Date: 15 Jan 2017
Text: 2 Corinthians 1:1-11
Last week we started a new series considering Paul’s second letter to Corinth by taking a brief look at Paul and his relationship with that interesting city. We learned that not only did Paul visit that city during his second missionary journey, but he stayed there for 18 months or so. Following that visit, and some years later, he had an exchange of letters with them. We now have two of those letters in our New Testament, what we know as 1 & 2 Corinthians, which are actually the second and fourth of the letters that Paul wrote to them.
Paul grew to love the people in that city and that church even though they were a difficult bunch to deal with. They were constantly giving him trouble and constantly doubting his word, his honesty and his credibility and this letter, 2 Corinthians, attempts to explain some of his activities and behaviour as well as confirming his authority as an Apostle of Jesus Christ. He also refutes the claims that he was dishonest and had broken a promise to them. We will come to all of this in due course.
Last week I mentioned that this was the most personal of all the letters that Paul wrote to the various churches that he visited and/or founded. In this fascinating letter he opens up quite a lot about his own feelings and the struggles and sufferings that he faced as a servant of Jesus Christ. It is all too easy for us to regard Paul as a super Apostle, someone for whom everything went right, someone who never struggled, someone whose faith was absolutely rock solid. To many Christians he is a shining example of how to serve Jesus Christ even if we can never hope to attain to the level of service that he attained. In some ways we learn differently from this letter, we meet a different Paul, someone who felt the pain, someone who suffered greatly in a wide variety of ways, someone whose suffering knew no bounds. If we’re honest then I’m sure that we may all agree that we too struggle in our faith from time to time and so seeing Paul also struggling may give us a certain level of comfort when we learn that even so great a servant of Christ as Paul also struggled.
If you look at the numerous letters in the New Testament you may notice that they all open in a similar way. This was because all letters written at the time followed a particular style of opening. They begin with the writer of the letter identifying themselves, in this case Paul together with his companion, Timothy. I mentioned last week that although he doesn’t say as much, Paul was in Ephesus at the time of writing. He then identifies the recipients of the letter; in this case the Christians in Corinth and all those in the surrounding region. The introduction is completed by Paul sending his greetings to everyone and wishing them God’s grace and blessing. I find it interesting that Paul felt able to do that despite the problems that he had experienced during his stay in Corinth and subsequently via at least one letter. Despite all that, he was still able to say “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”; I wonder if we could do that.
Wherever he went serving His Lord and Saviour, Paul suffered greatly. Maintaining his faith and serving Jesus Christ wasn’t easy and no matter where he went, he suffered for his faith. We’ll look in more detail at that issue in a moment. Regardless of how and how much he had suffered, Paul’s opening focus is not on his suffering but on the comfort and support provided by God when he did suffer. He certainly mentions sufferings in general in 1:5-7 but seems to ignore that by expressing his thanks for the comfort that God had provided and since God had comforted him, he felt able to also comfort those Corinthians who were similarly suffering for their faith.
It is always interesting to see how many times a particular word is used in a few verses. In this instance we see the word “comfort” and its derivatives used 9 times in 1:3-7. We may think of comfort as meaning something like soothing sympathy. However, in this New Testament context it goes deeper than that and has the idea of strengthening, of helping and of making strong. That is what Paul needed as he went through some hard times and suffered greatly. However, in true Paul style he seems to be more concerned for others and their situation than for his own, although in these verses he does actually hint at his own suffering and his own need for comfort. Notice that he opens 1:3-4 by praising God for providing the comfort that he, that is Paul, needed just when he needed it. It was that comfort that enabled him to comfort others who were also struggling, especially at this time the Corinthian believers. How often do we praise God for comforting us and coming alongside us just when we need Him most? Does it even cross our mind to do so? I believe that it is important that we do give thanks to God on such occasions.
When we read through Paul’s letters we may see that there is little doubt that he suffered greatly for his faith in Jesus Christ. However, it seems to be something that he was happy to do. I’m not sure if Paul meant that he wanted to be crucified with Christ, but he said in Philippians 3:10, “I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death...”which seems to me to be as close as you can get to wanting to share in Christ’s crucifixion. He regards this as sharing in Christ’s sufferings and in 1:5-6 he acknowledges that just as we share in Christ’s sufferings, albeit in a different way, so we can also share in the comfort that only He can provide. No one else can provide the same type and intensity of comfort that Jesus can. When Paul was suffering badly and needed comfort most, Jesus was right beside him suffering with him and providing the comfort that he needed. Jesus will do exactly the same for us if only we would ask Him and draw near to Him. Whilst in these verses when Paul refers to “your” and “you” he is pointing at the Corinthians, these verses apply equally to us as we too join is sharing with the Corinthians the many problems that they face; let’s face it, 2000 years later we still face similar problems. Throughout these comments Paul conveys the feeling that when he was distressed it was to enable him to be able to help the Corinthians and others since he was also sharing in their distress; it’s similar to the old adage of a problem shared is a problem halved! Paul felt that when he was comforted by Jesus it enabled and strengthened him to comfort them.
There can be little doubt that Paul suffered greatly for his faith and although suffering is not to be sought it does happen. Many Christians, especially new Christians, automatically think that they will no longer suffer in any way. That is simply not true, in fact they may even suffer more although in different ways. Paul actually said something along those lines to the Philippians when he wrote to them and said, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him...” (Philippians 1:29). He then points out in the middle of 1:6 that such sufferings produce “patient endurance”. As far as Paul was concerned he was sharing “abundantly in the sufferings of Christ” (1:5) and he was happy to do so since he believed that just as he shared in Christ’s sufferings so also that “our comfort abounds through Christ” (1:5).
