|Sharing Christ's Sufferings (2 Cor. 1:1-14)|
|Written by Peter J. Leithart|
|Friday, 06 May 2011 09:38|
Much of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s defense of his apostolic ministry, which is also a defense of the reliability of the gospel he preached at Corinth. One of the things that led some people to doubt Paul’s status as an apostle was his life of suffering. How can God be with Paul, so full of the Spirit, an apostle of the exalted Jesus, when he spends his life under duress? Shouldn’t an apostle be a success in ministry?
Instead of minimizing his sufferings, however, Paul exults in them. In chapter 4, he talks about the suffering of the apostles, which leads to life for those who are in the church, and in chapter 11 he provides a famous catalogue of affliction. Far from being a disqualification for apostolic ministry, Paul sees his sufferings as the central part of his apostolic resume, because they prove that He is ministering a crucified Messiah. By suffering in his ministry, Paul bears the brand-marks of Jesus.
But what does this have to do with our suffering? Paul is talking about his apostolic sufferings, big important afflictions, persecutions for his faith. Can we apply a passage that deals with these special, unique sufferings of the apostle Paul to our trivial disappointments, failures, and troubles?
The key to answering this question is to recognize that Paul and the other apostles are not alone in ministry in the church. The apostles, prophets, and pastors of the church have a unique ministry, and share in a particular way in the sufferings of Christ, but they are not the only ones who have a ministry in the church. According to Paul, we all have a ministry in the church and our sufferings are part of our ministry.
Of course, the good effects that Paul talks about in this passage are not automatic. It’s certainly possible for us to be afflicted, suffer hardships and disappointments, and respond wrongly. It is possible to respond to affliction with what Paul calls “fleshly wisdom” (v. 12). What kinds of responses to difficulties are “fleshly responses” and manifest “fleshly wisdom”?
A fleshly response to affliction is one characterized by the works of the flesh. You have a pressure-filled day at work, with a foreman bearing down on you and pressuring you to meet a project deadline. You come home and snap at your wife, shout at the kids, look for an opportunity to let off steam by finding some reason to hit somebody or something. You get in fights, shifting blame from yourself to someone else, finding a scapegoat on whom we can take out your frustrations. That’s the flesh.
You lose your job, perhaps justly, perhaps not, and you sit around getting depressed, and eventually find that there is some escape, some easing of the pain, if we drink a beer, or two, or eight everything night. Or you find that you can forget for a few minutes by looking at pornographic web sites. Or you discover that prescription drugs that help you cope. Escape is a fleshly response as much as anger is.
The fundamental problem with these responses is that they all are based in self-trust, self-reliance. We’ve got pressure on us, and we rely on something we can do to relieve the pressure. And when we rely on ourselves, the heat that comes does not produce good fruit but thorns and thistles and all sorts of useless growth. Our sufferings work for our sanctification when we draw the conclusion that we are unreliable, but that we serve a reliable God, a God who not only brings affliction but who rescues from affliction (v. 9). Suffering is supposed to bring the most fundamental change of all, the change from self-idolatry to worship of the true God. And this is true of all afflictions, no matter how minor.
But that is not the end point of our sufferings, and if we stop there we don’t quite get the point of Paul’s teaching about affliction. God doesn’t bring afflictions only for our sake, but to make us more effective ministers to the body of Christ.
A young woman loses her husband, and feels that she died with him; a friend who has also known loss is able to give her hope in the God who raises the dead (v. 9). You have been through financial difficulty, and know that the Lord is faithful, and you can encourage someone in financial difficulties to trust the Lord. You have been through a life-threatening illness, or have suffered for years with an illness that is not life-threatening, and so you can encourage others. Sometimes, you don’t have to do anything except endure your affliction patiently. As other believers see that your faith endures in the midst of a severe trial, you are edifying people who are enduring similar trials.
But we can become effective ministers and mediators of God’s comfort without suffering the same affliction as someone else. Verse 4 moves from the affliction of the apostles (“our”) to the comfort of “those who are in any affliction.” Here is an apostle who has been flogged and imprisoned; here is a young woman bereaved of a newborn baby; does the apostle’s experience give him authority to speak comfort to her? Paul says Yes: “any” affliction.
The reason this works is that the dynamic of affliction and comfort is a constant, despite the infinite variety of human pain. Affliction is always a kind of dying, comfort a kind of resurrection, and an apostle who has been raised from a sentence of death, or has been hopeful in the midst of death, can assure any other believer that God will raise him as well.
Verse 5 even suggests a proportion between suffering and comfort. This is evident from the “just as . . . so also” structure of the verse, and also from the similarities of language: sufferings/Christ/abundance – comfort/abundant/Christ. Paul’s point is: The greater the affliction, the greater the comfort he can bring to others. No wonder Paul boasts of his sufferings, since the more he suffers the more his life exalts the resurrection power of God.
And this is precisely the way that our sufferings and afflictions are participation in the sufferings of Christ. Did Paul die for the Corinthians? In 1 Corinthians, he vehemently denies it (1:13). Yet, in 2 Corinthians 1:6 he says something that seems almost the opposite: The affliction of the apostles brings comfort and “salvation” to the Corinthians.
Paul is not the final sacrifice for sin, but his ministry “saves” the Corinthians. How? Paul goes on to talk about the need for the Corinthians to endure patiently, and this might provide a clue. Paul is afflicted; Paul finds confidence and comfort in the Lord; because of his experience, he can give confidence and comfort to others. And because of the comfort they receive from Paul, they are encouraged to persevere through their own suffering, rather than turning from the Lord and falling by the wayside (as many did – cf. Hebrews). Paul’s sufferings contribute to the salvation of the Corinthians by providing a living example of patient endurance, since it is those who persevere to the end that shall be saved.