Video for this sermon can be found HERE
2 Corinthians Opening – From Why me? to Why Me?
Reid A Ferguson
For those of you who are fans of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or any other kind of serial story telling – you know full well how important it is to get the various installments into proper sequence to get the full picture.
Movie makers and authors try to make each segment or film stand on its own – but even then you need what is called “the back story.” What are the things which led up to the events you are about to witness? And it is true even in a children’s book. Jack falling down and breaking his crown, and Jill then tumbling after – needs the backstory of the 2 of them going up the hill to fetch a pail of water first.
We make sense of things sequentially. And it’s no different when it comes to reading the Bible. Unfortunately this is often a woefully overlooked principle.
How often we can just pluck a verse or a passage out of the Bible and try to make sense of it without first figuring out the backstory to it.
For anyone serious about knowing the overall storyline of the Bible, you must have the foundation of Genesis 1-3, to have any REAL idea of what is going on in the rest of it. That is true for The Gospels, or Romans – or in the case of the new series we begin today – 2 Corinthians.
So bear with me for just a moment as I try to get us up to speed on some of the backstory which occasioned this letter – so that we can get the most out of it. Now, CAN we read it and study it with profit even without the backstory? By God’s grace – yes! But, when we get some of this foundation down first, it answers a lot of questions as to why Paul says what he says and the way he says it – and helps us understand the whole message much more richly and accurately.
We told you a lot about this city of Corinth when preaching through 1 Corinthians. I won’t repeat all of that here – but one commentator does a great job of summarizing it like this:
1st. Corinth was: “geographically in Greece but culturally in Rome.”
2nd. “In the time of Paul, one third of the population consisted of slaves, and Corinth was a main depot for the slave trade in the Aegean.”
3rd. The Ancient philosopher Diogenes when living there wrote: “That was the time, too, when one could hear crowds of wretched sophists around Poseidon’s temple shouting and reviling one another, and their disciples, as they were called, fighting with one another, many writers reading aloud their stupid works, many poets reciting their poems while others applauded them, many jugglers showing their tricks, many fortune-tellers interpreting fortunes, lawyers innumerable perverting judgment, and peddlers not a few peddling whatever they happened to have.”
4th. “The citizens were obsessed with their status and their ascent up the ladder of honor. Savage asks, “What kind of people created such a city?” His answer: people “impressed with material splendour and intent on raising their standing in the world.” In this society one can only rise via a “combination of patronage, marriage, wealth, and patient cultivation of connections.”
5th. It was a wealthy, cosmopolitan place. And as for the Church Paul established there – the Commentator continues: “The result was a thriving and brilliant congregation composed of persons from mixed backgrounds and social standings…an explosive mix that led to dissension and rivalry that caused Paul much anguish and concern.” David E. Garland – New American Commentary
That said – let me sketch out some key facts directly impacting how we read this letter. Some of the immediate backstory.
- Paul’s 1st visit there came during his 2nd missionary trip (Acts 18): After leaving Athens and his discourse on Mars Hill he meets up with Aquila and Priscilla and starts to evangelize.
Working at his trade he goes to the Jews first, then the Gentiles, spending a total of 18 months there.
- On his 3rd journey he ends up back in Ephesus (which he had visited only briefly on his previous trip) and stays there over 2 years.
While in Ephesus he writes a letter to Corinth (which we do not have but is mentioned in 1 Cor. 5:9) containing an admonition to not associate with people who claim to be Christians, but are living immorally. Among other things, some apparently misunderstood and thought he was advocating total separation from society.
During this same time he is visited by Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus probably bringing a letter from the Church to Paul asking a bunch of questions about marriage, spiritual gifts, eating food offered to idols etc. which he answers in 1 Cor. He is also visited by a group called “Chloe’s people” telling him about problems in the Church, the misunderstanding of his letter, and the infighting and divisions which had sprung up.
So as I said, in response to all that he wrote 1st Corinthians. Some received his rebukes, and others took offense, and more division ensued around him.
- At this point, Paul cancels a visit he intended to make there, sending Timothy instead. And when Timothy comes back with news of the Church being in some disarray, Paul makes a brief and what is often called “painful visit” to them which he references in 2 Corinthians 12:14.
Apparently that visit did NOT go well. He seems to have faced some pretty vocal opposition by some there. Perhaps spearheaded by one guy as a spokesman – challenging Paul’s authority and even his ethics and character. We get hints of that in Chs. 2 & 7.
