LESSON ONE: OVERVIEW & CHAPTER 1:1-11
ENCOURAGEMENT WHEN SUFFERING
Is there anything more exciting than the birth of a baby? The joy at the delivery of a healthy newborn is so great that the struggle of the birth process is almost forgotten! As much as we love this early stage of infancy, we expect the baby to grow and develop. It’s not long before the new parents realize that nurturing and training this newborn to mature not only physically but also to become a healthy well-adjusted member of society takes everything they have!
Churches and their members are similar. There is a lot of labor that goes into the birth of a new church fellowship. The church then needs to grow up in Biblically accurate beliefs and practices so that it matures into a healthy, reproducing fellowship. While there are specific beliefs and principles which the church must embrace, the method of nurturing and training each church body may need to be modified to fit its unique needs. What kind of leadership is necessary? How should truth be taught so that even a self-satisfied, immature, fractious group can reach healthy maturity? Paul, with his heart of pastoral and parental love, models wise leadership as he writes to the young Corinthian church in preparation for his upcoming visit.
Recently I visited the church where I grew up – for its last service ever. Years ago this was a dynamic, growing church with enthusiastic, involved members who loved the Lord and each other well. In recent years it was obvious that it was dying. The beginning of the downward slide came from a subtle but serious factor. Somewhere during its history this church had become satisfied with itself. For many years there were enough people attending the church to hide the fact that it was not thriving. Self-satisfaction led to complacency. It was no longer reaching out to the community, very few were coming to faith, and for the most part no one noticed. Poor leadership exacerbated the problem.
The church in Corinth was much like some churches today. It got off to a good start. But somewhere along the way it became divided over a number of issues: which leader the people preferred; pride in their choice to be “tolerant” rather than to deal with sin in their midst; misunderstanding of important doctrinal issues and of how the Christian faith should be lived out in everyday life. The Corinthian church was self-satisfied and had the potential to die before it really lived. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to deal with these serious issues.
The Corinthian church had also been infiltrated by false teachers who undermined Paul in a number of ways. They asserted that he was not a true apostle, pointing to his suffering as evidence. They claimed that his changed plans proved he was not trustworthy, and that his collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem was actually just a way for him to line his own pockets. These charges could not go unaddressed! Although the Corinthian church was immature and acting like it, Paul loved this church as a good father loves his child. Fearing how the Corinthians might react to the reprimands and corrections of his letters and previous visit, he postponed the next planned visit. Finally hearing that most of the Corinthians had responded positively, he poured out his heart to them in this his most personal letter. In 2 Corinthians, Paul bares his soul in a way we don’t see in any of his other epistles.
We need this letter ourselves! How do we keep from becoming self-centered and self-satisfied? If we are leaders, how do we keep this attitude from permeating our groups? What is Paul saying to which you and I need to respond?
DAY ONE: OVERVIEW OF 1 CORINTHIANS
A. CORINTHIAN CULTURE
Corinth was a Greek city with Roman character, having been rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 44 BC. It enjoyed a prime location on the land bridge between the Peloponnesian Peninsula and mainland Greece, sitting between two port cities. (Please refer to your map.) The Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympic Games in popularity, were held there every two years.
Corinth was a prosperous city and one of the more modern of its time. It was a center for the slave trade with about one third of its population being slaves. Immigrants from all over the region came to work in Corinth’s businesses. Both the very wealthy and the very poor lived here, and social status was highly valued. Sadly, Corinth was also well known for its sexual immorality and idolatry.
In spite of its challenges, Corinth was a strategic city. With people from throughout the Mediterranean region passing through, not only merchandise but also the Good News was easily carried from there to other locations around the world.
B. THE CORINTHIAN CHURCH
Paul spent more time in Corinth than in any other city except Ephesus. As we see from the first letter to the Corinthians, this was a gifted but immature church. After Paul left, others tried to assert their own authority in the house churches of the city in unhealthy ways. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to correct serious issues of doctrine and practice which had the potential to destroy the church within and also to destroy its influence in the community.
C. PAUL’S FIRST VISIT TO CORINTH
- Read Acts 18:1-18 for a record of Paul’s first visit to Corinth.
- Where and how did Paul begin this ministry?
- What types of opposition did Paul face?
- What encouragement did God give to Paul?
- How long did Paul stay in Corinth?
Describe the community where you live. Journal its characteristics, both positive and negative. How might this be a strategic location for disseminating the Good News?
DAY TWO: OVERVIEW OF 2 CORINTHIANS
A. AUTHOR AND TIMING
There is universal agreement that the apostle Paul was the author of 2 Corinthians. In spite of frequent subject changes rather than his usual more methodical style of writing, the unity of this book as a single letter is supported by most scholars.
