We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.
I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy. For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more.—2 Corinthians 7:4–7
Paul finally returns to finish his sentence today. We have been waiting for him to finish it ever since 2 Corinthians 2:12–13.
When I came to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, even though a door was opened for me in the Lord, my spirit was not at rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went on to Macedonia.—2 Corinthians 2:12–13
Let me give you some context. Apparently Paul was supposed to meet Titus at Troas, but he wasn’t there. So Paul went to Macedonia. Paul was in anguish because he feared for Titus and for the Corinthians. In 2 Corinthians, he references affliction in Macedonia here in chapter two and now, in our passage for today, he returns to it. But Paul does more than merely return to chapter two; He returns all the way to the beginning of the book, to the idea of comfort.
You may remember that comfort is an incredibly important word in 2 Corinthians. In fact, Paul says that you can’t know comfort without knowing God because God is “the God of all comfort” (1:3). In a fallen world, God stands as the source of all comfort. This week Paul expands on that by saying that God is the God “who comforts the downcast” (7:6).
You need to see how Paul knits 2 Corinthians 1:3 and 2 Corinthians 7:6 together. First, this opening section (1:1–7:16) of the letter of 2 Corinthians begins with Paul praising God for the comfort that he has received from God (1:3). The word forms for “comfort” (“parakēlsis” and “parakaleō”) occur ten times in just five verses (1:3–7). Then this section of the letter ends with a “comfort remix” (7:4–16). Both Paul and Titus were comforted by the Corinthians’ godly grief, longing for Paul, and zeal. Here the word forms for “comfort” occur six times in ten verses (7:4, 6, 7, 13).
Let’s read these passages back-to-back so you can hear the connections. Notice the repetition of the words “affliction” and “comfort”.
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 may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.—2 Corinthians 1:3–7
I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy. For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more.—2 Corinthians 7:4–7.
In my first sermon on comfort (back on April 13, 2013), I said that the way we use words today puts us in a perilous position to hear what the Bible meant to say to its original readers. The danger is hearing a different connotation of the word “comfort” than what Paul intended. Today, the connotation of the word “comfort” is related to softness, pampering, or soothing. But the word “comfort” has gone through a complete shift to arrive at that modern connotation. Listen to commentator, David Garland explain this shift. “In the time of Wycliffe, the word was ‘closely connected with its root, the Latin “fortis”, which means ‘brave, strong, courageous.’” (Garland, 2 Corinthians, p. 60)
God’s comfort is not like comfort food; it doesn’t make you lazy and want to take a nap. Understanding the difference between modern notions of comfort (pampering) and Paul’s idea of comfort (strength/sustaining) makes all the difference in this passage. It is like the difference between a tranquilizer shot or a steroid shot. God’s comfort is not a tranquilizer that has a dulling or numbing effect on the pain. It is a steroid shot that strengthens and sustains perseverance and growth to push past the pain. It is not something soothing that makes you soft; it is something stirring that makes you strong. Don’t think of a nap after the Thanksgiving turkey; think of an amazing day of work after a perfect triple espresso at Starbucks.
This meaning of comfort occurs 31 times in the New Testament. Of those 31, 25 occurrences are in Paul’s writings. Of those 25, 17 occurrences are in 2 Corinthians. Of those 17, 10 occurrences are in those first verses of chapter 1. As Scott Hafemann says, “If Paul is the apostle of comfort within the New Testament, then 2 Corinthians is the letter of comfort, with 1:3–7 being the paragraph of comfort” (Hafemann, 2 Corinthians, NIVAC, p. 60).
That first passage talked about affliction, then comfort, followed by praise and hope. In our passage for this week we see the same pattern: affliction, then comfort, followed by joy. Both passages show Paul’s main point which he makes very clear in 2 Corinthians 7:6; we can glory in God’s character as our Comforter. He truly is the God “who comforts the downcast” (7:6).
