We studied 1 Corinthians together on Sunday evenings in 2017 and 2018. Since then we’ve studied Daniel and 1 and 2 Thessalonians and the book of Deuteronomy. But it was always my intention to come back to 2 Corinthians. I said one time that I’ve discovered I’m a completionist. I like to complete things. When I was young, if I started a jigsaw, I had to finish it. If I start a novel, I have to finish it, even if it’s boring. I started going through the Pentateuch and once I started, I needed to finish it. So, I started Corinthians, and I need to finish it, which is why we’re going to study 2 Corinthians now.
2 Corinthians is a long letter. It’s not as long as 1 Corinthians, but it’s still fairly long. And much of what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians will be familiar to us, because it contains many well-known and much-loved passages. In chapter 3, for instance, Paul contrasts the covenant God made through Moses at Sinai with the glory of the new covenant. The glory shining from Moses’s face faded over time, but we, with unveiled faces, reflect the glory of Christ. And we’re being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. In chapter 4, Paul talks about how the god of this age blinds the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel, but God made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Christ. Then there’s the marvellous passage in chapter 4 where Paul says:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed….
And in chapter 5 he wrote about the earthly tent of our bodies and how we long for our heavenly dwelling. And then there’s the message of reconciliation that God has given to be proclaimed that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. So, be reconciled to God, Paul wrote, because God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Then, in chapter 6, there’s the instruction about not being yoked to unbelievers. And in chapters 8 and 9 he encouraged the believers to be generous towards their fellow believers who were in need. Whoever sows sparingly will reap sparingly; and whoever sows generously will reap generously. And in chapter 12, there’s that well-known passage about Paul’s vision and his thorn: after receiving many visions from the Lord, God afflicted Paul with some kind of thorn in his flesh in order to keep him humble. But in his weakness, Paul learned that God’s grace is sufficient for him, because when he is weak, then he is strong in the Lord.
It’s a marvellous letter; and we trust and pray that by studying it together on Sunday evenings, we’ll get to know it better and through it, we’ll get to know and love the Saviour better. And one of the themes which runs throughout the letter is the theme of suffering and affliction. And indeed, that’s how the letter begins. So, here’s a message for suffering Christians. And, of course, that means it’s a message for every believer, because — as Paul said elsewhere — all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Persecution, suffering, affliction: they’re inevitable and they’re normal for the believer. And Paul writes about affliction at the beginning of this letter.
Verses 1 to 3
We read in verse 1 that Paul — who wrote this letter — is an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God. In other words, he did not take this office for himself, but he received it from the Lord, who appeared to him on the road to Damascus and appointed him an apostle. And you can see from verse 1 that Timothy was with Paul when he wrote this letter. And the letter is addressed to the church in Corinth as well as to all the saints throughout Achaia. In the New Testament, the word ‘saints’ is another word for Christians. The Greek word translated ‘saint’ means separated or set apart. So, God has set apart Christians from the rest of the world to belong to him. And Achaia was the Roman province in which the city of Corinth was located. So, although the letter was addressed to the church in Corinth, Paul meant other believers in the area to see it too.
And as Paul usually did, he greeted the recipients of his letter by hoping for grace and peace for them from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We all need God’s gracious help to stand firm in the faith and to grow as believers. And we all need peace from God, because we live in a hostile world and there are many things which frighten and distress us.
And then, Paul begins to praise God. His words here echo the kind of thing that would have been said at the Jewish synagogue in those days. Whenever the Jews assembled in the synagogue for worship, the Jews would say:
Praise be to the Lord our God and God of our fathers.
But Paul christianizes that greeting and says instead:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Or, to put it another way:
Praise be to God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Jews looked upon God as the God of their fathers: the God who revealed himself to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. But Christians look upon God as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s how we now know him: as the God who has revealed himself to us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. We cannot think of God now without thinking of his Son, Jesus Christ, who came from God in order to bring us to God. And, of course, we cannot think of Jesus Christ without also thinking of God the Father, because Jesus Christ is God’s one and only Son. And, of course, this God — the God who has revealed himself to us in his Son — deserves our praise and worship, because he alone is God and he is the source of all the comfort we need.
