A. Address (1:1-2)
1. The Senders (1:1a)
2. The Recipients (1:1b)
3. The Salutation (1:2)
B. Comfort from God in the Midst of Trials (1:3-11)
1. The Reason God Comforts Paul and His Companions (1:3-7)
2. Hardships in Asia (1:8-11)
Paul is the writer of the letter and Timothy is serving with him in the establishment of the gospel in Corinth. Paul refers to himself as an apostle, that is, one who was specially given authority from the Lord to preach the word and call all men to the obedience of the gospel (1 Cor 9:1-3; Rom 1:5). Paul spoke authoritatively in the name of the Lord to the congregation in Corinth and they were to regard his instruction as coming from the Lord. After all, he was an apostle by the will of God (Gal 1:1).
Even though the first letter to the Corinthians reveals enormous struggles in the church, including: division and discord (1-4), sexual immorality of a kind that doesn’t even occur among the pagans (5), lawsuits among each other (6), misunderstandings regarding marriage and divorce (7), the proper use of freedom and injuring other people (8-10), contention over head-coverings, drunkenness, and extreme selfishness at the Lord’s Supper (11), abuses of the spiritual gifts, with an unhealthy concentration upon the miraculous (especially tongues) as a sign of greater spirituality (12-14), and a faulty view of the resurrection (15)—even though all this was going on, not to mention the trouble they personally gave the apostle, he nonetheless refers to them as the church of God in Corinth. One needs only read through the letters of 1 & 2 Corinthians noting the presence of the term brothers to see that Paul regarded them as Christians (though perhaps not every single one) even though he was deeply grieved over their spiritual condition at times, including their immaturity and lack of love (cf. 1 Cor 3:1-17; 6:11, etc.).
Paul gives the church one of his standard greetings. Grace refers to that unmerited favor of God toward unworthy sinners that leads to peace in their hearts (i.e., God’s peace that he possesses in himself), in their relationship with God, and also in their relationships with others. As with everything else Paul teaches, it is always Christocentric because it is only in Christ that the plan of God is accomplished and realized in the lives of the saints. For Paul, everything grew out of his understanding of the gospel (1 Tim 1:11).
After Paul has formally introduced the letter and given his characteristic greeting, he moves on to discuss the nature of his apostolic ministry among the Corinthians since it had come under such fire from certain opponents (cf. 2 Cor 11:23). In this section he will explain the change in his travel plans which had obviously been a sore spot with the church. The fact that he does not open with thanksgiving for the church (cf. Phil 1:3-8; Col. 1:3-8) nor a prayer for them (Phil 1:9-11; Col. 1: 9-14) indicates that the issue of his trial in Asia is ringing fresh in his ears and that the trial, as well as his travel plans, need to be discussed immediately. Only the trial in Asia will be discussed in this paper. However, the context must be pointed out so that the reader realizes that 1:3-11 is functioning in a much larger semantic unit, namely, 1:3-7:6. So then, after Paul deals with the comfort God had given him in the province of Asia (1:3-11) he will tackle the problem of the sinning brother in 2:5-11. Finally, 2:14-7:6 will be dedicated to the nature of the apostolic ministry. Taken together, then, the point of 1:3-7:6 is to reinforce in their minds his commitment to them and to help them understand the nature and problems of spiritual ministry.
v. 3 Paul starts this section off by ascribing blessing to God. While this opening was a typical way a Jew approached God it was nonetheless an expression of deep piety and reverence. But here, as in Ephesians 1:3 (cf. also 1 Pet 1:3) God is specifically identified as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we mentioned in the introduction, for Paul everything was Christocentric. Thus, the way one knows and experiences God is through his Son, Jesus Christ. And it is indeed the “son” that is our Lord (kurios). The use of Lord to refer to Jesus picks up on the Greek Bible’s translation of YHWH as Lord (kurios) and affirms the exalted status of Jesus. With the reference to our Paul demonstrates his solidarity with the church under the Lordship of Christ.
