
In the midst of trial, hardship, affliction, there’s nothing we long for more than comfort, consolation (L-N), relief. We want encouragement (L-N). We want to be [given courage] in the midst of our struggle, no matter what caused it. It may be a physical need, or a spiritual battle that tears at your soul while you watch other believers soar effortlessly in that area. But affliction has many faces. It might be brought on by your gospel witness in the workplace—ideological push back from Human Resources personnel or policy in the name of tolerance, not recognizing that your company’s policy has just strayed into a whole new expression of intolerance. It could be a relational struggle with another believer, wrestling toward understanding what it means to walk by faith in obedience to a challenging teaching from God’s Word on the one hand. Or on the other hand it could be what it looks like to bear with one another (Col.3:13 NIV) as we grow in the obedience of faith (Rom.1:5; 16:26). But what we want most in any affliction is comfort, consolation, relief and reassurance, encouragement—and not in the form of fluffy or shallow platitudes, but real, substantial comfort that’s rooted in reality, anchored in truth, worthy of trust!
Last Sunday we referenced Peter. No disciple had a stronger desire to walk with Jesus through His whole experience of crucifixion. But before one evening had passed, he denied his Savior three times! He crumbled under trial. He deserted his Lord. How do you recover from that? No cutesy pick-me-up can comfort that form of failure! Self-imposed affliction is always the worst. It can leave you feeling like mere repentance isn’t enough. You don’t deserve comfort! Yet, the comfort we encounter today is sufficient for even that!
But Paul’s second canonical letter to Corinth needs to be set up carefully. He’s not writing primarily to offer them comfort in affliction. He’s writing to defend himself as a true apostle. There’s a group in Corinth that he refers to somewhat sardonically as super-apostles (11:5; 12:11). They’ve infiltrated the church and are undercutting the Corinthians’ confidence in Paul. But there’s even more to this story. The interaction between Paul and the Corinthians has several stages to it. The start-up of this church is told in Act.18:1-17. Things heated up quickly with the Jews in the synagogue, so Paul moved next door and turned his attention to the Gentiles. [T]he Jews didn’t give up; they took their complaint to the authorities. But many of the Corinthians still believed and were baptized, including Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and Sosthenes (his replacement? ), and the Lord [told] Paul one night in a vision that no one [would] harm [him], and that many more in [Corinth would believe]. So, he stayed there a year and [a half], teaching the word of God.
But problems arose with sexual immorality and other issues in the church necessitating a letter from Paul, not our 1Co. but before that. Paul refers to it in 1Co.5:9. What we call 1Co. was then a follow-up written at least in part to clarify parts of his previous letter, but also to give this church some particular instruction on what it looks like to live as a new covenant community (Brendsel). Evidently that didn’t bear much fruit either because Paul describes his next visit to Corinth as painful (2Co.2:1), and that was followed by yet another letter born of much affliction, anguish of heart, and many tears (2Co.2:3-4). So, the two letters we have in our Bibles are at least Paul’s second and fourth to the Corinthians. And this one is filled with yet more emotion and anguish as Paul details his sufferings, those which his opponents claim are proof that he’s no apostle of the risen Christ. But what Paul is saying in our text today, right from the start, is that his [suffering]… is the very means by which these believers are comforted (Hafemann ESVSBN).
Let’s see how. We’ll walk through this text in three steps.
A Blessed Assurance of Comfort in Affliction – 1-7
By the time Paul wrote our 2Co., likely from Macedonia (cf. 7:5-7), he had already sent Timothy to Corinth (1Co.16:10-11), possibly twice (1Co.4:17), to address the situation there. So, he includes Timothy as a co-author here (1a), and then he suggests that the problem he’s addressing spreads beyond the borders of Corinth (Calvin 110) as he includes all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia (1b, southern half of present-day Greece [Kruse 58]) as recipients.
And where there is generally an expression of thanksgiving as part of the opening of a proper letter, Paul here expresses praise to God: 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. Paul is praising God, as we will see, for the comfort that he himself has received in the midst of his sufferings for delivering the gospel. And from the start he’s inviting the Corinthians to join him in that praise, recognizing that the comfort of which he speaks is mediated to them through his ministry and confirmed by his experience.
Then Paul adds that, 5 … as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. The God who comforts in suffering is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” just as the sufferings and comfort experienced are both explicitly associated with Christ (cf. v. 5) (Hafemann 59). From the very start, then, not only is Paul identifying his calling as an apostle with both the Father and the Son (1), and rooting his greeting in the Father and the Son (2), but he’s also anchoring his affliction to the sufferings [of Christ] (5), and his comfort in the midst of all that to the character and ministry of God the Father (3-4). He’s leaving no room at all for a disassociation between gospel ministry and his sufferings!
But look at how he applies this to the Corinthians. Surely they too are experiencing affliction and sufferings in this fallen world. And the comfort Paul passes on to them is that which comes from God Himself, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort (cf. Isa.40:1-2). So, Paul’s sufferings brought them the gospel, and his comfort from God assures them of comfort!
