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Comfort in the time of trouble

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: 2 Corinthians 1:3-11 

All of Paul’s epistles present readers with interpretive challenges, but none is more difficult to understand than Second Corinthians. Not knowing the whole story about what was happening nearly two thousand years ago in Corinth puts the modern reader in a difficult position. Furthermore, Paul’s own complex and rhetorically sophisticated response to his critics and to the accusations of his Corinthian congregation raises questions that are hard for us to answer today. Abrupt changes in the tone, vocabulary and structure have led many interpreters to question the epistle’s unity and to understand it as an amalgamation of two or more literary units.

Even a cursory reading of 2 Corinthians shows that all is not well between Paul and his Corinthian converts. Paul stands as the accused in a hard-fought trial and the Corinthians are the jury that needs to be convinced to support Paul. At the same time he acts like a skilled defense attorney arguing his own case. Paul uses all his rhetorical skills to defend his position.

The exact cause of the tension between Paul and the Corinthian congregation remains unclear. Veiled references to Paul’s opponents in 2 Corinthians 11:4-15 indicate that some “super-apostles” preaching “another Jesus” were trying to persuade the Corinthian Christians that Paul was not to be trusted. Earlier Paul’s concern about the Corinthian congregation had prompted him to write a “letter of tears” (2:4) that seems to have eased the tension, but other issues soon surfaced.

2 Corinthians 1:3-7 — Shared suffering and encouragement 

Paul does not begin this letter with his typical words of thanksgiving. Instead he uses a well-known blessing formula common in synagogue worship. It is addressed to God, “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … and the God of all consolation.”

The Greek word translated “consolation” is a very rich word that has overtones of “comfort,” “encouragement,” “exhortation” and “help.” This noun and its related verbal forms occur no fewer than ten times in these five verses and also several more times throughout this epistle. As he frequently does in the opening of his letters, Paul introduces a key concept, in this case consolation or encouragement, as a theme that recurs throughout this epistle.

Paul’s purpose in these opening verses is to reinforce a bond between himself and the Corinthians by establishing that they have both suffered for their Christian faith. When he says “the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us” he means that the Corinthians and he himself have suffered much for the sake of Christ.

With the suffering, however, God has provided comfort or consolation through Christ. Together Paul and the Corinthian Christians share their suffering for the sake of the gospel of Christ and they also share the comfort Christ provides. This common bond makes him hopeful about his relationship with the Corinthian congregation. Paul and the Corinthians encourage and comfort each other in the midst of their mutual suffering.

2 Corinthians 1:8-11 — Paul’s death sentence 

The Corinthians were probably not aware that Paul’s suffering was so extreme that he was “utterly, unbearably crushed” to the point that he “despaired of life itself.” The crisis happened in the province of Asia, modern Asia Minor, and probably in Ephesus, where Paul had experienced the riot of the silver smiths. Some believe he had received a legal death sentence or had even faced lions in a Roman arena (1 Corinthians 15:32). Others suggest Paul may have suffered a life-threatening disease (perhaps his thorn in the flesh of 2 Corinthians 12:8?). We do not know the nature of Paul’s acute suffering.

Paul was confident that God had rescued him from a death sentence. Paul believed that just as God had raised Jesus from the dead, so God would preserve him in the face of another serious threat, his possible rejection by the Corinthian congregation.

Paul was hopeful that the Corinthians would join many others who were praying for him. His hope was firmly based on the power of the resurrection, but the prayers of many faithful Christians were also important.

For discussion 

Have you ever experienced the kind of comfort described in 1:3-7? Can you think of specific ways you and your congregation can provide encouragement to people who are suffering? Do you think a person who has overcome serious difficulties in life with God’s help can be especially helpful for others who suffer? Suicide continues to be a serious matter especially for certain groups such as military veterans, chronically ill or mentally ill persons, and even some teenagers. Does faith in God help such individuals?