- Going back to Ephesus, Paul writes them another letter which he references several times in 2 Cor. It is most often called his “sorrowful” or “severe” letter and was probably delivered by Titus. We do not have that letter, only his references to it. It called on the Church to deal with – among other things – his opposer.
Meanwhile, he appears to have been in pretty serious danger for his life – which he’ll mention in 2 Cor.
For whatever reason, Titus got held up and didn’t get back to Paul in a timely fashion with how the Church responded. Paul was quite beside himself. So much so, he left an open opportunity for ministry and went to find Titus himself.
When they finally get together, Titus tells him things went really well this time. This sparks Paul to write 2 Corinthians to try and accomplish a number of things.
- To heal his relationship with the Church more fully.
- Address the fact that some new issues had arisen in the form of new challengers to Paul’s apostolic authority by some so-called “super-apostles”
- Correct the rampant misconceptions about what constitutes God-sanctioned ministry and life in a culture where what was good was measured by what they saw as “successful”.
- To clear up misunderstandings about himself personally.
- To get them ready for his 3rd and final visit.
That then brings us to our text this morning and Paul’s opening in 2 Corinthians 1:1-11 Let’s read it together –
2 Corinthians 1:1–11
Now the reason why Paul starts where he does in this letter, hearkens back to the things we just covered in developing the backstory. A key issue was this: Some people had gotten it into their heads, that if someone was really blessed by God, and if they were walking well with Him, they would not be suffering trials, tribulations and the other types of opposition that Paul had been facing.
For them, the proof that he was illegitimate – was that he was not outwardly successful and living what some might call “the blessed life.” And we have that very same mindset set today in the Church – do we not?
We have those who preach and teach what is commonly called “the Prosperity Gospel” – which basically says that Christ died to make sure you could be healthy, wealthy, successful and happy in everything you do. And so anyone who does not find that reality in their lives, either isn’t walking by faith, or there must be some underlying sin at the root of their problems.
The implication is: Good Christians should be blessed – which is defined as enjoying earthly prosperity. And if not, something is wrong.
And because this thinking was being used to discredit Paul and undermine his authority – and ultimately casts a shadow of spiritual failure on every Christian who suffers – he tackles it right out of the gate.
And his first point is this: 2 Corinthians 1:3–4 ESV / “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.”
- God comforts us in our afflictions – So it is obvious we have afflictions – and are not held at arm’s length by God when we have them – but He comforts us in them…
- We experience these afflictions of all sorts if for nothing else, then for the express purpose of equipping us to minister to others in their afflictions! The assumption being – we all WILL suffer afflictions. There is no theology of Christians escaping suffering – but a theology of how Christ REDEEMS our suffering – and uses it for His glory and our good!
I wonder if why we are often so poor at being able to minister to others, is that WE have not consciously sought the comfort which comes from God alone in our own distresses.
In other words, because WE look to others, rather than to Him directly in our trials, we then cannot help others to look directly to Him for the comfort they need. For while we do comfort one another to a certain extent – most do not need us as directly as we think. What they really need above all is for us to point them back to Jesus, to receive the comfort we did when He comforted us.
To put our arm around our brother or sister in their distress, whatever it is, and tell them how God met us in our time of trial – and help them look to Him themselves.
Building on that – look at what he then says in vs. 5: 2 Corinthians 1:5 ESV / “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”
Now just what does he mean by linking our sufferings of all kinds now – with Christ’s sufferings?
First, that suffering can’t be a symbol that our faith is not working – or that would mean that Jesus’ faith was not working too. Something is really wrong with that picture. He didn’t enjoy earthly success. What was wrong with Him? Nothing!
What he is getting at is that we share in the sufferings of Christ the way He shared in ours.
He shared in ours, He stepped into our fallen world with all of its sorrows brought on by the Fall, so that He might minister to us out of true compassion. More than sympathy or empathy – but as one who had suffered with us as we do. Thus we come to share in those sufferings for one another – so that we might minister to one another in our sufferings, having suffered the very same things.
Nothing so equips us to serve others as much as having suffered ourselves.
We need not suffer the identical thing, but we do need to have suffered, and to have known the doubts, fears, concerns and even the torments that are common to all suffering. The sense of loss, whether it be of an object, an opportunity, a person (spouse, friend, child, parent etc.), faculty, job, etc.
The sense of abandonment by God suffering can bring. The sense of helplessness. The sense of remorse, especially if the suffering is self-inflicted. The sense of loneliness. The sense of hopelessness, or the seeming senselessness of some events and tragedies. The fears for the future. The disorientation of a life completely needing to be restructured. The loss of the sense of self which is so tied up with our normal circumstances. Anger. Desire for revenge. Un-justness.
