2 Corinthians 1:8-11 “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answers to the prayers of many.”
These words open up the theme that true Christian may suffer intense anguish. But that is not their main lesson. “And God delivered us from them all,” Paul says, but neither is that his chief emphasis. The reason why God permits hardships to come into our lives – that we might not rely on ourselves but on God – it is this which is the most important truth before us.
Let us begin by considering the hardships Paul experienced in the province of Asia. The Corinthians across the other side of the Aegean Sea, 200 miles away from Ephesus, had known that Paul had had a hard time there, but they had not realised the intensity of his sufferings. The apostle does not specify what the sufferings had been, but we know something about the anguish and exhaustion which he endured in Ephesus from Luke’s account in Acts chapters 19 and 20.
1 The Trials of the Apostle at Ephesus.
We know of a number of different sources which brought pressure to bear on Paul. There was a punishing schedule of daily teaching during the heat of the siesta (that is, between 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) in the hall of Tyrannus, confronting not only seekers but certain men who hated all he had to say and were only there to stir up trouble. For the rest of each day, before and after those hours of teaching, he had to earn his living by tent-making, maybe four hours before and four hours after the tensions of public debate. David Prior talks of, “The pace of Paul’s daily routine, the intensity of his temperament, and of his preaching God’s word, the sheer hard work which he devoted to pastoral care of the young church – these and other factors must have left him exhausted” (David Prior, “The Suffering and the Glory”, Hodder, 1985, p.29). This went on for three years, with no vacations. But there were other more sinister forces at work.
Then Ephesus was also a centre for the occult. It was a community with fledgling Christian influence but with the momentum of generations of clairvoyance and spiritism. It was the site of the famous temple of Artemis and all kinds of evil and sensual rituals went on there, so much so that papyri containing magical formulae and incantations were commonly called ‘Ephesian letters.’
There were even some Jews in Ephesus, who had been raised in a home of a chief priest, who had been captivated by this fascination with the occult. Seeing Paul’s miraculous powers, they themselves tried to invoke the name of Jesus to drive evil spirits out of a demon-possessed man. It was an utter disaster. “The man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding” (Acts 19:16). Those men tried to use Jesus’ name like a talisman with no commitment to his authority, and they found themselves as helpless as children before this dark power. In other words the benefits that are found in Christ cannot be received apart from trusting and obeying him. God’s power in us is transformed and purified by union with the Redeemer.
There was a spirit medium in Aberavon in South Wales in the 1920s who was paid three guineas every Sunday evening for leading a spiritist meeting. One Sunday she was taken ill and unable to go out she was fascinated to see the expectant crowds who were walking past her house on their way to hear Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. She determined that she would go to Sandfields herself and it was there that she met with God. Her testimony to Lloyd-Jones was this: ‘The moment I entered your chapel and sat down on a seat among the people, I was conscious of a supernatural power. I was conscious of the same sort of power as I was accustomed to in our spiritist meetings, but there was one big difference. I had a feeling that the power in your chapel was a clean power'” (Iain Murray, “Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The First Forty Years,” Banner of Truth, p.221).
The attack upon the men who were using the name of Jesus as a charm had an enormous impact on the city, so that “a number of those who had practised sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly” (Acts 19:19). They started a bonfire of evil literature and burned everything they had, notwithstanding the cost.
One believes that such triumphs over the devil and his works would exact a price from every courageous fighter for Christ. There is such a reality as a ‘demonic backlash.’ The Reformation is followed by the counter-reformation. The Puritan period is followed by resurgent Arianism. The 1904 revival is followed by the 1914-1918 war and 20th century declension. Our Lord himself needed to fast and pray before his encounter in the wilderness with the devil. That battle wasn’t like some military exercises in which blank cartridges are used. It was war, and it was costly to Jesus. Angels needed to come and give him help. When the disciples of Jesus failed to change a boy dominated by an evil spirit the Lord told them that such deliverances would not come without praying and fasting. When Paul reminds these Ephesians of the nature of the Christian life he tells them, “It’s war,” and he spells out the reality of battling against principalities and powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world and spiritual wickedness in high places. There was one time when Bunyan’s Pilgrim fights for his life with Apollyon. Every Christian needs to clothe himself in all the armour of God just to survive, so that when the day of evil comes he may stand and fight (Ephs. 6:10-20).
