2 Corinthians 1:1-11 “When Suffering Comes”
Once upon a time there was a school in a small
village. On the roof of the school was a bell, which was rung every morning to
call the children to class. The boys and girls arrived reluctantly and
precisely at the hour. Never a minute
early. The bell would ring again in the afternoon, liberating the
children to their play. The children bolted out the door at the ringing of the bell. Never lingering a minute late.
This is how it was with each child. Except one.
There was a girl who came early. She
helped the teacher prepare the room for the day. The same girl would stay
late—cleaning the board and dusting the erasers. During class she was attentive. She sat close to the teacher, absorbing
the lessons. One day when the other children
were unruly and inattentive, the teacher used the girl as an example. "Why can't you be like Jane here? She listens. She works. She comes early. She stays late."
"It isn't fair to ask us to be like her;' a boy blurted out from the rear
of the room. "Why?" asked the teacher. The boy was uncomfortable, wishing he hadn't spoken. "Jane has an
advantage;' he shrugged. And what's that?" "She is an orphan;' he
almost whispered as he sat down. The boy
was right. The girl had an advantage. An advantage of knowing that
school, as tedious as it was, was better than the orphan-age. Since she knew that, she appreciated what
the others took for granted. We, too, were
No name. No future. No hope. Were it not for our adoption as his children, we would have no place to belong. We some-times forget that. The Corinthians forgot. They had grown puffy in their achievements and divisive in their fellowship. They argued over the correct leader, the greater gifts. They rebelled against Paul's leadership. They were indifferent to sin and insensitive in worship. Paul defends his ministry and admonishes the Christians to remember to whom they belong. "Look closely at yourselves; Paul says (13:5). Paul's words are clear. "If anyone belongs to Christ, there is a new creation. The old things have gone; everything is made new!" (5:17). Good reminder. Not just for them but for us as well. For if we forget, we, too, will be like the students who did just enough to pass the grade and never enough to show their thanks.[i]
Paul had founded the church at Corinth and had served there for 18 months (Acts 18:1-18).
When serious problems arose in the church after his departure, he sent Timothy to deal with them (1 Cor. 4:17) and then wrote the letter that we call 1 Corinthians. Unfortunately,
matters grew worse and Paul had to make a “painful visit” to Corinth to confront the troublemakers (2 Cor. 2:1ff). Still,
no solution. He then wrote “a severe letter” which was delivered by Titus (2 Cor. 2:4-9; 7:8-12). After a great deal of
distress, Paul learned from Titus that they had resolved the issues. It was then that he wrote the letter
we call 2 Corinthians. He wrote this letter, probably his most intensely
personal, for several reasons.
1. He wanted the church to forgive and restore the member who had caused all the trouble (2 Cor. 2:6-11).
2. He also wanted to explain his change in plans (2 Cor. 1:15-22)
3. He needed to assert his authority as an apostle (2 Cor. 4:1-2; 10-12).
4. He wanted them to share in the special “relief offering” he was collecting for the Church in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8-9).
The most important
reason I believe Paul had for writing this letter was to
encourage them to understand that God’s strength is revealed in human weakness.
Probably the most important word in the whole letter is the word ‘comfort’ or encouragement. The Greek word means “called to one’s side to help.” The verb is used 18x in this letter, and the noun 11x. In spite of all the trials he experienced, Paul was able (by the grace of God) to write a letter saturated with encouragement.
What was Paul’s secret of victory when he was experiencing pressures and trials? His secret was trusting in God.
When you find yourself discouraged and ready to quit, get your attention off of yourself and focus on God. Out of his own difficult experience, Paul explains the place of suffering, the purpose of suffering and how to persevere in suffering.
Tragically, untold grief has been caused by the shallow and unbiblical view that if we have true faith we will not suffer. I believe the most harmful doctrine pervading the church today is the so called health and wealth gospel.
The belief that God will bless you with good health and material prosperity if you believe, if you name it and claim it. Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians, as we shall see in the next few weeks, refutes that shallow heresy. In place of it he provides a robust explanation of how to become mature in Christ, if we are to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, we will do so as we also share in his sufferings. In these opening verses Paul gives us three simple reminders.
1. The Place of Suffering - remember what God is to you (1:1-3)
2. The Purpose of Suffering - remember what God does through you - (1:4-7)
3. Perseverance in Suffering - remember what God does for you - (1:4, 8-11)
Lets consider these three short paragraphs one at a time.
1. The Place of Suffering - remember what God is to you (2 Cor. 1:3)
Paul begins his letter with a doxology. He cannot sing about his circumstances, but can sing about the God who is in control of his circumstances. “No body knows the suffering I’ve seen. Nobody knows but Jesus” Paul demonstrates that praise is an important factor in achieving victory in suffering, whether internal suffering such as discouragement and depression, or external suffering like hostility or persecution.