All these and more are common elements of nearly all suffering, regardless of the difference in degree. And in this, there is ample opportunity to salve the wounds of one another.
Having been born again, and brought into Christ by the Holy Spirit – into His family – we now live as aliens in this world as He did. Knowing true holiness now, we suffer remaining in this fallen, sin-sick world, experiencing it from a completely new perspective than we once did. This is a high honor He bestows upon us, to be transferred out of the kingdom of darkness, and into His kingdom. Colossians 1:13
This is what is behind the “groanings” of Romans 8:22-26 and later in this letter, 2 Corinthians 5:2-4.
We do not share in His sufferings as though WE pay for sin in ANY respect. THAT is Jesus’ exclusive work. Ours, is to be allowed to enter into the reality of His sufferings in leaving Heaven, and becoming incarnate. It is a most intimate opening up of His heart to us. It is as though He says “come inside me, and feel what I felt” – if only in the tiniest degree. It is a priceless treasure to know this world as it really is in His eyes – and to know something of how being here impacted Him. This is intimacy of the deepest kind. We need to bear this in mind when we grow weary of being here too. Growing weary of sin and its discord with our God is a gift. Don’t refuse it or throw it away. Be glad you can want to be free of sin and its effects, not because they are uncomfortable in the natural, but because they are antithetical to your new nature in Christ Jesus.
This is what He suffered so as to pity us and act toward us in mercy – and so it is it ought to produce the very same result in us. It ought to make us sympathize and empathize with our brothers and sisters in Christ – and to minister to them as He has ministered to us – indeed to minister to them OUT of how He has ministered to us.
So Paul can go on to say: 2 Corinthians 1:5–7 ESV / “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.”
When we suffer, we get comforted by Him. And we then use that to minister to you both through commiseration and sharing how He met us – and you do the same in patient endurance. And we know you’ll come out better for it all in the end. Why? Because Christ meets us there.
And then, Paul does what would have set his detractor’s hair on fire. Rather than hiding his sufferings to project some false image of being the “blessed man” – he goes on to tell them just how bad things have been for him lately. He has nothing to hide to try and save face before anyone. He just pours it out. He even admits he was in a place where he figured this is it! I’m done!
And then he tells them why such experiences are so valuable: 2 Corinthians 1:8–9 ESV / “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. 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. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”
So that we would learn not to rely on ourselves – but only on the God who raises the dead. The worst that can happen is that we die. And that can only eventually end in resurrection!
So he closes this portion with: 2 Corinthians 1:10–11 ESV / “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. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”
He delivered us from physical threats this time, and in the end, He’ll deliver us from death itself – and all this is calculated to birth thanksgiving in our hearts – and in the hearts of as many as hear of it. Glory!
Now I titled this sermon “From why me?” to “Why me?” Because there is a natural response to suffering, trials and tribulations of all kinds which generally finds us asking the ever present – “Why me?
Job asks it a number of times and ways like he does in Job 7:12 ESV / “Am I the sea, or a sea monster, that you set a guard over me?”
And of course, the underlying implication of that question always is: “I don’t deserve this!” So why me? Why do I get this pain, this perpetual trial, this anguish? We’ve all asked it at one time or another.
And Paul is getting us to ask “WHY ME?” in a very different way. The way David does when after God tells him he can’t build a Temple for Him because He wants Solomon to do it – and God promises to build David a house instead. So David prays: 2 Samuel 7:18–19 ESV / “Then King David went in and sat before the Lord and said, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord God. You have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come, and this is instruction for mankind, O Lord God!”
David’s “why me?” isn’t a cry that he is suffering unjustly – but that he cannot believe why he should be so blessed by God.
This is where Paul wants to move us to in freeing us from the success and prosperity model he had to dismantle for the Corinthians.
Yes, we suffer, along with all of mankind in this fallen world which sits under the judgment of God – but “why me?” Why should I have the benefit of knowing your personal comfort in my sorrows and woes?
Why should I have the privilege of facing them in such a way that I get to share something of the sufferings of Christ?
Why should I live as a Child of the God of all mercies, when so many suffer without Him and without hope?
Why should I be allowed to be God’s instrument to comfort others and expose them to the grace I’ve so abundantly received?
Why should I know that even if what I face right now completely undoes me, that I have the sure and everlasting hope of the resurrection and eternal life?
