Gleanings from Paul
by A. W. Pink
7. Prayer Concerning Tribulation
2 Corinthians 1:3-5
The Communication of news in ancient times was much slower business than it is today. How long an interval elapsed between Paul’s sending his first epistle to the Corinthian church and his obtaining tidings from them we cannot be sure, but probably at least a year passed before he learned how they had received his communication and what effects, under God, it had produced in them. During that period of suspense he appears to have been in a state of unusual depression and anxiety. The fierce opposition he encountered in Asia where he was "pressed out of measure" (2 Cor. 1:8) and the deep concern which he had for the Corinthians affected his peace of mind (2 Cor. 7:5). His first epistle had been sent from Ephesus where he had expected to remain until the following Pentecost (1 Cor. 16:8), evidently hoping to hear from the Corinthian Christians by then. From Ephesus Paul proposed to pass into Macedonia and from there to Corinth (1 Cor. 16:5-7). But desiring to learn what had been their reactions to his letter, before he came to them he sent Timothy (1 Cor. 4:17; 16:10), commissioning him to set things in order. He bade them to respond peacefully to Timothy’s counsels.
Paul’s Concern for the Corinthian Church
A little later on, Paul sent Titus to Corinth in order to ascertain how matters were progressing with instruction to return and make a report, for the manner and measure in which they had responded to his exhortations would regulate to a considerable extent his future movements. Momentous issues were at stake: the interests of the gospel in an important city, the prosperity of a church which Paul had planted, and the honor of his Master’s name. Deeply exercised, Paul had left Ephesus and come to Troas on his way to Macedonia, where it seems he had arranged for Titus to meet him and make his report. But in this Paul was disappointed (2 Cor. 2:13), and having no rest in his spirit he pressed forward to Macedonia. There again peace was denied him, for he "had no rest," being troubled on every side. "Without were fightings, within were fears" (2 Cor. 7:5). Then God relieved the apostle’s suspense by the arrival of the eagerly awaited Titus, who brought Paul a most favorable report, assuring him that his epistle had accomplished most of what he desired (2 Cor. 7:6-16), and thereby Paul’s heart was greatly comforted.
When Paul learned that the Corinthians had received his admonitions in Christian meekness, that they had been brought to repentance and had put out of fellowship the incestuous person (2 Cor. 7:9; 2:6), and that the major portion of the assembly had expressed the warmest affection for him (2 Cor. 1:14; 7:7), he at once sent this second epistle to them. The news brought by Titus not only greatly relieved his mind but also filled him with gratitude to God. On the other hand, the boldness and influence of the false teachers there had increased, as had their charges against Paul, and their determined efforts to undermine his apostolic authority moved him to indignation (2 Cor. 10:2; 11:2-6, 12-15). This explains the sudden change from one subject to another and the noticeable variation of tone in this second epistle. To the obedient section of the church Paul wrote with the tenderest affection, commending their penitence, assuring them he had forgiven and forgotten. But when he turned to the corrupters of the truth among them, he struck a note of severity which is not heard elsewhere in his epistles.
God Revealed Through His Titles
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort" (2 Cor. 1:3 E.R.V.). This is an ascription of praise, for "blessed be" signifies "adored be." The Father is here adored under a threefold appellation, each phase of which views Him as related to us in Christ, that is, to Christ as the covenant Head and to us as God’s elect in Him. As the first will come before us again in Ephesians 1:3, we will reserve our remarks on it until we come to that verse. The three titles are most intimately related, the one depending upon the other. He is "the Father of mercies" to His people because He is the God and Father of their Head. And because He is "the Father of mercies" to them, He is also their "God of all comfort." This threefold designation is worthy of our devoutest and closest meditation.
The Father of Mercies
Though it is blessedly true that God is "plenteous in mercy" (Ps. 86:5), the title "Father of Mercies" conveys more than the idea that He is our most merciful Father. It also connotes that these mercies issue from His very nature and that they are therefore both His offspring and His delights. The Hebrews used the word father for the author or first cause of anything, as Jabal is termed "the father of such as dwell in tents" and Jubal as "the father of all such as handle the harp and organ" (Gen. 4:20-21), that is, the originator or founder of such. For the same reason God is called the "Father of spirits" (Heb. 12:9) because He is the Begetter of them. In James 1:17 He is designated the "Father of lights" as He is the Author of all gifts coming to us from above. In this verse is a manifest allusion to the sun which is the author and giver of light to all the planets and may therefore be termed the "father," or first original, of light to the earth. God is appropriately termed "the Father of mercies," for without Him none of our mercies would have any existence. He sustains the same relation to His mercies as a father does to his dear children.
