A new Christian tells some friends for the first time about his faith and they ridicule him. Why does God allow that? Christian parents see one of their children drawn away from Christ at school or university. Why does God allow that? An unbelieving bishop hounds a pastor out of his home and his church out of their building. Why does God allow that? I could put real names to each example.
Surely those things shouldn’t happen if you’re on God’s side. That’s what the Corinthians thought – the people to whom Paul wrote two of the letters in the New Testament (NT). The Corinthians expected Christian life and ministry to be a story of strength and success. Whereas Paul’s was a story of weakness and suffering (see 2 Corinthians 4.7-18, 6.3-10, 11.23-12.10). And that clash between what they expected, and what they got in Paul their pastor, is the main problem he tackles in 2 Corinthians.
So would you turn to 2 Corinthians 1.1. We’re starting a sermon series on 2 Corinthians. It wasn’t just written to a church back then. We believe God guided Paul to write this not just to them, but also for us. So each week, we’ll be asking, ‘What was going on back then that led Paul to write?’ and then, ‘What is God saying through it to us, today?’ So, 2 Corinthians 1.1:
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 [ie, Christians] throughout Achaia [the region around Corinth]. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (vv1-2)
What’s the story so far? Paul had planted this church and then moved on. He soon heard there were problems. And the main problem was what they thought of him. They thought Christian life and ministry should be a story of strength and success. Whereas Paul was the very opposite. He wasn’t a powerful speaker (see 10.10). He tended to get lynched by the crowds rather than win them (eg, Acts 14.19-20). And most embarrassing of all, he was in and out of prison for what he preached (eg, Acts 16.22-24). Now, is that your ideal Vicar? Is this the man you want to take your daughter’s wedding? So some in the church began to say, ‘Should we really accept his leadership?’ So Paul wrote 1 Corinthians (and tackled a few other issues while he was at it – like sex and marriage, spiritual gifts and the resurrection).
He followed up 1 Corinthians with a visit which turned out very painfully (see 2.1). They basically rejected him. So he left Corinth, wrote a severe letter of correction (what Bertie Wooster would have called ‘a stinker’) and sent Titus to deliver it. Lucky old Titus. But turn over to chapter 7, v6, to see what effect that letter had. 2 Corinthians 7.6:
For when we came into Macedonia, this body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn - conflicts on the outside, fears within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever. Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it… (2 Corinthians 7.6)
Ie, that severe letter did some relationship-mending. But Paul knew he still had to get into their heads the right expectations about Christian life and ministry - that far from being a story of strength and success, it’s often a story of weakness and suffering. And so he wrote 2 Corinthians. And God’s power working through our weakness is perhaps the main theme. And we’re going to look at chapter 1, vv3-11, under three headings:
1. The reason for Christian suffering 2. The relief in Christian suffering 3. The result of Christian suffering
Firstly, THE REASON FOR CHRISTIAN SUFFERING
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. (vv3-4)
Now the first thing to work out is what Paul means by ‘all our troubles’ and ‘any trouble’. At first sight you might think it meant any kind of suffering at all – like health problems, disappointments, relationships going wrong, bereavement. And much of this part of God’s Word does speak to all kinds of suffering in our lives.
But in the first place, Paul had in mind a more specific kind of suffering. And we know that because of v5. Look at v5:
For [ie, ‘Let me explain what kind of troubles I’m on about…’] just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
So, what Paul has in mind are ‘the sufferings of Christ’ which ‘flow over into our lives’ if we’re Christians. So what does that mean?
Well, the sufferings of Christ means the rejection he experienced, that ultimately led to his death on the cross. Now the worst thing the Lord Jesus suffered was being utterly cut off from God as he died under the punishment that our sins deserve. And he suffered that in order that you and I might never suffer that. If you’re a believer, that part of the sufferings of Christ will never overflow into your life – you are forgiven everything because he was punished for everything. If you’re not yet a believer, that’s the heart of Christianity: God’s Son died so that you could be forgiven back into the relationship with him for which you were made.
But if we side with Christ in a world that rejects him, we’ll suffer rejection too. The world then didn’t like Jesus telling it the truth about God and challenging it by the way he lived. And the world now won’t like it if we do the same. The new Christian I mentioned at the start told his friends about his faith at a get-together in the pub. He didn’t get drunk for the first time since they’d known him and they didn’t like it. Didn’t want to be evangelised. Didn’t want to be challenged by a different way of living. So he got it in the neck. The sufferings of Christ overflowed into his life. And if you’re a Christian, they’ll overflow into yours too. Just like Jesus said:
‘ If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross…’ [ie, accept rejection] (Mark 8.34)
And most of us here could give plenty of examples – from the classroom, the staff room, from non-Christian colleagues and family members; not to mention the pressure we’re under as a church in this denomination; and the pressure we could all be under if legislation in this country becomes more anti-Christian.