Why should I come to know the high and holy experience of learning not to rely upon myself, so that I might know the Spirit of Christ so intimately enabling, comforting and leading in the midst of all my trials?
Why should I be part of the redeemed who by their prayers minister to the sorrows of others – and cause God to receive the multiplied thanksgivings He deserves?
Why should I be allowed to face all of this in hope and assurance, when the masses around me know little or no relief at all – and certainly not the kind of blessing I receive?
Why me indeed?
Paul will go on to revisit this issue more in this letter – and especially why NOT “Living your Best Life Now” is located in outward blessing – but in an entirely different place. And why earthly and cultural models of success are not the means to weigh Gospel living and Gospel ministry at all.
But before we close, let me take just a moment to establish from this text just exactly what kind of “comfort” Paul has been talking about. God does not take on the role of spiritual or cosmic medicine. If we have a headache, we need to take an aspirin. Looking to Him in His comfort does not circumvent our need for doctors, medicines and other means of relief.
No, the comfort which belongs to the Believer as in Christ comes in these 4 primary ways:
- HIS PRESENCE. We see it in the very word that is used for “comfort” throughout this passage: The very same word in the original used for the Holy Spirit when Jesus calls Him “The Comforter”. It is His – if I can coin a word: “coming-along-sideness.” He draws near to us in our sorrows. He makes His presence more readily known and available – if we will seek Him in those times. He is WITH us in our trials. He never leaves us alone. This is absolutely fundamental to Biblical Christianity. So much so, that Jesus includes notice of it in His parting words to the Disciples in Matthew 28:19–20 ESV / “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We are comforted first and foremost by the reality that He never ever abandons us, but goes with us through every trial.
- HIS PROVISION. Comfort from His Word, its wisdom, the record of His mercy on His people, and reminders of the truth.
Other Believers coming along side to point us back to Christ as in vs. 4 – and as Paul was so comforted when he finally met up with Titus and heard how things had begun to turn around in Corinth.
His indwelling Spirit constantly and gently wooing us to look to Christ in all.
Doctors. Medicines. Scientific advances.
The testimonies of other saints and how God met them.
His angelic host to surround us.
He appoints provisions we will never even begin to fathom until eternity reveals them – and we will gasp – “I never knew how you had provided for me in that time!”
And how we can become part of the provision for others as we comfort them with the comfort we have received from Him.
- HIS PROMISES. So Paul reiterates in vss. 8-10 that when he had completely despaired of physically surviving a recent trial – he could trust in the promise of the resurrection. That his trial was not the whole story, nor the end of the story – but Heaven and eternity still await him.
We are comforted by rehearsing and putting all our weight upon His unbreakable and sure promises.
- PRAYER. We have access to the throne of grace at all times, in all places and under all conditions.
We can pray for ourselves and others in petitions.
Prayers of praise and thanksgiving for His answers and above all the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to Him through the blood of Jesus.
Prayers for endurance.
Prayers to have our hearts and minds settled on His character and love toward us.
Prayers of utter weakness and unutterable except through our tears.
But prayers heard and attended to. As David notes: Psalm 56:8 ESV / “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?”
Prayer that obtains for us what we would not have any other way.
Here is our solid, foursquare comfort:
His Promises and
All ours, only because of Christ. What a Savior!
Let me close with a poem from a book I am recommending to all of you as a wonderful supplement to our sermon series now and our deeper discussions on Wednesday nights. The book comes from the pen of Alan Redpath on 2 Corinthians and is titled: “Blessings out of Buffetings.” Very readable, tender and devotional book and a real treat for your souls. I’ve wept through it many times.
The close to the introduction of the book includes this from Avis B. Christiansen:
Oh tried and tested Christian,
Beset on every hand
By storms of strife, remember
Thy Father holds command!
E’en though the tempest rages,
Thy chastened heart may sing,
For He doth purpose blessing
Through all thy buffeting.
Be strong and of good courage,
Though foes thy soul assail.
No weapon formed against thee
Hath power to prevail;
For thou shalt share the triumph
Of Christ, thy conquering King,
Who purposes a blessing
Through all thy buffeting.
Rejoice to be found worthy
Of suff ’ring for His name,
Who on the cross of Calvary
Bore all thy weight of shame.
When He shall come in glory
His ransomed Home to bring,
Thou’lt know in full the blessing
Attained through buffeting! (Redpath, Alan. Royal Route to Heaven and Blessings Out of Buffetings (Kindle Locations 3435-3440).