And so, Paul refers to God as ‘the Father of compassion’ and ‘the God of all comfort’. Calling him ‘the Father of compassion’ means he’s the source of compassion. Compassion comes from him. And so, we’re to look to him for compassion and comfort.
The word translated ‘compassion’ can also be translated ‘mercy’. Whenever I hear the word mercy, I can’t help thinking of the time when I used to work for the Simon Community in Dublin. Across the road from the hostel was a convent which was run by the Sisters of Mercy. And they were called Sisters of Mercy because they were women who would give help to the poor and needy. And so, when Paul says that God is the Father of mercies, he means he’s the one we ought to look to for the help we need. We’re poor and needy; and God, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, is able to help us.
And then, the Greek word translated ‘comfort’ is ‘paraklesis’. The ‘para’ part of that word means ‘by’ or ‘with’ or ‘beside’. Think of parallel lines which are beside one another. And the ‘klesis’ part of the word means ‘call’. And so a paraklete is someone you call on to stand beside you or with you. It can be used in legal contexts to refer to your lawyer who stands with you in court to help and defend you. But it can also mean anyone who comes to your side to help you in any circumstance. Think of Daniel’s three friends who were thrown into the fiery furnace because they refused to bow down and worship an idol. And when the king looked into the furnace, do you remember what he saw? Not three men, but four men; and the fourth man looked like a son of the gods. God had come to their side to help them.
And so, not only is God the Father of compassion or mercies, who is able to help us, but he’s the God of all comfort, who comes to our side when we’re in trouble or need. Isn’t that what we need to know about God? Isn’t that what you need to know about God? When you’re suffering, when we’re going through troubles and trials, you need to know that there is someone who is merciful and is able to help you. And you need to know there is someone who will come to your side and stand with you.
And he doesn’t just stand with us to whisper words of comfort in our ear. That’s often the picture we have of a comforter. We think of a mother, stroking her frightened child’s head and whispering to him that it’s okay and he doesn’t need to cry anymore or be afraid. We think of tender and comforting words. And while the Lord’s word contains lots of promises to comfort and encourage us, nevertheless, God does more than speak words of comfort. He acts on our behalf. He intervenes to strengthen us. He comes to help us. In Isaiah 40, the Lord says:
Comfort, comfort my people.
And the prophet was to comfort them, not just with words, but with the news that God was coming to save them. That’s what we all need to know.
I’ve already mentioned Daniel’s three friends and how the Lord came to their side to help them and to protect them from the flames. But think now of Daniel who was thrown, not into a fiery furnace, but into the den of lions. And he was thrown there because of his faithfulness to the Lord. And the Lord sent his angel not just to speak comforting words to him, but he came to shut the mouths of the lion. Or think of the Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood as he anticipated the suffering of the cross. And his Father sent an angel, not just to speak tenderly to him, but to strengthen him.
By calling God ‘the Father of compassion’ and ‘the God of all comfort’, Paul is saying to you that you can look to the Lord God for the help you need. He will stand at your side to strengthen and help you.
Verses 4 to 7
But take a look now at verse 5 where Paul writes about how the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives. And that helps us to see that he’s not really talking here about the normal troubles and trials of life which everyone suffers, whether they’re a believer or not. We live in a fallen world which is full of suffering; and everyone suffers in different ways, because life is hard and it’s full of sickness and disappointments and broken relationships; and we hurt one another; and we fall out with one another and it’s painful. And, then, of course, we all — believer and unbeliever alike — we all have to face the death of loved ones and our own death one day. Our life is a life of troubles. And that’s the same for everyone, believer and unbeliever alike.