God is to be praised for many reasons, for all that he is and does, and the sheer greatness of his being (Ps 145:3), his love (Ps 86:15), faithfulness (Lam 3:22-23), strength (Isa 41:10), and inscrutability (Romans 11:36). Here Paul, in light of his deliverance from deadly circumstances in Asia minor reflects on and gives thanks to God for his immeasurable mercy. In fact, he calls God the Father of mercies (note the plural, “mercies”) and the God of all comfort (Mic 7:19; Isa 40:1; 66:13). God’s mercy is his pity upon us in our helpless (though not necessarily innocent) state and it results in his comfort being shown to us. Paul had experienced that deep compassion of a father who gives mercy a totally new name and who loves a needy son and extends mercy to him in the midst of his struggles (cf. Rom 5:1-5: God has poured out his love into our hearts…”). He comforted the apostle undoubtedly through the Holy Spirit and ultimately by delivering him from the deadly peril (v. 11).
v. 4 And God does not pick and choose when he will comfort us. Further, there is never a time when we deserve his special presence in mercy. Remember it is according to his mercies—which are many—and in all our affliction or in every affliction we go through. You may have sinned and as a result suffering the consequences, but God will nonetheless draw near to you to comfort you if you allow him.
So God comforts us in all our afflictions. One reason he does this is so that we can comfort others who are in affliction with the comfort by which we were comforted by God. In other words there is a reason why God comforts us. To be sure it is so that we ourselves experience his love and help, but he also wants us as Christians to be conduits of that love, not storehouses. Once we have experienced God’s compassion and comfort in the midst of a trial we are better equipped to minister that same comfort to others. We know what it takes, by the grace of God, to help others who are suffering. This is at the heart of the gospel.
v. 5 Paul gives the reason why the argument of v. 4 is true. It is true because just as the sufferings of Christ overflow toward us, so also our comfort through Christ overflows. The sufferings of Christ do not refer to any suffering Messiah endured on the cross en route to securing our redemption. Rather, they refer to the sufferings Paul underwent in the context of his apostolic ministry, that is, suffering for Christ which in fact every Christian encounters as a result of living in the “now/not yet.” There is an eschatological element in the sufferings as they are destined by God in order to fill up the full measure of Messiah’s suffering (Col 1:24). They are Christ’s sufferings since they come as a result of his life in us. Indeed, as he lives in us in the current expression of the kingdom, he endures them with us until they are completed.
But as the sufferings overflow so also our comfort through Christ overflows. But, Paul says, the more I suffer the more I experience comfort through Christ. The particular emphasis here is on the experience of comfort in the midst of suffering, not being comforted by being removed from suffering. Though God did save Paul from such a deadly peril (1:8-11), he was nonetheless comforted in the midst of the trial.
1:6 Paul picks up the general thought in v. 4 and applies it to his relationship with the Corinthians. In verse 4 he says that God gives comfort to those in trials so that they can comfort others who are going through trials. He brings this truth home to bear in v. 6 when he says if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort that you experience in your patient endurance of the same sufferings that we also suffer.
Two points must be noted in v. 6. First, Paul’s afflictions in the course of his ministry of preaching the gospel for Christ result in the salvation of those who hear the message. This, of course, included the Corinthians. Thus they owe their salvation—which brought them comfort and the experience of God’s presence—as it were, to the suffering of the apostle. Second, the fact that Paul is comforted in his trials, demonstrates to the Corinthians that they too can be comforted by God. The mention of this fact, though we are ignorant of the particular afflictions of the Corinthians, awakens them to the possibility of God’s comfort. The end result is that everything God did through Paul was both for his benefit as well as the benefit of the Corinthians.
1:7 Since the sufferings Paul refers to are unique to the Christian—sufferings the Christian undergoes in consequence of being a Christian in a fallen world—and the Corinthians are sharing in these sufferings, Paul is confident that the church will also share in a similar comfort; Paul is ultra confident that God will minister his comfort to them. The implication is that they too will be able to comfort each other in the trial they are enduring.
1:8 With the use of a common formula in Pauline writing, the apostle says for we do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters. Paul wants them to know the affliction that happened…in Asia, that he and others were burdened excessively, beyond their strength, so that they despaired even of living. The word for (gar) connects this paragraph, namely, vv. 8-11, with vv. 3-7 in the following way: since they can share in his sufferings and comfort he tells them about his great struggle in Asia. Scholars are not certain as to precisely what happened in the province of Asia, but many feel that it relates in some way to distress caused the apostle by Jewish opponents (cf. 2 Cor 11:23). Although we cannot know for certain what the struggle was, it nonetheless brought Paul to his knees—so to speak. He was burdened beyond his ability to endure, beyond his strength, with the result that he despaired of life.
