Summary: What do we expect from life? Comfort or hardship? God’s grace and comfort are available to us - not to store, but to share.
Every now and again, one of our politicians expresses a view that cuts to the heart of Australia’s social conscience. Sometimes these phrases come back to haunt them during the next election campaign. Occasionally their words will be immortalised as famous words of a great leader. Generally the former is the case. Looking back over my relatively short time of political awareness, some of these pearls of wisdom have included:
- Gough Whitlam’s words from the steps of Parliament House on November 11, 1975. Not too many people have been able to maintain the rage for 20 years.
- Another was Bob Hawke’s faux pas that no child would live in poverty by the year 1990. He obviously wasn’t a prophet.
- Paul Keating came out with one a number of years back with his reference to the banana republic.
- Alexander Downers public life was full of them.
- And Bob Carr has stated that he will resign if hospital waiting lists aren’t halved within 12 months. Whether those words prove to be his downfall or a social and political tour de force won’t be known for another 10 months.
- But my favourite is a comment made by one John Malcolm Fraser - that "Life wasn’t meant to be easy." Was he right? Is life meant to be easy? Sometimes our lives go along relatively smoothly and yet at other times they are anything but easy.
But these words of Malcolm Fraser could just as easily have been the words of Paul as he wrote to the Corinthians. In 2 Corinthians Paul goes into some detail describing the sufferings he has endured and draws some conclusions as to the nature and purpose of comfort.
1. HISTORICAL SETTING
CORINTH - 55 AD
But before we approach the beginning of Paul’s letter, it may be helpful to get a feel for Corinth in 55 AD. During Paul’s lifetime, Corinth was one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire. It was a commercial bridge between East and West. It attracted immigrants, merchants and visitors from all areas around the Mediterranean. The inhabitants of the city came from a diversity of backgrounds and retained many of their social customs and religious beliefs that were peculiar to their places of origin.
Thus the church at Corinth was exposed to an amazing variety of customs and beliefs as well as a corrosive atmosphere of public immorality. Each of these factors encouraged moral laxity and divisiveness within this predominantly Gentile Christian community.
BASES FOR PAUL’S LETTERS
The church in Corinth had been established by Paul in around 50 AD. He sailed for Syria after staying there for around 18 months on his second missionary journey. Following his departure, the church began to divide based upon the various leaders’ styles - whether Paul, Apollos, or Peter. The Corinthians also raised some questions and issues for Paul to address. His response to them is what we now know as his first letter to the Corinthians.
At about this time; a group of teachers apparently came to Corinth from Palestine. They claimed to be Christians, emphasised their pure Israelite descent, and presented themselves as true "servants of righteousness". Basically, they persuaded some of the Corinthians that the Mosaic law was still operative. This obviously didn’t go down too well with Paul, who referred to them as "false apostles" and "deceitful workmen masquerading as apostles of Christ". As a result, he was attacked by them in terms of his personal, spiritual and professional capacity.
Paul despatched Timothy to look after this trouble, but was unsuccessful. As a result, Paul found it necessary to make a "very painful" visit to Corinth that also did not resolve the crisis. To make matters worse, Paul’s authority was further challenged by some unspecified act of disobedience.
Following this confrontation, Paul then wrote a particularly severe letter to Corinth in which he passionately defended his apostleship and demanded that the disobedient person be punished. A follow-up visit was put on ice as he was waylaid by an unspecified affliction. He sent Titus to deliver the letter who subsequently returned with news of the Corinthians repentance.
When he was informed that the Corinthians had received and essentially obeyed this angry or severe letter, Paul wrote from Macedonia what we now know as the second epistle to the Corinthians. In this letter, which we will start to look at today, Paul expresses his gratitude and joy for their repentance, asks forgiveness for the punished disobedient person, and generally elaborates on the proper relationship between an apostle and his congregation. The beginning of the letter is an attempt by Paul to reinforce his apostolic authority to the congregation because he writes as "an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God".
Thus, Paul’s letter is a direct response to a series of generally unpleasant events. The importance of this letter lies in its details concerning Paul’s life and ministry; and his personality and character under stress. He shares his experience of suffering with the Corinthians and speaks of how and why God’s work is expanded in the process.