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Celebrating God’s Comfort in the midst of Suffering!

July 19, 2010, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Pastor Daniel Tan (2 Corinthians 1:1-11) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: 2 Corinthians
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: 2 Corinthians, 哥林多后书

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Sermon on 2 Corinthians 1:1-11

From this Sunday onwards, we will begin a new series of sermon based on Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Most of us are more familiar with Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians because it has often been preached on the Sunday’s pulpits, for it touches on many issues that the church in Corinth were facing that we are asked to guard against. Problems such as disunity among the Christian community, various factions promoting their leaders, immorality of its members, and their taking pride of the visible spiritual gifts as badges of spiritual maturity. As such, we tend to learn more from Paul’s harsh criticism and his instruction from this first letter. But what about Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians? To know its significance, we need to go back to the historical background of the city of Corinth and Paul’s purpose of writing this second letter.

Corinth was an ancient Greek city. But it had been totally destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C., and the site lay unused for a hundred years. It was then rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. as a Roman city and later became the capital of the Roman province of Achaia. So, when Paul first visited Corinth in A.D. 50, it was just over ninety years old with a population of some 80,000. Yet, during its short history Corinth had become the third most important city of the Roman Empire, behind Alexandria and Rome itself. Corinth as a commercial bridge between the East and the West, it attracted immigrants, merchants and opportunists, from all areas around the Mediterranean seeking for a better life. So, it is not surprising also to find a substantial Jewish community residing in Corinth. Paul therefore, in accordance with his normal practice to evangelize the gentiles, began his mission visit in Corinth in A.D 50.

As Corinth was a young Roman city with its inhabitants came from a diversity of background, it thus retained many of the social customs and religious beliefs practiced by its various immigrants from different places. Also, as a young Roman city, the society was relatively open. There was no city in the Roman Empire more conducive to advancement than Corinth. Because there was no landed aristocracy in Corinth, wealth became the sole factor for respect and power. A New Testament scholar summarizes Corinth as a free-wheeling boom town, filled with materialism, pride, and the self-confidence that comes from its residents who have made it and became rich in this new place and with a new social identity. In other words, by worshipping wealth its residents had this self-made-man ethos, the “I-did-it-my-way” pride. This presents a formidable challenge to Paul’s misfortune life experience and his simple Gospel message.

In his first visit to Corinth in A.D 50, Paul had stayed there for a year and a half for his evangelistic mission. When he had left Corinth, the church was functioning smoothly and was well-grounded theologically. But less than two years later, it had lost its love for the Gospel, had lost its witness in this religious pluralistic society, and was on the point of breaking apart. Paul thus responded to the church crisis by writing to its congregation what we now know as his first letter to the Corinthians. After reading this first letter, it seemed that Christians at Corinth had taken Paul’s criticisms to heart, and had implemented many of his instructions. But at about this time, the Corinthian congregation had been infiltrated by a group of teachers from Palestine. They claimed to be Christians, emphasized their pure Israelite descent, and presented themselves as true “servants of righteousness”. Basically, they persuaded some of the Corinthians that the Mosaic Law was still operative. Paul referred them as “false apostles”, whose influence threatened to destroy altogether his teaching and his relationship with the Corinthians. Paul thus urged the church to reject them. As a result, Paul was attacked by them in terms of his personal, spiritual and even his apostolic office. Paul dispatched Timothy to look after this trouble, but was unsuccessful. Thus, Paul found it necessary to make a brief, second visit himself which he called a very painful visit to Corinth in A.D.55. Still his second painful visit did not resolve the crisis. Paul left Corinth wounded and devastated.

Paul went back to Ephesus and later travelled to Macedonia, where he wrote what we now know as his second letter to the Corinthians. It was a letter of great emotion. Nowhere is Paul’s heart so torn and exposed as in this letter. “For I wrote to you,” says Paul, “out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2:4). So, we can learn much more about Paul himself and his relations with the Corinth congregation from this letter than from any other of his letters. We see him responding to many different situations and so understand better the kind of person he was. In other words, we meet the human Paul rather than the Paul of Christian legend. We should remember that he faced terrible strains of the possibility of a partial or total failure of his work in Corinth.

