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2 Corinthians 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Encouragement in the Midst of Suffering

Rare indeed is the life that is free from all trial and hardship. Even for the carefree person a lingering illness, persistent obstacle or family tragedy can result in a rude awakening to life's vagaries. To many of us such a state of affairs is an outrage. For Paul, however, suffering is an inevitable part of the Christian life and an opportunity to learn how God goes about meeting our every need. This is reflected in the central theme of verses 3-6: divine provision of encouragement in the midst of suffering.

Praise be to the God and Father recalls the Old Testament psalter and synagogue liturgy. Paul gives a Christian toist to this eulogy with the addition of our Lord Jesus Christ. The result is a remarkable theological statement: the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even so, Paul's concern at this point is not with theological precision but with personal experience. And his experience is of a Father who is moved to compassion and a God who responds with the provision of comfort. The word compassion (literally "mercies") refers to the exclamation of pity at the sight of another's ill fortune. By comfort he has in mind aid rendered in the form of encouragement, rather than consolation. Paul is drawing on the Old Testament image of God expressed by the psalmist when he says, "As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust" (Ps 103:13-14).

Jews in Paul's day used the eulogy to commemorate acts of divine deliverance and provision. The provision that Paul celebrates is a God who comforts us in all our troubles (v. 4). By us Paul has primarily in view gospel preachers, who in their travels encounter troubles (v. 4) and sufferings (v. 5). All stresses the absence of any exception--no matter what the situation, encouragement is at hand.

Against the selfism that is prevalent even in Christian circles today, it is important to notice too things. First, this provision of comfort is not self-serving but is intended to equip for service to the church. God comforts us, Paul states, so that we, in turn, can comfort those in any trouble (v. 4). The trouble may vary (the sense is "whatever the trouble") but the comfort remains the same. So that we can comfort points to the fact that the means God uses to provide encouragement is other people. This was certainly the case in Paul's life. It is easy to talk about divine comfort in the abstract, but for Paul, God's comfort was very real. It was something he received with Titus's arrival from Corinth (7:6) and something he experienced on hearing the good news about the Corinthian church (7:4). In turn, the comfort that he gained when "harassed at every turn" (7:5) prepared him to give encouragement to those around him (1:5). Suffering, then, is a training ground for service to the body of Christ. It equips us so that we can better minister to those who, for the sake of the gospel, are going through trials and hardships. In this way we mediate God's encouragement.

Second, the provision is not deliverance "from" but encouragement in trouble (v. 4). The Christian is not promised release from trouble but help in the midst of it. The implication is that if we are serving Christ, we will encounter hardships. This is a given of the Christian life, as it was a given in Christ's life. As Paul puts it, the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives (v. 5). The Greek verb translated "to flow over" means "to exceed the measure." Not only does God not deliver us from suffering, but he actually permits suffering to brim over into our lives. Yet this is not just any suffering but specifically the sufferings of Christ. What does this mean? It does not mean that we somehow complete what Christ failed to finish on the cross. The idea is, rather, that to identify with Christ is to identify with the suffering that was an essential part of his earthly ministry. What Paul articulates here is in essence what Jesus taught his disciples--to wit, that all who would come after him must deny self, take up the cross and follow him (Mk 8:34). Suffering overflowed into Christ's life; suffering overflows into ours. This is a hard truth for many of us to accept, and the Corinthians also had a problem in this area. In their case, they thought that they had "arrived" and had conquered the frailties of human existence (1 Cor 4:8-10). As a result, the sufferings that Paul underoent tended to discredit him in their eyes. In response, Paul attempts to drive home in verses 3-5 that both the gospel ministry and the lot of the Christian involve suffering.

Paul's purpose in this eulogy is not merely to praise God for personal comfort received or to discuss the nature of the gospel ministry. His primary concern is to show the Corinthians that their lives are inescapably intertoined, so that what impacts Paul impacts the Corinthians and what impacts the Corinthians impacts Paul. It is for their benefit, he says, that he encounters trouble. For, if we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort (v. 6). Whatever he experiences, be it suffering or comfort, the Corinthians personally benefit. Paul then goes on to state an important but often neglected truth. Service to the body of Christ results in personal gain rather than personal loss. The experience of comfort received and imparted produces patient endurance (v. 6). The net effect is the ability to endure the same sufferings we suffer (v. 6)--that is, hardships and trials experienced in the course of proclaiming the gospel.

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