I see three main ideas that Paul uses to show God’s character as the Comforter of the downcast. First, Paul talks about affliction and specifically our weakness in it (7:5). Then he talks about comfort, specifically God’s strong rescue (7:6–7). Last, he talks about the rejoicing that comes from savoring God’s strength (7:7).
Affliction: Our Weakness
For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast….—2 Corinthians 7:5
Paul describes a portion of his life as restless and afflicted “at every turn”. He defines it further as fighting without and fear within. What does that mean? When he says “fighting without”, he means physical suffering. “Fear within” references Paul’s internal suffering.
Paul was not a pretty picture. He was being crushed by the weight of external suffering and internal fears. He had been brought very low. He was weighed down like a car that was trying to carry too much and is scraping the highway. Everything changes in verse 6 with two words, “But God….”
Comfort: God’s Strong Rescue
But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more.—2 Corinthians 7:6–7
The phrase “but God, who comforts the downcast” is a magnificent phrase for two reasons.
First, the form of the phrase emphatically stresses the kind of God that God is. He is the One, the God, who comforts the downcast.
Second, the phrase “comforts the downcast” refers back to Isaiah 49:13.
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people
and will have compassion on his afflicted.—Isaiah 49:13
The Greek version of the Old Testament has our phrase “comforted the lowly/humble.” There is so much going on here! The context is electric with strength, rescue, and saving grace. Look with me just a few chapters earlier, in Isaiah 40, to feel this electric context more.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.—Isaiah 40:1
God comes to rescue the weak and lowly. This is especially true in terms of God’s eternal, saving rescue.
In a time of favor I have answered you;
in a day of salvation I have helped you.—Isaiah 49:8
Recall that Paul quoted this text earlier in 2 Corinthians 7:1. It is the story of coming home from exile. God leads a second exodus and delivers the weak and lowly from enemies that overpower them.
[…] Saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’
to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear.’
They shall feed along the ways;
on all bare heights shall be their pasture;
they shall not hunger or thirst,
neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them,
for he who has pity on them will lead them,
and by springs of water will guide them.
And I will make all my mountains a road,
and my highways shall be raised up.
Behold, these shall come from afar,
and behold, these from the north and from the west,
and these from the land of Syene.—Isaiah 49:9–12
Paul is talking about their salvation as a kind of second exodus, a deliverance from exile.
The last thing to notice is how God comforted Paul. God is the source of comfort, but people were the face (means) of comfort. Luther talked about people being “God’s masks”. God is behind all comfort, but he uses others to do the comforting, which means that God is in the business of building relationships. We depend completely upon God and he often uses people to meet our needs. Paul saw three ways God comforted him through others: the coming or presence of Titus, the comfort of Titus, the repentance of the Corinthians. Let me briefly explain what I mean by those three phrases.
The coming of Titus is referring to the fact that Paul was comforted when he found out that Titus was alive. Travel in those times was dangerous and when Paul didn’t find Titus in Troas like they had planned, it was a realistic thought to question whether Titus was safe or even alive. When Paul found out Titus was alive, he was greatly comforted.
Secondly, the comfort that Titus received from the Corinthians also comforted Paul.
Third, Titus’ report about the repentance of the Corinthians comforted Paul. Their remorse over their sin led to resolve, namely a longing for Paul and the desire to make things right, mourning over their sin, and their zeal for Paul. How deeply comforting must that have been for Paul! Which brings me to my last point, the result of comfort, that is, rejoicing.
Rejoicing: Savoring God’s Strength
[…] So that I rejoiced still more.—2 Corinthians 7:7
Verse seven is the result of all of this comfort. Paul uses the comparative contrast, “still more.” He is describing a kind of double joy. Not only was Paul comforted by Titus’s safety, but he was also comforted by the comfort Titus was feeling and by the report of the Corinthians’ response.
This is a great picture of what Psalm 94:19 describes, “When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.”