A Personal Testimony of Comfort in Affliction – 8-10
And this is no small assurance! Paul’s own testimony (8-10) bears witness to that. We don’t know what affliction [he] experienced in Asia (8), but the Corinthians almost surely did. What we do know is what appears to be the primary issue he wanted them to understand. Whatever his affliction was, Paul said it brought him to the point where [he was] so utterly burdened beyond [his] strength that [he] despaired of life itself (8). And Paul is not given to overstatement. 9 Indeed, [he] felt that [he] had received the sentence of death…, the text says.
John Calvin (118-120) thought Paul may have actually been [sentenced] to death by some legal verdict such that he had no way out except by some form of miraculous deliverance. The language could be read to mean that. And if that was so, the flow of this passage suggests that God Himself may have orchestrated circumstances to put Paul in this place for his own strengthening, to free him from any twisted form of confidence in his own flesh. Calvin drew out a couple lessons that are worthy of our hearing (119-120): There are… two things to be observed here. In the first place—that the fleshly confidence with which we are puffed up, is so obstinate, that it cannot be overthrown in any other way than by our falling into utter despair. For as the flesh is proud, it does not willingly give way, and never ceases to be insolent until it has been constrained; nor are we brought to true submission, until we have been brought down by the mighty hand of God. (1 Peter 5:6.) Secondly, it is to be observed, that the saints themselves have some remains of this disease adhering to them, and that for this reason they are often reduced to an extremity, that, stript of all self-confidence, they may learn humility: nay more, that this malady is so deeply rooted in the minds of men, that even the most advanced are not thoroughly purged from it, until God sets death before their eyes. And hence we may infer, how displeasing to God confidence in ourselves must be, when for the purpose of correcting it, it is necessary that we should be condemned to death (cf. Mar.8:34-35).
Have you ever been in that place, trapped by the narrow boundaries of your own human limitation, your fallen weakness, your seemingly inescapable frailty? Paul was in that place here, and possibly by God’s own doing. 9 … But we’re told that was to make [him] rely not on [himself] but on God who raises the dead. Do you heart that? The goal was to make [Paul] rely not on [himself] but on God who [raised Jesus from] the dead. Paul was in a place where he had to depend on God. But even more, he had to remember that God is actually able to [raise] the dead or there was going to be no way out of the situation he was actually in! Again, have you ever been there?
Only two things are possible when you find yourself [despairing] of life itself. Either you turn toward God, and trust that whatever He does as good. Or you turn away from God and abandon all rational hope of deliverance. Random chance may result in your deliverance. Some lucky break results in the continuation of your life. A hidden guardrail appears as your car is about to plunge off a cliff! But that’s just what you’d call it: a lucky break. And when that happens, either way you lose. That guardrail doesn’t appear and you do plunge to your death. Loss! Or the guardrail does appear and you’re amazed at how lucky you are! But then you live on reminded afresh of how quickly life can be over, and how rare it is to get that lucky twice. How many repeat winners of the lottery do you know?
But if you turn you turn toward God at such times, regardless of what happens, you win! The guardrail appears and your life continues on with full knowledge that God in His sovereign care can provide a guardrail whenever, wherever and however He wishes. Or He doesn’t provide a guardrail and you die, but in full confidence that all the days ordained for [you] were [numbered] in [His] book before one of them came to be (Psa.139:16 niv) and precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints (Psa.116:15). This is the lesson of Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego as they were being thrown in the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar (Dan.3:8-30). They said: 17 … our God… is able to deliver us…, O king. 18 But even if [He doesn’t], be it known to you… that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up. [We] rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead (9). When we do that, live or die we win! (cf. Phi.1:21)
When we’re under affliction of any sort—a potentially life-ending trial or just the latest inconvenient reminder that this truly is a fallen world—the sort of comfort that [gives courage] regardless of the outcome is the sort of comfort we want!
A Community Petition for Comfort in Affliction – 11
And that’s the sort of comfort Paul is spotlighting here. But there’s one more piece to this puzzle that is genuinely encouraging. 11 You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. Do you hear what he’s saying? Praise (3, 11) brackets the thanksgiving portion of this letter, but thanksgiving is not absent from this portion. Paul is calling the Corinthians to prayer, so that many will give thanks. But it’s how that thanks is generated that’s really worth noting. Paul is calling the Corinthians away from despising his sufferings and affliction and toward prayer for him in the midst of them, so that they and many other may give thanks to God for delivering him in answer to their prayers! They’re missing an opportunity to see God work, and to be moved to thanks for the [blessings] He [grants] in response. This reminds me of Samuel’s words to Israel: [F]ar be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you (1Sa.12:23). We lose out when we fail to pray for comfort in times of affliction.
This is the comfort God provides! It’s the comfort of knowing that, regardless of the kinds of sufferings or affliction you’re facing, God is worthy of your trust in the midst of it. And regardless of the outcome, you win! Either you remain in this life serving Him with each of the days He’s sovereignly given you, or you’re welcomed into His presence in fulfillment of our [blessed] hope! (cf. 10)
So, what is our takeaway today. What is our response? 3 [Thanks] be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, and help [one another] by prayer, so that many will give thanks….