From time to time religious movements develop that can be easily identified by some particular type of garment that its followers wear. Jewish men may be recognised by a little skull cap on their heads and muslim women by a hijab or burqa that completely covers the body. Members of the Rajneesh movement were easy to spot in a crowd, my how they stood out in their orange robes!
Jesus taught his followers that they too were to stand out; they would be like a city that is set on a hill, visible for all to see.
Although some would-
We may say this, and we may say that, but what we really believe deep down will out and reveal itself through our behaviour. In the life of the Christian there should be no distance between the way he lives his life and the gospel. Now no Christian will achieve this perfectly in this life but the more mature a Christian becomes the more his life will conform to his beliefs.
The apostle Paul was not perfect and openly declared his need for further progress:
Phil.3:12 "Not that I ... am already perfect, but I press on"
Nevertheless the apostle Paul was a mature believer – his union with Christ was genuine and deeply affected his whole life. When Paul defended his behaviour and his experience he was at one and the same time defending the gospel of Jesus Christ because it was this gospel that had made him what he was. And so as Paul refers to himself in this letter we must not try to drive a wedge between him and the gospel that he represents – his life and his experience demonstrate the true nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the immediately preceding verses, where Paul had written about his afflictions as a participation in the sufferings of Christ, he had written in broad and general terms. Now in vv.8-
He writes to tell the Corinthians of some of his recent struggles that they knew nothing at all about. But Paul does not do this as some of us might like to talk about our aches and pains to focus attention upon ourselves. No, his intention having explained just how difficult these sufferings had been was to focus attention upon God who had delivered him.
Paul as a Christian leader and as the apostle who had planted the church in Corinth wanted the church to know that his life, as just such a leader, was by no means exempt from suffering. But it is perhaps one thing to state that in general terms and another to go into more specific detail. (In similar ways perhaps we may be happy to declare ourselves to be sinners but more reluctant to talk about particular sins of which we are guilty.)
Paul describes his recent sufferings that had taken place in Asia. The Corinthians as yet had not heard of these troubles that Paul encountered while at Ephesus (Acts 19:21-
Acts 19:20 "So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily."
And yet this progress of the gospel was not to the liking of all and sundry. Very early on the Jews had reacted with hostility and Paul had withdrawn from the synagogue to continue his preaching and teaching ministry in a public lecture hall. Now towards the end of this 2 year stay as Paul was laying plans to move on opposition arose from a different quarter. A number of the silver smiths whose livelihood depended upon the sale of shrines for the local goddess started a riot. They were miffed because as the gospel made headway so demand for their wares dropped off accordingly.
It was thus becoming crystal clear to the apostle Paul that the faithful preaching of the gospel with the accompanying lifestyle changes that the gospel produced in the lives of men and women would always meet with opposition. As he was regarded as the agent provocateur Paul was the main target of such opposition.
The riot was brought to an end after a scary couple of hours but there is a real possibility that the end of the riot did not signal the end of the whole affair. The town clerk who had succeeded in quietening the crowds went on to suggest that the leaders of the silver smiths could take the matter to court and secure legal redress there. And Christians are still suffering the same thing today in the 21 st century.
This episode in the apostle's life was one which weighed very heavily upon him and it is not difficult to see why. Paul had already experienced a good deal of hostility as he preached the good news of Jesus Christ – was he now realising that it was simply always going to be like this? He felt that it was a burden that he simply couldn't carry on his own – he had been brought to the end of his tether and some.
It may have been that those legal proceedings had been brought in and that the verdict had gone against him – is that what he refers to as he stated that he had received the "sentence of death"? Not necessarily that execution was on the horizon but that he simply could see no way forward unless, that is, the Lord were to intervene in some way. (cf. 2Cor.4:10-
Paul doesn't share all this because he wants to wallow in a bit of self pity, nor does he do so because he wants to make the Corinthians simply feel sorry for him. Paul is busily explaining that as he serves Christ he is made to follow the pattern laid down in Christ's own life. The more this is the case the more his own feeble resources prove to be insufficient for the task at hand and the more he realises this to be the case.