With this historical background in mind, we see the purpose of Paul’s opening two-verse greeting to the Corinthians. He leaves no uncertainty as to what he is about to write, namely, to preserve his apostleship and to preserve the church. He addresses himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, emphasizing that his call had come from the risen Christ on the Damascus road. And still more, he was the apostle by the will of God, stressing that God did play an important part by making him the sent one as an apostle of Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul leaves no doubt to the Corinthians that Christ is the one responsible for sending him, and God is the one who has made this sending possible. So, to reject the authority of the one who is an apostle of Christ Jesus in accordance with God’s will is to reject the authority of God Himself. Anyone who would dare to buck Paul’s authority had, in effect, challenged God. As an apostle of Christ Jesus in accordance with God’s will, Paul therefore must preserve the right teaching of the church which belongs to God. So, “the church of God” must listen to the “apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God”.

As we read along this letter, we see the most compelling defense of Paul’s apostolic ministry extending from the middle of Chapter 2 and continues to the beginning of Chapter 7 (2:14-7:4). Then again from chapters 10-13, they are essentially Paul’s defense of his apostolic authority with final warnings to the Corinthians. But Paul’s basic plea to accept his legitimacy as an apostle of Christ Jesus even begins earlier in today’s beginning verses 3-11. He begins his letter by praising God for his weakness and suffering, the very thing his opponents call his ministry into question. For them, the suffering and weakness that characterized Paul’s life were evidenced that he was not an apostle. If he was the real thing, he would not be experiencing so much trouble. Paul’s answer was that abundant suffering and abundant comfort are in fact signs of apostolic authenticity. Paul views his suffering as an opportunity to celebrate God’s comfort given to him in the midst of adversity. Thus, he praises God as the God of all comfort. I therefore entitled today sermon: Celebrating God’s comfort in the midst of suffering! From this title, we come direct to the first point of Paul’s understanding, namely, suffering opens the door for Christians to experience God’s comforting power.

(1) Suffering opens the door for Christians to experience God’s comforting power.

As I had mentioned before, with its worship of self-made wealth and power, the residents of this new Roman Corinth would certainly view a person’s weakness and suffering as signs of failure in life. No successful person would like to embrace the theology of suffering and weakness. So, for them Paul’s unending suffering and his weakness certainly cast doubt on his apostolic power. They may have thought that God would have richly blessed him if he were doing what God wanted. Thus, we see Paul’s claim of his apostleship has been challenged from both inside and outside the Corinthian church. But Paul insists that his suffering is equally matched by God’s comfort to him. As such, Paul brings honor to God as the one who has shown Himself in and through his afflictions to be the God of all comfort. The word “comfort” in its noun and verb forms is repeated ten times in verses 3 to 7. So, we see Paul’s intentionality is immense!

What does Paul mean by God’s comfort? For us, we may think of comfort as an emotional relief, a sense of well-being, satisfaction or freedom from pain and anxiety. Others may think of comfort in terms of “sympathy”, but sympathy very often weakens us instead of strengthening us. The English word comfort actually comes from two Latin words meaning “with strength”. The Greek word means “to come alongside and help”. It is the same word used for the Holy Spirit (“the Comforter”) in John 14-16. The word comfort thus brings two images together. The first is the image of someone coming alongside. And in that coming alongside, we bring courage. So, we see God’s comfort is not that God would pat us on our head and give us a piece of candy or a toy to distract our attention from troubles. Neither is God’s comfort to take away instantly the problem or trouble we are experiencing. Rather, when we go through trials, God comes by our side to give us strength and encourage us. The greatest comfort we can have in life is to know that we never face it alone. We may be in the darkest of valleys; abandoned by everyone else, nowhere else to turn, and all hope lost; but we will never be alone. Remember we will always have our heavenly Father, God of all comfort, to come alongside. His comfort may not remove our sufferings, nor assure us that everything will turn out all right in the end; but rather it brings us the strength, encouragement and hope to deal with our difficulties. Remember Psalm 23:4:

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
So, for Paul, he knew that every time he suffered he was comforted, and the comfort was more wonderful than the suffering was terrifying. His own receipt of God’s comfort in the midst of affliction has certainly benefited him in term of his spiritual life. Furthermore, his suffering was a sign to him that he was truly serving Christ, and it confirmed his faith in God of all comfort. Perhaps a fable could be used to illustrate Paul’s view of suffering and God’s comfort:

The sun and the wind were having a contest to see who was the stronger. There was a man walking down the street with his coat on and the wind said, “I can blow his coat off.” So the wind began to blow. But the harder the wind blow, the tighter the man wrapped his coat around him. Instead, the wind almost blew the man away. The sun said, “Now it’s my turn to try.” The sun shone down so warm and nice that the man eventually took his coat off. The sun accomplished what the wind could not do. How does this apply to our Christian lives? Generally, the wind of adversity won’t take us away from God. Of course there are Christians who turn away from God in time of adversity. When the wind begins to blow, when it gets rough and tough, we turn to our heavenly Father who can comfort us. However, we may be in a dangerous situation when things are going too well for us. When the sun is shining, we have it too easy for we feel ‘comfortable’. We may unknowingly remove the robe of righteousness that Christ wants us to put on, and we begin to compromise with the value system of this world.

When I talked about the new city of Roman Corinth which achieved its great prosperity within a short span of ninety years after it was rebuilt, did it ring a bell for you to compare our modern Singapore with this new city of Corinth? This year we are celebrating our 45th year of independence. Within such a short period of time, even faster than the city of Corinth, we have achieved in many areas to become a developed nation. We are always urged to be productive, to go for higher technological advancement and to be competitive, there is in fact no room for weakness and failure if we want to survive in this tough global environment. Thus, wealth equals to success has become the motto of our lives, especially to the younger generation who have never experienced hardship in lives before. It is thus not surprising that Christians welcome wholeheartedly the preaching of the gospel of health and wealth, as if they are concrete evidences of God’s true blessing. Is there any room for Paul’s teaching nowadays that his suffering and weakness had in fact afforded his spiritual refreshment, and he praised God for that? (Octopus ‘Paul’ should be more welcomed than Apostle Paul by a lot of people, for it would make them rich. Nevertheless, it could not please everybody.) If Paul, God’s apostle, experienced so much distress in carrying out his commission, then we can see that God does not promise prosperity or instant gratification even to the most devoted person. Do you know why the Romans call Jupiter their best and greatest god? Not because he makes them just and wise; but safe, secure and well-supplied. For Paul, the gospel does not ride on health and wealth but on weakness. The gospel does not need the front pages of many successful Christians’ testimonies to substantiate its truth. For Paul, there is no place for God’s surpassing power of comfort to be manifested but in the midst of afflictions.

(2) The experience of God’s comfort enables Christians to trust God alone and endure suffering patiently.

Yes, when we experience discouragement, suffering or affliction, it is in those times that we discover what God’s comforting power can do for us. Paul now uses his own suffering experience to bring out his second point: that the experience of God’s comfort (deliverance) would indeed enable Christians to trust God alone and to endure suffering patiently. He made reference to his hardships in verses 8 and 9 when he says, “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.” There is much debate as to what these hardships consisted of. Paul did not provide any details about this particular incident though he did list some of his hardships in 11:23-29. Whatever it was, it came to him in the course of his mission and because of it. Whatever it was, it was an experience that almost overcame his faith. Paul reckoned his position to be like a man whose request for mercy had been denied and was condemned to die. So despair and futile did the situation appear that when deliverance occurred, it was tantamount to God’s display of His resurrection power: “God, who raises the dead…delivered us”. We know as little about the deliverance as we know about the danger. All we know is that Paul saw it as the direct action of God. As such, he learned an important lesson from it. He understood the purpose of this near-death experience was to substitute dependence on God for reliance on self: “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God”. God’s deliverance of Paul in this particular incident thus established his confidence in the deliverance to come as he emphasized three times in verse 10 of the word ‘deliver’: 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. Even so, Paul could not presume on God’s intervention, he therefore requested the Corinthians’ assistance by their prayer for his future deliverances from the clutches of death.