But Paul isn’t really thinking of that kind of suffering. He’s thinking of the suffering believers face because we’re believers. He’s thinking about the sufferings of Christ which flow over into our lives. So, he’s thinking of the things we suffer because we belong to Christ and are associated with him. It’s suffering for righteousness’s sake. Suffering for unrighteousness’s sake means suffering because of the wrong things we do. Suffering for righteousness’s sake means suffering because of the right things we do. Suffering like Daniel because he wouldn’t pray to the king, but only to the Lord, despite the king’s command. Suffering like Daniel’s three friends because they wouldn’t bow down to the idol. Suffering like the Lord Jesus, who suffered death because of his obedience to his Father in heaven. Paul is referring to suffering for being a believer; suffering because an unbelieving world hates the church and despises us for what we believe; and suffering because the Devil hates the Lord and his church and will do everything he can to destroy the church. And what every believer needs to know is that we can expect to suffer for righteousness’s sake. Following the Lord Jesus is not easy, because we can expect to be despised and ridiculed and scorned and ill-treated. That’s how an unbelieving world treated our Saviour; and if they treated him like that, then they will treat us like that. Do you remember Paul’s words in the reading this morning from Acts 14? He said we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. Read through the book of Revelation, which is all about what life in these, the last days in which we’re living is like. And the message is that believers can expect to suffer in the last days, because of the Devil and because of an unbelieving world which is against us. In fact, the saints in heaven are described in chapter 7 as those who have come out of the great tribulation, because this present life is a life of troubles and tribulation for believers.
However, back to 2 Corinthians: when we suffer, we’re able to look to God who is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comes to our side to help us. And here’s the thing which is perhaps new for us: the comfort and help God gives us is not an end in itself. It’s not an end in itself so that we’re comforted and that’s the end of it. It’s like food. We’re hungry and so everything stops so that we can eat some food to get rid of our hunger. But that’s not the end of it, because now that we’ve eaten, we have the strength and the energy to go out and live our lives. And when we’re suffering for righteousness’s sake, God comes to our side to help us. And once he helps us, what now? Well, now we’re able to go out and live our lives as Christians. And specifically, we’re able to comfort our fellow believers who are suffering.
So, God comforts and helps us so that we can comfort and help other believers. This is explained in verse 4 where it says that God comforts us in all our troubles so that we comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. God comforts and helps us so that we can comfort and help other believers. Look at verse 5 again. Just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also our comfort overflows. That is, it overflows to other people. Look at verse 6 now. Paul says that if we are distressed….
When he says ‘if’, he really means ‘when’, because there’s no doubt about the suffering believers experience in this life. So, when we’re distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation. Paul was able to comfort the believers in Corinth and he was able to encourage them to keep going in their faith, because he himself had received comfort from God. And he goes on to say, when I am comforted, it is for your comfort, because he’s able to share the comfort he received with them. And because he’s able to comfort and help them, they’re able patiently to endure their own suffering. Just as they know what it means to suffer for Christ, so also they have also experienced the comfort and help they need.
God is able to comfort and help us. But he gives us his help and comfort so that we will be able to help and comfort other believers who are suffering. And you see, that’s how God comforts and helps us. He comforts and helps us by sending other Christians into our lives to help us. It’s the same with our food. We pray to God for our daily food. And how does he provide it for us? Not by making it appear magically, but by sending the farmer out into the fields to work the ground and to look after the crops. We ask God for healing. How does he heal us? Well, he can heal us in an extra-ordinary way, but normally he heals us by sending the doctor to treat us with medicine. And how does God comfort and help us? One way he does so is by sending other believers into our lives to comfort and help us. In fact, in chapter 7 verse 6, Paul writes that God comforted him with the coming of Titus. So, Paul was in distress. He was anxious about the Corinthians. And then, God sent Titus to encourage him.
Isn’t that what you’ve found? When you’ve been in trouble, worried and anxious, or in great distress, the Lord has sent someone into your life who has been a great help to you. And very often, the person he sends is someone who has suffered much in the past and knows exactly what to say and do to help you. These people are messengers of God, sent from heaven to help you in your time of need. When they themselves were suffering, they maybe wondered what it was all for; and why God was letting them suffer like this. Why did God break them? Well, the Lord broke them and healed them so that he would be able to use them to bring comfort to others who are suffering.
And so, think about the ways you have been comforted and helped in the past. Think of the ways God has helped you and the people he has used to encourage you. Think of those people he sent into your life. Now, will you do what others did for you? Now that you have been comforted and helped, will you ask the Lord to give you opportunities to comfort and help other believers? After we’ve eaten, we’re able to go out and live our lives. And after you’ve been comforted and helped by God, you’re able to go out and use what you have been through to help and encourage others.
