So quick review:
Paul went into Corinth, a key Roman city in Greece, and stayed 18 months planting a church.
After leaving he received word of problems and questions within the church.
He wrote 1 Cor. to answer the questions and to address the concerns.
He then visited Corinth a second time, thinking things would be better…things were much worse.
The Corinthians, easily enamored with current cool…cool ideas and cool people…had been turned against Paul.
He returned to Ephesus (Turkey), wrote a letter called the “harsh letter”…it largely did the trick.
When he had received word that the church had responded well…he wrote 2 Cor.
By then he had left Turkey and was north of Corinth in Macedonia…when he wrote the letter we are beginning today.
The first 9 chapters are his encouraged response to their change of heart.
The last 4 chapters…are a warning to those who remained hard-headed and hard-hearted. (Some of his opponents remained in and around the church but they had largely lost their influence)
Eventually he would return, again, to Corinth…and stay for 3 months.
He really enjoyed this time and it was stress free enough for him to be able to write his most important theology of the gospel…the book of Romans, while he was there.
This shows you how much better things were for him and them.
So, as we jump into 2 Corinthians…keep in mind that Paul is writing with a significant weight lifted off his shoulders.
The personal attacks by the church had largely ceased…they had reaffirmed Paul.
Why was this so important to Paul? Was he that insecure?
No…if they rejected him then they were also on the verge of rejecting his message…if he is not a reliable messenger, then neither is his message reliable.
Why then would they base their entire lives and destinies on an unreliable message.
So, Paul was not a people pleaser…the issues were much bigger than just “Do they like me again?”
We will see how Paul, in this letter, goes out of his way to point out his own weakness…to make it clear that he is not like the people the church had been impressed with.
They are beautiful, eloquent, cool, impressive…he writes… “I’m just a clay pot.”
The difference…is that God has placed his treasure in jars of clay…in order to show that this life changing power is from God and not from him.
The beautiful, impressive, elegant jars of human pride…are empty on the inside of anything substantial or eternal.
While those who are giving up on trying to be personally impressive…are positioned to have the power of God unleashed in their lives.
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
After his opening introduction…Paul essentially writes a hymn of praise to God.
This sets the theme for the entire letter…comfort in the midst of suffering and a gospel made perfect in human weakness.
In verses 3-7 he uses the word comfort over and over.
We won’t read the entire chapter together…but let’s read these first few verses out loud…they are just so good.
3 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, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
What if…Instead of licking our own wounds …we took on the power of this great promise?
We had a dog that was injured and had to wear a plastic cone…as soon as the wound was healed…and we removed the cone…he would lick it until it was an open wound again.
He ended up wearing that cone for what seemed like years…he learned how to back into his dog house…then maneuver back out again.
The idiom “lick their wounds” implies someone who has had their feelings hurt.
This idiom represents an approach to life that is fairly common.
To be perpetually caught up my own hurts…not allowing God to provide comfort(instead, focusing on me…keeping the wound open)…and unable, then to be God’s channel of comfort to others.
Please don’t mistake me…I’m not talking about severe trauma…I’m talking about the more day to day slights and hurts that we suffer and get caught up in.
But the promise of God’s comfort to us, over flowing to others…does apply, of course to any hurt, even deep trauma…maybe especially so.
What is the great promise in this passage and how do we make it operational in our lives?
The promise is to be comforted by God…and then to become God’s comfort overflowing from our lives to others.
Let’s see if we can get some clues as to how to enter into this kind of life…using the word group Paul majored on.
The word translated “comfort” belongs to a group of words which includes:
-Encourage (a frequent challenge in Scripture is to “encourage” one another) (call alongside)
-Comforter (used of the Holy Spirit)
Comfort in Scripture always has Content.
We might think of comfort as “There, there…it will be alright.”
-“Really, you think so…why…things look pretty bad?”
-“I don’t know actually know if it will, I’m just trying to be comforting.”
Comfort is based on the reality of the power and presence of the God of all comfort…the God who is actually in charge of the future… “It will be alright…he can ensure that it will”
This is not just comfort, as an attempt to feel better about things…but a focus on God and the gospel
Here in this passage, we see a collision of the present age and the age to come.
The already but not fully yet, kingdom of God.
Here and now…we often see affliction and comfort in play at the same time.
The comfort of right now in our troubles…is an echo of the future in the present.
What is the nature of the affliction and what is the nature of the comfort?
Paul will go on to outline some of his own affliction later in this letter it includes:
That pretty well covers it, doesn’t it?
What is the nature of the comfort? This is a bit more complex.
