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Bible GenevaThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

2 Corinthians 1:8-11

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers,[a] of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For 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. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 11 You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.

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In last week’s reading, the introductory verses to 2 Corinthians, Paul wrote about comfort, which comes only from God.

John MacArthur summarises those verses as follows (emphases mine):

First of all, we saw the promise of comfort in verse 4, how that the God of all comfort comforts us in all our affliction. And then we saw the purpose of comfort, also in verse 4, in order that we might be able to comfort others. And then we saw the parameters of comfort in verse 5. The comfort of God extends as far as we are suffering for Christ’s sake. That’s the boundary. Then we saw the partnership of comfort in verses 6 and 7, how that there is mutual comfort going back and forth between Paul and other believers in Corinth, a wonderful sharing as he uses the word several times in verse 7.

Paul wanted to make the Corinthians aware of how severe the persecution was that he and others experienced in Asia Minor, ordeals so terrible that they despaired of life itself (verse 8).

Matthew Henry looked into history of the time. His commentary posits a few possibilities of what might have happened, probably in Ephesus:

It is not certain what particular troubles in Asia are here referred to; whether the tumult raised by Demetrius at Ephesus, mentioned Acts 19:24-41, or the fight with beasts at Ephesus, mentioned in the former epistle (1 Corinthians 15:32; 1 Corinthians 15:32), or some other trouble; for the apostle was in deaths often. This however is evident, that they were great tribulations. They were pushed out of measure, to a very extraordinary degree, above the common strength of men, or of ordinary Christians, to bear up under them, insomuch that they despaired even of life (2 Corinthians 1:8), and thought they should have been killed, or have fainted away and expired.

MacArthur says that the Corinthians would have heard that Paul had been in great trouble but had not realised the severity of it:

The Corinthians must have known because he doesn’t give them any details. And surely whatever was going on in his life by way of persecution was passed along the “grace vine” to these people.

The Corinthians were not ignorant of the nature of this affliction. They were ignorant of the extremity of it. They were ignorant of how severe it was, the intensity of it. And they were ignorant of what was – what God was doing in it. But they – they must have known about what it was. Maybe it was stoning. Maybe it was a combination of being whipped and maybe it was a combination of being beaten with rods and put in stocks and deprived of food and water, imprisoned, wild beasts. Who knows? Who knows what was threatening his life? It happened after the writing of 1 Corinthians or he would have told them. So it’s rather recent.

It occurs, he says in verse 8, in Asia Minor, prior to his coming to Philippi in Macedonia to meet Titus. So it was in and around the area of Asia Minor where the primary city was Ephesus. In chapter 16 of 1 Corinthians, back one chapter in verse 9, he makes the statement that there is a wide door for effective service in Ephesus where he is and he’s going to stay there, but also there are many adversaries. It is conceivable that one of these adversaries or one or more of these adversaries has come near to taking his life.

In Romans chapter 16 verse 3 it says, “Greet Prisca, or Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus” – verse 4 – “who for my life risked their own necks.” This would have been written soon after 2 Corinthians. Maybe he is there referring to some involvement that those two people had in this life-threatening event. We just don’t know what it was. He doesn’t tell them the details of it. They were not ignorant that it was happening, they were ignorant of its severity.

The persecution was so severe that Paul and his companions passed a death sentence on themselves with the result that they learned to rely on God, who raises the dead (verse 9).

Henry explains:

God’s raising the dead is a proof of his almighty power. He that can do this can do any thing, can do all things, and is worthy to be trusted in at all times. Abraham’s faith fastened upon this instance of the divine power: He believed God who quickeneth the dead, Romans 4:17. If we should be brought so low as to despair even of life, yet we may then trust in God, who can bring back not only from the gates, but from the jaws, of death.

MacArthur has more, saying that Paul feared he would die before his work for the Lord was done and contrasts this with what he later wrote to Timothy:

He experienced some very dire circumstances that express a similar attitude. Second Timothy 4:6, “I am already being poured out as a drink offering and the time of my departure has come,” but that time it led to his death. But here he is and he’s at the end. Verse 9 he adds this, this is amazing, “Indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves.” In other words, what he is saying is in our own minds – and there’s a plural pronoun here which means somebody else was in this with him, perhaps. He could be using the plural in – in just a humble and meek way. But perhaps there was someone else in this. But in his own mind he says he passed the death sentence on himself. He was to be killed for the gospel’s sake. This was it. It was done. It was over.

And that was frightening to him at the time. And it was despairing at the time whereas in 2 Timothy it wasn’t. The reason is because here the work was not done and he knew it. He knew it. In 2 Timothy when he reached the point where he was being poured out like a drink offering and the time of his departure was … at hand and he knew he was facing the axe that would chop his head off, there was no sense of despair because he said, “I have finished the course.” Remember that? I’m done. But here, he knew he wasn’t finished.

