Verse 8 of chapter 1 marks the point at which Paul moves from the eulogy to the body of the letter. We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers was a standard phrase that a writer in that day used to introduce new information. The new information that Paul wants to pass along to his readers is about the hardships he and his coworkers suffered while traveling through the province of Asia.
Travel news, then as now, was a common way to begin the main portion of a letter. The news that Paul discloses, however, is most uncommon. For he refers to some kind of near-death experience that he and his coworkers (we) experienced while traveling from Ephesus to Troas. The severity of the experience is evident from the fact that Paul strains the language to the limit in an effort to express himself. We were under great pressure (literally, "weighed down") far beyond our ability to endure (literally, "utterly beyond our strength"). It was so severe, Paul states, that we despaired even of living (NIV life). The term for despair implies the total unavailability of an exit or way of escape. Even of living means that he was not certain of surviving the ordeal. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death (v. 9). The tense of the verb stresses the permanent effects: "we received and still experience" (not the NIV we felt). To apokrima tou thanatou refers to a decision made in response to an official petition ("the answer of death"), not to a verdict rendered in a court of law (NIV the sentence of death). Paul reckoned his position to be like that of a man whose request for mercy had been denied and who was condemned to die. So futile did the situation appear that when deliverance occurred it was tantamount to resurrection: God, who raises the dead . . . delivered us (vv. 9-10). The verb "to deliver" denotes God's action to preserve or keep intact. The purpose of this near-death experience, Paul states, was to substitute dependence on God for reliance on self (v. 9).
To our loss, Paul does not provide any details about this near-death experience. This suggests that his primary concern is not to provide the Corinthians with a missionary update but something else. The customary function of the body opening in the letter of that day was to strengthen the writer's bond with the reader. Paul does this in verses 10-11, when he states that God will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. By this statement Paul ties his deliverance closely to the prayers of the Corinthians on his behalf. God has delivered and will continue to deliver, provided the Corinthians pray for him. The answer to their prayers will in turn, he continues, cause thanksgiving to overflow on the part of believers everywhere (many) for God's gracious dealings on behalf of Paul and his coworkers (v. 11).
A request for prayer usually appears in the closing section of Paul's letters. The fact that he departs from his usual practice and includes it here is noteworthy. Paul's request for prayer highlights what is probably the sore spot in his relationship with the Corinthians, namely, a lack of reciprocity. As Paul will say later, "We are not witheolding our affection from you, but you are witheolding yours from us" (6:12). There has been a cooling of the Corinthians' affection for Paul. So Paul seeks at the start to rekindle that affection and concern by sharing with them how close he came to dying and how his very well-being is dependent on their taking a personal interest in his affairs. Perhaps he is even suggesting that his encounter with death was due to the fact that they had stopped praying for him. T. C. Hammond in an essay on prayer expresses a similar thought when he writes: "We are all bound together in the bundle of life."
So, Paul imparts the personal information that he does in verses 8-11 not primarily for its "news" content but to establish right at the start a relational basis between the Corinthians and himself. He is also anxious to show the impact that this mutuality has on the church universal. The Corinthians, like so many churches today, tended toward self-sufficiency. Paul's final comment is a reminder of our membership in the body of believers worldwide and of the interdependency of members in that larger body. Believers everywhere, Paul states, will give thanks that God preserved him for further ministry—a thankfulness that Paul hopes the Corinthians will come to share as well.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.