The chronology of interactions between Paul and the church at Corinth is challenging to reconstruct. Paul first visited Corinth on his second missionary journey around 51 AD and stayed for 1 ½ years. Paul then went to Ephesus and in about 53 AD wrote the “previous letter” referenced in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 which has since been lost. In response to various reports, Paul next wrote 1 Corinthians in about 54 AD, probably sending it with Timothy. The problems addressed were not all resolved so Paul made a “painful visit” (2 Corinthians 2:1; 13:1). Paul then returned to Ephesus and wrote the “severe letter” which has also been lost. (2 Corinthians 2:3-4 and 7:8 reference the severe letter which Titus delivered to Corinth.) Although Paul was enjoying effective ministry in Troas, he could not relax fearing what the Corinthians’ reaction would be to that letter. Thus he left to meet Titus and hear his report.
With the good news that the majority of the Corinthians responded well to the “severe letter” and Titus’ visit, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians to encourage the church. He needed to reestablish his relationship with them, to reassert his apostolic authority, and to provide a rebuttal to some serious charges made by false apostles. He also wanted to correct their attitude toward suffering and to encourage them to keep their commitment toward the poor in the Jerusalem church.
Later, in the winter of 56-57 AD, Paul finally had his third visit to Corinth, probably spending the majority of his three months in Greece at the city of Corinth (Acts 20:1-3; Romans 15:26). He wrote his letter to the Romans during this stay.
The Corinthian church was having problems with both doctrinal and cultural issues. How did Christian values fit in a secular society? For people who valued high status in society, to become a humble servant of Christ was a radical concept. And how could Paul, who claimed to be an apostle, be so weak and submit to suffering if Christ was truly reigning in him? What benefit was there for Christians who followed Christ in this way?
With these things in mind, Paul wrote a lot about suffering and weakness, about his own ministry, and about the comfort we have in this life and the next. Paul also addressed church discipline and generosity toward those in need. Although Paul hopped back and forth between topics, this letter is inspired Scripture throughout and is packed with practical truth.
This is the most personal of all Paul’s letters. We see his passionate pastoral, parental love for the Corinthians in spite of their treatment of him. Paul wanted this church to grow up! Because of opponents in the church, Paul spent quite a bit of time in defense of his own ministry and apostleship. We see him not as a “super saint” but as a very human Christian.
Paul also encouraged the Corinthians in their new position as followers of Christ. He reminded them of the superiority of the New Covenant under which they were now living, and gave them real encouragement as they lived out their faith.
The key word in this letter is “comfort” or “encouragement.” The Greek verb is used 18 times, and the noun 11 times in this letter. Paul’s source of comfort and encouragement was God.
C. OUTLINE OF 2 CORINTHIANS, PAUL’S LETTER OF ENCOURAGEMENT
1. ENCOURAGEMENT REGARDING CHRISTIAN LIVING, Chapters 1-7.
Paul addresses his relationship to the Corinthians and the paradoxes of ministry done for Christ.
2. ENCOURAGEMENT REGARDING CHRISTIAN GIVING, Chapters 8-9.
Paul provides encouragement regarding a collection for the suffering church in Jerusalem, including wise principles for giving.
3. ENCOURAGEMENT REGARDING PAUL’S CALLING, Chapters 10-13.
Paul defends his apostleship and relationship to Christ.
What are your personal goals for this study? Record these in your journal so you can track your progress.
DAY THREE: PAUL OPENS WITH APOSTOLIC GREETING.
READ 2 CORINTHIANS 1:1-2
A. PAUL’S APOSTLESHIP
- How does Paul describe himself?
- What is an apostle? (A Bible dictionary may be helpful.)
- How was Paul’s apostleship unique? (Acts 9:15-16)
- What was Paul’s role as an apostle? (Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:17)
- To whom is an apostle accountable?
B. PAUL’S GREETING
- Timothy, a valuable coworker who is aware of the issues Paul is addressing, is a co-sender of this letter and stands with Paul on them. To whom is this letter written?
- Paul begins with his usual greeting. What are spiritual implications of the words “grace” and “peace”?
- Grace: Romans 3:23-24; 6:23; Ephesians 2:8-9
- Peace: Romans 5:1; Colossians 1:19-20
In what sense are you also an “apostle”?
DAYS FOUR and FIVE: PAUL SHARES ENCOURAGEMENT FROM SUFFERING.
READ 2 CORINTHIANS 1:3-11
One of the biggest questions people struggle with is this: “How could a good God allow suffering?” This may be your question as well. To some this question closes the door on faith; however thoughtful people know that God did not “create” suffering – that when He finished His creative work He pronounced it “very good.” It was not until sin entered the world via Adam and Eve’s choice to believe Satan rather than obey God that suffering became part of mankind’s experience. (Genesis 3 describes that event.)