Thus there is at least a threefold reason why God is here styled the "Father of mercies." First, as "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" He is such to us: thus covenant mercies are here in view. Second, God is called the "Father of mercies" to signify that He is so far from begrudging these to us that mercies are regarded as the Father’s offspring, as proceeding from His nature, therefore His delights (Micah 7:18). Third, the name "Father of mercies" was used because of its pertinency to the case of the Corinthians. It was His mercy which had moved Paul to deal so faithfully with them in his first letter, for—little as we may realize it and still less as we may prize it—it is a great mercy when we are rebuked for our faults instead of being abandoned by God. It was a further signal mercy which caused the Corinthians to be convicted by Paul’s rebukes; for the most faithful admonitions are ignored by us unless God is pleased to sanctify them to us. Only in His light can we see ourselves. It was an additional mercy which wrought in them godly sorrow, which in turn caused them to mourn for their sins and put right what was wrong; it is the goodness of God which leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
The God of All Comfort
"And God of all comfort." This is an excellency peculiar to the true and living God. None of the false gods of heathendom have such a quality ascribed to them; rather they are represented as being cruel and ferocious. Consequently they are regarded, even by their worshipers, as objects of dread. But how different is the Lord God: "As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you" (Isa. 66:13), He declared. What a revelation of the divine character is that! Though inconceivable in majesty, almighty in power, inflexible in justice, He is also infinite in tenderness. How this should draw out our love for Him. How freely we should seek Him for relief in times of stress and sorrow. But alas, how slow most of us are in turning to God for consolation; how readily and eagerly we seek other creatures for the assuaging of our grief. Many believers seem to be as reluctant to go out of themselves to God alone for comfort as unbelievers are to go out of themselves to Christ alone for righteousness. Yes, are there not some who, in a petulant and rebellious mood, say by their actions, "My soul refused to be comforted" (Ps. 77:2), despising their own mercies?
"The God of all comfort." That term has come to have a narrower meaning than its derivatives, connoting little more today than consolation or soothing. Our English word is formed from the Latin con fortis, "with strength." Divine comfort is the effect produced by His mercies. Every genuine comfort is here traced back to its source. He is "the God of all comfort." In its lower sense comfort is the natural refreshment that we obtain, under God, from others. We say "under God," for apart from His blessing of them to us we can derive no enjoyment and no benefit even from temporal mercies. In its higher signification comfort has reference to support under trials. It is a divine strengthening of the mind when there is a danger of our being overwhelmed by fear or sorrow. "This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me" (Ps. 119:50). It is blessed to remember how often the Holy Spirit is termed, in relation to God’s people, the "Comforter." Sometimes He makes use of our fellow Christians to administer spiritual comfort to our fainting hearts, as Paul was comforted by the coming of Titus (2 Cor. 7:6).
It is inexpressibly solemn to consider that in precisely these characters of "the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort" Christ was deserted by Him. As our Surety and not as His beloved Son (regarded as such) the Judge of all the earth dealt with Him in holy severity and inexorable justice, crying, "Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the LORD of hosts: smite the shepherd" (Zech. 13:7). That is why, amid all the indignities and inhumanities inflicted on Christ by men, He opened not His mouth; but when the Father of mercies withdrew from Him the light of His countenance, when His comforts were withheld, Christ broke forth into the mournful lamentation, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). And it is just because God did not sustain those characteristics to the Savior on the cross that Christ bears these relations to us. Let us ever remember that our cup is sweet because His was bitter, that God communes with us because He forsook Christ, that we are enlightened because He passed through those fearful hours of darkness.
"Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God" (2 Cor. 1:4). The immediate reference is to the experiences through which Paul had recently passed. He had occasion personally to adore God as "the Father of mercies and God of all comfort" since he had been proving Him as such. For God had comforted Paul in all his troubles. Yet the apostle graciously and tenderly associated the Corinthians with himself, for they too had sorrowed and been comforted (2 Cor. 7:9, 13). How striking is the difference between these verses and those which occupied us in the previous discussion. There the apostle could thank God only for endowments of the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:4-7), for he could not rejoice in their condition. But now he adores Him for the grace which makes all things work together for good to His own and causes their very troubles to issue in their profit. There he had termed the One addressed "my God," but here he adores "the Father of mercies and God of all comfort." Only as we pass through the fires do we obtain a fuller experimental knowledge of God and become more intimately acquainted with Him.
"Who comforteth us in all our tribulation." The soul is more capable of receiving divine comfort during a season of trouble, for the things of time and sense then cease to charm it. Moreover, the Lord manifests more tenderness to His people on such occasions: "If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the Spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you" (1 Pet. 4:14). God has various designs in bringing His people into trouble and sustaining them under it: for their growth, for a fuller discovery of Himself to them, for them to learn the sufficiency of His grace.
Able to Comfort Others
Another reason for tribulation is here alluded to: "That we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God" (1 Cor. 1:4). The favors which God bestows on us are intended to be made useful to others. If I have found the Lord "a very present help in trouble," it is both my privilege and duty to witness to my troubled brethren as to how I was enabled to overcome temptations, as to how I found the divine promises my support, as to how I obtained peace in Christ while in the midst of tribulation. The best place of training for the pastor is not a seminary but the school of adversity. Spiritual lessons can be learned only in the furnace of affliction.
