1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia:
2Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The God of All Comfort
3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 5For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. 6If 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. 7And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
Just recently I found a box full of letters that my wife had kept. The letters were from me when I was in college and we were dating. As I read a few of them, the thing that struck me was, regardless of the length of the letter, I could immediately tell how I was feeling and what was on my mind in the first few lines of the letter. That’s the way it is for most people that write letters. Paul’s second recorded letter to the Corinthians is no different. We find out immediately what he is feeling, what is on his mind, and what the rest of this letter is going to be about.
It doesn’t take us long in this letter to realize that something has changed in the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians since he wrote the letter that we know as 1 Corinthians. Paul begins this letter in much the same way as he begins many of his other letters which was in a standard letter form for his day. Usually, though, he expands the greeting a bit, but this time he forgoes that, using a nearly standard greeting for his time. Paul, seemingly wants to get right to the point of his letter. He does, however, set some things down in the first two verse which lay the foundation for what he will say in the rest of the letter.
Paul stresses that he is an apostle or messenger, sent by Jesus Christ, but only at the will of God. Paul, in that statement, is showing that he feels he is a legitimate apostle because he has been chosen by the same will of the same God that sent Jesus as Messiah in the first place. We should also note that the scope of Paul’s letter has widened. His first letter was just to Corinth, but in this letter all the saints throughout Achaia are added. This demonstrates that the gospel has been spreading during the two-or-so years in between letters. Paul probably wants this letter to circulate throughout the entire area of which Corinth is a hub, to ensure that the opposition to him that has arisen in Corinth does note spread to the whole area. It was not possible to gain government recognition and secure a public building where all the believers in a region could meet together very often, so responding to false teaching was difficult. The only way to address common concerns was to circulate a letter like this one.
With the initial greetings out of the way, Paul moves into his opening prayer, which will let us know quickly what he is feeling and what the topic of this letter is going to be. It becomes quite obvious that Paul is consumed with thoughts of comfort and suffering. It is striking that there are 31 specific references to “comfort” (paraklesis) and “comforting” (parakaleo) in the New Testament; of those, 25 appear in Paul’s writings. Of those 25, 17 appear in 2 Corinthians and ten of those are in verses 3-7 of chapter 1. When one is mentioning comfort that often, it stands to reason that the presence of much suffering and affliction must be near. In fact, the term for “affliction” (thlipsis) appears only 45 times in the New Testament, 9 of them are in 2 Corinthians and 4 of those are in these verses here. Similarly, the word for “suffering” (pathema) appears 16 times in the New Testament; of those, 9 appear in Paul’s writings, 3 are found in 2 Corinthians, all being in these few verses here. As Paul opens this letter, he clearly has suffering, affliction, and corresponding comfort on his heart and in his mind.
So, why is Paul so focused on suffering and comfort? Much has happened in the short time between these letters. Situations have arisen which have caused Paul and the Corinthians great grief and have necessitated a switch from the gentle, teaching tone of the first letter to the more direct tone in the second letter, that leaves Paul justifying his own ministry to the very church that he helped create. The things that have happened will come out in the letter as we proceed, but we do need to fill in some gaps between the two letters. We know that Paul wrote at least four letters to the Church in Corinth. His first letter is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9 (a letter which has not been preserved by the Holy Spirit); following that he wrote the letter we know as 1 Corinthians; after that came the severe letter referred to in 2 Corinthians 2:3-4 (another letter that has not been preserved by the Holy Spirit); finally, we have the book that we now call 2 Corinthians.
Paul had sent Timothy to Corinth as he had promised (1 Cor. 16:10-11). Once there, Timothy found the situation in Corinth had escalated with the appearance of Paul’s critics. Paul apparently decided to go to Corinth immediately to smooth things over, but the result had just the opposite effect. Paul would describe this as a very “painful visit” (2 Cor. 2:1), as the church called into question Paul’s authority and his version of the gospel. These other teachers had deceived many of the Corinthians into accepting a different gospel (cf. 2 Cor. 11:4). Paul then left Corinth for Ephesus in the midst of this rebellion against his apostolic authority (2 Cor. 1:23-2:5; 7:12). This was not, however, a cowardly act of running from the problem as the false apostles had portrayed it (2 Cor. 10:10-11; 11:20-21). While in Ephesus, Paul sent Titus with the painful and severe letter, warning them of God’s judgment and calling them to repent (2 Cor. 2:3-4; 7:8-16). Paul later reunited with Titus and discovered that his severe letter had caused the repentance of most of the Church (2 Cor. 2:5-11; 7:5-16). There was still a presence of rebellion against Paul, however, so he wrote 2 Corinthians from Macedonia, somewhere between 1-3 years after 1 Corinthians, and began to make plans to return to Corinth for the third time (2 Cor. 12:14; 13:1).
One thing that we need to remember, in order to make this section and the rest of the letter clear, concerning Paul’s way of thinking is that he believes that what is true of the Messiah is true of His people, and vice-versa. As we will see, some in Corinth wanted a Christian life that was all about victory and comfort, rather than suffering. Paul reminds his fellow Christians that when we are truly in Christ, we will experience both. Paul has been living out the life of the Messiah and makes it clear that because of that status, everything he does is out of concern for others, a point he taught throughout 1 Corinthians. Now they are seeing that in living color. Paul’s critics were claiming that his suffering and weaknesses were a sign that he was not a true apostle. Paul says, though, that he must go through suffering precisely because he is a true apostle, and he has unashamedly suffered because, in the end, it is for their benefit. Everything Paul does, he does for their sake, which is always the sign of true Christianity.
For us today, there is probably not a better example than 2 Corinthians than a godly individual dealing with an incredibly trying situation that could cause insecurity. Paul had labored and loved the Corinthian church and now they were questioning his very calling as an apostle and a servant of Jesus Christ. The letter of 2 Corinthians can, in many ways, serve as handbook of remaining secure in our position in Christ despite the temptation to spiral into insecurity based on what is going on around us. As we go through the remainder of the letter, keep your eyes and your heart open and watch how Paul deals with hurt and insecurity and remains firmly secure in his relationship with God and solidly consistent with his love for the very people that were questioning him and hurting him.
Paul stands firm in the belief that God has been at work in any suffering that he has gone through and any comfort that he has received. It is easy for us to recognize that comfort comes from God but we’re not usually as quick to acknowledge that the sufferings of Christ must also flow into our lives because we are His people. Do you embrace suffering and persecution as a sign that you are the Messiah’s, or do you try to avoid suffering?