So Paul found himself burdened beyond his strength, he found himself despairing of life (that is of a successful outcome to it all), he thought he couldn't go on being in serious peril, peril even of death. (2Cor.11:23)
And what did he do with all this? How easy it would have been to for Paul to pack his bags and go home and give it all up! He could have argued that he'd suffered enough, he'd done his bit and no-
But that was not how he reacted!!
By faith, Paul saw the hand of God in this further trial through which he had to pass. God wanted to make Paul rely even more upon God's power than he had done hitherto. Paul was a tough character and that very toughness was perhaps now standing in the way. Paul was brought to understand that his only hope was in God and that God was at work to bring him to just such a realisation!
But the human heart so often finds it hard to trust God. Don't you? Don't you ever wonder whether or not God is big enough to handle things? If you have a small estimation of who God is and what his powers are like then you will have trouble leaning on him alone. But Paul knew that the God he served was anything but small or weak. Listen to how Paul describes the God upon whom he had to rely, his God: this is the God who raises the dead!
Jesus had suffered and died – end of story? No way! On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead and has now the power of an endless life.
Paul too has proved this God – he's already been through many trials and even in the latest, most recent trial God has delivered him! Paul will simply go on and on trusting him and expecting him to intervene with more deliverances!
You see Paul will not allow sufferings, afflictions and tribulations of any kind drive him away from God rather he allows God to use these drive Paul ever deeper into the divine embrace.
The God that Paul has come to know is a wonderful God and I'm sure Paul would have been happy singing words like these of Samuel Medley:
When sore afflictions on me lie,
He is (though I am blind)
Too wise to be mistaken, yea,
Too good to be unkind.
The God who had acted in the past can be trusted in the present and hoped in concerning the future! That was the apostle Paul's confidence. Is it mine? Is it yours?
Now why is it that Paul wants the Corinthians to know all of this?
The Corinthians Can Pray
But why, we may still want to ask, was Paul so concerned that the Corinthians be made aware of all of this?
God had delivered Paul in the past when the Corinthians knew nothing at all about his difficulties and Paul believed that this God would continue to deliver him as he carried out his apostolic mission. And the Corinthians can also participate in this divine mission. Paul proceeds to tell them that they have a role to fulfil in securing this divine deliverance. Paul doesn't so much tell the Corinthians that they must pray for him but rather assumes that they will be praying for him!
It is not that their prayers will force God's hand to do what he never intended to do, nor does Paul say that without their prayers God will not be able to do what he wants to do. What Paul does speak about is the wonderful privilege that God gives his people of simply being involved in his work by prayer. Paul describes their prayer as helping him carry out his God-
And when Paul's ministry is owned and blessed by God in new and ever-
Many people's prayers will be heard and answered and the result will be thanksgiving – thanksgiving by those who will be brought to faith through the ongoing faithfulness of Paul's ministry reliant and dependent upon God. Those who have prayed too will be encouraged to give thanks – when prayer and intercession is seriously offered joy fills the heart when prayer is heard and answered.
We've nearly finished but we're not quite done yet.
It would be perhaps tempting to think that the sufferings and Paul has described here are the most serious and significant he has ever encountered. After all he has described them in such serious terms as we remind ourselves from vv.8-
"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."
The Corinthians may well have thought like this too as they began to read his letter for the first time. But Paul will go on to speak of sufferings and struggles that he considered to be far more significant and detrimental to his ministry.
The biggest trial for the apostle was the breakdown in the relationship he had with the Corinthian church itself. In the verses that follow Paul will go on to speak at some length about the misunderstandings, the tensions and the rejection which he experienced as the church lurched away from the true apostolic gospel to the triumphalism and empty show of the super-
Paul will go on to speak of his own struggles to regain the hearts of the Corinthians because for success at this point will mean that the Corinthians are saved for the true gospel.
How important this true gospel is and how important it is that we hold on to it carefully. The apostle shows us something of the importance of the matter by his readiness to be pressed and so hard-