Since that fateful day, the fact that we inherited a sin nature has been obvious. The reality is that not one of us is perfect. We continue to experience the consequences of sin through our own wrong choices, the wrong choices of others, and sometimes just the fact that we live in a fallen world which has also been affected by sin.
This passage on suffering is a favorite as it gives us one way to understand and accept at least some of the suffering we may be going through personally. Although the principles in this passage apply to any type of suffering, Paul is specifically referring to the types of suffering which come because we are followers of Christ. This was a surprise to some of the Corinthians who thought God protected spiritual people from suffering!
In the case of Paul, rather than proving he wasn’t an apostle as his accusers claimed, his troubles were evidence that he was sharing in the “sufferings of Christ” as Jesus had told His followers they could expect to do. His model is a very real encouragement to all Christians today.
The word, “comfort” was originally a strong word. The Latin word means “brave, strong, courageous.” The Greek word calls for “coming alongside to help.” Godly comfort strengthens us, gives us courage, and enables us to endure (or stand up under) the problems we are facing. This endurance is not about having a stoic attitude but is a steadfast trusting in God who is sovereign over the suffering. This endurance also doesn’t mean that we remain passive while God does all the work. We actively pray, search Scripture for wisdom, and seek godly counsel as we actively trust God. And we persevere in doing what He has called us to do, knowing that God who sustained Jesus in His suffering while on earth has the same power to sustain us in our suffering.
When a person has suffered, they have credibility when they offer help to another suffering person. For example, think of a woman who has undergone treatment for breast cancer. She is now uniquely able to help another woman who has just received that diagnosis.
- God cares! But He doesn’t stop there, He also acts! How may we participate in the process? How does being “in community” help? (1:3-4, 11)
- Just as birthing a child includes struggle, so does birthing a church. Verse 6 refers both to that birth and to their growth in the faith. What are “the sufferings of Christ?” (verse 5; Matthew 5:11; 1 Peter 4:12-16)
- Paul alludes to the severity of his own personal suffering without giving us specifics, although he includes both external afflictions and internal distress. Perhaps this is so we will focus not on the details but on God’s purpose behind his suffering and on Paul’s experience of God’s comfort in it. Paul does not minimize the severity of his suffering. What was the emotional impact on him personally? What did it teach him about God? How could his suffering therefore give Paul credibility in his teaching and also be a comfort to the Corinthians? (1:8-10)
- Identify at least three purposes for suffering in 2 Corinthians 1:4-11.
- What did Jesus say to expect if we follow Him? (John 15:18-21)
- How have you personally experienced the truth of 2 Corinthians 1:9?
- Have you experienced the type of suffering of verse 5 yourself? If so, how has God encouraged you in it? How have you been able to encourage others as a result?
B. PRESENT COMFORT
It has been said that all sun and no rain makes a desert. When our lives are too comfortable, it is human nature to become complacent, self-centered and self-satisfied. Suffering at times is God’s megaphone to get our attention. Among God’s purposes for allowing suffering into our lives are:
- to make us more like Jesus
- to reveal the truth of the gospel through us to the watching world
- to redirect our focus from ourselves to Him
- to bring glory to Himself.
What insight do you gain from the following verses? How do they support one or more of these purposes?
- Romans 5:3-5
- Romans 8:28-29
- 2 Corinthians 1:9
- 2 Corinthians 1:11
- 2 Corinthians 4:7-11
- Hebrews 12:1-3
- James 1:2-4
- 1 Peter 3:13-17
- 1 Peter 4:12-19
C. FUTURE COMFORT
This present life is not all there is. What promises do we have for the future?
- Romans 8:17-18
- 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
- Which of these Scriptures helps you personally regarding suffering? Are you seeing any of these benefits in your situation? How do they comfort or strengthen you?
- How might your personal experience of God’s comfort be helpful to another person?
- Has someone else’s experience of suffering been an encouragement to you? How did it help you?
- As wonderful as financial support is, prayer support is even more necessary. How careful are you to communicate prayer needs to your supporters, and then to follow up with how those prayers are answered?
- How faithful are you to pray for others who are suffering?
Record in your journal a time of suffering you have gone through. Include your honest emotions and thoughts at the time. What did God use to bring comfort to you? What did you learn about God through the process? How have you changed as a result? Who have you been able to comfort because of the comfort you received when you suffered?
Paul opened this follow-up letter to the troubled Corinthian Church with an official salutation introducing himself as a God-appointed apostle. His opening greeting included a heartfelt thanksgiving for God’s comfort in the midst of his terrible suffering. Paul was not only providing a defense of his ministry but was also encouraging the Corinthians and us regarding the great benefits of suffering in any Christian ministry. God never wastes our experiences but uses them for our growth and His glory!
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