Ephesus was also the centre of corrupt vested interests in the commercial and business life of the city. Guilds made silver charms, mini-statues of the goddess Artemis, idols designed to order for home and garden, and souvenirs to be sold to the visitors who had sailed to the shrine from all over the Med. But then the gospel arrives in Ephesus, and it has a pervasive impact on the people of the city: “the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (Acts 19:20). Sales of silver shrines went down. Idol-sellers took home less money. Idol-manufacturers became unemployed, and Ephesian citizens at last were speaking out about being joyfully delivered from the worship of a lifeless statue. A meeting of workmen was summoned by angry Demetrius a silversmith of all men connected with the temple and its manufacturing industries. The meeting soon went out of control, the mob went wild and they seized two companions of Paul and would have taken him too if they could have caught him. “Soon the whole city was in an uproar,” (Acts 19:29). An ugly crowd was baying for blood. There was murder in the air. Similar situations today can leave people traumatised. They dragged the men into the huge theatre which had room for 25,000 people and “they all shouted in unison for about two hours: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:34). Though both the Christians were delivered Paul tasted their hatred and quietly left town.
So we know of these pressures on Paul in Ephesus, and reading about them makes us feel that our Christianity is rather superficial. But there is obviously information being withheld from us of other afflictions of Paul, yet what they were no one knows. There has been much speculation – being thrown to the wild beasts in the arena, plots and assassination attempts, a shipwreck with a night and a day in the deep, the burdens of the churches of Greece, deadly sickness? I would speculate that it could have been some terrible persecution or cruelty wreaked upon some church members in Ephesus. But no one knows what had caused this awful death hanging over Paul. Clearly we do not need to know specifically what they were or we might think in our self-pity, “But mine are worse.” It was the blackest period of his life, and he wanted the Corinthian Christians to know that. How does he describe these trials?
2. Paul’s Self-Diagnosis.
The apostle describes them in four vivid phrases:-
i] “We were under great pressure:” You have been overseas, maybe to Kenya, and you have seen there a pathetic donkey carrying a huge burden and someone has a stick and they are whacking this animal to keep it going, and you have been outraged. Weighed down so that its legs are splayed with the burden, and just managing to keep going. That was how the apostle felt. You saw him on the Sabbath and you asked him what he was doing the next day and he would tell you of his schedule, working to earn his living for the first few hours of the day, teaching, debating, counselling, visiting, working again at tent-making, cooking a simple meal, and writing letters. Maybe he would recount some of the harassments he endured, was he bothered by rocks being thrown through his open window, did others played drums all night outside his house, were dogs let loose on him whenever he walked north up his street? “They really hate me there,” he would say ruefully. Then there were his devotions, praying for Thessalonica, and praying for Berea, and praying for Athens, and praying for Corinth, and praying for so many people here in Ephesus. There was constant heavy pressure upon him. But if you tried to sympathise with him, he would say, “To me to live is Christ. He gave himself for me. There is nothing I can do for Jesus which is too much. It’s a privilege. Oh, I don’t carry about with me very much at all, but he was too weak to carry his own cross.”
ii] “far beyond our ability to endure:” Paul quickly reached the limit of his own physique. He was not a brawny man. His enemies said about him that his bodily presence was weak. A little fellow with the marks of scars and beatings on his head and body, and often he reached the limit of his own endurance, but then he had other reserves. When the grand-daughter of General Booth of the Salvation Army took part in her first open air meeting she went to give a report of it to the General. “How did it go?” he said to her. “All right, I think,” she said, “I did my best.” His soft face hardened: “Your best is not good enough for God. Through Jesus Christ you can do better than your best.” How quickly we reach the point of our own ability to endure, and we know it, and we are looking unto Jesus. “Lord, I can’t get through this next day without you. Every burden is too heavy without you, every temptation is too powerful, every mountain too high, every journey too long, every responsibility too great, every sickness too painful, every loss too grievous.” They are all far beyond our ability to endure. But through Jesus Christ we can do all things. We can love our enemies. We can go the second mile. We can turn the other cheek. We can forgive and forgive and forgive seventy times seven. We can pluck out the right eye if it offends us. We can keep going in our schedule, far beyond our own ability to endure.