Here we see another form of God’s help in time of Christians’ affliction: His deliverance. But Paul’s purpose is not to highlight the difference or his preference between God’s comfort and His deliverance. Paul is not saying that God’s deliverance is always better, and more superior to His comfort. Rather, he is urging the Corinthians not to depend upon oneself in times of affliction, but to trust God alone. As long as we have hope in God, we may continue to trust Him in the midst of our adversities. God will certainly come to us either in the form of comfort or deliverance. It is up to the sovereign will of God. But Paul’s emphasis in today passage is actually on the comforting power of God for he says in verse 6 that God’s comfort can indeed produce in them patience endurance of the same sufferings he has gone through. Truly, Paul’s ability to endure patiently through multiple afflictions was due to the comforting power of God that he had experienced. So, now he is telling the Corinthians to endure likewise for he knows that they are in the midst of suffering as well. Paul does not describe their sufferings as Christians, but other parts of the New Testament supply some clues of what they may have been, such as: riots (Acts 17:5-9; 19:28-41), false accusations in court (1 Peter 4:15-16), imprisonment (Heb. 13:3), homes and businesses broken up (Heb.10:32-34). Paul knows the Corinthians are worried by their sufferings. So, he wants them to realize the marvelous reward suffering brings in God’s comfort. This in return will help them to endure their present sufferings patiently and to trust God alone.

Yes, brothers and sisters, times of suffering might hurt, but by God’s comfort, they will not cause us to break. God’s comforting power will help us to endure patiently in times of suffering for it brings us the strength, encouragement and hope to deal with our difficulties. So, endurance is not some super human power that can help us to last through hard times, but something that comes from God and is focused on God. God’s assurance of comfort mediated through Christ in time of adversities is well explained by Joni Eareckson Tada, who was paralyzed from the neck down while still a teenager. She wrote,

“You don’t have to be alone in your hurt! Comfort is yours. Joy is an option. And it’s all been made possible by your Savior. He went without comfort so you might have it. He postponed joy so you might share in it. He willingly chose isolation so you might never be alone in your hurt and sorrow.” (Joni Eareckson Tada, Christian Reader, Vol.32, no.2)

(3) The experience of God’s comfort in our suffering qualifies, equips and obliges us to comfort others in the midst of their suffering.

Paul’s experience has taught him that God comforts him so that he can be a comfort to others. His suffering of affliction and endurance of trail ultimately benefitted the Corinthians in that he was thereby equipped to administer divine encouragement to them when they were afflicted. This is the third point in Paul’s message: The experience of God’s comfort in our suffering qualifies, equips and obliges us to comfort others in the midst of their suffering. Yes, God’s comfort is not intended to stop with us. In other words, God expects us to pass it on! Someone (John Jowett) has said it correctly that God does not comfort us to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters. Paul was reassuring the Corinthians that he understood what they were going through and what they were feeling, and he let them know he had experienced the same pain and the same feeling. So, now he sought to give them the comfort he himself had received from God.