When you look at it carefully you may detect Paul trying to help and encourage believers through the tough times that they suffer. He truly believed that just as suffering increased so did the comfort that comes through Jesus also increase. As believers suffer more the majority grow stronger in their faith. There will always be those of course who fall away from their faith because of the sufferings that they endure and Paul is also anxious to help and encourage them. He encourages the Romans to “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” (Romans 12:12). He tells the Colossians that he has never stopped praying for them and hopes that they “may have great endurance and patience” (Colossians 1:11).
When Paul spoke about suffering he did so from extensive personal experience. In less than 10 years as a travelling evangelist Paul suffered on many occasions and in many ways. In Acts 13:44-45 we read that Paul was insulted as he preached the gospel. Luke reports that as he preached, the crowd “began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him.” When he was in Thessalonica with Silas, the Jews were so jealous of Paul’s success that they organised a mob to start a riot. Both Paul and Silas had to be smuggled out of town for the own safety. You may remember the well known story of Paul’s time in Philippi. Paul caused consternation when he drove an evil spirit out of a young woman which meant that she could no longer predict the future and tell fortunes. As a result of that Paul and Silas were beaten and thrown into prison. Luke tells us in Acts 16:22-23 that “The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully.“ In Acts 14:5 we read that along with Barnabas Paul was the object of murderous plots and in Acts 14:19-20 we read that he was stoned and left for dead. I doubt that there are any Christians in this country who have suffered anything like that although I’ve no doubt that there are Christians around the world that may well have done so.
All of those examples came from Acts. Later in this letter to the Corinthians, Paul himself gives more details of his sufferings. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 he provides a gruesome list of all that had happened to him as he served Jesus Christ. He was given 40 lashes minus 1 on 5 occasions. He was beaten with rods 3 times and pelted with stones once. He was shipwrecked 3 times and spent at least one day and night adrift on the open sea. Wherever he went he was in constant danger from false teachers, bandits, fellow Jews and Gentiles. On more than one occasion he had known hunger and thirst. And yet through all that he maintained his faith and drew nearer to Christ. Every time he suffered he felt that he was sharing that suffering with Christ Himself and that spurred him on to continue in his evangelistic work for Jesus Christ. Every time he suffered the more he was comforted by Christ. As if all that wasn’t enough we must also remember than he had a recurring physical problem which he referred to as a “thorn in my flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). We can only speculate as to what that was, but it certainly persisted and bothered him from time to time.
Let me just explain that comment about receiving 40 lashes minus 1 which is something that we have probably read but never understood the meaning of! This was a punishment dealt out by the synagogue leaders to anyone they found guilty of either moral or religious offences. The punishment is prescribed in Deuteronomy 25:3 and was carried out in the synagogue. In case the Rabbi lost count and broke this law they always gave the victim 39 lashes for fear of exceeding the limit of 40, hence the 40 minus 1 comment. Given that the lash was made of leather with four tails and the victim was made to stoop down to receive the punishment you can see that it was a particularly brutal form of punishment and one that Paul endured on five occasions.
Despite all that, Paul still kept going, he still kept preaching the gospel, founding churches and writing letters. However, in 1:8-11, we now begin to see a slightly different Paul, a Paul who admits that he has been struggling. He is anxious that they fully understand and appreciate just how hard it had been for him during his time in Asia. The situation obviously got so bad that Paul felt that he was going to die, or as The Message puts it, “We felt like we’d been sent to death row...” (1:9a). However, once again Paul turns what seems to be a bad situation into a good one. Whenever, his circumstances got really bad, he relied more on God and less on himself. How often do we do that? How often when things go wrong or the going gets tough do we rely on our own strength rather than on God? I suspect that it is more often than not! Paul wasn’t like that. Throughout his ministry he turned what on the surface appeared to be a bad situation into an opportunity to rely more on God and serve Him even more.
Notice too that in 1:11 Paul thanks them for their prayers and the fact that so many prayers had been answered. Prayer is a powerful tool that is too often overlooked and yet Paul knew just how much could be achieved through prayer. Paul lets them know that their prayers played a crucial part in his rescue from despair.
I can’t recall any other letter where Paul opens himself up quite so much. We always regard Paul as the super Apostle, the one who always rose above whatever problems came his way. And yet, here in these opening verses in 2 Corinthians 1 we see him admitting to how much distress he had been in and how much he had struggled. We come to realise just how much suffering he had endured and how much that suffering had built up within him to lead him to thinking that he was soon to die.
However, by the time we reach the end of this short passage we see Paul turn his difficulties into triumph. His struggles and distress have led him to rely more on God and to acknowledge just how much the prayers of many people, including the Corinthians, had helped him to overcome all this.
I would like to think that we can all learn from Paul’s experience. When things weren’t going well or he was suffering more than he could cope with, he turned to God and relied on Him more and more, and he relied more on prayer and the prayers of others. It would be wonderful if we too could rely more on God and draw closer to him just as Paul did; if we too could rely on prayer and the prayers of others just as Paul did; and if we too could acknowledge just how crucial prayer is in our daily spiritual walk just as Paul did. I commend these verses to you to meditate on and pray about.