Simon Bowkett's Podcast

11. Hope for our Suffering - 2 Corinthians 1:3-11

April 09, 2022 Simon Bowkett
Show Notes Transcript

   

•          Introduction

Don’t we seem to live in an age that is very sensitive to its sufferings?

It’s not simply that we live in what someone called ‘the Paracetamol Generation’ where pain and suffering at no level is tolerated and ‘a pill for that’ must be found.

It seems to me that we are particularly sensitive to our sufferings for at least two reasons:

Firstly, because as a society we currently lack a meta-narrative … a big story showing how everything fits together and makes sense … that can account for suffering while giving meaning to and enabling some kind of understanding of it which prevents suffering becoming the ground on which the experience of our lives gets us swallowed up by meaninglessness.

Secondly, because the triumph of individualism in our culture has left us essentially alone in facing our sufferings.

And the hope held out in the resurrection addresses directly the anxiety accompanying suffering that is common in our place and time.

Things are different in many places where Christian believing is a more threatening experience.

In January 2021, about 2,000 Chinese house church leaders sat in a conference centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, listening to Tim Keller, Don Carson, Chinese Indonesian pastor Stephen Tong, and about a dozen mainland Chinese speakers. 

The theme of the gathering was how the church relates to culture. 

But in a culture that has long been hostile to the church, that mainly meant exploring how the Chinese house church can think about persecution and suffering.

A month before a strange cluster of cases of a very virulent double pneumonia emerged in the city of Wuhan. 

The disease added an enormous amount of stress to the daily life of Christians who were already harried. Since 2013, Chinese president Xi Jinping has tightened party control over every facet of life. In 2017, the government reiterated that house churches are illegal and that no religious activity—including hosting a home Bible study, donating money to a religious organization, or studying theology at college—could happen without their approval.

 

Now, basically all Chinese house churches have had their pastors and some of their people questioned by the police. 

 

Some have been kicked out of their church buildings.

 

Significant numbers have spent time in jail.

 

Even before COVID-19, leaders in the Chinese house church were working on a theology of suffering.

 

But the Chinese pastors and church members attending the conference spoke of sharing the gospel with the police, praying for fellow inmates, and being willing to suffer for Christ.

 

Get this clear understanding of what it’s all about, though:

 

“The mark of the church is the cross,” one leading Chinese pastor told the conference. “If you truly live the life of Christ, you will be persecuted.

But you will also “have resurrection power. 

You will have the power to suffer.”

Where are we going with this?

Our Era of Anxiety is an era sensitive to suffering and the Christian resurrection hope addresses this in three very useful dimensions that we can discern in 2 Corinthians 1 as Paul writes to a troubled and hurting church.

To some extent we have to see this hope in the resurrected Christ in the face of suffering addresses our actual personal circumstances of suffering.

         •        Hope in our Circumstances - deliverance, vv. 8-11

Firstly, of course, human beings in situations of suffering are naturally concerned for the relief of their current circumstances 

Suffering has come and we want for it to go away.

We want it fixed, foiled, finished with.

It’s perfectly understandable to feel like that … to let the circumstance itself become the uppermost thing in your mind that has your full attention.

The men and women of God of the past knew that experience … it’s one that Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 1:8-10

“We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God …

 

“He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us …”

2 Corinthians 1:8-10


            •          A living God

Let’s face it, a dead God is about as much use as a stuffed pillow.

You might lean on it for reasons of comfort, but it’s not going to DO anything for you.

If Christ’s bodily resurrection that first Easter tells us anything it tells us that God is not finished … a busted flush of a Messiah … but a LIVING one, so there is HOPE that He might step in for me and do something.

He is there and He is not silent.

He LIVES, so He can step in.

But WILL He?

Well, that is going to depend, isn’t it, on what makes Him ’tick’?

(And here’s where things REALLY start looking up).


            •          A loving God

Paul begins this first section of his letter with “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort …”

Paul is clear that God is not sometimes disposed to have compassion on His people and to comfort them on a good day when there’s a following wind.

‘FATHER of compassion’ or ‘Father of mercies’ … 

I think we get a bit bogged down in places 2 Corinthians (the original text of which is notoriously challenging to interpret) if we fail to realise that what Paul does so often throughout this book is to paint pictures with words for us, so that analysing the meaning too close-up and personal loses the point he’s making.

So much exegesis of 2 Corinthians is like getting too close to a painting in a gallery by Monet or Degas … they were impressionist painters with brushes and Paul here is being an impressionist truth-painter with words.

