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The MacArthur New Testament Commentary 2 Corinthians
By John MacArthur, Gary Knussman
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2003 John MacArthur
All rights reserved.
Comfort in Trouble
(2 Corinthians 1:1–11)
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth with all the saints who are throughout Achaia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort. For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us, you also joining in helping us through your prayers, so that thanks may be given by many persons on our behalf for the favor bestowed on us through the prayers of many. (1:1–11)
Trouble is an inescapable reality in this fallen, evil world. Eliphaz, one of Job's would-be counselors, declared, "Man is born for trouble, as sparks fly upward" (Job 5:7). With that sentiment Job, certainly no stranger to trouble, agreed: "Man, who is born of woman, is short-lived and full of turmoil" (Job 14:1). Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, lamented, "Why did I ever come forth from the womb to look on trouble and sorrow, so that my days have been spent in shame?" (Jer. 20:18). That life is filled with trouble, sorrow, pain, disappointment, disillusionment, and despair is the testimony of the rest of Scripture.
Adding to the pain of trouble is the disturbing reality that God sometimes seems distant and unconcerned. Job cried out despondently, "Why do You hide Your face and consider me Your enemy?" (Job 13:24). The psalmist asked pensively, "Why do You stand afar off, O Lord? Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?" (Ps. 10:1). Speaking for Israel, the sons of Korah asked God, "Why do You hide Your face and forget our affliction and our oppression?" (Ps. 44:24). The prophet Isaiah affirmed, "Truly, You are a God who hides Himself, O God of Israel, Savior!" (Isa. 45:15). Even David, "a man after [God's] own heart" (1 Sam. 13:14; cf. Acts 13:22) and "the sweet psalmist of Israel" (2 Sam. 23:1), had moments of doubt and discouragement. In Psalm 13:1 he asked despairingly, "How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?" while in Psalm 22:1 he expressed his anguish in words echoed by the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross: "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" (cf. Matt. 27:46).
Many people today question why bad things happen to good people. But Scripture rejects the underlying assumption that people are truly good. The apostle Paul declared, "There is none righteous, not even one" (Rom. 3:10; cf. Pss. 14:1–3; 53:1–3) because "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23; cf. 1 Kings 8:46; Ps. 143:2; Prov. 20:9; Eccles. 7:20; Jer. 17:9). Consequently, because "God is a just judge, [He] is angry with the wicked every day" (Ps. 7:11 NKJV). Bad things happen to all people because they are sinners who live in a fallen, sin-cursed world.
Because believers are redeemed sinners who live in a fallen world, bad things even happen to them. In fact, God allows those things to happen for several important reasons.
First, God allows bad things to happen to His people to test the validity of their faith. According to Proverbs 17:3, "The Lord tests hearts." Second Chronicles 32:31 says, "God left [Hezekiah] alone only to test him, that He might know all that was in his heart." Centuries earlier Moses told Israel, "The Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not" (Deut. 8:2). Peter wrote,
In this [salvation] you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6–7)
Those tests are not for God's sake, because the omniscient God knows every person's heart. Instead, they reveal to those tested whether their faith is real. No trial, no matter how severe, can destroy genuine saving faith, because the saved "one ... endures to the end" (Matt. 24:13).
Job, the most faithful man of his time, went through almost inconceivable suffering. He lost his wealth, all of his children were killed, and he was stricken with a painful, debilitating disease. Worse, those closest to him turned against him; his wife foolishly urged him to "curse God and die!" (Job 2:9), while his friends' inept counsel finally drove him to exclaim in exasperation, "Sorry comforters are you all.... How then will you vainly comfort me, for your answers remain full of falsehood?" (Job 16:2; 21:34). Most disconcerting of all, though Job knew of no major sin in his life, God seemed to be his implacable enemy. In Job 19:6–11, he cried out in despair and confusion,
Know then that God has wronged me and has closed His net around me. Behold, I cry, "Violence!" but I get no answer; I shout for help, but there is no justice. He has walled up my way so that I cannot pass, and He has put darkness on my paths. He has stripped my honor from me and removed the crown from my head. He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone; and He has uprooted my hope like a tree. He has also kindled His anger against me and considered me as His enemy.
Desperately seeking sympathy from his friends, Job pleaded with them, "Pity me, pity me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has struck me" (Job 19:21).