Why is there joy in this text? Joy is the result of savoring God’s strength. Joy is what happens when we realize that God is the loving source of all the comfort, rescue, and strength. Joy is soul explosively saying, “yes!” to all that God has done. As noted above, Paul savors a multi-rescue: God kept Titus safe. God brought the Corinthians back from the dead. Titus and the Corinthians are both restored to Paul. He knows that all this rescue and comfort was from God and therefore God is the one who Paul thanks and praises. Paul’s expression of praise and thanks is a savoring of God’s saving strength. It explodes from within him and this is called joy. Joy is the expulsive power that comes from savoring God and produces external praise and thanksgiving.
I want you to see death and resurrection at work in this passage again. The God who comforts those who are brought low is like the God who raises from the dead. Remember the affliction in Macedonia. Paul was pressed beyond his strength. He despaired even of life. That was a deadly peril. It was physical affliction. “Fighting without.”
And, in addition to the physical affliction, there was emotional affliction. Things in Corinth felt like emotional death. “Fears within.” Paul bears the anguish of loving the Corinthians and having to speak hard words to them. He cares about their pain and thus, he experiences their pain. Paul has a kind of connection with the Corinthians. Essentially, he is saying, “Nothing about this situation makes me feel good. It hurts me to say these hard things to you.” Paul sees death at work in the tearful letter and in the anguish of the time between when he sent it and when he heard back. But he also experienced God’s resurrection power in bringing the Corinthians back.
Joy is a great gauge for where our comfort lies. What do we find joy in? The true God or false gods? False gods are false comforters.
Is it correct to say that God alone comforts? What does the “God of all comfort” mean? It can’t mean that God himself is the only comfort we have, because our passage says that God comforted Paul through the Corinthians and Titus. Let me explain.
God alone is the source of all comfort. Yet, he uses many means and other people to be the face of his comfort to us. This shows that we do not have an exclusively vertical life; your life doesn’t consist of just you and God; it also consists of the people around you. All of it comes from him and he should be praised and credited. He is the source of all comfort and joy. So don’t credit people or his gifts. If you look to them as the source of comfort, you will turn them into false gods and thus, false comforters. Since we all struggle with doing this, let’s search our hearts a little.
What things do you turn to when you are down?
Is it wrong to take medicine? Is it wrong to raid the refrigerator? Is it wrong to drink alcohol? Is it wrong to watch a movie with friends? These things are not inherently wrong, but they are wrong when we look to them as our source of comfort and strength. They are wrong when we become dependent on them in ways that we should only depend on God himself.
How do you know when you are depending on them in wrong ways? You are overly dependent on them when they become disconnected from God, when there is a wedge of separation between them and God.
How do we know if there is a wedge of separation? Think about your thankfulness; thanksgiving is the key. Do you assume the gifts and the comfort they give you? Or do you receive them as a gift from God and thank God for them? Is there separation or does your appreciation of the gifts of God flow right into thankfulness to and for God himself?
We don’t want to use things as savior-type, coping mechanisms. “I can make it through anything if I just have enough ice cream or coffee, affirmation or success.” Though you might feel a sense of security, a false god can only give you a false sense of security. But it is so easy to think, “as long as I have that, I will be ok.” In God, we don’t need to turn to things to try to increase our capacity to cope with the stress of life. But rather, we receive the gifts God has given us because they increase our capacity to know and enjoy God. Do you enjoy the comfort of his gifts to you or do you enjoy the God who comforts you through his gifts?
Imagine with me: You’ve had a long, hard day at work. So many things have been difficult, unexpected, and disappointing. “Fighting without and fears within.” But you get home, have a meal, and remember there is ice cream in the freezer. Paul is saying to us in these verses that you can say, “God, thank you that in the midst of this bitter day, there is something sweet to savor like ice cream. That is the kind of God you are.” Or in a hard situation with your family you could say, “God thank you that in this conflict with my extended family, I have can feel your comfort very tangibly in my spouse who supports me and loves me.” Is your thanksgiving an anchor to God or an afterthought?
This is an essential question because the day may come when all of your earthly comforts are taken away. Persecution may come or tragedy may strike. What will get you through? Have you been relying on God’s comfort or other things? When persecution comes, will you abandon Christ to keep your earthly comforts, safety, or security?
