Where Does Comfort Come From

| 2 Corinthians 1:3-11

Week of February 16, 2020

The Point:  As God comforts us, we are to comfort others.

God of All Comfort:  2 Corinthians 1:3-11.

[3] Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, [4] 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. [5] For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. [6] 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. [7] Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. [8] For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. [9] 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]

“Blessed be God [1:3-7].  What Paul writes here is a direct commentary on his own personal circumstances. In the midst of acute suffering [1:8-9] Paul had experienced the comfort of God, and for this he devoutly declared his blessing on the Father of mercies and God of all comfort [3]. He was also locked in a fierce debate with the Judaizing ‘apostles’ who proclaimed what Paul calls ‘another Jesus’. It was important for him to establish at the outset that God, the God of the Old Testament and of the Jews, was the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ [3]. Let those Corinthians who were succumbing to the Judaizing influence understand that God is able to be known as Father only as they acknowledge Jesus to be God’s Son and their Lord. Their understanding of Jesus’ relationship with God profoundly affected their own relationship with God. To reject Jesus as Lord would be to repudiate God as Father. Paul’s blessing of God is tightly packed with interlocking ideas, three of which we now examine. A. Christ’s sufferings carry over to us. In writing we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings [5], Paul is teaching that some kind of solidarity exists between Christ and His people. Jesus foresaw that both He and His followers would suffer. I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered [Mark 14:27]. He was referring not only to the events of the evening of His arrest but also to the scattering of His followers throughout the whole period until His return. Moreover, He taught that He and His followers were one in ministry both received and withheld. Referring to the future withholding of food, clothing and care from His ‘brothers’ the disciples, he said, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me [Matt. 25:45]. Paul had good reason to understand this. After Paul had heaped suffering on the believers, the risen Lord asked him, Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? [Acts 9:4]. This understanding of the solidarity of Christians with Christ in His suffering is by no means confined to Paul. Peter told his readers in Asia Minor to rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings [1 Peter 4:13]. The messianic age began with the coming of Jesus; but it is an age marked by sufferings – His own and those of His people. In this short paragraph the verbs and nouns for comfort (which presupposes suffering) occur ten times, for affliction three times and for suffering four times. Directly or indirectly, suffering is referred to seventeen times in five verses! But to which suffering is he referring? Paul had in mind, in particular, what he called affliction [4]. The Greek word contains the idea of ‘pressure’, the ‘pressure’ which he felt as a result of his ministry. Paul’s challenge to idols and idolatry in Ephesus brought upon him such an oppressive sense of burden that he expected to die as a result of the experience [1:8-9]. His insistence on sincere repentance among the Corinthians led him to write to them out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears [2:4]. While Paul doubtless was as prone to money worries, health problems and relationship conflicts as other people, faithfulness to Christ and to the ministry were the chief source of his troubles. B. God comforts us. God is Father of mercies, which means He is a compassionate Father as well as the source of all compassion. Moreover, He is the God of all comfort something which reminds us of God’s call to Isaiah to comfort, comfort my people [Isa. 40:1]. That this may be a picture of motherly tenderness is implied by God’s words through Isaiah: As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you [Isa. 66:13]. The God of the Greeks, by contrast, was quite indifferent to human pain. This deity, which merely existed, possessed no knowable qualities and exerted no influence in the world. The God who is revealed in the Bible, however, has knowable qualities and is active in His creation. If God is the source of mercy and comfort, Christ is the channel through whom these things come to us. It is through Christ we share abundantly in comfort [5]. This means, as in all our relationships with God, we seek comfort and compassion in the name of Jesus, that is, as Christian believers. Whatever doctrines about Jesus the newcomers were teaching, the apostle made it clear that while all good things have their origin in God, they come to us through Christ. Thus he taught that not only the new creation and reconciliation [5:18] but also comfort and compassion come to us from God, through Christ. C. We are to comfort others. These verses teach us that Christian believers are united both with Christ and with one another. On the one hand, both troubles and comfort come to us through Christ; on the other, we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God [4]. The comfort we receive from God through Christ we are both to give to and receive from one another. God’s comfort, therefore, is not to terminate on the one who receives it. God comforted Paul by the coming of Titus to Macedonia [7:6], just as Titus had previously been comforted by the Corinthians [7:7]. Paul in turn will comfort the Corinthians [6], God’s comfort thus having come full circle, from the Corinthians, through Titus to Paul, back to the Corinthians. The intimacy of relationships in and between the New Testament churches is striking. Because the members knew one another they were able to give and receive comfort. In modern churches we often shrink from those relationships through which the comfort of God could be imparted. How are we to comfort others? Clearly we need to care about others and to be sensitive to their feelings and emotions, to rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep [Rom. 12:15]. If we would be used by God to comfort and encourage, we must be prepared to listen without interruption so as to allow others to express to us their deepest feelings. While all Christian ministry must be directed ultimately to the mind and the will, it will frequently begin with the emotions. Power and weakness, which together represent the unifying theme of this letter, are hinted at in this opening paragraph. All believers, like Paul and the Corinthians, suffer the weakness of troubles through their Christian service. Nevertheless the power of God in His mercies and comfort meets us at our point of need. Great though our sense of weakness may be, the power of God is always greater.  Paul soberly refers to his readers’ sufferings, and he promises, not immediate healing and success, but God’s comfort which they will experience as they patiently endure [6].

