Please open up to 2 Corinthians 1:3-10 and let’s read it together.
“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. 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. 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.”
Nothing New Under the Sun
Just pause there for a second. I know I just started, but I really need you to notice this: things weren’t going well for Paul, his missionary team, the other apostles, or the churches they had been planting.
Normally, at the beginning of his letters, Paul starts a bit more cheerfully by thanking God and pronouncing a blessing on the people he’s writing to, but he just sort of jumps in right here with the serious stuff.
If you remember our series in Corinthians you’ll remember that Corinth was a pretty rough place to be a Christian. It was full of temptations and pagan thinking, and as soon as Paul left town to plant other churches the Corinthian Church fell backward in a big way. That’s where we get 1st Corinthians. 2nd Corinthians was written to the same church, but things had gotten worse. Now, not only were false teachers taking over the church with unchristian teachings and practices, but those who had stayed faithful were facing all sorts of hardship. Nero had recently become emperor of Rome and we all know how much he hated Christians, so the persecution of believers was ramping up throughout the whole world.
Not only were there spiritual and personal problems within the church, but now Christians were starting to lose their jobs, get kicked out of the guilds, and having their ability to buy things for their family and sell things to make money stripped away. Their lives were in danger as they were being reported for false crimes, and their refusal to call Nero a “god” and bow to him as “lord” meant they were in danger of being tried and executed as enemies of the state. It was not a good time to be a Christian or a missionary.
So, when Paul opens up his letter here, he jumps right to what the Christians in Corinth needed to hear most. In light of all the danger, difficulty and frustration around them, he begins, “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.”
What amazing words from a man who is afflicted, suffering, and “utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” – writing to people who were potentially suffering the same problems. Astonishing words from a man who thought he might die at any moment for the sake of the gospel – writing to people who might die at any moment because they believed.
Over and over these days we keep hearing that we are “living in unprecedented times” and need “unprecedented measures”. I googled that phrase – “unprecedented times” – and told google to show me results for only the past month. I got 15 million results. But these are not “unprecedented times”!
Even if we just go back 500 years we’ll see Martin Luther and all the doctors, politicians, and churches in his era facing the Bubonic Plague. Later, in the Fall of 1665 we see the “Great Plague of London”. Then, a couple hundred years later, in the fall of 1854, Charles Spurgeon, one of the greatest preachers of all time, faced a massive Cholera outbreak – and all of these were “as real and as impactful as what we are facing now”[i].
And, what’s interesting – but not too surprising when you think about it – is that you’ll read almost the same things from these pastors, doctors and politicians that you read in the news today: Make sure you wash your hands, don’t gather together in big crowds, and make sure you say your prayers. There really is nothing new under the sun (Ecc 1:9)!
The people who faced these times – whether it was Roman persecution or a pandemic – were just as confused and worried as we are.
That’s why it bugs me when people say these are unprecedented times. They’re not. Disease, sickness, and death are part of life. Suffering is the usual course of mankind. People being selfish and hoarding resources is nothing new. Watching politicians and rich people use the crisis to try to gain power, influence, and money is nothing new. Worrying over our families and neighbours because of unforeseen trouble is nothing new. And seeing people rise up to the occasion to spread hope, joy, and help to their fellow man, is also nothing new.
What Do We Do?
But it somehow always comes as a surprise, doesn’t it? Whether we get sick, someone we love dies, we get robbed, people try to capitalize on suffering, or the governing authorities mess up – we somehow always seem to react like it’s completely unexpected and has never happened to anyone else, ever. It seems to be human nature to get so myopic, so self-focused, so caught up in our own lives and moments, that we think that the whole universe not only revolves around us – but that we are so special that history began when we were born and no one else’s experience can compare to our own. But that’s not true, is it?
And so, with that in mind – taking the historical blinders off, opening our vision up beyond ourselves, and realizing that others have faced what we are facing – we must ask ourselves, “How did they get through it? How did they react? What did they stand on?”
Which brings us back to our scripture for today. Look back at verse 9. It begins, “Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.” What did Paul do when he was faced with suffering, pain, sickness, persecution, and the threat of imminent death? How did he get through it? What words of hope did He give to the people he loved and served?
“But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 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.”
Christian theology and belief is not separated from our real life experiences. The miracle of the Resurrection at Easter is not merely an historical event that we just fondly remember at this time of year – it is a truth that affects our daily lives. Christians exist, moment to moment, in light of the resurrection – and the further we get from that light, the less time we spend talking to God about it, meditating on it, reading about it, the more hopeless we become.
We’ve talked many times before about how important it is that we take what we know about the gospel in our heads and allow it to affect our hearts and our hands – how critical it is that we don’t merely say we believe, but actually live and think and love and hope, like the death of Jesus on the cross, His resurrection from the dead, and his glorious ascension, are the very air we breathe.
That’s why Paul could look at the “deadly peril” he was facing and say “There is some good to be found in this difficulty because it ‘makes us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead’”. And the more we rely on God, the better off we will be.
