The God of All Comfort
The God of All Comfort
2 Corinthians 1:1 – 11
The good news for a busy, multi-cultural, idolatrous city ...
Almost all my worldly possessions are currently aboard this ship, the NordPacific, en route from Australia.
And this past week, my clothes, and books, and musical instruments passed through the Panama Canal.
You can see on the map, some of the 14,000 ships that pass through the Canal every year, bringing hundreds of thousands of crew and passengers with them, to Panama City.
The first Century Greek city of Corinth, where this letter in the Bible was originally sent, had the same function in the ancient world, as Panama and its Canal have today.
Corinth was the capital of the Roman Province of Achaia, and it sat on a very narrow strip of land, an isthmus, which effectively separated the East of the Roman Empire from the West.
Corinth had a harbour on each side, so that goods could be offloaded from a ship on one side, transported by road the 4 miles across the isthmus, and loaded onto another ship to continue their journey.
So just like a ship coming from Australia can save 2000 miles by transiting the Panama Canal, passing through Corinth saved the long, costly, and dangerous journey south into the Mediterranean.
But of course it also meant, taxes, duties, and spending in Corinth, from every ship that arrived and departed.
It quickly became a centre of banking and finance, making it the Canary Wharf of the Roman Empire.
And on top of that, it was home to the Isthmian Games, like the Olympics, held 2 years.
Imagine London 2012, and 2014, and 2016, and 2018, The impact that would have on the self-identity, and the prestige, the morality, and the spending habits of the city.
What a place for the good news of Jesus to arrive when the Apostle Paul, one of the messengers of the early church first landed in the city in about 50 AD! ;
A melting pot of cultures and religions,
And everything you can imagine associated with not one, but two ports filled with sailors far from their homes.
See, I wonder if you’ve ever felt that the complexities of London,
The diversity, the habits, the idols, in our friends’ lives, sometimes make it seem like Christian ministry and evangelistic conversations are almost a waste of time?
Or maybe you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian, but you’re here tonight because you’re interested in Christian things, but you look at your own life, and you think “maybe it’s just too full, too messed up, too conflicted, for Jesus to make any kind of difference.”
Those of us who are Christians, we know that that’s not true, but sometimes it can feel like that, can’t it?
Sometimes it can seem like there’s too much going on,
People are too resolutely opposed to Jesus, for the good news to take hold, and for people to be bought from death to life.
If we have ever found ourselves thinking that, the church in Corinth gives us one more reason not to buy into that lie, and to maintain our confidence in the power of the gospel of Jesus to change and save people.
Because the Christians in Corinth had had to wrestle with issues of sexual ethics,
How to live distinctive lives as, what’s the language here, God’s holy people, in a city where anything was permissible,
They had to learn what it meant to be the church of God, in a context where anything and everything could become an idol.
And does that sound like any city we know?
Do those issues, and the others we’ll see addressed as we work our way through in the coming months, do they sound familiar?
Other than the fact that the London Olympics doesn’t happen every 2 years, this is our city!
And so I’m convinced that these Sunday evenings that we’re going to spend in 2 Corinthians will be good for us!
We’ll hear God’s apostle, the eye-witness messenger, speak into a context that has lots of similarities to ours.
And I think we’ll be spurred on to life and ministry as God’s holy people, even when we’re tempted to think, our friends are not interested,
Our city is too far gone,
Our neighbourhoods too committed to other gods.
So, let’s take a look at the introduction, pick up a few things about Paul and the Corinthians, and then we’ll look at the longer section.
Authentic Christian ministry depends on the apostles Christ Jesus sent (v 1 – 2)
Notice that as well as the typical greeting, Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, right at the beginning Paul hands over his business card; Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God
As far as I’m aware, the award for most impressive business card in the world, goes to a Chinese businessman named Chen Guangbiao.
There he is tasting fire extinguisher liquid!
The job title on his business card reads:
“Most influential person of China,
Most prominent philanthropist of China,
China Moral leader,
China Earthquake rescue hero,
Most well-known and beloved Chinese role model,
China top 10 most honourable volunteer,
Most charismatic philanthropist of China”,
And it goes on and on!
Turns out he runs a waste and recycling company!
The Christians in Corinth would have loved that kind of business card and job title, and they were much less impressed with how Paul presented himself.
Paul had founded the church there,
He’d written them letters, 4 including this one.
He’d visited them, even so, they doubted his position as an apostle. He was too plain and ordinary.