So there is the suffering of being rejected by unbelievers. But there’s also the suffering of the burden of concern for those very same unbelievers. Do you remember how the Lord Jesus looked over the city of Jerusalem as he entered it for one of the last times, and he wept over the very people who rejected him - burdened about their eternal destiny. More concerned about where they were going in eternity than where he was about to go on the cross. And that suffering overflows into our lives, too. At the end of 2 Corinthians after he’s made a list of all he’s suffered for Christ, Paul says this:
Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11.28; see also Romans 9.1f)
And if you’re a believer, you’ll be able to identify with that. The pressure of concern that your husband or wife, or your children or parents, or your brother or sister, or a friend or acquaintance, might believe and be saved. The pressure of concern for Christians in tough places that they’ll continue to believe – like students, especially international students, leaving us for sometimes hostile homes and home countries. And even if people aren’t causing us pain by rejecting the gospel unpleasantly, I think it’s the worst pain to bear - simply to know that they are rejecting the gospel and therefore rejecting eternal salvation. It’s a terrible thing to be conscious that people are heading for hell.
So that’s the specific kind of suffering Paul had in mind. It’s what I’ve called Christian suffering. We’re not immune to all the other suffering in this fallen world. But in addition we face these specifically Christian sufferings. And Paul explains that so that we don’t have expectations of Christian life and ministry that leave us disillusioned. If we side with Christ in a world that rejects him, his sufferings will overflow into our lives. We need to expect that as Christians. And we need to be up-front about that in our witness. We’re not Christians because it makes life easier. It doesn’t. We’re not Christians because it solves all our problems. It actually adds some. We’re Christians because Jesus died and rose for us and he is Lord and he deserves our allegiance come what may.
The reason for Christian suffering. Then,
Second, THE RELIEF IN CHRISTIAN SUFFERING
Just skip down to v8:
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. 9Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. (vv8-9)
Paul suffered for the Lord almost unbelievably. By the time 2 Corinthians was written, he’d been stoned and left for dead (Acts 14.19-20); he’d undergone punishment beatings; he’d been in and out of prison(eg, Acts 16.22-24). And there was a Jewish plot to kill him. He must have felt like Salman Rushdie after publishing The Satanic Verses, when Islam declared a death-sentence on him. Paul suffered almost unbelievably. Yet look at v3 again:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our troubles…
So we need to ask how exactly Paul found that comfort – and how we can find it, too. Well turn over again to 7.5:
For when we came into Macedonia, this body of ours had no rest, but we were harassed at every turn - conflicts on the outside, fears within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus… (7.5-6)
Notice v6: God comforted us… by the coming of Titus. God uses human means: just the presence of another Christian, for Paul to talk to, pray with, just have there so he’s not facing his troubles alone. The moral of that is that some of us are too ‘super-spiritual’ and underestimate our need for other believers (as opposed to just our ‘Quiet Times’). Equally, some of us underestimate our ability to meet the needs of other believers in this way. It doesn’t matter if you can’t solve their problems (much of what causes our suffering is in many ways insoluble – that’s part of the problem), or think of anything helpful or expert to say; just being there is comfort. But then read on, 7.6:
But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, not only by his coming but also by the comfort you had given him. He told us about your longing for me, your deep sorrow, your ardent concern for me, so that my joy was greater than ever. (7.6-7)
So it wasn’t just Titus’ being there that comforted Paul, but his news from Corinth. The moral of that is that against the background of all the bad news of a world rejecting Christ, we must concentrate on the good news of what God is doing. The rejection – whether apathetic or active – shouldn’t surprise us (although it’s bound to grieve us). We must take the rejection as read – that’s simply the way this world is, since the fall. What we must then do is to relish and share every piece of news we can about people coming to faith and growing in faith and sticking up for Christ, and the gospel getting out.
So God uses human means to comfort us, but there’s also the more direct comfort of our relationship with him. Look at v5 again:
For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.
Being in relationship with Christ brings additional suffering. But it also brings real comfort. Because his cross is not just a sign of his rejection – in which we share. It’s a demonstration of his love (see Romans 5.5-8; 8.32). And whatever circumstances we’re going through, we need to kick the habit of trying to ‘read off’ our circumstances how much God does or doesn’t love us. You know how we tend to think, ‘I’ve failed this exam, therefore God doesn’t love me.’ Or, ‘I can’t find a job, therefore God doesn’t love me.’ ‘Such and such has happened, therefore God doesn’t love me.’ We need to kick that habit and say, ‘Jesus died for me on the cross, therefore God does love me – totally and in a way he’ll never change. And even if I can’t understand how he’s loving me today by allowing my circumstances, I need to trust that he’s loving me today and working out my circumstances for my good (see Romans 8.28-30 and 8.35-39). There’s real comfort in the death of Jesus.