A Note on Paul’s Affliction in Asia
There have been many suggestions as to precisely what Paul was referring to in 1:8-11: (1) On the basis of 2 Cor 11:25 it has been suggested that “drowning” may have been the affliction. This is unlikely since drowning is not generally thought of as an affliction and it seems that such is unlikely in the province of Asia; (2) Other commentators think Paul was talking about fighting wild beasts in Ephesus (1 Cor 15:32); (3) some suggest the riot at Ephesus which Demetrius, the silversmith, instigated along with the help of others (Acts 19:23-41); (4) some scholars suggest that Paul is referring to a deadly sickness of some kind. This option seems to square with the language about “receiving the sentence of death in them” (2 Cor 1:9); (5) Another option is that his trial in Asia refers to the Jews who gave him a great deal of grief. In Acts 20:19 Paul himself refers to “the trials which came upon him through the plots of the Jews.” And, when Paul was in Jerusalem it was the Jews from Jerusalem who stirred up the multitude to lay hands on the apostle (Acts 21:27; cf. also Acts 19:23-41 and Alexander’s role with 2 Tim 4:14). The plots of the Jews to harm Paul fits well with the Jewish opposition recorded in the book (cf. 2 Cor 11:23).1 In the final analysis, however, we cannot be certain about the kind of trial, but we can say that it was extremely painful for Paul, perhaps life threatening.
1:9 Paul says that he felt as if the sentence had been passed and death was the verdict. At least this is the place he had come to in his own thinking. He thought for sure that there was no way out whatsoever and that death was inevitable. But, after the entire affair was over he said that God permitted it so that we (he and others with him) would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead. Paul had come to view all of his life in the sovereign hands of God and his good purposes. He knew that God had permitted all of his affliction to occur for many reasons, one chief one being the apostle’s dependence on God. As Christians, we have, by virtue of becoming a Christian, learned to rely on Christ and not ourselves. We learned that through conversion. But the lesson really never ends and in certain ways is greatly accelerated when we suffer. The deeper the suffering, the deeper the despair. The deeper the despair, the deeper the feelings of death. The deeper the feelings of death, the deeper our cry goes forth to the one who can save us from death. What does all this produce: a greater God-given ability to comfort others who are suffering.
1:10-11 Paul is convinced that God delivered him, and those with him, from so great a risk of death and that he will continue to do so in the future. But he wants the Corinthians to know that such deliverance comes about when God’s people pray and petition him in such cases. But the prayer is for more than mere deliverance; it is also for the whole work of proclaiming the gospel and all that such an enterprise entails. The end result of such prayer and “help” is that many will give thanks to God on behalf of his gracious gift of deliverance for Paul and His advancement of the gospel.
1. The worship of God is not a Christian past time. It is our very life and is as integral to the Christian life as “blue is to sky.” You cannot have one without the other. “As a thoughtful gift is a celebration of a birthday, as a special event out is a celebration of an anniversary, as a warm eulogy is a celebration of life, as a sexual embrace is a celebration of marriage—so a worship service is a celebration of God” (Ronald Allen, Worship: Rediscovering the Missing Jewel). Praise is a integral element of celebrating God’s mercy and compassion upon us, the unlovable. Paul praises his Father and blesses him. Can we do less?
2. The Christian church in America is staunchly individualistic and yet the surest sign of Christian infancy is the thinking, rampant in our churches, that all is for me and that God blesses me with no necessary thought of extending that to anyone else through me. But God told Abraham that he would bless him and the world through him! Paul says that God comforts us so that we can comfort those with the comfort we have received from God. This is what saves us from useless religion! Certainly in our culture there is someone within arms reach who needs God’s encouragement through you. Find them and love them.
3. “For two years, scientists sequestered themselves in an artificial environment called Biosphere 2. Inside their self-sustaining community, the Biospherians created a number of mini-environments, including a desert, rain forest, even an ocean. Nearly every weather condition could be simulated except one, wind. Over time, the effects of their windless environment became apparent. A number of acacia trees bent over and even snapped. Without the stress of wind to strengthen the wood, the trunks grew weak and could not hold up their own weight (Jay Akkerman).” We must remember that the wind of adversity strengthens our resolve to rely on the lord and not on ourselves. In effect, like trees subjected to the winds of storms, we end up possessing a greater strength. So it was in the case of Paul, and so it will be in our case as we rely on the Lord who raises the dead.
4. The net result of all that God does is praise. Paul begins this section of 1:3-11 with praise and blessing and ends with compounded praise and thanksgiving being given to God. Remember in your life that all praise goes to God, for from him, and through him, and to him are all things!