I’ll never know how much it cost for you, my Lord, to take my sins to the cross.“You Will never be able to stand in My shoes, those of the Creator of everything and to take the sins, yours and countless others, upon Myself on the cross. It is not possible for you to be able to fully comprehend that amazing and magnificent act. Yet you can and are reaping the benefits. The cross is the sign and promise of My love, My complete commitment to My creation and you as well as billions of others benefit from it. Even as you look at the lifeless body on the cross, it should bring waves of appreciation and love to you. So just received that, even though you find difficulty in comprehending what this all has cost Me. Just continue to draw near to Me, at My invitation. I in turn will draw near to you as more and more that separated us is dealt with. You will also never really appreciate My comfort for you unless you perceive your life with all its difficulties without my comfort. So, take this love and comfort and share it with as many as I bring to you.”
As we start with this second letter to the Corinthians, just a few words to give it some context and background. It is actually the 4th letter, since two have been lost. The tone is completely different to the first. In many ways it is the most personal letter that we have of Paul. He spends much of the letter defending himself and his apostolic ministry and explaining it. The church, now meeting in many homes (house-churches) has many followers of Paul and his ministry. However, there is a faction who are still rejecting him and therefore also his message. Try and imagine all these groups without a central pastor or teacher, how different their ideas could become, without the New Testament scriptures to guide them. They were hugely vulnerable to false teachers.
The prevailing religious attitude (both Christian, as well as the religion of some 35 other deieties) was that any religion which had power and was worth anything, would result in prosperity, a happy life and health. Much like our prosperity gospel teachers today. Against this background, Paul, persecuted, ill, having faced innumerable difficulties, was being portrayed as a false apostle because he seemed to have no power. And because they were rejecting him, they were also rejecting his message. This explains much of the melodic line of this letter.
Today we will just look at the opening 11 vv. The opening praise paragraph, from v 3 -7, bears much scrutiny. It sets the tone of the whole letter and indeed of much of Paul’s ministry as a result of the trials he experienced. The word “comfort” is used 9 times. The Greek word ‘parakaleo’ is very close to the name that Jesus gave the Holy Spirit in John’s gospel, ‘Paraclete’ (John 14:16,6). So, do you see the message of Paul to the Corinthians and to us today? Jesus promised that He would be with the disciples (John 16:33) and while He has overcome the world, we will still experience tribulation while we are here.
Against that background we see Paul, as an example of one who experienced huge tribulation. So, Paul wants to put this in perspective. The perspective of Christ’s sufferings on the one hand and his and ours on the other. What he is saying is that all this suffering has a purpose. They are not just random happenings. It God’s way of growing our faith (1:9,10; 12:10). It also provides us with the opportunity of ministering to each other, in the light of the experience we have gained from our own sufferings.
I smiled on Friday as God demonstrated this principle to me in a practical way. My daughter Leslie, who comes to lunch with me every Friday, is overseas visiting her two sons in Europe. Out of the blue a good friend of hers and erstwhile disciple group leader, Laura Alderman contacted me and told me she was standing in for Leslie and wanted to have lunch with me. A practical demonstration of God’s care, which I could share with her as I shared this passage, while she was telling me how she has now retired and wants to spend time doing caring.
The other side of this that, as Paul points out how, faced with the “sentence of death”, his suffering was so great (1:8ff), he was able to recognize that this intense suffering had the purpose of teaching him to rely on God rather than himself. He picks this theme up later again.
Then finally we see the important role of intercessory prayer in this whole matter of suffering. (1:11) I am afraid this is an area that I need to take far more seriously.
So, this introduction gives us three glimpses into the multifaceted subject of suffering. Paul will build on these as we read further, but in the meantime, we can ruminate on these three important lessons that Jesus is teaching us here.
Suffering, I suppose, remains the great enigma of Christianity, and while we can learn, from God’s word and by personal experience, there always remains a mystical element which we may struggle to come to grips with. Next week we will see the accusations that the people were making against Paul about his lack of decisiveness. See you then.