It was sometimes (comfort) the deliverance OUT of affliction.
It was sometimes strengthening and sustaining grace (comfort) IN affliction.
Most of us would say, when we are in times of pain… “I’ll take ‘A’…deliverance OUT.”
But here’s the problem with that approach.
First, it’s just not going to happen…we live in a fallen world, we are not going to get rescued out of every trouble.
And besides what kind of crummy father would God be if he never allowed us to go “through” trials?
If we don’t go through trials…we will become more and more self-deceived because we believe we are self-sufficient…we are not.
God’s goal for us is not “have as few problems as possible in life…then die a self-reliant fool.”
His goal is training in Christlikeness…so that our lives can bring him glory and bring us joy.
Paul writes in this chapter that part of the reason for his trials was so that he would learn to rely less on self and more on God.
This kind of understanding, change…requires going through not just around…pain.
The second problem with the perpetual deliver me “FROM” not “THROUGH” trouble demand is that we are never going to become people who can comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.
If in fact…we have not received that comfort.
Years ago, I spoke with a soldier who had some traumatic combat experiences that were undermining his ability to live his life.
He would not trust anyone who did not wear the uniform.
He talked to me and trusted me…and I was honored…but after a couple of meetings I encouraged him to trust people who had specific skill even if they had not been in the military.
I said “If you injure your knee, you don’t care if the surgeon has had a knee injury…you just care if they have the skill to fix yours.”
He did go get help…he is still doing well.
So you don’t need someone to relate to you personally or to have a compelling personal testimony if you want them to fix your injured knee, or your broken furnace, even help you with depression or anxiety…you just want them to know that they are doing.
It’s nice if they can relate…but not necessary.
Imagine talking to a doctor who says
“I blew out my knee playing basketball just like you.”
“Great, you understand me…so you know how to fix my knee?”
“No idea, but I’ll give it a shot…since I can empathize.”
“No thanks, being understood isn’t that important to me after all.”
This is not about looking for someone to relate specifically to my problems…or they can’t understand me and help me.
This about the ability to share not just ideas about God’s comfort and provision but real, personal stories from your own life.
We don’t have to have the exact same stories of suffering…to be able to share how God comforted us in our own troubles.
This is about pointing others to the God of all comfort.
To tell someone the facts or reality of what God has said…is important and powerful.
“He is the God of all comfort…that is the Word of God tells us.”
To be able to add “And I have seen that to be true in my own life, let me tell you about it.”
This adds an entirely new dimension.
We say that our purpose is to “Know and love God and make God’s love known.”
Here, Paul writes…both parts of that grand purpose happen as we endure trials.
So…since we are not going to be able to avoid trouble and pain…why not lean into God’s comfort in the midst of it?
Why not see higher purpose in it…like the ability to take my experience of God’s comfort in pain…to help others in theirs?
Why not go from “licking my own wounds”…to allowing God to care for my wounds…so that I can be used by God to bind up the wounds of others?
Paul specifically talks about sharing in the sufferings of Christ…what does that mean?
He probably meant the various kinds of troubles we experience as a result of being a Christian.
It could be broader than this and include any suffering that is done in faith…trusting that God is good and his purposes will stand.
In any case…whatever he meant specifically here, the overall thrust of Scripture is that God will provide comfort regardless of the cause of the suffering…if we allow him to do so.
We are then positioned to better express his ability to comfort to others.
Let’s go on…Paul talks openly and honestly about his personal struggles and how they taught him reliance on God.
He speaks of a time when he thought he would die.
This may have been the time when the mob turned against him in Ephesus.
Let’s look at what happened there
We read of this in Acts 19.
Apollos went to Corinth and Paul went to Ephesus.
There Paul began to preach the gospel and after two years…lots of people had turned to Christ.
It was there one of my favorite Acts events happened.
Paul was ministering with such power…people were being healed, demons were being cast out…that seven brothers thought they would give exorcism a try.
The problem is they had no power; they had just turned Paul’s words into a sort of incantation.
“In the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, I command you come out.”
I don’t know if they had some initial success with this…or they just had not encountered a truly demonized person…but one day they tried this on a guy who was the real deal.
The evil spirit answered them…which was probably their first surprise.
“Jesus I know, and I know about Paul, but who are you?”
Then to their greater surprise…this single man with a demon jumped the 7 brothers and beat them to a bloody pulp.
The word of all this got around Ephesus…and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor.
The result was that the community was transformed as individuals were changed.
Ephesus was an economy based on idolatry…in particular magic and the worship of the goddess Artemis.
The gospel was changing lives…and so it was impacting the economy based on the lies of idolatry.