iii] “We despaired even of life;” There are some people who would say that real Christians could never despair of life. But we ask, do Christians with long-standing problems not have bouts of despair? Did the women with the issue of blood fourteen years, who had knocked on the door of every doctor recommended to her for treatment but who had been let down by them all – were there not days when she despaired of life? Do Christians with peculiarly difficult providence’s despair? Did not Job curse the day on which he was born? If Christians have been sold a bill of goods about their problems, do they not despair? They have been told their case is hopeless, and they are in despair. If the hopes of some Christians for children, for marriage, for some kind of deliverance have been dashed again and again might there not be times when such believers despaired even of life? Are there not old bereaved people, and depressed people, and those whose lives have been shattered who fall into despair, even though they are real Christians? Might you not find a Christian girl who would say to you, “I am disgusting, stupid, ugly, rotten and a complete failure”? Might you not find a Christian who falls into sin again and again and he is in despair of whether he is a real believer? You cannot say that a mark of a Christian is that he is a person who never despairs of life, because here is the great apostle, and one day you knock on his door and sit with him for a while, and he tells you that he despaired even of life.
iv] “Indeed in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.” (v.9). Paul felt that he was living on death row and the only escape from it was going to be that short walk to his execution. He thought he did not have long to wait. He had pleaded with God for deliverance. He had said, “Father, I am despairing of life. If it is possible let this cup pass from me.” But God’s answer had been the sentence of death and it lay across Paul’s heart like an icy blanket. The words are literally “ourselves within ourselves felt the sentence of death.” Paul wanted life. He wanted to hear the sound of the birds singing, and see the sunset, and listen to the murmur of the brook, and feel the wind on his face, and smile with a group of friends. He wanted to sing again from his heart,
Heaven above is softer blue,
Earth around is deeper green.
Something lives in every hue
Christless eyes have never seen.
More than all that, he wanted to experience again the love of God in Jesus Christ she abroad in his heart. He wanted great assurance that he was the Saviour’s and the Saviour was his. But God himself had barred every way to life and all Paul could see was death in prospect.
Here is a the classic New Testament description of a Christian in despair. Paul is not unique in the Bible. The Psalmist cried to his own heart, “Why are you cast down O my soul?” Elijah lay down under a juniper tree and asked God to take away his life. Jonah “wanted to die, and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live'” (Jonah 4:8). The psalmist in Psalm 88 cries bitterly to God. The only chink of light in that entire psalm is the first phrase, “O Lord, the God who saves me.” Men rarely read it publicly or announce it to be sung because it chills a congregation. With these three verses it abruptly ends, “From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.”
Murdoch Campbell says, “Many a poor distressed soul has seen his own image in this mirror.” One of the reasons the Holy Spirit inspired its composition is that when we feel as low as we possibly can be, and say to ourselves, “I can’t be a Christian at all,” then we meet in this psalm a man called Heman the Ezrahite, a godly man and a fellow Old Testament Messiahist, who is going through a despair deeper and darker than our own. He is like Bunyan’s description of himself in “Grace Abounding.” There were times when even as robust and happy a man as Spurgeon himself went through such an experience. There was the great catastrophe at the Surrey Gardens Music Hall which the church had hired to find more room for the crowds who wished to hear Spurgeon. Some evil men created a disturbance causing a panic and rush for the doors in which seven people were killed. C.H.Spurgeon was inconsolable: “who can conceive the anguish of my sad spirit? I refused to be comforted; tears were my meat by day, and dreams my terror by night. I felt as I had never felt before … My mind lay, like a wreck upon the sand, incapable of its usual motion. I was in a strange land, and a stranger in it. My Bible, once my daily food, was but a hand to lift the sluices of my woe” (“The Early Years,” Banner of Truth, p.426).
How different real Christianity is from the “Make me feel good!” clamour of many church attenders, and the pathetic attempts of their ministers to comply by constantly stroking their affections. That is the theology of Home on the Range – “Where seldom is heard a discouraging word.” It is far from the Bible.
3. The Purpose of this Great Trial.
“But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (v.9). Why did all this pressure and despair happen to so genuine a servant of Jesus Christ as the apostle Paul? You could understand it coming upon King Saul, or on David after his wickedness with Bathsheba and Uriah her husband, or on Judas, but on this humble godly man? It seems to make no sense. Clearly there is an element of God’s sovereignty here. But Omnipotence is never capricious. It is the devil who triggers off your thinking, “The pastor is just telling me again to bite the bullet and take it all from God, so I’d better do it because we are all … Calvinists in this church,” and you snarl out the last phrase!