And there’s also real comfort in his resurrection - which tells us there is a new life beyond this fallen world where there are no funerals, no hospitals, no broken relationships, no unfulfilled desires. And if we’re trusting in Jesus, we’re going there. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, ‘It is not suffering that crushes the human spirit, but suffering without hope.’ And we have the certain, solid hope of a new life beyond death, opened up for us and made known to us through Jesus’ resurrection (see 1 Peter 1.3f). One day, thank God, we’ll be out of here. Because in many ways it’s a horrible place, isn’t it?
That’s the relief in Christian suffering.
Third and finally, THE RESULT OF CHRISTIAN SUFFERING
When we suffer, we naturally ask, ‘Why?’ And we’ve seen part of the answer: side with Christ in a world that rejects him, and we’ll suffer the same rejection that he did. And I called that ‘The reason for Christian suffering’ – the explanation at a human level of why it happens.
But there is another part to the answer. At the divine level, God has a purpose for allowing Christians to suffer, just like he had a purpose for allowing his own Son to suffer for us. So I’ve called this ‘The result of Christian suffering’. And these verses mention two results God wants to bring about in us by allowing suffering in our lives.
• Result no.1 is that he wants to make us comforters of others. Back to v3 again:
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.
Why has God allowed each of us to suffer in the ways we have, or the ways we currently are? Your depression or unemployment or bereavement or family troubles or childlessness or whatever it is that’s been your struggle – perhaps your mainly private struggle? The answer is: to make you a comforter. To give you the experience of being comforted - by other believers and directly by God himself – so you can comfort others. After the worst time of my life, a friend of mine, now also in full-time ministry, talked to me. And I remember he said all the right things, but just not quite in the right way (if you know what I mean). And I said that to another friend, Giles, who I knew had faced some pretty hard times of his own. And Giles very shrewdly said, ‘Perhaps it’s because he’s never been hurt.’ It wasn’t a criticism of this other friend. Just a fact.
God… comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.
He allows our suffering to make us into comforters of others – often tailor-made comforters. What you’ve been through, what you’re going through now, means you have a ministry to others which no-one else can have. Do exercise it, for others’ sake. • Result no.2 is that God wants us to rely on him Look down to v8 again:
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 [so] that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (vv8-9)
I’m sure, like me, that you’ve asked yourself, ‘Why doesn’t God make life easier?’ But often, what we’re really asking is, ‘Why doesn’t God put me in circumstances where I don’t have to trust him so much.?’ It’s the old sinful tendency to rely on myself, rather than him. And so he gives us humanly impossible commitments like marriage; or humanly impossible responsibilities like parenthood or evangelism; or humanly impossible circumstances like raising £800,000 to buy 3 Osborne Rd. So that we have to trust him Verse 9:
[so] that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.
God in his kindness as our heavenly Father keeps engineering our lives so that we have to rely on him. And one of the signs we’re doing that is that we pray and ask for prayer, like Paul does. Look at v10:
[God] 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.
Many of you prayed for me as I spoke on those university missions last term. And I put out those prayer cards at a time when I felt, like v8, under great pressure. I didn’t quite despair of life, but preparation was going badly, I was going down with a cold and I certainly despaired of doing a good job. I think I put on those cards that I was feeling ‘excited but daunted’ – which is a British way of saying, ‘I’m beginning to panic! Please help me by your prayers!’ But that was just another example of God engineering circumstances to get me relying on him. And isn’t it good when God gets us to that point? It’s a great place to be – relying fully on God. I had the most pressurised and yet most peaceful three weeks of the year during those missions. It’s such a blessing when, as one writer puts it, ‘However choppy the seas around us, there is peace on the bridge of the ship of our life, because we’re relying on God.’ And to follow Paul’s example, I put out a second prayer-card of news about how it had all gone, so that, like it says in v11: Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many. So let’s welcome the pressures we’re under – because God is engineering circumstances to get us relying on him, which is not only right, but it’s also best for us. Because self-reliance spells stress and worry. Because self-reliance is really about us pretending to be God – pretending to be in control of our lives, pretending we have the strength and wisdom to cope - which is very stressful when you’re not God! And let’s ask for prayer and keep track of the answers like Paul did. So next time in Home Group when you’re about to say ‘Pass’ during prayer-request time, ask yourself the question, ‘Who am I relying on? Who am I kidding that I don’t need any prayer right now?’ To sum up: we’ve seen: • The reason for Christian suffering – siding with Christ in a Christ-rejecting world. • The relief in Christian suffering – God’s comfort – through others, and direct from our relationship with him. • And the result of Christian suffering. God is out to make us comforters of others, and to get us relying on him and not ourselves.
That’s how 2 Corinthians starts. If it’s whet your appetite to make maximum use of this series, you might like to read the excellent little book, the Bible Speaks Today volume on 2 Corinthians (by Paul Barnett, IVP). It’d be 10 or 15 pages a week.