The book of 2 Corinthians is a frequently avoided book, especially when it comes to teaching, because it is often assumed that the purpose of the book is Paul’s defense of his apostleship. Since we all think that Paul is an apostle, then we really do not need to study the book. People typically pay attention to only two sections of the book: chapters 8-9 about being cheerful givers and chapter 12 about Paul’s thorn in the flesh. But this book by the apostle Paul has far more to offer than teaching us how to give and how to suffer. Paul is going to teach and build up the faith of these Corinthian Christians by opening his heart and his life to them. Listen to how Paul makes this point at the end of his letter.
Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves to you? It is in the sight of God that we have been speaking in Christ, and all for your upbuilding, beloved. For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. (2 Corinthians 12:19–20 ESV)
Paul is writing about himself, Timothy, and Apollos, not for the primary purpose of defending themselves, though he certainly does so, but so that these Christians would be built up and not be found in these sinful behaviors. Paul is using himself and his fellow workers to show these Corinthians what love looks like. I want to give you this new lens for looking at this book so that you will see that there is far more to this letter than merely a defense of Paul. What you will read in this book is God’s purpose through the apostle Paul to encourage you, build you up, and move you away from sins that will ruin you.
Comfort In Affliction (1:3-7)
When it comes to needing encouragement and strength, one area we need to be built up is when we are suffering. When we read verses 3-7 we will notice that Paul says the word “comfort” 10 times in these five verses. We need comfort for all that we go through in life and the difficulties and afflictions we face. Listen to the description of our God in verse 3: the Father of mercies and God of all comfort. He is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort who comforts us in all our affliction (1:4). Paul immediately dives into the deep end of the pool when discussing affliction. First, the word translated “affliction” in most translations (“troubles” – NIV, NLT, NET, “tribulation” – NKJV) is literally “pressure, compression, distress.” The idea then is trials. So when you read afflictions in this letter, please think of pressures, trials, distresses, and troubles of life.
But notice what Paul says God does. God comforts us in our afflictions, not from our afflictions. Comfort from God is not the removal of sufferings. When I think of needing comfort in my pressures and trials, I often think of removing the pressure. But this is not the picture given to us. Rather, God brings us comfort in our distresses and difficulties. Escape from suffering is not necessarily the goal. Rather, the recognition of God’s comfort in the midst of our suffering is what we are to look forward. So how do we receive comfort from God? We could certainly consider how the promises of God and the faithfulness of God provides us comfort. Paul will speak to these things later in this letter. However, Paul has another place where we find comfort from God. Look at verse 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. (2 Corinthians 1:4 ESV)
Did you see what Paul told us about comfort in afflictions? We comfort others with the comfort we have received from God. We share our comfort from God with those who are afflicted and need comfort. God’s comfort does not terminate with us. We comfort with the comfort we have received from God. Therefore, God’s comfort is circular, as we comfort others through our pressures and suffering. So we view ourselves as conduits of God’s comfort to others. How often we try to play the comparison game in suffering rather than being conduits of comfort! Someone says that they are struggling and suffering and what we do is proceed to tell the person how their suffering is nothing and that my suffering is so much worse! This is not being a conduit of God’s comfort. Suffering is not a competition. Rather, our suffering has been given a purpose by God.
Look at it again in verse 4. God comforts us in our affliction “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction.” One of your purposes in trials is to comfort others. We do not have to go through the same suffering to understand how to be compassionate for each other rather than comparing our sufferings with one another. We are not to wallow in mire of self-pity and attention seeking but use our suffering and afflictions to comfort others. Your example in your sufferings brings comfort and encouragement to others who are suffering. Throughout this letter the apostle Paul will affirm the good that afflictions have been to him. Paul’s critics say that his sufferings show that he is not an apostle. If he were truly an apostle then he would not be experiencing so much trouble. Paul turns on this argument from his critics and says that he has troubles and is comforted by God so that he can comfort these Corinthians in all their troubles.
This is the point of verse 5. What God does for Paul he also does for these Corinthians. No matter the degree of affliction, God matches with the comfort we need. Paul and Timothy share in the sufferings of Christ for they are suffering for righteousness’ sake. They saw their comfort is knowing that they were sharing in the sufferings of Christ. There was nothing unusual about experiencing suffering. We must come to this same resolve and determination. Suffering comes from following Christ. We come to understand the power of God, not through the absence of suffering, but through the pain of suffering. We do not like this truth but it is God’s truth nonetheless. We grow in Christ and grow in faith through suffering, not by avoiding suffering.
God’s Deliverance (1:8-11)
In verses 8-11 Paul explains to these Corinthians what has happened to him. Again, Paul is not just telling us about his problems but wants them to learn endurance and comfort through this. Listen to the difficulty Paul was in. “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.” Paul saw no way out of his circumstance. We may think of Paul as a spiritual superman but listen to what he says. He despaired of life and thought they were doomed. So what was his comfort? How did Paul endure and find comfort even though he was “so utterly burdened beyond strength?” Look at the rest of verse 9.
“But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” Paul saw purpose in sufferings. This was to cause him to rely on God’s power and not on himself. We need this lesson. Trials get rid of depending on self. Suffering and trials are to produce in us the recognition that there is no value in depending on ourselves but the only response is to depend on God. Notice what the dependence on God was that he learned: God raises the dead. God can deliver us. Look at verse 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. (2 Corinthians 1:10 ESV)
Paul set his hope on God to deliver again because he delivered this time when they were in utter despair. God is a God of deliverance. He delivered Christ by raising him from the dead. God delivered Paul through this deadly peril. Notice what Paul has done this paragraph to encourage these Christians. Sometimes God comforts us by ultimately delivering us out of the affliction (1:10). Other times God strengthens us so we can endure the affliction (1:6). This was the very point Paul made to the Corinthians in his first letter.
No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13 NRSV)
Paul will make this point again as the end of this letter, 2 Corinthians, when he speaks about the thorn in the flesh and the effect it had on his life. Sometimes God will eventually end the trial and deliver you from the affliction. Sometimes God will not end the trial but gives you the strength and comfort you need to endure the pressure you face. God uses these things so that we will fully depend upon him alone and not on ourselves or anyone else.
Further, consider what Paul has instructed to us. God’s comfort is not intended to makes us comfortable but to make us comforters. If God has comforted you in any measure, then you are commissioned by God to comfort others. We have hope because we are in this together. We suffer so as to not depend on ourselves and so that we can become conduits of God’s comfort to others. How can you be God’s comfort to someone else today? What can you say or do to impart God’s comfort to another person in this room who is suffering? In our suffering, we do not think about ourselves but consider how we can use our pressures and pains to help others who are also enduring pressures and pains. Notice verse 11 tells us one thing you can be doing every day for people here: help through prayer. Pray for each other. Talk to God about how God can comfort those who are suffering and how you can be a conduit of God’s comfort to those who are afflicted.
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. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4 ESV)