We see later on in the letter, that they’d fallen prey to false apostles who were more like Mr Chen;, all about status, and prestige, and money.
But the Better Ministry that Paul outlines in this letter, is summed up in chapter 2 verse 17. It’s printed on your outline.
Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God. 2 Corinthians 2:17
A better ministry is one that depends on those sent by God, commissioned by Jesus, to be his witnesses.
That is, the men like Paul, as he says in his introduction an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God
You can’t claim to be a Christian and just not listen to Paul because you don’t like his message.
The Corinthians who found him not very impressive, they can’t just ignore him, and follow someone who their culture says, “look at this person, they’re much more impressive,
Or much more ‘woke’”!
There are people today, even inside the church, who try and drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul. They’ll say, “Oh we listen to Jesus, but you don’t need to pay attention to Paul. He was just one guy, kind of wanted to start his own religion.”
No. an apostle of Christ Jesus, by the will of God
To refuse to hear what Paul says, is to refuse to hear what God says.
And that’s a good reminder for us as we spend the coming months thinking about A Better Ministry.
Some of what we’re going to be told will be hard for us to hear!
Actually some of what we’ll hear in just a moment is hard to hear!
But this is God speaking to us.
So, let’s have a listen to what God says to us as this letter unfolds.
Praise God for his comfort! (v 3 - 6)
See how the body of the letter begins, Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles
You may know, Paul often begins his letters like this, which is an echo of the Jewish ways of praising God he would have heard all his life;, “praise be to the God who has revealed himself to Abraham, to Moses”, and so on.
Here though Paul uses this Old Testament language, to declare that God is made known in our Lord Jesus Christ.
And if the God who is revealed and made known in Jesus, is the God of all comfort, then anyone who’s come to know Jesus, can receive this comfort.
A lot of ink has been spilled over the years examining the way Paul switches between singular and plural pronouns;, sometimes it’s “I”, sometimes it’s “we.”
It seems to be very deliberate; When Paul is defending his own ministry, there’s lots of “I”, chapter 11, for example. But here, notice, it’s “we”
Knowing the God of comfort has been the experience of Paul and his companions, his staff team, his volunteer leaders.
That is, this bit is not just for Apostles. This is a blessing for all God’s people, all who are in Christ.
And maybe this is the encouragement that we need, for wherever we are in our Christian life, and whatever ministry looks like today;,
You can know God’s comfort.
Or perhaps we’re on the outside of the Christian life, looking in;, You can know God as a comforter, if you come to know him through Jesus.
What does comfort from God look like?
Now, Immediately I want to know, “Well, what does it look like?”
“How did God comfort Paul?”
We find out in chapter 7 that one of the ways that God comforts his people, is through his people;, through other Christians.
Which suddenly injects your role in the family of God’s people, the body of Christ here at Dundonald, or your interactions with other believers that you know, suddenly that’s given a whole new significance, isn’t it, because you might be the one God wants to use to comfort someone in their time of difficulty.
Suddenly, not turning up,
Or checking out emotionally,
Or not engaging relationally with other Christians seems a whole lot serious, doesn’t it?
I mean, it’s always serious, but here’s a whole new level.
You might be,
Your gospel conviction might be,
Your hope for eternity,
Your certainty that God’s pattern for life is always good, even when it doesn’t feel like it,
Your spoken and, lived out assurance of the sovereignty of God, might be God’s means of comfort to another one of his precious children.
I don’t want us to forget that, and what it means for how we think about our life together.
But actually notice here, the specific means of comfort isn’t explained, and so that kind of, throws our attention back onto God himself, the God of all comfort.
It’s a bit like if you were looking at your bank statement, and you saw that someone you know had unexpectedly put 10 thousand pounds in your bank account.
Probably, we wouldn’t sit there wondering, “how did they do that?
Where did they get my account number?”,
“Did they go into the bank, or do it online?,
We’d just be amazed, and thankful, and in awe, that this person had given us such an amazing gift.
That’s kind of Paul’s angle, in not telling us the “how.”
But his language tells us the “what.”
The idea of God comforting Israel, is a constant theme in the Old Testament;, Think of places like Isaiah 40 verse 1, which we might know from Handel’s Messiah, Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
And we see in Isaiah, Lamentations, the other places where God speaks like this, that God’s comfort is not, comforting a toddler who’s afraid of the dark, or who tripped and skinned their knee;, “There, there, it’s going to be OK.”
