2 Corinthians is a deeply personal letter. Paul is less the doctrine-teacher, more the man pouring out his heart to a church rejecting him and “his” gospel. To understand the situation let’s reconstruct events . . .
Paul planted the Corinthian church on his second missionary journey (50 or 51 A.D.) After 1 ½ years in Corinth, he went to Ephesus for 2 ½ years. While there, Paul received reports of divisions in the Corinthian church. Additionally, three men from Corinth brought him a letter from Corinth asking questions about Christian belief and behavior. Late 54 A.D., Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in response.
Paul sent the letter with Timothy, who found the situation in Corinth worse than expected. Consequently, Paul made an urgent visit in spring 55 A.D.. It became a “painful” one (2 Corinthians 2:1). The Corinthians had ignored Paul’s letter (1 Corinthians) and embraced new leaders who belittled Paul and mocked his apostleship.
Paul remained only briefly in Corinth and returned to Ephesus. From there, probably in the summer of 55 A.D., Paul wrote another letter (2 Corinthians 2:4,9) rebuking the Corinthians (the so-called “lost letter”). Titus delivered it.
Meanwhile, Paul remained in Ephesus where he faced intense opposition (2 Corinthians 1:8-10). In late 55 A.D. he left and went to Troas, hoping to meet Titus to hear how the church had responded to his rebuke-letter. Titus wasn’t there. Paul went on to Macedonia. Finally, Titus arrived with some good news (2 Corinthians 7:5ff) and some bad. The Corinthians had responded well, but a group of “false apostles” had taken over the church and undermined Paul’s apostleship and authority.
So, in late 55 or early 56 A.D. Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, hoping to prepare the church for his final visit to them.
After greeting them (“What’s in a Salutation?” http://theoldpreacher.com/whats-in-a-salutation/) Paul expresses praise to God . . .
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Corinthians 1:3,4).
Paul is writing personally, not doctrinally. Only secondarily is he teaching (praising) God’s nature. Primarily he’s relating his experience. In all his “troubles” (Greek, thlipsis—“pressure, affliction, oppression”) he’s been comforted (Greek, parakaleo—a coming alongside to relieve sorrow and distress) by “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort.”
This is a bold beginning for Paul’s letter. To the Corinthians, being “spiritual” means living above or apart from “troubles.” Paul not only admits troubles, but affirms in them God is particularly at work.
God’s got a purpose: “so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” The successful “spiritual” life is not affliction-free. Believers face affliction, and God uses troubles to equip his people to minister comfort to one another.
For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort (2 Corinthians 1:5-7).
Why must believers endure “troubles”? “ . . . the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives . . . “ The treatment Jesus endured is the same treatment those who are his must. It’s the nature of the Christian life.
But, I suffer illness, not persecution. Is this still “the sufferings of Christ”? Do they test my faith in him? Then, yes, they are “the sufferings of Christ.”
Paul claims that this personal suffering helps equip him for ministry. And, by the comfort he’s able to pass along, they are enabled to patiently endure “the same sufferings we suffer.”
Hear now how the apostle opens his heart to the church . . .
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many (2 Corinthians 1:8-11).
Paul couldn’t state his affliction “in the province of Asia” (probably the Ephesus city-wide riot against him–Acts 19:21-41 ) more honestly and humbly—“under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of lie . . . in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.” It’s a glimpse into the apostle’s heart the Acts narrative doesn’t give.
Why did God allow Paul such suffering, suffering he couldn’t endure and thought would take his life? “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.”
Whether or not Paul is implying that the Corinthians, too, have to learn this God-reliance lesson isn’t certain. What is certain is that Paul, from personal experience, is saying that such hopeless affliction is part of God’s intention for his people.
Here, by the way, we see that God’s “comfort” to Paul wasn’t merely internal, but external: God “delivered us from such a deadly peril”. And, since he expects similar suffering in the future, Paul requests the Corinthians’ prayers so that many might “give thanks . . . for the gracious favor granted us . . . “
We mustn’t miss this: Paul is using himself as an example to argue that suffering is not a sign of inferior spirituality. Rather, it is part and parcel of the Christian life—both an occasion for God to reveal his delivering power and an occasion for the Christian to learn better to rely on God.
Which brings us to a serious point of application.
Dr. Sam Storms (a charismatic-Calvinist [!] who pastors Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City) observes . . .
“It is natural . . . for us to trust in ourselves. It is so natural, and so confirmed by the habits of a lifetime, that no ordinary difficulties or perplexities avail to break us of it. It takes all God can do to root up our self-confidence. He must reduce us to despair; He must bring us to such an extremity that the one voice we have in our hearts, the one voice that cries to us wherever we look round for help, is death, death, death. It is out of this despair that the superhuman hope is born. It is out of this abject helplessness that the soul learns to look up with new trust to God.”
And James Denney (19th century Scottish theologian and preacher) wrote . . .
“How do most of us attain to any faith in Providence? Is it not by proving, through numberless experiments, that it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps? Is it not by coming, again and again, to the limit of our resources, and being compelled to feel that unless there is a wisdom and a love at work on our behalf, immeasurably wiser and more benign than our own, life is a moral chaos? . . . Only desperation opens our eyes to God’s love“.
I ponder both. Storms says God, “to root up our self-confidence . . . must reduce us to despair”. And Denney writes, “Only desperation opens our eyes to God’s love.” I like neither. Must God really “reduce us to despair”? Are we such self-confident sinners that “Only desperation opens our eyes to God’s love?”
Based on Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 1:3-11, I think he’d answer YES.
For decades I relied on God and “saw” his love. Apparently not not nearly as much as I thought. God knew all along that my faith was immature at worse and inferior at best. So now, here I am, often despairing of my life as it is–always desperate for the power of God’s love to be revealed in me. I want to walk. I long for everything else broken in me to be fixed. Until then, I crave sufficient grace, the power of Christ to rest on me.
Why this condition, God? This happened so that I might rely not on myself, but on God who raises the dead.
Do I dare risk desperation and pray, “Teach me, Father”?
Do we dare risk desperation and pray, “Teach us, Father”?