Verses 8 to 11
Let’s move on because in verses 8 to 11, Paul refers to his own hardships in Asia. That’s the Roman province of Asia. And although he says ‘we’, he’s probably referring to his own suffering. And it was extreme suffering — wasn’t it? — because he says he was under great pressure, far beyond his ability to endure so that he despaired even of life. That’s how bad it was. He thought he would not survive; he thought he was done for. One of the commentators suggests Paul is referring to the trouble he had in Ephesus and which we read about in Acts 19 when a silversmith stirred up trouble against Paul, because Paul’s converts were no longer buying his silver idols. They caused a riot in the city. Paul wanted to appear before them, but the other believers wouldn’t let him, because they thought it was too dangerous for him.
At that time, his life was in danger, though he managed to escape unharmed. However, on other occasions, he suffered much. Listen to what he says in 2 Cor. 11:
 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.  Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea;  on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers;  in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.  And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.
And, of course, in Lystra, he was stoned so badly, that his enemies dumped his body outside the city, thinking he was dead.
Paul suffered enormously for the sake of Christ. And here in 2 Corinthians 1, he refers to a time when he thought he was going to die. In our hearts, he says, we felt the sentence of death.
However, there was purpose to his suffering. In fact, there were two purposes to his suffering. The first is what we’ve already been thinking about and how when we suffer, we’re able to comfort others with the comfort we receive. But the second purpose to his suffering is here in verse 9. He suffered so much so that he would not rely on himself but on God, who raises the dead. The Lord was teaching Paul to rely, not on himself, but on God. And we all need to learn that lesson, don’t we? We all need to learn to trust in the Lord more and more. We all need to learn to lean on him. And one way we demonstrate our faith in God and to show that we’re relying on him, and not in ourselves, is by praying to him. And Paul goes on to refer to prayer in verse 11. The Corinthians had helped him by praying for him.
And, you see, the measure of how much we rely on the Lord and not on ourselves is whether we pray. The Christian who relies on himself or herself doesn’t pray much. They’ll do it on their own. But the Christian who relies on the Lord will turn to him in prayer again and again and again to seek his help.
And, of course, we’re to turn to him in prayer, because he’s the one who is able to deliver us. Paul says in verse 10 that God has delivered him from a deadly peril. And then he adds:
and he will deliver us.
And then he adds:
On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.
It’s possible that Paul is thinking there of the end and of deliverance from death at the resurrection. And so, he’s saying that God has delivered him from afflictions in the past; and God will deliver him from other afflictions in this life; and God will deliver him finally from death at the resurrection. And since God is a God who delivers his people, we ought to go to him in prayer and seek his help.
The Christian life is a life of suffering. It’s a life of troubles and trials. But we can look to the Lord who is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. We can look to him for the comfort and help we need.
And he comforts us by sending believers into our lives to help us.
And after he comforts us, he sends us out to help our fellow believers who are suffering.
And he’s able to use our sufferings to teach us to rely on him. And those who rely on him, and not in themselves, will be people who pray, because in prayer, we’re casting our cares on our heavenly Father who cares for us.
Before we finish, let’s remember that we deserve none of this. We deserve none of this. We don’t deserve compassion from God or mercy. We don’t deserve his deliverance. We don’t deserve answers to our prayers. We don’t deserve any of this, because we’re sinners who sin against the Lord every day in thought and word and deed. Instead of compassion and mercy, we deserve his punishment. Instead of deliverance, we deserve condemnation. Instead of receiving answers to our prayers, he ought to disregard us and to turn his back on us. That’s what we deserve, because we’re sinners.
So, why is it that God is full of compassion towards us? Why is it that God is willing to come to our side and help us? Why is it that he’s willing to deliver us? Why is it that he will hear and answer our prayers?
You know the answer, don’t you? It’s because of the Lord Jesus, who took the blame for all that we have done wrong; and who suffered the punishment we deserve for our sins. God does not treat us as our sins deserve, because God treated his Son as our sins deserve. God is able to show us mercy, because the Lord Jesus satisfied his justice on our behalf and paid for our sins in full. God delivers us, because his Son was delivered over to death. God says ‘yes’ to our prayers for deliverance, because he said ‘no’ to the Lord Jesus when he asked to be spared from the cup of wrath. We can receive mercy and comfort from God, only because of the Lord Jesus.
And so, in all of your suffering, when you look to the Father of compassion and God of all comfort for the help you need, remember to give thanks to him for Jesus Christ who suffered on your behalf to reconcile you to God.