At this point a silversmith and businessman named Demetrius called the local business leaders together and said “We earn a good income from this business…but Paul is putting all this at risk.”
He then went from talking of lost profits…to using a religious/emotional ploy “Not only are we losing money but the great goddess herself is being robbed of her glory.”
This emotional appeal inspired mob action that carried the entire city into the open theater.
It was an extremely dangerous situation…that only ended after the city clerk said the Roman government will shut this down if they don’t stop.
Paul may have been jailed as a result…maybe some in the mob got to him and beat him…but it was a terrible situation for Paul…it looked like it may be the end of his life.
Now…let’s read the passage that this Acts backstory refers to.
8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.
Paul was not afraid of being dead…he knew he would be with Christ.
But he was a man and the process of dying was not a pleasant thought for him…any more than it is for any of us.
Paul wrote, and Paul believed “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”
But when he was about to be torn apart by a mob…and thought this is the end…he, like any of us…felt great pressure, beyond human endurance.
But God delivered him THROUGH the great test and for the time being FROM death.
But there was purpose in it “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.
Paul is using his own story to teach the Corinthians not just “what” to think…but “how” to think.
He wants them to grow up and become people who move through life…differently.
“All this trouble served the good purpose of making me more reliant on God.”
This was not normal thinking patterns for Corinth then or Wichita now.
The movements of God in our lives designed to make us more reliant on God…are most often not what we would normally consider “pleasant.”
We would prefer to grow in faith, to become more “God-reliant” by watching an inspiring movie…or through a spiritual retreat in the mountains.
As nice as those things are…deep reliance on God is unlikely to happen that way.
This doesn’t mean he is teaching them to love times of trouble…that would be dumb.
He is teaching them to think differently about all the circumstances of their lives…especially challenging times.
To see the highest value is not in escaping trouble but in growing in Christlikeness.
He goes on…
12 Now this is our boast: Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God. We have done so not according to worldly wisdom but according to God’s grace.
Paul will use the concept of boasting more than any other NT writer…the word essentially means “confidence.”
Negatively it means unwarranted self-confidence based on your own merits.
Positively it means legitimate confidence based on what God has done and enables one to do.
He also likes the word/concept “conscience”…he uses it more than all the rest of the NT together.
He is confident that his conscience is clear in regards to his interactions with them.
But only because his conscience is tuned to the Word of God.
For Paul the conscience is the human faculty whereby we judge actions by the light of our own personal standards.
Those standards were, for Paul, to be set by the Word of God
Since humans are sinful…our standards…by themselves…are often off base.
So, some people “don’t feel guilty” even when they should.
You will frequently hear things like “Follow your heart” “Trust your heart”
“My heart tells me this is right”
These are the ideas that become seeds of great personal disaster.
Hemingway, whom I spoke about last week, said this about his own conscience
In context he was defending bull fighting to those who thought it was cruel.
“I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after. Judged by these moral standards, the bull fight is very moral to me because I feel very good while it is going on and after it is over I feel very sad, but very fine.”
Imagine applying this to relationships, personal choices, ethical decisions…which he did…to his own ruin.
Paul’s said in his first letter “My conscience is clear but that does not make me innocent…it is the Lord who judges me.”
We cannot let our conscience become the ultimate judge of behavior…the Word of God is.
What we are to do is to align our minds and hearts with the word of God…adjust our conscience to truth.
Some say “I have the Holy Spirit in me, I just listen to him and he makes no mistakes.”
It is true that the Holy Spirit indwells believers and that he guides them and that since he is God, he makes no mistakes.
It’s also true that we make lots of them.
God speaks clearly, we don’t always hear clearly.
He is confident that his own conscience aligns with the truth and reality of God.
And from there he explains the reason he had changed his travel plans…a change that they had used against him.
The Church had been told by some instigators that since Paul was a flake (changing his mind willy nilly)…he was also a fake (his message was not reliable)
Paul informs them that he didn’t make his plans or change those plans lightly…he was very intentional.
He writes “My plans were not ‘yes I’m coming, and no I’m not’ in the same breath.
In fact, the reason he changed his plans was because he cared so much for them.
I planned to visit you first so that you might benefit twice. I planned to visit you on my way to Macedonia and to come back to you from Macedonia, and then to have you send me on my way to Judea. When I planned this, did I do it lightly? Or do I make my plans in a worldly manner so that in the same breath I say, “Yes, yes” and “No, no”?
*It is Interesting that they judged Paul as being fickle and uncaring for changing his plans…but it turns out that he changed his plans in order to visit them twice and not just once.
