Paul’s follow-up with the church in Corinth is the most extensive in the New Testament. It includes four letters (1 & 2 Corinthians and two we don’t have – a “previous letter” 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 and a “severe letter” 2 Corinthians 2:3,4), a visit by Timothy, two visits by Titus, and two visits by Paul over a five year period. 1Murray Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians NIGTC, 2005, 101-105. In previous posts on 1 Corinthians, I have noted the need to keep the cross central and the need to keep culture in perspective. Moving on to 2 Corinthians, we see Paul defending his apostolic ministry. His suffering and lack of polish in speaking had caused his opponents to look down on him. Therefore as Paul defends himself, he provides us with an understanding of Christian suffering and gives a model of authentic gospel ministry. This post focuses on the understanding of suffering. Then a future post will address his model of authentic gospel ministry.
Very relevant to vocational ministers
Paul Barnett comments on the relevance of 2 Corinthians for us,
Thus the greater part of his teaching about ministry stand as a model and an inspiration to subsequent generations of missionaries and pastors. His comments about ministry – that at its heart lie endurance and patience, sacrifice and service, love of the churches, fidelity to the gospel, sincerity before God, and, above all, a rejection of triumphalism with its accompanying pride – remain throughout the aeon to shape and direct the lives of the Lord’s servants. Paul’s ministry as sufferer and servant is precisely modeled on that of Jesus, and finds its legitimacy in the face of detraction and opposition for just that reason, as also must ours, if that is our calling. Thus 2 Corinthians may be bracketed with the Pastoral Letters in its applicability to the work of those whose vocation it is to serve God as his ministers. 2Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians NICNT, 1997,50.
Murray Harris identifies five principles in Paul’s explanation of suffering3Murray Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians NIGNT, 2005, 123. which in modified form will provide the framework for the following discussion.
Suffering is matched by comfort
After the greeting, Paul blessed God as the “Father of mercies and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). This comfort comes in all our afflictions (2 Corinthians 1:4). Because Paul experienced God’s comfort in affliction, he had a greater appreciation for God’s merciful and comforting character. Moreover, the degree of comfort matched the degree of suffering (2 Corinthians 1:5). This was not only true for Paul. Paul was sure that the Corinthians experienced the same (2 Corinthians 1:6,7). Suffering for Christ is common for all who profess his name. The intensity of the suffering was greater for the apostle but so is the comfort. As Peter writes, we should not be surprised by suffering for Christ’s sake (1 Peter 4:12-14). In the midst of affliction, the inner man is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16).
Suffering drives us to trust in God
In describing the affliction he experienced in Asia (2 Corinthians 1:8-11), Paul said that its purpose was “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9). Paul felt that he was as good as dead in that situation. But the crisis in Asia was a practicum in trusting God. The delivery from the deadly peril developed a confidence that he could set his hope on God in future affliction (2 Corinthians 1:10). Paul was not assuming that God would always deliver him from death. Rather, his confidence was in the one “who raises the dead.” Because people prayed for him, they grew in their trust in God when they heard how God had answered (2 Corinthians 1:11). Suffering also helps us to see that we are just jars of clay. We recognize that the power in ministry comes from God (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Suffering identifies us with Christ
Paul identifies the suffering he experienced as “Christ’s sufferings” (2 Corinthians 1:5). Because he was living and proclaiming the gospel of Christ, he suffered. He is confident that the Corinthians are experiencing the “same suffering” (2 Corinthians 1:6,7). Paul describes his suffering as “carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifest in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10). We don’t seek out suffering for suffering’s sake. Instead, we pursue Christ and proclaim Christ, accepting the affliction that comes from our faith in him.
Suffering equips us to comfort others
God comforts us in our affliction, not just to make us comfortable but to make us better comforters (2 Corinthians 1:3,4). Yes, God comforts us but it is not all about us. The comfort we receive from God in our particular affliction enables us to comfort others in any type of affliction they are experiencing. Because God is comforting us, we are effective in comforting others. Our comforting others is never independent of the comfort we receive from God.
Suffering is not forever
As we have seen, suffering increases our trust in God. But our suffering has an endpoint. You see, our understanding of suffering is deeply connected to our hope of the resurrection (2 Corinthians 1:9,10). Our current affliction is minimal in comparison to the coming glory (2 Corinthian 4:16-18). Because our suffering is temporary and transient, we have hope. We should contrast our suffering to the eternal glory that accompanies the resurrection. Our best life is not now, for the glory comes in the resurrection.
The churches we plant need to see suffering in this way
Jesus promised his followers that they would have tribulation in the world. He also said that he had overcome the world (John 16:33). But the Corinthians were looking for success, not suffering, in ministry. In defending the authenticity of his ministry, Paul presented an understanding of suffering keeping the cross central. We too need to encourage the churches we plant to understand suffering in this way. We should remind new believers that suffering is always matched by God’s comfort. Suffering will drive them to trust in God, will identify them with Christ, and will equip them to comfort others. Best of all, it is not forever.
In our “slight momentary affliction,” we experience God’s comfort, trust in God, identify with Christ, share comfort with others, and hope in the eternal. Without this understanding of suffering, life and ministry will lead to despair. Understanding these things, we do not lose heart (2 Corinthians 4:16).