There will never come a time in your Christian life where the Spirit will invite you to coast. You are not going to grow to an age where it will be unnecessary to trust God. There will always be something that you need to trust God for. We never grow out of our need to believe in the God who raises the dead. There will never be as much padding as you would like.
“For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life: But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead: Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us; Ye also helping together by prayer for us, that for the gift bestowed upon us by the means of many persons thanks may be given by many on our behalf” (2 Cor. 1:8–11).
Summary of the Text
Authentic ministry is in constant need of resurrection power. Paul alludes to some kind of monumental trouble that he and his band had encountered in Asia. Some interpreters think that this is referring to the riot in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-20:1), but Paul’s description of his internal emotions here does not seem to line up with that episode. He describes himself here as despairing “even of life” (v. 8), and during that riot in Acts he was trying to get into the amphitheater to speak to the crowd. So it is best to apply this description to some unidentified disaster of Paul’s life. Now the reason Paul was given this sentence of death “within himself” was so that he might learn a lesson, that lesson being a “resurrection lesson” (v. 9). This was so that they would learn not to trust in themselves, but rather in God who raises the dead. This is the God who delivered, who does deliver, and will deliver again (v. 10). This is the lesson. Note that it is not necessary to die “all the way” in order to learn of God’s resurrection power. He can teach this lesson by taking us right to the brink.
And what God does in the past is to be taken by us as a pattern. What God has done we may trust Him to continue to do. And the final thought here is that there really is a biblical basis for getting a lot of people to pray for something. The Corinthians clearly helped Paul through their prayers—the gift of deliverance was bestowed through the prayers of many, meaning that there would also be gratitude from the many (v. 11).
The Affliction Pattern
An essential part of God’s plan—for establishing His church, fulfilling the Great Commission, and extending His kingdom throughout the world—has to be understood as the suffering of church planters, missionaries, and pastors. As they imitate Christ, it turns out that they imitate Him in His sufferings. This is why He has things go wrong. When things “go wrong” in this way, you should know you are on the right track.
This requires great wisdom, because there is a kind of “going wrong” that should be a signal to knock off whatever it is you are doing. The sluggard is supposed to consider his lazy ways, and amend them (Prov. 6:6-10) The prudent man watches his step (Prov. 14:15), as well he should.
So how can we tell that we are suffering because we on the right track, and not because we are being foolish? How can you know the reason for all the anti-aircraft fire is that you are over the target? The answer is that you are to know the options because you know the Scriptures, and you are then to walk by faith. Afflictions can be God’s stop sign, and they can also be His blinking yellow. Walk in wisdom. Walk in faith.
A skeptic is going to say that “just because something happened in the past doesn’t mean it will happen again.” And what are we to make of the variations in the promises of God? He says that He will not allow the wicked to succeed in killing the righteous (Ps. 37:32-33), and yet what about Dietrich Bonhoeffer? And in that same psalm, God promises provision during famine (Ps. 37:19). Has no believer ever died of starvation?
We should always appeal to Hebrews 11:32-39. Look at the stark transition in the middle of v. 35. Some received their dead back to life. Others were tortured. Some conquered, others were conquered, and all did so in faith. The promises of God are not theorems from Euclid, where triangles will never not have three sides. The promises are rock in God’s quarry, and as I build my house, I need to decide which rocks I will bring out with intelligence and faith. Read your Bibles constantly and, having read your Bibles, read the story you are in. Do this honestly—take your thumb off the scales. If your thumb is on the scales, you are not building a scriptural house. Rather, you are just daydreaming and weaving Bible verses into it.
That said, He delivered us in the past. He will deliver us in the immediate future. And He will certainly deliver us in the ultimate future.
With Upturned Faces
The apostle Paul was not at all shy about requesting prayer. This is not because he did not believe in the sovereignty of God—it was because he did believe in the sovereignty of God. Answered prayer is one of the central tools that God uses us to teach us that everything proceeds from Him.
Paul requested prayer for his continued boldness (Eph. 6:19). He requested prayer for his deliverance (Phil 1:19). He prayed that a door for effective ministry would open (Col. 4:3). He requested prayer for the Word of the Lord to speed on and be honored (2 Thess 3:1). Paul requests many prayers from many saints, and he does this a lot.
We get more details about how this is to work in v. 11 here. The Corinthians saints were helping Paul through prayer for Paul. When the gift of answered prayer was bestowed on Paul and his company, it was by means of the prayers of many faces (prosopon). Think of many faces, uplifted to Heaven on Paul’s behalf, and so when God answers their pleading, those same faces may look toward God in deep gratitude.
Prayers do not ascend to Heaven as so many data points, conveying mere information, with angels counting returns as though it were election night. Think of it this way. God does not answer prayers so much as He answers faces.
Prayer and its answers are a conversation. Prayer is relationship. Moreover it is a covenanted relationship, bound together in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the more the merrier. You are here worshiping God in the name of Jesus Christ, and God loves seeing your faces. So lift up your heads. You are in Christ, and in Christ you are summoned to ask God to regard your face.