This passage, and many like it, teach that there is always a reason for the trials that come into our lives. The distribution of pain is not whimsical or arbitrary. It is never a matter of mere sovereignty. Scripture witness to this abounds: “the Lord does not afflict willingly,” (Lamentations 3:33). Our human fathers, according to the epistle to the Hebrews, corrected us after their own pleasure, after their own whim, but God corrects his children for their profit (Hebrews 12:10). If we are like those early Christians Peter addressed who were “in heaviness because of manifold temptation,” this is because there is a necessity for it (I Peter 1:6). Providence, in short, is always intelligent and purposive.
The apostle had come to understand the pressure, the despair, and the death sentence. He was in danger of relying on himself and not on God. He was a survivor. He was tough and wiry. His formidable intellect was showing no signs of weakening. His memory was as good as ever. He had heard men’s arguments against Jesus Christ so often that he now could answer them with panache. He had a considered opinion of the meaning of every verse in the Scriptures. He had planted churches in Asia and Europe, and had seen all sorts of people in their thousands turning to Christ – rulers of synagogues, Roman jailors, entrepreneurs, entire families. He was wanted and loved everywhere. So Paul was tempted to think to himself what resources he had, what abilities, and what success. He would be prepared for anything that the devil or the world threw at him.
You and I would never dream that self-reliance could ever be a problem to Paul. We would see his holiness of life, deep faith in God, courage and prayerfulness. We would say to one another, “There is a man who relies on God totally. He has lain everything on the altar.” And we would have been wrong. These things came into his life because of the tendency to self-reliance. So this passage says to me how little we know men. The preachers you admire, the leaders in a local church, the godly women – we don’t know them. God alone knows them and what they need to keep relying on God. But those Christians who themselves are going through the mill are more discerning. You express your sympathy to them and some bafflement as to why something grievous has occurred and is not going away, and they might respond as the famous preacher, Findlay Cook of Cromarty did at a time of great trial when an elder sought to comfort him, “It’s all right. It’s perfectly understandable. I am the greatest sinner in Cromarty.” “The people of Cromarty don’t believe that,” his friend replied. “The people of Cromarty don’t know,” he said sharply. “My sins have been veiled from them.”
These fearful trials that hurried into his life, one hot on the heels of another, were prescribed by God as a counter-poise, to enforce the sense of dependence and an awareness of his own limitations. To silence the clamorous, “You’ve got what it takes, Paul,” there had to be another voice, equally insistent, “You’re a worm, Paul, and no angel.” In other words, the trials were related to sin. They always are, but not always to past sin. They are also prescribed to save us from future sinful attitudes pouring down into our souls like cement, and spoiling our usefulness. Nothing would rob Paul of a life which gave glory to God as much as a spirit of self-reliance. The choice is bleak. You are either dependent upon yourself or you depend upon God. You cannot depend upon both. You must choose one. Once self-reliance has crept into our hearts it influences every thought, even our spiritual desires, and it changes our whole attitude to prayer.
Paul was being tempted to think that he had a specially significant part to play in the Kingdom of God. If God were to do something important in Asia or Europe it would be through him. So, even Paul’s prayers for the spread of the gospel were salted with self-interest, with the conviction that he had to be near the focal point of God’s working. How sweet it is to think highly of ourselves. Every man loves his own praise. Self-love is sweet as honey to us, at least it is for a brief moment. But how had Saul of Tarsus been converted? By the mercy of God alone. He believed on the Saviour when God was pleased to reveal his Son in him. He repented of his sins because the Good Shepherd first came to the road he was walking along and found him. Saul of Tarsus was a living specimen of a man who used to rely on himself completely, but who, by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, came to rely upon God. The sea comes to the river before the river comes to the sea. The birth comes from above and we live! To suggest that we must believe in order to be born again is as absurd as to say that the bulb must shine before the light-switch can be turned on. Paul’s faith was not the energy that produced his new life. The new life from heaven caused the faith. From the conception of his walk with God he had to rely upon the Lord. He learned to sing the song of dependence upon God:-
Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling.
Naked come to thee for dress
Helpless look to thee for grace;
Foul I to thy fountain fly;
Wash me Saviour or I die.
The secret of the Christian life is never to move an inch from there.
