When was the last time you opened a letter addressed to someone else, or read someone else's email?
Imagine you found a letter lying on the pavement, and read it. You don't know anything about the person who wrote the letter, only their name which is at the bottom. And you don't know anything about the person it was written to apart from their name which is at the top. Now imagine that as you read the letter and it became obvious that this isn't a one-off. There are previous letters that are referred to and clearly the people know each other.
This term we're going to be looking at 2 Corinthians. It's a letter written by Paul to the Corinthians. But who was Paul?
And who are the Corinthians? And why is it called 2 Corinthians? Before we just jump in, we need a bit of background.
Paul was an apostle. There were 13 apostles all of whom Jesus had personally commissioned to tell other people about him. 12 of the apostles had the job of telling the Jews about Jesus. But Paul was special, because Jesus had commanded him to tell non-Jews about Jesus.
And the way Paul did that was to travel to a city where there were no Christians, and start looking for opportunities to preach about Jesus. And, generally speaking, Paul would stay in a city either until there were enough people who had become Christians to start a church, or until he was forced to leave. And then he would move on to the next city and start all over again.
In the book of Acts we read of at least three different trips Paul made like that. On his second missionary journey, Paul left Jerusalem, travelled up through an area that used to be called Asia (modern day Turkey), and kept going until he came to the region of Macedonia (Where Philippi and Thessalonica are) Then he went South to a place called Achaia, and after a brief time in the city of Athens, he arrived in Corinth.
Now Corinth was an important city in the 1st century. It was a busy metropolis full of every sort of person and religion.
Paul was joined by his friends Silas and Timothy and for 18 months they stayed in Corinth preaching the gospel and starting a church. Then he left and went home to Antioch.
On his next missionary journey, Paul travelled back through Asia to the city of Ephesus. He stayed there for 3 years and during that time a letter arrived from in Corinth. The letter contained lots of questions for him, but also troubling news that things weren't going well in the church. And so Paul wrote a long letter in reply to them, and we still have that letter, it's called 1 Corinthians.
Now it seems that at some point during his 3 years in Ephesus Paul also took a short trip to see the church in Corinth, but it didn't go well (we'll hear more about that in a few weeks in chapter 2). Following on from that painful visit it seems that Paul decided not to visit them again but instead sent another letter, probably delivered by his friend Titus. We don't have a copy of that letter but when we get to chapter 7 we'll see that Paul wrote some hard things to his beloved Corinthians.
Meanwhile things in Ephesus turned nasty. Over the 3 years a large number of people had become Christians and the church was growing. But the locals didn't like that. And eventually Paul and his co-workers had to flee from the city in fear of their lives.
They went north back to Macedonia. All this time Paul was concerned about how the Corinthians might have received his letter, until at some point during his stay in Macedonia, Titus found him. And Titus told Paul the good news that the Corinthian church had received his letter well. They had listened and accepted Paul's teaching.
Paul was overjoyed! He was so happy that he planned to go and visit the church in Corinth on his journey home. But before he saw them in person, he decided to write to them again. And that letter is what we call 2 Corinthians.
And that's what we're going to be looking at this term.
Turn back with me to 2 Corinthians chapter 1. vv 1-7…
"Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 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. 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."
At first glance vv 3-7 seem like a strange way for Paul to start this letter.
Verses 1 and 2 are the same introduction he uses in nearly all of his letters, but in vv 3-7 he gives the Corinthians a little summary of suffering and comfort in the Christian life. He tells them 3 things. Firstly he reminds them that…
Suffering and comfort are a normal part of normal Christian lives
Look at v5…
"For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows."
Living our lives obeying God and following Jesus is the right way to live. And we might expect that if we live our lives the right way then we'll be rewarded. That's what the world around us teaches. But it's not what the Bible teaches.
In John 15 Jesus says to his disciples…
"If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first."
"'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also."
In Mark 8 he said…
"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it."
In 2 Timothy Paul says that…
"…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted"
In 1 Peter 4, Peter says...
"Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you."
And here Paul says that if we follow Jesus Christ then his suffering will overflow into our lives.
Suffering is a normal part of the normal Christian life. But so is comfort. Look at v5 again…
"For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows."