Yet despite his misery, suffering, and despair caused by Satan's violent assaults (cf. Job 1:6–12; 2:1–7), Job's faith in God remained intact. In Job 13:15 he confidently declared, "Though He slay me, I will hope in Him." Confronted by God's glorious, majestic holiness, Job expressed genuine repentance for having doubted Him:
I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. "Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?" Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. "Hear, now, and I will speak; I will ask You, and You instruct me." I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:2–6)
The prophet Habakkuk also faced a dilemma that tested his faith. Distressed by the rampant sin in Israel, he cried out to God,
How long, O Lord, will I call for help, and You will not hear? I cry out to You, "Violence!" Yet You do not save. Why do You make me see iniquity, and cause me to look on wickedness? Yes, destruction and violence are before me; strife exists and contention arises. Therefore the law is ignored and justice is never upheld. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore justice comes out perverted. (Hab. 1:2–4)
To his dismay, God's answer was the opposite of what he had hoped for. Instead of bringing a spiritual revival in Israel, God was going to bring devastating judgment on the nation. Even more perplexing, He chose to use a godless, pagan nation as the instrument of that judgment:
Look among the nations! Observe! Be astonished! Wonder! Because I am doing something in your days—You would not believe if you were told. For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous people who march throughout the earth to seize dwelling places which are not theirs. They are dreaded and feared; their justice and authority originate with themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards and keener than wolves in the evening. Their horsemen come galloping, their horsemen come from afar; they fly like an eagle swooping down to devour. All of them come for violence. Their horde of faces moves forward. They collect captives like sand. They mock at kings and rulers are a laughing matter to them. They laugh at every fortress and heap up rubble to capture it. Then they will sweep through like the wind and pass on. But they will be held guilty, they whose strength is their god. (Hab. 1:5–11)
Yet despite his confusion over a worse nation being the instrument of Israel's judgment, Habakkuk's faith endured. Though the dilemma did not change, he expressed his continued trust in God's faith fulness, justice, and holiness:
Are You not from everlasting, O Lord, my God, my Holy One? We will not die. You, O Lord, have appointed them to judge; and You, O Rock, have established them to correct. Your eyes are too pure to approve evil, and You can not look on wickedness with favor. Why do You look with favor on those who deal treacherously? Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they? (Hab. 1:12–13)
Those whose faith is genuine will pass the tests God allows in their lives, bringing them assurance, confidence, and hope.
Second, God allows bad things to happen to His people to wean them from the world. Trials strip away the worldly resources that believers trust in, leaving them completely dependent on divine resources. Before He fed the five thousand "Jesus, lifting up His eyes and seeing that a large crowd was coming to Him, said to Philip, 'Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?'" (John 6:5). Philip and the other disciples immediately took inventory, and the results were not promising: "Philip answered Him, 'Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.' One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to Him, 'There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?'" (John 6:7–9). But Philip and the others missed the point: "This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do" (John 6:6). Jesus used this incident to show the disciples the futility of trusting in human resources.
Third, God allows bad things to happen to His people to call them to their heavenly hope. To the Romans Paul wrote, "We also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint" (Rom. 5:3–5). Those who hope for heaven will never be disappointed in this life, and suffering is the first step in producing that hope. Paul expressed his heavenly hope when he wrote to the Corinthians, "Momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:17–18). The greater the burden of trials that believers bear in this life, the sweeter their hope of heaven becomes.
Fourth, God allows bad things to happen to His people to reveal to them what they really love. Those who seek the proven character that suffering produces (Rom. 5:3–4), and to be fellow sufferers with the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 5:41; 1 Peter 4:13), will gladly endure trials. But those who focus on worldly things will react with anger and despair when trials strip them away.
The way Abraham faced the severe trial involving his son Isaac revealed his love for God. Genesis 22:1–2 says, "God tested Abraham, and said to him, 'Abraham!' And he said, 'Here I am.' He said, 'Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.'" Abraham must have been shocked at this seemingly incomprehensible command. Isaac was the son he had longed for for decades. Then, when Abraham was old and his wife past her child -bearing years, the unbelievable announcement came that they were to have a son (Gen. 18:10, 14). So incredible was the news that their long-cherished hopes were to be realized that both Abraham (Gen. 17:17) and Sarah (Gen. 18:12) initially greeted it with laughter. Further, Isaac was the son of the covenant, through whom Abraham's descendants were to come (Gen. 17:19; 21:12; Rom. 9:7).
All of God's promises and Abraham's hopes were bound up in Isaac. Yet when God commanded him to slay Isaac as a sacrifice, Abraham was ready to obey. God stopped him, then spared Isaac and provided another sacrifice. Abraham's willingness proved that he loved God above all else, even more than his own son. And he also believed in God's promise that through Isaac the nation would come—he believed that if he killed him, God would raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:17– 19).
Fifth, God allows bad things to happen to His people to teach them obedience. The psalmist acknowledged, "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word.... It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes" (Ps. 119:67, 71). The painful sting of affliction reminds believers that sin has consequences. God uses trials to bring believers to obedience and holiness, as the writer of Hebrews reveals:
You have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives." It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. (Heb. 12:5–11)
Sixth, God allows bad things to happen to His people so He can reveal His compassion to them. Believers' suffering allows Him the opportunity to display His loving-kindness, which, David declared, is better than anything else in life: "Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips will praise You" (Ps. 63:3). Believers never know God more intimately than when He comforts them in their suffering. Isaiah exults, "Shout for joy, O heavens! And rejoice, O earth! Break forth into joyful shouting, O mountains! For the Lord has comforted His people and will have compassion on His afflicted" (Isa. 49:13; cf. 51:12; 52:9; 66:13). This revelation of God's compassion enhances worship.
Seventh, God allows bad things to happen to His people to strengthen them for greater usefulness. The more they are tested and refined by trials, the more effective their service will be. "Consider it all joy, my brethren," wrote James, "when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1:2–4).
Finally, God allows bad things to happen to His people to enable them to comfort others in their trials. Jesus said to Peter, "Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:31–32). After enduring his own trial and experiencing God's comfort, Peter would be able to help others. As we will learn later in this chapter, Paul's opening emphasis to the Corinthians is that God "comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (1:4).
Excerpted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary 2 Corinthians by John MacArthur, Gary Knussman. Copyright © 2003 John MacArthur. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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