God is a deliverer [1:8-11]. The sufferings and troubles of the previous paragraph are now to be expanded upon. He relates to the Corinthians the terrible ordeal he had experienced back in Ephesus and explains how God had delivered him. A. Hardships in Asia. Paul calls what occurred in Ephesus the affliction we experienced in Asia, sometimes he amplifies further as having been utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself [8]. Here the picture is of a ship being weighed down as by the ballast, or of being crushed. Those who have experienced or are familiar with depression will feel that Paul’s imagery has a modern psychological ring to it. Two qualifying phrases add to the severity of the description. The first, utterly means, by implication, ‘that which exceeds’ or ‘surpasses’ description. The second, beyond our strength is literally ‘beyond our power’. The whole phrase could be paraphrased as: ‘We were indescribably, beyond the limits of our power, brought down into the depths.’ We have discussed this phrase in detail for two reasons. First, Paul’s words describe his state of mind at the time of writing so graphically that they warrant a more extensive treatment. Secondly, Paul will use the three key ideas (‘power’, ‘weight’, ‘indescribable’) in important later passages, where, however, he will turn them upside down so as to indicate the surpassing ‘power’ of God, the ‘indescribable’ glory, and the ‘power’ of Christ perfected in weakness [4:7,17; 12:9]. Naturally we would like to know precisely what had happened to Paul in Asia for him to write we despaired of life itself, and we felt that we had received the sentence of death. Our suggestion, and it must remain a suggestion, is that from the experience in Asia, he knew it was only a matter of time before the various forces pitted against him would succeed. By the goodness of God, however, Paul had received a reprieve: God delivered us from such a deadly peril [10]. B. Deliverance. If Paul had received the sentence of death he had also come to rely on God [9] and to set his hope on God [10]. The Greek verbs are in the perfect tense, indicating events in the past with continuing consequences. Thus the ordeal in Asia, whatever it was, still impinged on Paul while also stimulating ongoing reliance and hope in God. We may say that the new, deep awareness of death was accompanied by a new, deep trust in God. Through the experience of utter helplessness Paul had come to a new appreciation of the power of the God who raises the dead [9], referring, that is, to God’s recent deliverance of Paul. The God on whom Paul relied was the living God, the God who continues to act now to deliver His people from dire circumstances. In writing that the experience in Asia was to make him rely on God, Paul shows us that God’s power reached even into those evil circumstances to draw Paul into deeper relationship with himself. Paul’s confidence that God delivered us and that he will deliver us [10] refers both to God’s ultimate deliverance in the great resurrection and also to God’s interim deliverance from day-to-day problems. The interim deliverance has caused Paul to trust God more deeply for the final deliverance when He will raise His people from the dead. We should remember, however, that God’s deliverances in this life are always partial. We may recover from an illness, but there is no way to sidestep our last enemy, death. We are inextricably tangled in the sorrow and suffering of the world, whose form is passing away. Only in the resurrection of the dead is that perfect deliverance. C. Prayer. It is no accident that the references to God’s deliverance of Paul and to prayer are placed side by side. The God who raises the dead and who delivered Paul from such a deadly peril is responsive to prayer. As the Corinthians are united in prayer for Paul they are said to be helping us or ‘working together’ with God [11], though there is no suggestion that God is dependent upon human help or prayers. Nevertheless, Paul envisaged that by your prayers the blessing of deliverance from peril would be granted so that many would give thanks to God. Paul was confident that God, through their united prayers, would do what they in themselves could not do – deliver Paul from trouble. This brief sentence refers both to prayer and to giving thanks, indicating the important and close connection between them. Prayer to God for specific needs is rightly followed by thanksgiving; indeed the one is incomplete without the other. Modern man is so blinded by his technology and his own sense of power that he regards prayer and thanksgiving as weak, useless and a joke. The reality, however, is that everybody is at the mercy of social, political and economic forces. The apprehension that human omnipotence is in fact an illusion is a precondition to the discovery, or rediscovery, of the power of God and of prayer and thanksgiving. Paul’s helplessness in the face of strong forces led him to experience, doubtless through prayer, the power of God to deliver him.” [Barnett, pp. 28-35].

“Some of God’s Purposes in Suffering [1:3-11]. Here and there in the Bible we get significant glimpses of what God may choose to do through our troubles, difficulties and suffering. These glimpses do not provide answers to all our questions, but they give the help and encouragement we need as God’s children to see them through.