Isn’t it an irony? The Corinthians may have cast doubt on Paul’s sufficiency as an apostle because he was a victim of such great suffering. But Paul’s inordinate suffering is met by a super abundance of God’s comfort that makes him more than sufficient to shower divine comfort upon them. On his own, Paul cannot comfort anyone. The source of comfort comes from God, and it merely flows through him. Paul is not the source of comfort for the Corinthians, but as Christ’s apostle, he is the relay station. Thus, Paul is telling them that their lives and his are inescapably intertwined, so that what impacts him impacts the Corinthians; and what impacts the Corinthians impacts him. It is because they all share in the fellowship of Christ. Thus, in verses 6 and 7 he says, “If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort…just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort”. In other words, whether he suffered afflictions or received comfort, the advantage remained the same for the Corinthians. They would receive the divine strength to enable them to endure patiently the same type of trial that confronted Paul.

But, brothers and sisters, please don’t conclude from today passage that Paul is calling all Christians to suffer alike. Nor should we assign a higher degree of spirituality to those who suffer more than others. If so, we will be swinging to the other extreme exalting suffering in contrast to worshipping wealth as the other extreme. In the providence of God, some Christians live significantly more peaceful and healthy lives than others. But for some, they might have to go through certain hardship in lives. Paul’s message of God’s comforting power would certainly encourage those who are presently facing difficulties in lives. In addition, God would use you to extend His comfort to others who would be going through the same difficulty such as yours. In any way, life especially for Christians is not meant to be easy. We can reasonably expect suffering and hardship because we follow Christ, and this world and the people around us are not perfect. Neither are we perfect. We cannot legitimately expect everything to go our own way. So, how can we experience God’s comfort in the midst of affliction? *

First, we can experience God’s comfort when other Christians express their care for us. Suffering becomes an unbearable burden when we feel alone and abandoned. In this second letter to the Corinthians, we see the wounded heart of Paul as some of the Corithians were on the verge of deserting him. Coupled with the terrible affliction he experienced in Asia, Paul was driven into great despair. But sometime later God comforted him with the news from Titus that the Corinthians in fact felt a deep longing and keen concern for him.

Secondly, we experience God’s comfort by caring for others even when we are in the midst of suffering. Sometimes the sudden onslaught of affliction may tempt one to retreat into a shell, to shut oneself off from others. But as Paul told us, as long as we put our focus on God and not on ourselves in the midst of afflictions, we could then turn our pain to helping others. Eventually we would be able to conquer that pain. We could do so because by setting our hope on God and trust his mighty power, we ourselves would experience God’s comfort given to us. At the same time, we are definitely able to help and comfort others by sharing our experiences. Paul knew how to encourage because he knew what it was like to be discouraged. He knew how to comfort because he knew what it was like to feel unbearably crushed.

Thirdly, we can also experience God’s comfort by witnessing its power in the lives of others. Someone (Colin Kruse) reminds us, “The testimony of God’s grace in one’s life is a forceful reminder to others of God’s ability and willingness to provide the grace and strength they need”. Indeed, it is a great comfort to see those undergoing trouble reaching out to comfort others.

Sir Edmund Hillary and his Nepalese guide, Tenzing Norgay, were the first people to make the historic climb of Mount Everest in 1953. Coming down from the mountain peak, Sir Edmund suddenly lost his footing. Tenzing held the line taut and kept them both from falling by digging his ax into the ice. Later Tenzing refused any special credit for saving Sir Edmund’s life. He considered it a routine part of the job. As he puts it, mountain climbers always help each other! Yes, brothers and sisters, it is always better to view our Christian journey as mountain climbing than running a race. It is not a normal practice or a routine to see runners stop to help the one who stumbled and fell. But not so for mountain climbers, no individual climber can reach the mountain top by his own effort. Mountain climbers need to help each other, and to encourage one another in order for all of them to reach the mountain top, safely together. Yes, brothers and sisters, God’s comforting grace must not stop with us. He always gives us surplus, and He intends it to overflow to others. Remember “God does not comfort us to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters”!
*(3 ways of experiencing God’s comfort are taken from The New American Commentary: 2 Corinthians by David E. Garland.)

2 Corinthians 1:1–11 (Listen)

1:1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 11 You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.

(ESV)