1.1 Praise Him because He is God
horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, Pastor Martin Rinkart faithfully served the people in Eilenburg, Saxony. He conducted as many as 40 funerals a day, a total of over 4,000
during his ministry. Yet out of this devastating experience, he wrote a “table
grace” for his children which today we use as a hymn of thanksgiving:
“Now thank we all our God,
With heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom His world rejoices.”
Praise him because he is God.
1.2 Praise Him because He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is because of Jesus Christ that we can call God “Father” and we can approach Him as His children. God sees us in His Son and loves us as He loves His Son. We are dear to the Father because His Son is dear to Him and we are his adopted sisters and brothers. So praise him because he is God. Praise him because he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And,
1.3 Praise Him because He is the Father of compassion
To the Jewish
people, the phrase father of means “originator of.” So Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44) because lies
originated with him. God is the Father of compassion because all compassion originates
with Him. God in His grace gives us what we do not deserve, and in His mercy He
does not give us what we do deserve. Praise Him then because He is the God of
all comfort. The words ‘comfort’ and ‘consolation’ come from the same root word
in the Greek. They are repeated 10x verses 1-11. God does not offer us sympathy
when we suffer. He does not pat us on the head
and give us a piece of chocolate to distract our attention from our troubles.
No, He puts strength into our hearts so we can face our trials and triumph over them. Our English word ‘comfort’ 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. God encourages us by His Word and through His Spirit, and usually does so through other believers who give us the encouragement we need (2 Cor. 2:7-8; 7:6-7).
When you find yourself discouraged because of difficult circumstances, look to the Lord and realize all that God is to you. “I will lift up my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from?” asks the psalmist. “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2). So when suffering comes, and it will, remember what God is to you. The place of suffering (1:1-3)
2. The Purpose of Suffering - remember what God does through you - (1:4-7)
In times of
suffering, most of us are prone to think only of ourselves and to forget
others. We become cisterns instead of channels. Yet one reason for trials is so
that you and I might become channels of blessing to comfort and encourage
others. Because God has encouraged us, we can encourage others. If we have
experienced God’s comfort, then we can “comfort them which are in any trouble”
(2 Cor. 1:4b).
Later in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul will give us an example of this principle. His thorn in the flesh. And had he not suffered, we would not have been encouraged through his words. The subject of human suffering is not easy to understand, for there are mysteries to the working of God that we will never grasp until we get to heaven. Sometimes we suffer because of our own sin and rebellion, as did Jonah. Sometimes we suffer to keep us from sinning, as was the case with Paul (2 Cor. 12:7). Suffering can perfect our character (Rom. 5:1-5). It helps us to share the character of God (Heb. 12:1-11). But suffering can also help us to comfort others. The greatest “encouragers” are often those who have suffered a great deal. 2 Corinthians 1:7 makes it clear that the situation might be reversed: the Corinthian believers might go through trials and receive God’s grace so that they might encourage others, just as Paul was doing for them. God’s gracious encouragement also helps us if we learn to endure. “Patient endurance” is an evidence of faith. If we become bitter or critical of God, if we rebel instead of submitting, then our trials will work against us instead of for us. The ability to endure difficulties patiently,
without giving up, is a mark of spiritual maturity (Heb. 12:1-7).
God has to work in us before He can work through us. It is much easier for us to grow in knowledge than to grow in grace (2 Peter 3:18). Learning God’s truth and getting it into our heads is one thing, but living God’s truth and getting it into our character is quite something else. God put young Joseph through thirteen years of tribulation before He made him second ruler of Egypt, and what a great man Joseph turned out to be! God always prepares us for what He is preparing for us, and a part of that preparation is suffering.
In this light, 2 Corinthians 1:5 is very important: When we suffer in the will of God, we are sharing the sufferings of the Saviour. This does not refer to His “vicarious sufferings” on the cross, for only He could die as a sinless substitute for us (1 Peter 2:21-25). Paul was referring here to “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10), the trials that we endure because, like Christ, we are faithfully doing the Father’s will. This is an important principle to grasp: God has ample grace for our every need, but He will not bestow it in advance. We come by faith to the throne of grace “that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). The Greek word means “help when you need it, timely help.”