No, this comfort recognises the sufferings of God’s people, and speaks of God’s decisive action to deliver them.
It pictures God coming alongside his people, to protect and sustain, and to sovereignly act, so they come out the other side.
Think about how the promise in Isaiah 40 continues, if you know it. Sing along if you’re a fan of The Messiah!
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, God says through the prophet, and proclaim to her, that her hard service has been completed, that forward-looking promise to the arrival of God’s king, Jesus, who will rescue his people from sin and rebellion.
And this is the language that Paul picks up to speak of God’s comfort to us.
To know God’s comfort, then, is to have experienced the decisive actions of God for our salvation,
To be reminded again that he’s drawn us into relationship,
That he works for our preservation,
And it’s to be convinced of God’s love and concern for us, demonstrated most supremely in Christ, such that, drop your eye down to verse 6, it produces in us, patient endurance.
To know God’s comfort is to have a taste of the restoration we’ll know when we go to be with Christ forever, and for that to strengthen us and encourage us in ministry while we wait.
God comforts us so we can comfort others (v 4)
And yet Paul doesn’t praise God just for what he receives, does he?
See there in verse 4, Paul is comforted, so that he is able to comfort those in any trouble.
I’ve been working hard at learning what it is to be English!
So I’ve been drinking lots of tea!
Think of God’s comfort coming to Paul, not as tea being poured from a teapot into a tea cup,
But a bucket being poured into a tea cup, that overflows into other teacups, which in turn overflow into many more tea cups, like one of those champagne towers at a wedding!
That’s the picture here.
If you’ve experienced God’s comfort;, if you’ve known the assurance of his salvation, and preservation, and sovereignty, and that’s enabled you to persevere in the midst of difficulty, then you’re equipped to be the means of God’s comfort to others, by speaking and by living out those things that you’ve been reminded of.
And then, of course, their teacup overflows, and more and more people experience God’s comfort.
Christians share in Christ’s suffering (v 5 – 7)
But notice why having a God who cares and comforts is so important;, There will be sufferings in the Christian life.
Verse 5, For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.
We see in verse 6 that the Christians in Corinth, faced the same sufferings as Paul.
It’s not that apostles share in the sufferings of Christ but no one else does!
No, to share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ is the experience of all Christian people.
This doesn’t mean we share in the way Jesus suffered for our sin and rebellion,
No, if you’ve trusted in Jesus’ death in your place, there is no further price to pay.
So this must be talking about when we suffer, because we’re united with Christ,
Suffering for being a Christian.
Whether it’s ridicule, exclusion, gossip,
Or imprisonment, torture, even death.
And so notice how closely Christ is associated with his people, that our suffering, can be called, the sufferings of Christ.
If you know the story of Paul’s conversion, when he encounters the risen Lord Jesus on the Damascus Road, in the very act of persecuting Christ’s people, Jesus asks him, “why do you persecute, me?”
To oppose Christ’s people is to oppose Christ.
What a close and intimate relationship we have with Jesus! That when you suffer for being Jesus’ person in your workplace,
Or family, Jesus feels that as opposition to himself.
You haven’t been forgotten,
You haven’t been abandoned,
Jesus stands with you in that.
See, suffering for being a Christian is not sign that we’re doing it wrong. That was the claim of the super Apostles.
But in fact it’s a sign that in our, frail, imperfect way, we’re doing it right!
We suffer whatever small or significant hardship it is, because of our connection to Jesus.
We should be immediately sceptical of any promise of a Christian life without suffering and opposition.
There is no such thing as a Christian life without suffering and opposition.
So come back to thinking about how God comforts his people.
How are the Corinthians comforted by Paul’s distress? As he says in verse 6? That’s a funny thing to say, isn’t it?
And why is he confident that they will share in his comfort, even though his relationship with them has been so strained?
Isn’t it because of this? That an authentic Christian life will involve suffering,
Someone who stands for the truth of the gospel will face opposition.
Those who are truly Christ’s people, will suffer.
And so when the Corinthians see Paul suffering, they’ll know that’s not a sign of, his ministry which they had responded to, being faulty, but actually a mark of the authenticity of his ministry, and therefore, of their faith.
And when the hear the false apostles promise status and power, and a life of ease, they’ll know that’s the lie.
And when they look at their own suffering, exclusion, persecution;,
Parents thinking ill of them because they’ve become Christians,
Colleagues excluding them because of what they believe,
When they realise their faith is costing them in their relationships, or in their workplace,
That won’t cause them to doubt their faith, but will prove to them the genuineness of faith.