Following Jesus brings suffering but it also brings comfort. And that's Paul's second point.
Our God is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort
Look at vv 3-4a…
"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..."
Paul says that knowing Jesus and following Jesus brings suffering and it brings comfort. But he also says that if we don't know God there is no real comfort in our lives. God, he says in v3, is the "Father of compassion".
People often imagine God to be far off and uncaring, or strict and severe. But that's not the picture of God we find in the Bible. The God of the Bible is "slow to anger and abounding in love". He is patient and kind and gracious and forgiving. But being the Father of compassion doesn't just mean that is what he's like; like a father who is compassionate. I think it also means that he's the source of all those things. He is the Father of them.
We know what love is, and what kindness and forgiveness and patience are, only because the God who made us is like that, and he made us in his image. He is the Father of compassion, the source of compassion. And he is the God of all comfort.
All true, substantial, real comfort comes from God. When the world around us in unfair and unjust. When bad things happen to good people while good things happen to bad people, the world around us can offer no comfort, and no explanation and no answer. But when we come to know God we realise that one day he will judge all people. No-one will get away with it, justice will be done.
When life is hard and trouble comes, the world has no real answers, the best it can do is distract us. But when we come to know God, he brings real comfort, because he tells us that this life is not all there is. After we die, we will live again. And if we believe and trust in Jesus now, then in that life we will live in heaven forever.
Our God is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. And God shows us his compassion and he comforts us in at least three ways. Firstly God brings us comfort through…
1) His Word. God's Word, the Bible, shows us the truth about God and ourselves and our world, and that brings comfort. Secondly God comforts us through…
2) His Spirit. God's Spirit lives inside every Christian. And he comforts us by reminding us of the truth. And finally God shows us his comfort and compassion through…
3) His People. And that's Paul's final point…
God comforts us so that we can comfort others
Look at vv 3-4…
"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."
If we know God's comfort, if we have received comfort from the Father of compassion, then we are able, and commanded, to comfort others.
Maybe you've been through a hard time in your life? Maybe there have been seasons in your life when you've had to remind yourself of the promises of Scripture and cling onto the truths that you know.
"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want," Psalm 23. God will never tempt us beyond what we can bear, 1 Corinthians 10. God "works all things together for the good of those who love him", Romans 8. The God who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion, Phil 1.
Maybe there have been times in your life when you have received support and help from Christian brothers and sisters around you? Well if that's you, then Paul says God has prepared you to bring his comfort to others. God comforts us so that we can comfort others. And in my experience those who bring the most comfort to others are those who have received the most comfort from others.
Suffering and comfort are a normal part of normal Christian lives. Our God is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. And God comforts us so that we can comfort others.
Now the question is, why is Paul reminding them of all these truths? Why does he start his letter this way? Well, I think the answer is in vv 8-11. Look at vv 8-9a…
"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."
Just a few months earlier Paul and Timothy had suffered greatly in the city of Ephesus. After 3 years of faithfully preaching about Jesus the opposition against them had become so fierce that they truly thought they were going to die.
And that there was nothing they could do to save themselves. They had suffered greatly.
But they had also been comforted, vv 9-10…
"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..."
When they realised that they couldn't save themselves it reminded them that God could save them. That God is in the business of saving people. Of bringing peple from death to life. So they relied on him and were comforted by the truth. But that's not all.
Because when they fled from Ephesus they ran to Macedonia, and they met Titus. And Titus brought them news that the Christians in Corinth were praying for them, vv 10b-11…
"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."
Despite the painful second visit and the hard letter that he had sent them, the Corinthian Christians still loved Paul and supported Paul and prayed for Paul. And that brought him comfort.
Suffering and comfort are a normal part of a normal Christian life. But our God is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. And he comforts us so that we can comfort others. And that's just what Paul and Timothy had experienced, from the Corinthians themselves.
2 Corinthians is a fascinating letter, built upon a fascinating relationship between the Paul and this church. And I hope this morning that I've managed to make you excited about us studying it for the rest of this term.
But I also hope that we've seen something of how God wants to use us in each other's lives. If you are a Christian and you know God's comfort, then God wants you to bring his comfort to others. Are you doing that? Will you do that this week?