Throughout his life God was teaching Paul, “You must rely on me for provision, protection and guidance.” When he tried to go in one direction the Holy Spirit forbade him, and then other doors were opened by God, as Paul trusted in him. Sovereign initiative is the centrepiece of the Lord’s strategy in spreading the gospel. Happy is the preacher who has learnt to “glory only in the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:14). Happy is the congregation where self-reliance and self-advertisement is shunned. Men must rely upon something. The Christian declares,
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand.
No one can sing that and also rely on himself. Do we want ‘unction’? Do we want ‘power’? Do we want ‘revival’? It would be a major step toward all three if we could only learn to crucify our wretched self-dependence more ruthlessly, for then we would experience God himself drawing nearer to us in our weakness. There is a vital need of personal repentance in the lives of many of us today for the sin of self-reliance. We need to go in sorrow to God and cry to him to newly break the power of self in our lives, and teach us to rely on him. Maybe the person who most needs to repent of self-reliance in this congregation is me. Maybe it is you. None can afford to neglect some self-examination.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” is the first of the beatitudes. It is the door to all the other beatitudes and the blessedness of living the Sermon on the Mount. Self-conscious weakness is the handle that joins us to divine omnipotence. When we are weak then we are strong. Blessed are those who know just how weak they are. What a different attitude to ministry our conscious weakness would give us. Every single time we preached would be like the first time. It was those lessons that Paul had to relearn, and so there returned to him that moment of fear and trembling, three or four minutes before Paul commenced his day’s session at the hall of Tyrannus, when he found himself thinking “I’m out of my depth,” and wishing that he were sitting on a porch in a country farm watching his olives grow.
By these immense sufferings he was newly persuaded that the ingredients for true evangelism, the operation of the Spirit upon the intellect and conscience of the hearers, the working of the Spirit in the preacher’s mind, heart and tongue, were indeed wholly of God, and that without them he was in despair preaching to a valley of dry bones. There is no way you can bring the power to open the heart or the sanctification of the soul with you in your pocket, and pull it out when the clock strikes for the service to start. These fearful trials came into this life, and away went his self-reliance. “Lord, I’m sorry. I can’t cope without you,” he said again. “Who is sufficient for these things?” He said it even more bluntly, “We are not sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves.” There is nothing more enervating in a minister than the swagger of self-reliance. So God killed it in Paul by a few trials.
Wonder of wonders! The conquest of self-reliance is celebrated in the context of boldness and authority in proclamation. There is such a mystery in a faithful minister. All those natural talents of eloquence, poise, wit and presence, unless they are yoked to a dependence upon God will mean less usefulness in the service of God, while weakness, fear and much trembling constraining a man to cry to God for help will bring heaven into the pulpit. Being weaned from all confidence in himself, he is forced to trust in God to make it evident to men that there is a God and that that God speaks through his written word. The end of self-reliance is evident in the absence of any desire to be clever, or to be original, but simply to stand as a witness to tell men what God has done. It is that inward disposition of divine-reliance that we must labour with God to cultivate.
The Lord subjected Paul to a discipline which was conspicuously severe not because he was a pre-eminent sinner but because God had placed him in a most perilous position on the Christian front. Those not greatly used by God have all been strangers to his chastening. Someone has asked the questions, “If providence is gentler, if the world is more tolerant, if Satan is less aggressive, is it because we are being withdrawn from the front-line of Christian usefulness? And is this due to our having failed in an earlier test? Are we being denied the privilege of contending with the horses because we are inadequate or unfaithful when contending with the footmen? And being spared the horrors of the swelling of Jordan because of our failure in the land of peace?”
4. THE APOSTLE WAS DELIVERED FROM THESE AFFLICTIONS.
The God who raises the dead delivered Paul. Such a God alone can help us. Buddha and Allah and the million gods of Hinduism and the New Age cannot raise the dead. Not one of them, and so they are limited even in the promises of what they may do for us in our trials. But our God raised the widow’s child at the time of Elisha, and Jairus’ daughter when Jehovah Jesus walked this earth, and Lazarus the brother of Mary and Martha whom the Lord Christ raised up. And he himself rose from the dead, the third day, according to the Scriptures. The stone was rolled away, and the grave was empty but for the graveclothes lying there. He appeared again and again to Mary, and Peter, and John, and Cleopas, and James, and Thomas, and the twelve, and five hundred people at one time. He ate and drank with them, and answered their questions before he ascended to heaven. And Jesus then returned to show himself alive to Saul of Tarsus – he is the God who raises the dead. More powerful than death itself is our Lord Jesus. He is ultimate reality.