Abandoning Christ to escape suffering means you abandon the source of comfort, and he’s not just the source of any type of comfort; He is the only source of eternal comfort. Trying to escape a little suffering by abandoning Christ actually results in an eternity of suffering. But seeing suffering as a road to comfort, comfort as a road to joy, and joy as a road to praise will whittle away all false hopes so that there is only one hope left – Almighty God.
Avoid the Ditches of Pessimism and Prosperity
The Christian Life is best understood through a death-and-resurrection-cycle paradigm.
Why does affliction (“death”) have to come first? Why does the affliction have to last so long? If God is going to bring comfort (“resurrection) anyway, then why doesn’t he just avoid the cycle and keep the affliction away?
We saw Paul’s death and life theology last week. The cross always comes first. This is an age of the cross, not the age of prosperity and the restoration of all things. All our efforts in this world will be tinged with a theology of the cross.
Pessimism Paradigm: Expect too little
Cross/Resurrection Paradigm: Death/Life and Affliction/Comfort
Prosperity Paradigm: Expect too much
Paul’s affliction is a cross-shaped reality. His affliction is real, but it is not despairing – it is anchored in hope because God is the One who raises the dead. We can see what God does through the cross. We may experience pain and say “what could God possibly do with this?” They were saying the same thing on the day that Jesus died. But look again. Look at the power that raised Jesus from the dead. Look at the empty tomb.
Savor the Frequent Displays of our Father’s Saving Strength
God rescues us when it seems hopeless. Let me try to put this into perspective for you. When Cara and I went to Hawaii, we did some snorkeling at Haunama Bay. The fish were amazing. It was like tropical colors and coral and parrot fish crunching on the coral and I even saw a moral eel which freaks you out because it looks like a swimming snake. The water was calm where we were swimming. Cara went back to the beach and I decided to go out beyond the buoys. They warned us that it was where only experienced swimmers should go because the current is strong pushing you out to sea. At first I thought it was cool to look at all the fish and not have to swim I was just floating out to sea. Then I looked back at the buoy and saw how far I had drifted. I started to swim back, but I was not getting closer no matter how hard I swam. Then the current would break and I could make progress. I would swim hard again and wait for the current to break. Then I made progress again. Finally I got past the buoy and the current was gone and the water was calm. I was tired, humbled, and I thanked God that I made it back. When I got to the beach I heard the loudspeakers say that no one should go past the buoys because the current was extra strong that day.
That is the cycle of this life. We live in a fallen world in which we must fight strong currents and then we get relief with resurrection comfort and rest. Don’t panic when the current seems too strong. It will break because God is the God who comforts those weighed down. There will be seasons of relief and there will be seasons of intense swimming. God’s promise is that you will not drown. He will give you the strength to keep swimming.
For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.—2 Corinthians 1:5–6
Share the Comforts You Have Received
Remember we said that when you are comforted, you are commissioned to be a comforter. The disciples were commissioned after the resurrection of Jesus. You should also consider yourself commissioned when you receive the resurrection power of God’s comfort.
We do not preach cheap grace here at Bethlehem. Cheap grace sends the message that people who are comforted are just comfort-consumers. “Comfort creates the comfortable.” But we believe that real grace and real comfort creates comforters (comfort-givers), not the comfortable (comfort-consumers). Real comfort commissions people to be comforters. In other words, to be comforted is to be commissioned to comfort others.
Don’t be passive and let yourself be paralyzed by the question of what you are called to do. Don’t passively wait for God to split the sky and draw a road map for your life on your living room wall. God’s comfort commissions you. This could be a short-term commission or a long-term commission.
The short-term commission is very situational. You just went through something that was unique and you see someone who was in your shoes in some way. If you have been comforted, look for others who are still swimming against the current of affliction. God came through. Hang on. Keep swimming. The current will break.