Because a genuine Christian life will involve suffering.
Talk about comfort in the midst of hardship!
But notice that the comfort we receive from God doesn’t necessarily remove the hardship.
We’re enabled to persevere through hardship and opposition, but God might not take them away.
Suffering can teach us to rely on God rather than ourselves (v 9)
And that’s because God might be committed to doing something more through our suffering;, Not just teach us that our faith in Jesus is real, but to teach us to rely on him, rather than ourselves.
Have a listen to what Paul says about how he suffered as a follower of Jesus;, verse 8.
8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia.
Paul doesn’t define these troubles, but we know there’d been riots, shipwrecks, and various other near-death experiences that he describes in chapter 11.
No wonder he can say, We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure,
we despaired of life itself.
If you’ve ever felt at the end of your tether or even beyond, Paul knew exactly you feel!
9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.
Contrary to many of the claims of many Christians and Christian leaders today that God will not give us more than we can handle, or that God wants us to have a life of luxury and ease, God had not kept Paul out of situations that were difficult, or painful, even beyond his ability to endure.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard somebody say, “God will never give you more than you can handle.”
Have you ever heard that?
It sounds like a promise God would make.
It sounds like it comes out of the Bible, except look at Paul!
He was looking death in the face, despairing even of life itself.
If someone tells you God won’t give you more than you can handle, they’re promising you an experience of the Christian life, that not even Paul the apostle had!
As we noticed, Paul doesn’t list his troubles. And I think it’s because he doesn’t want to focus on the particular troubles, whatever they were.
Because there are all kinds of troubles, aren’t there?
And Paul wants to direct our eyes to what our various kinds of troubles can accomplish.
See, in despairing even of life itself,
In realising that he had no resources left to draw on himself to get him through,
Paul had learnt to rely on God. And when he says We do not want you to be uninformed, that’s what he wants the Corinthians to be informed about;, how hardship can teach us to rely on God.
You might have heard Christian people say things like “Let go and let God.”
I don’t even know what that means! And so it can kind of appear, that all the Christian faith offers in the face of difficulty is some kind of nebulous, intangible, nice feeling!
But when Paul’s plans for ministry are forced to change,
When his desire to come to the Corinthians to win them and reassure them is frustrated,
When he’s expecting to die, and his great desire to preach the gospel in the western part of the Empire look like coming to nothing,
That actually teaches a real reliance on God, doesn’t it?
When our ministry plans are frustrated, it forces us to rely on God’s sovereignty, not our cleverness and our strategies.
When our friends refuse our invitations to come to church, or work through the A Better Life booklet with us, we’re reminded again to rely on God to save people, and not ourselves.
Were we to face death this evening, we’d be reminded that the only sure hope is in God, who raises the dead.
this happened, that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.
The way Paul suffered, especially for following Jesus, it was hard and painful, and a sign of our broken world, but in God’s sovereignty, it has a positive outcome;,
this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God,
It’s easy for us to imagine the Apostle Paul as some kind of
extra-heavy-duty Christian, who never struggled with the sorts of things that we struggle with in our Christian life.
Clearly that’s not the case.
Paul was at risk of trying to rely on himself and not on God just like we are!
John Calvin, the 16th Century church Reformer wrote that Paul “was a man() subject () to misdirected confidence”
That is, Paul was sometimes tempted to think that when it came to reaching his ministry goals, his efforts were enough.
Just like we forget to rely on God and his strengthening work within us, so did Paul.
Just like we’re sometimes too confident in our own abilities, and think we’re the ones who bring change in people’s lives, so did Paul.
Just like we try and get through or get out of trials and hardships without asking what God is trying to teach us through them, so did Paul.
See if you’re convinced of your own ability to get out of whatever difficult situation you’re in, you never ask the questions, like, “What does God want me to learn through this?
What comfort is God offering me?
Who can I then comfort because of this experience?”
The more I think, “I can handle whatever life throws at me”, the less I remember that there is ultimately no hope or security outside of Christ.
This lesson is the purpose of suffering
And this might be hard for us to hear, but notice that dependence on God isn’t just a by-product of the deadly perils that came Paul’s way.
He actually says that was their purpose: Verse 9, this happened, that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.
I think to us, this probably seems a bit heavy-handed.
What’s that expression? “Using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
It seems to us that suffering and hardship are a very high price to pay, for learning to rely on God.