He didn’t come back the second time right away because the first visit went so poorly he opted for a letter and then some time for them to hear from God and make appropriate changes.
His change of plans was because he was being very intentional and because he cared so much.
Then to the reason this was such a big deal.
Contrary to what the false teachers had implied…Paul is not a flake…and his message is not a fake.
18 But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” 19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and Silas and Timothy, was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” 20 For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.
So Paul writes that far from being fickle, blown around by the winds of emotions and culture…his beliefs, values and behaviors are firmly established in Christ.
Then he doubles down on the stability that comes from a life founded on the gospel.
A stable life that is available to all who follow Christ.
21 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
This church that had been easily blown around by cultural shifts, emotional moods, and cool but flaky celebrities…they had been told that Paul was in fact the unstable one.
…now they see the truth for what is.
And this is not just the work of Paul’s teaching…this is clearly the work of God in their lives.
Paul has to be full of joy as he casts vision for them that they, like him, have a firm foundation for their lives…they don’t to live fickle, unstable lives.
He uses four strong expressions to describe this confident lifestyle.
“It is God who makes both us and you…”
- Stand Firm in Christ.
-This is a legal term that was used of a person signing a contract guaranteeing things will be accomplished.
-God, who began his work is in us, (Paul wrote to another church) will finish his work in us.”
- Anointed (set apart, or commissioned)
Anointing was done as a symbol of setting someone apart for service…for specific purposes.
The Holy Spirit anoints believers for God’s purposes.
- God has put his seal of ownership on them.
– The term was using of sealing a document so that contents could not be tampered with.
-The Holy Spirit has been said to seal believers…to be the identifying mark of the Christian.
- Put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come
This is commercial term of a down payment…an initial deposit guaranteeing what is to come.
These four phrases, ideas, are all intended to communicate a solid confidence in the promises of God.
The promises that are not “yes and no”…changing with cultural trends and emotional winds…but promises that are all an eternal “yes” in Christ.
Try to imagine a cultural, political, social issue where you don’t get some “yes and no” depending on who you listen to or even when you listen to them.
Super confusing…always has been.
I don’t say this to pass blame…these are humans in charge of our government, institutions…some are very smart, some very skilled in their work, (Some are not) but they weld enormous positional power…and they still just humans.
We all have to make decisions regarding some of these issues…we have to decide how to spend our time, our money, our thoughts…how to live in relationships with people hearing and believing the many “yes and no” out there.
I sat through a mandated training yesterday about “extremism”…it was put out by the DOD…and every military member is required to go through it.
It was interesting and confusing…my term to describe it at the end as we were having final discussions was “This is all very squishy”
Lots and lots of “yes and nt”…very little actual clarity…everyone agreed with assessment.
But it’s because the nature of the topic and others like it…are important, but squishy.
We have to decide how to live, how to get along…when so much around us is “Squishy”
This part of life, the squishy part…not just Covid…but all the “yes and no” is not going to ever be simple or easy to figure out.
You may think you have found your go to expert website or news feed or blogger…but the fact is…it will always be confusing…humans will always be “yes and no” in the same breath.
**It is of vital importance that we nail down what the foundation of our life is going to be
You can weather lots of “yes and no” lots of squishy, if your foundation is firm.
You can live with great ambiguity without having to live in great anxiety if you have settled God is your foundation.
There can be no ambiguity…no “yes and no…no squishy… in regards to the essential foundation.
You have to decide and then live decided…make the decision once for all to stop deciding.
Now regarding the multitude of issues that swarm our lives(the past year is squishy on steroids)…we will all have to continually trust and adjust to those.
But we must not go on deciding if we are going to make those many decisions on the foundation of Christ or on something else.
“I still have doubts”. Okay.
“I still have questions.” Okay
I was trying to get to 100% in terms of whether to marry Christy or not…39 years ago.
She is amazing and it had nothing to do with her…but I was trying to decide what God wanted from me.
I realized I was like 90% plus…so I was way more sure than unsure…I asked her to marry me and went to 100% from then on.
Everyone lives by faith…at some point you must just choose…decide…and live that decided life.
As you do, if you do…you will gather more and more personal testimony of the reality of God and his comfort in and through and out of troubles.
You will be positioned to testify to his comfort to others in ways that draw them to him.
Paul wrote to them…and to us…
“Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.”
This transformational power is unleashed when you decide. “I’m heading that way, when I die, they will find my dead body pointing that direction.”
Then go live day by day…a decided life…
In all the ambiguity, all the “yes and no”
Live decided…in “Christ all the promises of God are yes!”