Purpose Number One: God comforts us so that we may be able to comfort others [3-4]. Paul’s basic conviction is that God 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. Essential to this conviction is the understanding Paul has, and the teaching he gives, about three aspects of God’s character. First, God is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ [3]. There is but one God, and He is the God who sent His Son to be the Savior. The relationship between the Father and the Son is unique: the Lord Jesus is the Father’s only Son, the supreme object of His pleasure and delight. It is in His Son that the Father provides the perfect revelation of Himself. Every view we have of the Father therefore needs to be totally influenced by the understanding we have of God’s character in His self-revelation in His Son. Second, God is the Father of mercies [3]. Mercy (or compassion) is an essential part of His character and of His self-revelation in both the Old and New Testaments. It expresses God’s sympathy with us in our troubles, difficulties and grief. Third, He is the God of all comfort. As the perfect and compassionate Father, He knows and understands everything that comes to us and is able to send us the comfort we need, whatever our trouble. Comfort is something we receive from God [4]. God is the giving God. It is God’s character to give us the best gifts. He makes sure that help is always on its way, even before we call upon Him for it [Isa. 65:24]. The comfort we receive from God we may later use to comfort others. What God permits to happen to us may be an answer to a prayer and desire to be useful in our Christian lives. Sometimes we may help others only as we ourselves have trodden the path they have to tread. God knows from the beginning the people He is going to send across our path throughout our life. Nothing is ever wasted in God’s school of suffering.

Purpose Number Two: God allows us to come to an end of ourselves, so that we may not rely on ourselves but on Him – the God who raises the dead [8-9]. Some pressures of life and service seem beyond human ability to cope with; they threaten to crush or defeat us utterly. Paul discerned God’s purpose. He and his companions come to a complete end of themselves. In their hearts they felt … the sentence of death. In other words, they felt that there was no hope for them. God gave them the necessary strength to endure. God allowed it all to happen so that they might not rely on themselves but on God, who raises the dead. Self-confidence is a constant peril and danger. That is not to say that we should have no confidence in God-given abilities, strengths and gifts, or the experience of the past upon which we may call. But that confidence should never be to the point that we feel we can act independently of God or without looking to Him to be our true strength and object of our praise. A fundamental principle emerges here. Basic to Christian faith and life is the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We must learn to put the truth of the resurrection up against, or alongside, every trouble and difficulty we face. In doing so, we fix our eyes upon God – and that is the first step to finding the answer we need in comfort, strength, endurance and victory!

Purpose Number Three: God teaches us to trust Him as our deliverer, so that praise is brought to Him [10-11]. Looking back on all the difficult experiences he has catalogued and hinted at, Paul bears testimony to God’s deliverance [10]. Paul deliberately set his hope on God’s deliverance. To set our hope suggests disciplined determination and single-mindedness. It implies critical choice. Paul knew that the help he and his friends needed could come only from God, and to him alone therefore they looked. At the same time Paul knew that God gives a strategic place to the intercessory prayers of His people for deliverance. Part of Christian fellowship is praying for one another. This is often more important than we appreciate. When our friends are going through times of trouble, they may find it hard to pray or to know for what to pray. God the Holy Spirit frequently – if not always – places upon the hearts of others the requests to be made to God for them. Those for whom we pray experience God’s gracious favor – His blessing [11] – as we intercede for them. Intercessory prayer is fundamental  to the corporate life of God’s people. Our prayers are part of God’s rescue plan in His scheme of deliverance. Answered prayers prompt thanksgiving to God [11], and thanksgiving honors and glorifies Him. Our difficulties are God-given opportunities to prove His compassion [3], comfort [3-5,7], power [9], deliverance [10], blessing [11] and willingness to hear the prayers of His people [11]. How incredibly poor our experience of God’s character as our glorious Father would be if we did not know trouble! How insubstantial would be the testimony we would be able to give to Him! How little would be the praise and glory we would daily ascribe to Him!” [Prime, pp. 5-10].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. In verses 3-11, Paul offers praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. List the things for which Paul praises God. What three aspects of God’s character does Paul mention? What is the relationship between afflictions and comfort. What three purposes of life’s afflictions and suffering does Prime mention?
  2. Since the sufferings of our Lord Jesus for our salvation are unique, in what ways may we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings [5]? What place may our sufferings have in our usefulness to others? How have you been encouraged by the experience of other people in times of difficulty? What examples can we give of this from the Bible itself? How are we to comfort others?
  3. Prime writes: “Our difficulties are God-given opportunities to prove His compassion [3], comfort [3,5-7], power [9], deliverance [10], blessing [11] and willingness to hear the prayers of His people [11].” Pray that God will enable you to see and treat all your difficulties in this way. Seek to share the comfort and encouragement you have received from God with other believers who are suffering.
  4. Through his experience of suffering, Paul learned to rely on God not on himself and to set his hope on God’s power to keep his promises. To what degree have you learned to do this? How can you help other believers to do this in the midst of their suffering? What role does intercessory prayer play in our providing comfort to believers who are suffering?

References:

The Message of 2 Corinthians, Paul Barnett, Inter Varsity.

2 Corinthians, David Garland, NAC, B & H Publishers.

2 Corinthians, George Guthrie, BENT, Baker.

Let’s Study 2 Corinthians, Derek Prime, Banner of Truth.

The Second Letter to the Corinthians, Mark Seifrid, Pillar, Eerdmans (ebook).