The FATHER of compassion gives you the idea of His essentially and supremely compassionate character constitution.

‘God of ALL comfort’ … comfort is something He is bang up for in spades.

He is always the God of every sort and extent of comfort.

Where the Trinity is concerned it’s not so much ‘Toys R Us’ as ‘Comfort R us’ … if you see what I’m trying to get at here?

This God is a LIVING God and a LOVING God.

Which is fine if all you want is someone who will be moved by your situation but aren’t concerned about whether they can DO anything for you.

But whom earth would think like that when life gets tough?!

You want someone Who is real, is motivated by love to help, but not someone who can only sit there wringing their hands about how hard life is for you at the moment.

Paul is not describing that sort of living and loving person here, but One Who also wields Sovereign authority in the world He has made.


            •          A Sovereign God

At the end of verse 9 here, Paul speaks of “God, who raises the dead”.

Come on, Who can do that?!

The One Who spoke the word of command and the world came into being.

The One Who said

““Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

 

27 So God created mankind in his own image,

    in the image of God he created them;

    male and female he created them.”

Genesis 1:26-27

The Creator and ruler of all, Who gave life, decreed that the punishment for sin should be death and by the same authority can call to dead Lazarus commanding him to leave his grave … and then give orders to unbind the grave-clothes from the staggering but rude healthy man who came staggering out.

You can find hope in your circumstances when you are looking to and trusting in the God Who lives, loves you and is the authoritative ruler of the ends of the earth.

Now THAT is the kind of friend sinners can RELY on!

And it is in that consideration that the point of all this suffering seems to lie …


            •          The God to DEPEND on

You see, here’s the PURPOSE Paul discerns in the painful trial in his own experience that he refers to:

 … this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God …

Now, that is the dynamic definition of faith, by which I mean ‘faith in progress’, ‘faith in action’ or ‘faith HAPPENING’.

What happens when we come to faith in Christ is known as ‘saving faith’.

It is the faith that turns away from self-reliance to trust in Christ alone for salvation, and it happens at the first.

But once you’re saved, you’re saved, you have been pronounced ‘not guilty’ now in Christ’s merit in the highest court in the cosmos by the decree of the Heavenly Judge and that is done … finished.

But there’s a life that has been engaged upon there, at the first, and as Paul says in Romans 1:17

“For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, 

just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.””

Do you see?

The faith once for all justification of the lost human being is by faith.

That moment of faith seals that salvation.

But the justification that is by faith is by faith from first to last … it starts with faith alone and is BY faith alone from first to last believing breath!

And because it is by from first to last, the faith that saves lasts.

Saving faith lives by faith from start to finish.

It DEPENDS on Gods to save and then to … carry on by the same relationships trust in the Living God.

It is resurrection-dependent because it looks to God to deliver from each daily trial and trouble and you can’t have that sort off device from a dead Saviour.

Paul is saying here in our text in 2 Corinthians 1, though, that we learn to live this faith through the trials that arise in living as a believer in a fallen world that is in rebellion against God.

Moving forward as he writes of how the Lord impacts our circumstances in suffering, Paul writes to the Corinthians

“He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us …”

         •        Hope in our Fellowship, vv. 3-7

Now that living, loving, Sovereign God you can depend on, by the power of Christ’s suffering … His death and resurrection … creates a two dimensional fellowship to help us and ease us through OUR experience of suffering alongside our crucified Messiah in His Kingdom.

“the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.  

For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 

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. 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.”

2 Corinthians 1:3-7

 

Now, that fellowship is first with Christ, and through Him with the Father by the Spirit.

 


            •          Our fellowship with God

Richard Gaffin was a Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in the 1970s and his writings were substantially translated into Chinese, leading to significant fellowship with Chinese house church leaders … and he wrote a lot about the theology of suffering.

Sharing in the “fellowship of his sufferings,” Gaffin explained, means that “existence in creation under the curse on sin and in the mortal body is not simply borne—be it stoically or in whatever other sinfully self-centered, rebellious way—but borne for Christ and lived in his service.”

In other words, Christian suffering has purpose. 

It reminds us—again and again and, in case you forgot, again—that we live an “already, not yet” life. 

Like Jesus, we exist in both a broken world and also in a spiritual reality.

We carry in us both the pain of this sinful physical existence and also the joy of the Holy Spirit. 

We’re caught, as it were, between two worlds.

But our fellowship is with a crucified Messiah … we follow a crucified Saviour.