This principle receives its highest exemplification in the person of our blessed Redeemer. "Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest" (Heb. 2:17). It is clear from these words that in order for the perfecting of Christ’s character to serve in the office of High Priest, He had first to know what actual trial and sorrow were. The "merciful" here signifies to lay to heart the miseries of His people and to care for them so as to sustain and relieve their distresses. Yet not His mercifulness in general is in view, for He possessed that as both God and man, but rather that which is drawn forth by the memory of the temptations and suffering through which He passed. Paul referred to the exercise of mercifulness and faithfulness in Christ’s priestly work on high as excited and called into exercise by the sense of the afflictions He experienced on earth. Not only merciful but faithful also in His constant care and attention to the needs of His weak and weeping people here below. Filled with compassion toward them, He is ever ready to support and sustain, strengthen and cheer them.
"For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted" (Heb. 2:18). Having trod the same path as His suffering people, Christ is qualified to enter into their afflictions. He is not like the holy angels who never experienced poverty or pain. No, during the season of His humiliation He knew what weakness and exhaustion were John 4:6), what the hatred and persecution of enemies entailed, what it was to be misunderstood and then deserted by those nearest to Him. Then how well fitted is He to sympathize with His suffering Church! Ponder such a passage as Psalm 69:1-4. Is not the One who passed through such trials capacitated to enter into the exercises of His tried people? As Matthew Henry said, "the remembrance of His own sorrows and temptations makes Him mindful of the trials of His people, and ready to help them." The same heart that beat within the Lord Jesus when He shared the grief of Mary and Martha by the grave of Lazarus still beats today, for His sympathies have not been impaired by His exaltation to heaven (Heb. 13:8). Oh, what a Savior is ours: the almighty God, the all-tender Man!
In All Our Afflictions He Is Afflicted
"For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin" (Heb. 4:15). Christ’s temptation was not restricted to the evil solicitations of Satan. It included the whole of His condition, circumstances, and course during the days of His flesh, when He suffered the pangs of hunger, had not where to lay His head, encountered reproach and shame, endured the contradiction of sinners against Himself. Thereby He was prepared for the further discharge of His priestly office, fitted to be affected with a sense of our weakness and to suffer with us. Though so high above us, He is yet one with us in everything except our sins, and concerning them He is our Advocate with the Father. We too are tempted (tried) in many ways, but there is One who consoles us, yes, who is afflicted in all our afflictions and who helps our infirmities. But in remembering this, do not forget that He had to cry, "I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none" (Ps. 69:20).
"Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God." One can enter more fully and closely into the grief of another if he has passed through identical circumstances. The Israelites were reminded of this when the Lord said, "Thou shalt not oppress a stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Ex. 23:9). Thus it was with the Apostle Paul. God’s design in so afflicting him was that he might be better qualified to minister to other afflicted souls. His afflictions are outlined in 2 Corinthians 11:24-30. Yet, so wondrously had God sustained him that he said, "I am filled with comfort, I am exceeding joyful in all our tribulation" (2 Cor. 7:6). God comforts by stilling the tumult of our mind, by assuaging the grief of our heart, and by filling the soul with peace and joy in believing. He does this so that we may be the comforters of others.
"For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ" (2 Cor. 1:5). The Christian must expect sufferings in this world—such sufferings as non-Christians are free from. Faithfulness to Christ, instead of exempting the believer from sufferings, will rather intensify them. This is not always pointed out by preachers. It is true there is peace and joy for those who take Christ’s yoke upon them, and such peace and joy as the worldling knows nothing of; yet it is true that each one who enlists under His banner will be called upon to "endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ" (2 Tim. 2:3). "We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). Therefore those contemplating taking upon them a Christian profession should be told to sit down first and count the cost (Luke 14:28-31). To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and those properly forearmed will not think it "strange" when the "fiery trial" comes upon them (1 Pet. 4:12).
Verse 5 supplies a confirmation of the preceding one, its force being: we are able to comfort others, for our consolation is equal to our sufferings. The particular afflictions to which the apostle here alluded are termed "the sufferings of Christ" because they are the same in kind (though rarely if ever so in degree) as He experienced at the hands of men; and because of our union with Him and in order to be conformed to His image we are required (in our measure) to have "fellowship" (Phil. 3:10) therein. They are also termed "the sufferings of Christ" because they are what His followers willingly endure for His sake (Phil. 1:29): since He is despised and rejected of the world, if we go forth unto Him without the camp it must inevitably entail "bearing his reproach" (Heb. 13:14). It may be well to point out that some Christians through their folly, fanaticism, haughtiness and other things, bring upon themselves needless suffering, but Christ gets no glory from them. But it is more necessary in this day to warn His people against a temporizing and compromising spirit which seeks to escape "the sufferings of Christ" at the price of unfaithfulness to Him.
"So our consolation also aboundeth by Christ." Here is rich compensation. As union with Christ is the source and cause of sufferings, so is it the source of our consolation (John 16:33). And it will be the source of our glorification (see Romans 8:17; 2 Timothy 2:12). There is a due proportion between the sufferings and the consolation, and if we would experience more of the latter we must have more of the former. The more the world frowns on us the more we enjoy His smile. If material comforts are taken away, He supplies spiritual ones. If our bodies are cast into prison, our souls enjoy more of heaven. He graciously provides a sweetening tree for every Marah (Ex. 15:23-26).