Now we can better understand 2 Corinthians 1:9; for, if we could store up God’s grace for emergency use, we would be prone to trust ourselves and not “the God of all grace” (1 Peter 5:10). All the resources God gives us may be kept for future use—money, food, knowledge, etc.—but the grace of God cannot be stored away. Rather, as we experience the grace of God in our daily lives, it is invested into our lives as godly character (see Rom. 5:1-5). This investment pays dividends when new troubles come our way, for godly character enables us to endure further tribulation to the glory of God. That is why we should be careful not to automatically pray that God delivers us or others from suffering. There is a “companionship” to suffering: it can draw us closer to Christ and to His people. 1. The Place of Suffering - remember what God is to you (1:1-3). 2. The Purpose of Suffering - remember what God does through you - (1:4-7)
3. Perseverance in Suffering - remember what God does for you - (1:4, 8-11)
3.1 He permits the trials to come.
There are ten basic words for suffering in the Greek language, and Paul used five of them in this letter. The most frequently used word is thlipsis, which means “narrow, confined, under pressure,” and in this letter is translated ‘trouble’ (2 Cor. 1:4), ‘hardships’ (2 Cor. 1:8). Paul felt hemmed in by difficult circumstances, and the only way he could look was up. In 2 Corinthians 1:5-6, Paul specifically uses the word pathema, meaning “suffering,” which is also used to describe the sufferings of Jesus. We must never think that trouble or suffering is an accident. For the believer, everything is a divine appointment. There are only three possible outlooks a person can take when it comes to the trials of life. If our trials are the products of “fate” or “chance,” then our only recourse is to give up. Nobody can control fate or chance. If we have to control everything ourselves, then the situation is equally as hopeless. But if God is in control, and we trust Him, then we can overcome circumstances with His help. God encourages us in all our tribulations by teaching us from His Word that it is He who permits trials to come.
3.2 He is in control of trials (1:8)
“We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life” (niv). Paul was weighed down like a beast of burden with a load too heavy to bear. But God knew just how much Paul could take and He kept the situation in control. We do not know what the specific “trouble” was, but it was great enough to make Paul think he was going to die. Whether it was peril from his many enemies (see Acts 19:21ff; 1 Cor. 15:30-32), serious illness, or special satanic attack, we do not know; but we do know that God controlled the circumstances and protected His servant. When God puts His children into the furnace, He keeps His hand on the thermostat and His eye on the thermometer (1 Cor. 10:13; 1 Peter 1:6-7). Paul may have despaired of life, but God did not despair of Paul. He permits trials to come and he controls the trials.
3.3 God enables us to bear our trials (1:9)
The first thing He must do is show us how weak we are in ourselves. But God wants us to trust Him—not our gifts or abilities. Its only when we are under pressure that we can. With Paul who discovered, “For when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). So God enables us to bear our trials. And eventually,
3.4 God delivers us from our trials (1:10)
Paul saw God’s hand of deliverance whether he looked back, around, or ahead. The word Paul used means “to help out of distress, to save and protect.” God does not always deliver us immediately, nor in the same way. James was beheaded, yet Peter was delivered from prison (Acts 12). Both were delivered, but in different ways. Sometimes God delivers us from our trials, and at other times He delivers us in our trials. God’s deliverance was in response to Paul’s faith, as well as to the faith of praying people in Corinth (2 Cor. 1:11).
God permits the trials to come.
God is in control of the trials.
God enables us to bear them and
Whether we live or die, God will deliver us from them.
After conducting Beethoven's magnificent Ninth Symphony, Arturo Toscanini brought down his baton to a burst of applause. The audience roared its approval. Toscanini and his orchestra took repeated bows. When the cheering finally subsided, Toscanini turned back to his musicians and leaned over the podium. Voicing his words in staccato whispers, he said to the orchestra: "Gentlemen, I am nothing. . . . Gentlemen, you are nothing. . . . But Beethoven .. . Beethoven is everything, everything, everything!"
Whether it's Toscanini or the apostle Paul, whether it's a mentor or a parent or some historic hero, these people are nothing. I am nothing, you are nothing, We are nothing. But Christ is everything. When that gets cemented in our minds, we won't even try to be an angel. We'll just be satisfied to be the least of saints, the foremost of sinners. No longer orphans but the beloved adopted children of our heavenly Father, lost in wonder, love and praise.
The Place of Suffering - remember what God is to you.
The Purpose of
Suffering - remember what God does through you.
Perseverance in Suffering - remember what God does for you. Lets pray.
With grateful thanks to Warren Wersbie and his little commentary “Be Encouraged”, to Max Lucado and “The Devotional Bible”, to Charles Swindoll and his study “A Ministry Anyone Could Trust” and to Roy Clement’s commentary, “The Strength of Weakness” for much of the inspiration and content of this sermon.
[i] Illustration from The Devotional Bible edited by Max Lucado, p.1408.