A long-term commission is more of a consistent pattern. Maybe you experienced something that is life-changing and it alters the course of your life so that now you want to make it a life-long ministry. You may be a widow who has gone through the depths of despair and mourning and now you have been comforted and you want to be there for others. Maybe you have experienced the pain of abortion and now feel a calling to help save the unborn and spare mothers from such heart-wrenching pain and trauma.
We sometimes cite texts like “serve in the strength that God supplies.” This text says something similar: comfort others with the comfort that God supplies. Take heart, dear friends, God does not waste any affliction. We should not waste any comfort! The image of “comfort” in this letter is something like a baton that one passes to another Christian as we compete in a challenging and exhausting contest. The hurt, repentance, and renewal of friendship have deepened the relationship among all three parties: Paul, Titus and the Corinthians (David Garland, 2 Corinthians, p. 352). Don’t drop the baton of comfort.
Savor and Share Jesus, the Greatest Display of God’s Saving Strength
And now the LORD says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD,
and my God has become my strength—
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”—Isaiah 49:5–6
Who is it that Christ came to save? Note the reversal that comes in the middle of verse 7.
Thus says the LORD,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation,
the servant of rulers:
“Kings shall see and arise;
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves;
because of the LORD, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
Thus says the LORD:
“In a time of favor I have answered you;
in a day of salvation I have helped you.—Isaiah 49:7–8
Let the strong be put to shame. Christ comes for those who have learned that they are weak and cannot possibly save themselves, like Paul mentions in his first letter to the Corinthians.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”—1 Corinthians 1:25–31
The saved are worshippers and evangelists. We long to see others experience the comfort and joy of salvation. We want them to worship our gloriously strong Savior. Boast in his strength. Glory in the God who saves not just the spiritually weak, but the spiritually dead. It is not like a rescue that could have happened if the lifeguard would have come to get me before I drown. We were already dead in our trespasses and sins. God had to come when we were stone cold dead at the bottom. It is not like we had little hope and little strength. We had no strength and no life and no hope. God made us alive. Conversion is a miracle. We have been given breath in our spiritual lungs to sing of our Deliverer. Rejoice in the greatest display of God’s saving strength! It is eternally well with our souls!
Share your story and savor his strength in the telling of the story. I tell you now that you must see your inability to save yourselves. He saves the lowly. Unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom. You need to be carried into the kingdom by the King. What good news. The shepherd comes and finds the lost sheep. He carries the sheep on his shoulders. What love! What strength! What a Savior. I pray that God will open your eyes, even as we sing of this great Savior. “My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more! Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!”
- “In a fallen world, God stands as the source of all comfort.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
- God is in the business of building relationships. We depend completely upon God and he often uses others to meet our needs. Paul saw three rescues from the hand of God: The coming of Titus, the comfort of Titus, and the repentance of the Corinthians. Who has God used in your life to comfort you when you were afflicted? What impact did this relationship have?
- Joy is the expulsive power that produces external praise and thanksgiving. It is a great gauge for where our comfort lies. In what do we find joy? False gods are False Comforters.
- What things do you turn to when you are down? Why do you turn to those things, and is it wrong to turn to those things? Here are some examples to discuss this question.
- Medicine: Is it wrong to take medicine?
- Food: Is it wrong to raid the refrigerator?
- Alcohol: Is it wrong to drink alcohol?
- Movies: Is it wrong to watch a movie with friends?
- Why does affliction have to come first? Why does the affliction have to last so long? If God is going to bring comfort anyway, then why doesn’t he just avoid the cycle and keep the affliction away?
- Are you enjoying the comforts God gives, or are you enjoying the God who gives comfort? How can you tell the difference?
- Have you experienced this process of affliction, comfort, and rejoicing? Share this experience to encourage the group. God’s comfort creates comforters; it does not make us comfortable. Are you currently in affliction and awaiting comfort? Pray as a group for God’s comfort to come.
- Christians are worshippers and evangelists. We long to see others experience the comfort and joy of salvation. We want them to worship our gloriously strong Savior. Let’s boast in his strength. Who is one person you could share your affliction, comfort, and rejoicing with this week who does not yet know Jesus?