And yet I wonder if that’s because we value ease and pleasure, very highly, and the deepening of our relationship with God, less highly.
Do you think that could be the case?
Could that be why we react against the idea of God using hardship, to teach us this lesson?
Now, please hear me say this very carefully:, this is by no means the only purpose of suffering and hardship.
If you, right now, even as you sit here, are in the midst of some trouble and affliction far beyond your ability to endure, I am absolutely not saying, “Well, clearly if you had relied on God more, he wouldn’t have had to give you this suffering to make you learn your lesson.”
But the Apostle Paul, writing as he is, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, sees this as God’s purpose in his hardship.
And we know, verses 6 and 7, that the ordinary Christians in Corinth suffered in the same way.
God is probably working to the same end.
And so, having seen God prove his faithfulness and dependability in the past, Paul has great confidence in God’s faithfulness for the future.
See there in verse 10, He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us,
Some of you, I know spent your summer doing job interviews. And you know the thing they say about interviews, when you’re trying to work out what kind of performance you can expect from this candidate, “the best predictor of future performance is past performance.”
If you know what’s happened in the past, you can have confidence about the future.
Well, Paul knows how God has acted in the past, so he’s confident about how God is able to act in the future; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.
God doesn’t always make our suffering go away, does he?
Sometimes he does, but any escape from suffering now is only temporary anyway, isn’t it!
It’s just until the next time,
The next time someone excludes us,
The next time we suffer for standing up for the truth.
What’s most important is not that this episode of hardship be taken away, but that through the comfort of God, we get through this hardship,
And the next one,
And the next one,
Until Jesus takes away our sufferings for ever.
We can help others in their suffering through our prayers (v 10 - 11)
So, let’s draw things to a close with one more really encouraging lesson.
Our prayers are a real and genuine help to other Christians who are suffering.
See what Paul says at the end?
, “God will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers.
I’m sure you hear of people “sending thoughts and prayers” whenever there’s some tragedy.
And the secular media, somewhat justifiably, I think, asks “what’s the point of that?
Why don’t you do something that’s actually useful?”
Well, the person who’s convinced of God’s sovereignty and goodness, doesn’t send prayers to a person who’s suffering, like some kind of telepathic energy transfer.
No, we pray to the God who has a track record of delivering and preserving his people, and we ask him to act, confident that he’s able to, even though, as we’ve seen, sometimes God has a purpose, an outcome, that he’s working towards.
So, God might use us to comfort and encourage a Christian in the midst of their suffering, enabling them to persevere in the face of it,
Or he might use our prayers to deliver the Christian person from their suffering, to act in response to what we ask, which is what Paul understands to be the case in his situation.
Wouldn’t you have loved to be one of these Corinthians?, I mean there’s not a lot to love about the Corinthian church. When people say to me “I want our church to be like it was in the New Testament!” I think, “Have you read the New Testament?! Do you know that the Corinthians were like?”
They were fractured,
They tolerated sin,
And yet, Paul was confident that God would use their prayers to deliver him and his companions, when they suffered.
He will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers.
What a privilege.
And what a privilege we enjoy, because we too can pray for brothers and sisters who face hardship far beyond their ability to endure.
The Vernons and the Leachs have flown back to Africa this past week. Their obedience to Jesus will lead to hardship and opposition.
And so for them, God is able to act in response to our prayers, and the result will be, as Paul longs for here, that many people will give thanks to God, for his gracious favour.
Because of my role, I get to hear lots of people’s stories of hardship and suffering;,
And I want to help, but,
I can’t undo somebody’s mistakes,
I can’t change someone’s behaviour,
I can’t heal a terminal illness,
And so sometimes I’ve found myself saying, “Well, all I can do is pray, so I’ll do that!”
“All I can do is pray”?!
That’s like saying to someone who’s starving to death, “Well, all I’ve got is this whole pantry full of food!”
Or to say to someone who’s drowning,
“I’m sorry, but all I’ve got is this rope,
This life jacket,
A life bouy,
An inflatable dinghy,
And a team of life-guards, but I’m sorry that’s all I can offer you!”
“All I can do is pray”?!
I can do the very thing that God in his kindness and his sovereignty uses to deliver people from painful trials.
He has done it in the past, that’s the lesson Paul learned, and he’s convinced that God will continue to act through the prayers of ordinary Christians.
Even very ordinary Christians, like those in Corinth, and at Dundonald!