The symbol that Christians rally to is a Cross, not a Crown.

But there is no body on the Cross Bible believing Christians use, because (to quote angelic the proclamation that first Easter Day) “He is not here, He is risen just as He said”

So Paul can write of the fellowship Christ-followers have primarily with the Lord Himself in their suffering of God Who:

“comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.”

Sharing in the “fellowship of his sufferings,” Gaffin explained, means that “existence in creation under the curse on sin and in the mortal body is not simply borne—be it stoically or in whatever other sinfully self-centered, rebellious way—but borne for Christ and lived in his service.”

 

In other words, Christian suffering has purpose. It reminds us—again and again and, in case you forgot, again—that we live an “already, not yet” life. Like Jesus, we exist in both a broken world and also a spiritual reality. We carry in us both the pain of this sinful physical existence and also the Holy Spirit. We’re caught, as it were, between two worlds.

 

But it’s not only our fellowship with God in this broken world that helps us through our suffering here.

The God Who fellowships with us because of the achievements of Christ’s death and resurrection also creates a HUMAN fellowship of those who are in fellowship with Him, which Paul teaches us is also hugely helpful in delivering hope to us in our sufferings.


            •          The fellowship that our fellowshipping God builds

Paul speaks here in 2 Corinthians 1 of the sharing in the sufferings of Christ, but also of the sharing of the strength that has given us individually with one another in the fellowship of His resurrection … the gathering of His followers, His church.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 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. 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.”

Look - that sounds convoluted but it is actually pretty straightforward.

Paul follows Jesus Who is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, the Crucified Messiah.

Following a crucified Messiah is going to have implications for our experience because the same world that was hostile to Him will be hostile to us if we are faithfully following Him … not because we’ve looked for that (what an aberration THAT would be!)

Not because we’ve looked for that but because the Gospel we live for and by is fire on a rebellious world’s skin.

So Paul ‘shares abundantly in the sufferings of Christ’ (v. 5)

But the sufferings Paul shares with Christ arise from the fellowship he has with Christ and the one mitigates the other, just as the suffering promotes the dependency on Christ the suffering teaches Paul and the closeness of fellowship with the Christ Who Paul is learning more and more to depend on.

And what THAT does is that it equips Paul to comfort others with the comfort this has all brought Paul from God.

Only the resurrected and therefore living God can produce the hope for our Era of Anxiety in its experience of suffering by this method and means.

The fellowship Paul has with God strengthens Paul as he passes through the experience of suffering, and then playing his part in the fellowship of God’s people Paul (and others like him who have transformed their experience of suffering by doing it with Christ) are able to share the comfort this brings them with others in the fellowship who are themselves going through it. 

And now finally, having travelled the road of these less well-realised routes to hope in their suffering for believers, we can turn to most Bible Christian’s FIRST resort in addressing suffering.

         •        Hope in our Destiny, v. 9

Paul has hope in his circumstances, in fellowship with God and his believing fellow mankind and hope in the destiny of the fellowship of the resurrection 

“… this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.”

2 Corinthians 1:9b

We know he makes much elsewhere of the comparison of our light and momentary sufferings (as he describes them) and the eternal weight of Glory that these are achieving.

“ I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.”

Romans 8:18-19

The super-transformative fact is that far from drifting through a meaningless wilderness, the fellowship of the Resurrection are travelling with definite purpose towards a glorious destiny.

         •        Conclusion

In the words of Sarah Liu … imprisoned and tortured for her Christian faith:

““Suffering is not a new truth, it is an old truth.”

“So,”

Says Eugene Peterson in his ‘Introduction to Job’  “instead of continuing to focus on preventing suffering—which we simply won’t be very successful at anyway—perhaps we should begin entering the suffering, participating insofar as we are able—entering the mystery and looking around for God. In other words, we need to quit feeling sorry for people who suffer and instead look up to them, learn from them and if they will let us—join them in protest and prayer.”

The thing is …

The living resurrected God delivers His people.

The living God we fellowship with creates comforting fellowship teaching and forming His people’s hearts for Glory.

The living God accompanies us along a journey that leads to a definite destiny.

You CAN’T just say that the Christian’s hope lies bottled up in another place.

Supremely, I guess it does.

But it also lies in the individual’s deliverance by the living God in the actual and present circumstances, 

the individual’s comfort in the shared experience and life of God’s resurrection people 

AND the glorious transformation of His people’s experience as they ultimately pass into His presence through suffering in a hostile world.