Encouragement by the Saints
Would you have imagined the great Apostle Paul being discouraged? That outstanding servant of Christ, whose letters have been an encouragement and blessing to millions, who wrote four chapters full of joy (Philippians) from a Roman prison, and who faced martyrdom at the hands of Nero with confidence, peace and hope (2 Tim. 4:6-8) —surely he didn’t ever descend into the valley of depression? Yes! From his own account, it seems to have actually happened! He implies it on several occasions in 2 Corinthians. He certainly did not despair — but he was downcast — and, humanly speaking, he had good reason to be! One reason was “the care of all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28), which was a daily burden for him. Those who share, as elders, in the care of just one church can appreciate just what he meant by that phrase. One of the churches that caused him particular concern was the one to whom he wrote those words — the church of God at Corinth. But this very letter to the Corinthians, that reveals his discouragement, could be called: “The Epistle of Encouragement”! The experiences of discouragement fitted the great apostle to be an encourager.
One of the key words of 2 Corinthians is the word ‘parakaleo,’ which, as we have seen in these studies, literally means to call alongside (to help) — that is, to comfort, console, encourage. The verb form occurs eighteen times in the epistle (three times in one verse: 1:4), and the noun form eleven times (six times in chapter 1, translated “comfort” and “consolation”). Another important word is the noun ‘thlipsis’ and the corresponding verb ‘thlibo’ which, together, occur twelve times in the epistle, translated: “tribulation,” “trouble,” “affliction,” “burden.” Literally, it means “pressure pressing on and burdening the spirit.” It was the word that would be applied to the ancient punishment in England by a heavy weight being placed on the chest of the wrongdoer, crushing him to death. It is the word used for the great “Tribulation.”
In 2 Corinthians 1:3-11, Paul writes of:
A. THE NEED FOR ENCOURAGEMENT: Note how he describes the pressures of life: “tribulation” (4), “trouble” (4, 8), “afflicted” (6) — using the same Greek word in each case. In other parts of the epistle, he details some of these pressures; for example, chapter 4, verses 8, 9: “We are troubled (hard-pressed) on every side … perplexed … persecuted… cast down” (though not “distressed … in despair … forsaken … destroyed”). Again, in 7:5, 6, he writes: “We were troubled on every side” (NIV: “harassed at every turn”), “without were fightings, within were fears. Nevertheless God, Who comforteth those that are cast down, comforted us by the coming of Titus.” From these passages, we can deduce: first, that Paul was downcast (“cast down”); and, second, that God used a fellow-believer—Titus—to encourage him.
The crisis he describes in chapter 1 was probably different from those described in chapters 4 and 7. It was evidently one of the utmost gravity which gave ample reason for discouragement. We cannot be sure of the exact nature of this trying ordeal — whether a severe illness, a grave danger or a terrible persecution — but it was for him a critical situation. Three times in three verses (verses 8, 9, 10), he describes himself as being “at death’s door”; 8: “we were pressed out of measure” —weighed down, under great pressure and strain; “above strength” —beyond his natural ability to endure it; “insomuch that we despaired even of life” — death seemed certain. There seemed no way out of this desperate situation. Few of us have been as low as that! 9: “We had the sentence of death in ourselves” —humanly speaking, there was no hope of recovery; he was under the “death sentence” with no possibility of reprieve! The only way to look was up! — “That we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead.” Only a miracle of divine power could save him — and it did! 10: “Who delivered us from so great a death” — a condition that could be described, medically, as ‘terminal,’ ‘in extremis.’ Very few of us have been there!
In this deep, dark and difficult “valley of the shadow of death,” God was his only hope. His deliverance from this “deadly peril” (v. 10, NIV) was unmistakenly a miracle of divine providence, resulting from God’s intervention.
B. THE SOURCE OF ENCOURAGEMENT: Out of this crisis, Paul records the source from which he derived his encouragement; verses 3, 4: “the God of all comfort.” Encouragement may come to us through many channels, but it always emanates from the same source — God — He encourages us “in all our tribulation” (thlipsis) — in every pressure-filled situation. Paul states three reasons why He is our encouragement:
1. Who He is: a. “The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (3), in Whom are perfectly displayed the character and characteristics of the Father —His grace, compassion, tenderness, power, wisdom. b. “The Father of mercies” (3) — that is, the Source of all compassion. c. “Our Father” (2) — we are the object of His Fatherly concern and interest.
2. What He is: i. “The Father of mercies; He is compassionate and merciful: “It is because of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not” (Lam. 3:22). ii. “The God of all comfort” (paraklesis: encouragement), Who consoles and encourages His people.
What He Does: He delivers in every trial (10). In the past, He “delivered”; in the present, He doth deliver”; so we can have confidence that, in the future, “He will yet deliver us.”
C. THE PURPOSE OF ENCOURAGEMENT: (4-6). God does not encourage us only for our benefit, but for the blessing of others; not merely that we may be encouraged, but also that we may be encouragers. He encourages us “in all our tribulation” (thlipsis), “that we may be able to comfort (encourage) them which are in any trouble (thlipsis), by the comfort (encouragement) wherewith we ourselves are comforted (encouraged) of God.” Verses 5 and 6 expound this theme. The more we have experienced affliction — pressure — the better fitted are we to pass on to others the encouragement we receive. The one who is best qualified to encourage others is the one who has suffered the same sickness, experienced the same sorrow, endured the same trial or walked the same path.
D. THE MEANS OF ENCOURAGEMENT: While God is the ultimate and only Source of encouragement, He uses many ways to dispense and channel it to his people.
1. Human Channels: In this passage, He uses Paul to encourage the Corinthians — and us. Amazingly, He also used the Corinthians with all their carnality and failures to encourage Paul. In chapter 7, he expressed his joy in the encouragement he had received through Titus by his coming and by the news he brought of the Corinthian church: their changed attitude and behaviour, their deep sorrow, and earnest desire. So may we encourage fellow-Christians by our fervour, spiritual desires, and concern. But in chapter 1, Paul indicates another way in which they had encouraged him when he was in a grave crisis: “Ye also helping together by prayer for us” (v. 11). Their co-operation and partnership in prayer encouraged the great apostle, who frequently wrote of his prayers for the saints and solicited their prayers for him. By our prayers, we too can encourage the Lord’s people, including His servants.
“The weary ones had rest, the sad had joy
That day and wondered how?
A ploughman, singing at his work, had prayed,
’Lord help them now.’
Away in foreign lands they wondered how
Their simple word had power:
At home, the Christians, two or three, had met
To pray an hour!
Yes, we are always wondering, wondering how?
Because we do not see
Someone, unknown perhaps and far away,
On bended knee.”
Wilbur Chapman, the well-known American evangelist, became discouraged in his early days of preaching because of his ineffective delivery. A few elders in his church pledged to pray for him in His service. Their encouragement by prayer proved to be a factor in his effectiveness.
2. Heavenly Consequences of earthly trials. 2 Corinthians 4:17 was written as an encouragement for the Corinthians and for us. Earlier in the chapter, Paul writes of the pressures that had burdened him: “We are troubled (thlibo) on every side” (v. 8). Pressure seemed overwhelming — verses 8, 9. Yet, in verse 17, the same pressure (“affliction”) is described as “light.” Why? Because it is contrasted with another weight — of glory — which is “far more exceeding.” The present “affliction” is “but for a moment”; the future glory is “eternal.” What encouragement it is to look through the mists of our present affliction and view the glory yet to be: the weight of glory; eternal weight of glory; exceeding and eternal weight of glory; more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; “far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory”!