What are great pressures, despairs and the sentence of death to a God who can raise the dead. You do not praise a doctor by saying that he can deliver people from an itch, or a sneeze, or a hiccup, or a scratch. So you do not magnify God by boasting that he delivers from pressure and despair. He raises the dead! That is the God with whom we have to do. So Paul lists his own experience of his deliverances:-
i] Deliverance came: “He has delivered us from such a deadly peril,” (v.10). It was done. We were very low. Things were very black. But God delivered us. I wish all the church of Jesus Christ could testify to the world how God has delivered us again and again:-
O magnify the Lord with me,
With me exalt His name;
When in distress to Him I called,
He to my rescue came.
We do not go on and on in depression and with our physical and emotional pains. God delivers us.
ii] Deliverance certainly comes: “He will deliver us,” adds Paul. He is absolutely certain of it. That great deliverance was not a ‘one-off.’ It was simply a reflection of his covenantal relationship with all his people. They have a Sovereign Protector.
His love in times past
Forbids me to think,
He’ll leave me at last
In trouble to sink.
iii] Deliverance will always come: “On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us,” assures Paul. These are words of love, like a husband would speak of his wife: “Do you know,” he says, “she helped me through a very dark time in my life, and she will do the same thing again. I have set my hope in her continually keeping me.” The Christian speaks of his Bridegroom in this way: “For I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” What would the world give for a doctor like that? One we can always rely upon, who delivers us from death, destruction and despair, whom we know will never fail to deliver us whatever happens in the future.
Do you see the great lesson? Who is in control, and in whose hands is the sovereignty? “And I beheld and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain,” (Rev.5:6). The incarnate one now at the very heart of the divine administration, yet for ever aware of what it means to be under great pressure, far beyond man’s ability to endure, so that men despair of life. This is one of the most magnificent of the concepts of Scripture. Artemis of the Ephesians is not in control. The devil is not in control. Demetrius the silversmith and all men like him are not in control. Chance is not in control. God, righteous and merciful, is sovereign – “Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). Jesus Christ is sovereign in every circumstance in life. Redeeming love is sovereign. Every element in providence, all that is contrary and all that is baffling, is apportioned to us by the Lamb of God. For the redeemed, every hardship, every pressure, every despair, every sentence of death must be in harmony with Golgotha, must be a fellow-worker with the Gospel and further the purposes of the glory of Christ in all his people.
iv] Deliverance comes “as you help us by your prayers … in answer to the prayers of many,” (v.11). See how insistent Paul is on this fact. Deliverance comes as many ordinary people saw Paul under such pressure and really struggling. They cried to God for him, and he was delivered “in answer to the prayers of many.” Christ is sovereign and it was he who delivered, yet we did our part too. We were fellow-workers with God. We were responsible to pray because the Sovereign commanded us, “Pray, and do not faint.” We obeyed our Commander. Yet he chose to deliver, as he chooses when not to deliver. “Even so Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.”
I always think that these five words in verse eleven would be admirable at the top of every missionary prayer letter, “help us by your prayers.” Why do we meet together on Tuesday evenings, and on Friday mornings? In part, to help those suffering hardship, under great pressure, far beyond their ability to endure, so that they despair even of life, in whose hearts is felt the sentence of death. How do we show that we are indeed relying on God? One sign is that we pray.
v] Deliverance results in that doxology which arises as “many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many (v.11). Here is a happy grateful, thankful congregation. You call in one Lord’s Day and there’s a buzz in the church. What is the cause of this excitement? They are singing the hymns from their hearts. It is explained to you that God has delivered their old pastor and preacher, Paul, from a terrible affliction and they are full of thanks to God. “We prayed so much for him,” they tell you. “We were so concerned because he was so low, pressed down, unable to keep going. He was like a man under a death sentence; not the kind of man we could remember. What was going to happen to him? We prayed and prayed for him, and God granted his gracious favour to Paul and delivered him. He’s the old Paul we knew and loved, but now even more spiritually-minded and full of God. You can understand why we are so full of joy here today.”
So it is that this theme is repeated, that our humblings are for the good of other Christians and our deliverances too. The God of all comfort is in them all and is working for our comfort and our patient endurance.
17 September 2000 GEOFF THOMAS