Paul said it this way in the 1st letter to the Corinthians:
“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54–55)
Or to the Romans,
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:31–32; 35–39)
These words were not written by a wealthy mega-church pastor, sitting in a clean office with an ensuite bathroom, surrounded by a bunch of middle-class church folks – these words were written by a suffering servant of Jesus who says his life felt like he was “being killed all day long”.
Where does that strength come from? Where can you find that kind of hope? How do you take another step, plant another church, face another shipwreck, do another day of travelling hungry, when the churches you plant are under attack, you’re constantly on the run from being stoned or lashed, and Emperor Nero, the cruelest ruler in Roman history, was only a few years away from burning Christians as human torches to light his dinner parties?
Or, for us today – how can you watch the news, read your Facebook feed, and live in the world today as the COVID19 Pandemic takes over our daily lives – as we lose more and more freedoms – as we told to isolate ourselves and live in fear? How do we face it?
If your hope is in “science” or “politicians” or “policies”, they will fail you. Their best attempts and intentions are still affected by human corruption and have yet to save the world from pain, disease, fear, and death. And they certainly haven’t shown themselves to have the power to raise the dead!
Your hope must be in the Risen Lord Jesus. You must rely, as our scripture today says, “not on yourselves but on God who raises the dead”. He is the only one who can deliver you from “deadly peril” – whether by preserving you from becoming ill, or by sending a miracle to make you well when you are sick, or by delivering you to heaven after you die. That is what is captured in the confident phrase of verse 10: “…and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” It is in the knowledge and hope of the resurrection that we find our comfort.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone, the foundation, of everything else that Christians believe. All our theology – all our ministries – all our morality – all our preaching and teaching – all our values – our entire worldview rests on the historical fact that Jesus Christ really died on the cross, was really buried in a tomb for 3 days, and then really rose again from death to life, and still lives today. It’s the single, most important belief in Christianity – and it is constantly under attack by unbelievers, and sometimes even overlooked or ignored by those who claim to be followers of Jesus. They’re fine with Jesus as a good moral teacher, but they stumble over the resurrection. But when they do, they miss the entirety of the gospel.
The Corinthian church had this problem too, and Paul addressed it in 1 Corinthians 15. Open up with me to 1 Corinthians 15:12 and let’s read it together:
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:12–20)
I don’t intend to go into the evidences for the resurrection, because that’s not really the point of today’s message – but I do commend you to read “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel or even watch the movie.
Today, I’m talking to believers, to Christians who claim to follow Jesus but are plagued with fear and worry about what’s happening in the world around them, to the people they love, and within their own hearts.
My message to you today is that when there is so much uncertainty in the air, so much misinformation and confusion, so many people grasping at temporary salvation through extreme measures and putting their hopes in human efforts, that you will remember that everything you are going through is an opportunity to remember that you cannot rely on yourself or anyone else to save you from death, or to bring you joy, or give you the hope that will bring you through this time – you must connect with and trust the God who raises the dead, the Holy Spirit He sent to live within you, and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ who has promised to deliver you. Are you talking to Him every day? Are you living in the light of the resurrection and the presence of the risen Lord?
Let me close with this: I want you to notice that there are three sources of comfort mentioned in our passage today that we should be availing ourselves of every day. Look back at 2nd Corinthians 1:3.
Of course, the primary comfort is the one that I’ve been talking about already – the comfort that comes from knowing our future is secure because of the Risen Lord Jesus – but there are two more.
The first comfort mentioned is the comfort of God the Father. “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…” Every day, every moment, your Heavenly Father is ready and willing to grant you peace and joy in the midst of your trials. Are you coming to Him every morning, every afternoon, every night – reading His word, talking to Him in prayer, singing to Him songs of praise, sitting silently and meditating on His truths – so He can fill up your very, very leaky cup?
The second comfort mentioned is each other. “…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.”
We who are receiving comfort from God, are given that comfort not only for ourselves, but so that we can pass it on to others. When we feel lonely, afraid, weak, or sick – an then God meets us in our affliction, making us feel strong because God is strengthening us, it is our responsibility, to make purposeful contact with people who are weak. God meets us in our loneliness so we can share that grace with someone else who is lonely. God gives us hope and joy to combat our fears – and then tells us to go share what we have experienced with someone else who needs to hear it. God strengthens our feeble hands when they are weak so that we can serve others who need it! He doesn’t just meet us in our affliction for our own sake – but so that we will meet others “with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Are you being a source of joy and hope for your immediate family, for your extended family, and for the people in your church – even those not in your usual circle? Are you talking to God every day, feeling His presence – and then using that strength to making the phone calls, sending the texts and emails, and spread that hope and joy to others?
And to those who need comfort – are you allowing not only God but other believers to bring it to you? Are you making yourself available to them, picking up the phone, responding to texts, connecting wherever you can so that they can point you to Jesus?
This is how we will get through this time. By meditating on the resurrected Lord Jesus and the hope that brings us. By using that meditation to connect ourselves to God the Father through the Holy Spirit, the One who raised Jesus from the dead. And by taking the strength we receive from Him and spreading it to the people around us who need it.