MacArthur explains the words in Greek for passing a death sentence on oneself:

By the way, “we had the sentence of death in ourselves,” is a fascinating Greek word, apokrima. It’s used only here. It means – basically, it’s a technical word for passing an official resolution. And he uses a legal term for passing the official death sentence. He says, “I pass the official death sentence on myself.” Confident, absolutely assured that it was over. He got to that point.

As for the second half of that verse, acknowledging the need to rely on God who raises the dead, MacArthur tells us that Paul recognised that He wanted Paul and his companions in a state of brokenness for a purpose:

God was taking us to the place where we had no escape. We had no human resource intellectually, physically, emotionally. We couldn’t call on anything, nothing.

That’s just exactly where God wanted them. Just in the perfect place because, as Paul will tell us later in 2 Corinthians 12, in his weakness God’s power is perfected, right? God had this as the very purpose. And I’m telling you, folks, that’s one of His great purposes in our trials is to take us to the limit and beyond the limit where we have no power to fix it. We can’t do anything. All we can do – and I love this – is trust not in ourselves, verse 9, but in God who what? Raises the dead. I mean it was to that degree. The only way out was going to be in the hands of God because He’s the only one who could raise the dead. It was that far gone.

By the way, that is a title for God, “God who raises the dead” is used in the eighteen synagogue benedictions that we commented on in our study back in verse 3. “God who raises the dead” was a Jewish term, descriptive term for God. They say if you’re ever called upon to rescue someone who is drowning – some of you may have had this experience – that if you’re really thoughtful about it, you won’t try to rescue them until they go down for the last time.

Because if you try to intervene at any point prior to that when they still have the strength to kick and fight, they’re liable to drown you. But when they come to the very end of their strength and there’s no confidence left in their own deliverance, and they are weakened and still, it is then that they can picked up and brought to safety. And that’s exactly where the Lord wants to take us, to the place where we’ve given it our last shot and we’re sinking for the last time and there’s nothing in us that can save us and there’s no human resource.

Paul acknowledged divine deliverance and had every confidence that God would deliver them again (verse 10).

Henry says that such experiences, as dire as they are, build faith:

Note, Past experiences are great encouragements to faith and hope, and they lay great obligations to trust in God for time to come. We reproach our experiences if we distrust God in future straits, who hath delivered as in former troubles.

Paul exhorted the Corinthians to pray for him and his companions so that God will receive many thanks for the many blessings granted as a result of persecution (verse 10).

MacArthur outlines the importance of intercessory prayer:

Intercessory prayer is critical to the expression of God’s great power and God’s sovereign purpose. In prayer, human impotence casts itself at the feet of divine omnipotence. Thus the duty of prayer is not to modify God’s power but to glorify it. We’re not trying to change God’s plan, we’re just trying to get in line with it. Why? So that we can give thanks. That’s what he says. You join in helping us through your prayers so that thanks can be given by many people, that is all those who prayed. And that redounds to the glory of God. When everyone is united in intercessory prayer on behalf of God’s servant, then when God delivers him everybody is going to be united in thanksgiving. And that is going to be to the praise of God.

Many prayers bring many thanks. And God works through those prayers. Paul always has this marvelous balance. He never questions the sovereign purpose of God and he never questions the participation of believers in that sovereign work. And so the partnership or the participation is a participation of prayer as we pray for one another in all our trials. That’s what Paul meant when he talked about bearing one another’s burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ. We pray for each other faithfully.

MacArthur explains why bad things happen to good people:

that’s exactly where God’s power intervenes. Physical illness, whatever it is, emotional distress, financial disaster, death, being forsaken and left alone, whatever shatters your confidence in your own abilities, your own strength becomes your extremity and that is God’s opportunity. A progressive weakening of your instinctive self-confidence that leads you all the way to self-despair is exactly where God wants you. Because at that point the only thing that’s going to hold you together is a radical confidence in God. And that’s where Paul was. And then, in verse 10 he says it. God came riding to the rescue, “who delivered us from so great a peril of death.”

Afterwards, we can use those experiences to strengthen our faith and help others in their suffering:

Can anything be more wonderful than to realize that God is a God of tender mercy and a God of all comfort who comforts us in all our afflictions? Who comforts us so that we can comfort others? God, who will comfort us to the extremity, whatever it might be, of our sufferings on behalf of Christ? God, who will bring alongside us mutual sufferers who can share the same comfort and the same strength no matter how severe the trial might be. Even if we despair of life, the God who raises the dead can step in and He will until the day He takes us to glory. And then that last great truth. He does it through the prayers of His people.

This is a difficult concept for us to fully grasp, particularly in a Corinthian society such as ours. However, it is yet another reason why Paul was such a great Apostle.

Next time — 2 Corinthians 1:12-14

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