2 Corinthians – Section 1

c2N.T. Wright’s study guide is remarkably easy to understand and yet opens doors of deep thought. Section 1 is entitled “The God of all Comfort”. Clearly the first major theme Paul introduces is that of comfort. God is the God of all comfort. I’ve been thinking about that one word the past couple weeks–comfort. Comfort means “a state of physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint; the easing or alleviation of a person’s feelings of grief or distress.” Here are my thoughts on this first study guide and on 2 Corinthians 1:1-2:4. 

Reading the text

2c2 Corinthians 1:1-2:4

“3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 5 For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. 6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. 7 Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.” –2 Corinthians 1:3-7 ESV

Apart from “God” and “Christ”, the word “comfort” is most repeated in this passage.

A reminder of the Gospel

The study guide begins with a reminder of the gospel. We are pointed to 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. The gospel is presented as being about Jesus the Messiah, his death for our sins according to the Scriptures, his burial and his resurrection three days later. These were real events to Paul, and the lens through which he saw the world. The gospel, to Paul, was a collection of events that were real, and rather then dive into some intricate meaning of those events, we find Paul often merely announcing those events.

Opening question

Before going further, the study guide opens with a question: Describe a time when you needed comfort. When did you need comfort?

This question seemed to be an eisegesisical opening. Isn’t N.T. Wright just planting his own ideology before addressing the text? So this made me re-read the Scripture. I could only conclude that indeed, this passage has something to say about comfort. Then I realized some important values being taught by this format.

Asking an opening question like this does at least two good things. First, the question keeps the study focused an obvious theme of the passage. How could we delve into what this passage says about other topics if we ignore the most repeated word in the passage? Second, this question opens the possibility of never getting to the study questions, keeping the focus on people. What if someone in your study group answers with a recent time, saying they need comfort now? Ramming through the study guide would be pointless if there were some immediate need among the people studying. This opening question gives everyone, including the study facilitator, the chance to share something about themselves.

So then, I can see three points of emphasis from Wright in his approach to Scripture:

  • Remember the Gospel
  • Pay attention to the repeated words of the passage
  • Keep the focus on people around you

This approach is entirely refreshing and new to me. Shouldn’t we be learning about God? Shouldn’t we be dissecting the bible verses by now? I suspect Wright would say something like “Of course we will be learning about God. But we cannot learn about God at the expense of learning about the people around us. Unless you are in seminary of some kind, you have no business dissecting the word of God in such a disrespectful manner. Learn what the passage says. Learn about the people around you and their perspective on this passage!” Well ok, that is what I would say, after this first study. But that is what I hear Wright saying by his approach, which, as you can tell, is deeply important to me right now.

Study 

The study guide for this section has twelve questions. I would encourage you to get this study guide and work through your answers in a group setting. I’m using this group study guide as a personal study, so I’ll just share my answers to one question that stood out to me.

Question 2 asks us to describe the “pattern of interchange” between the Messiah and his followers and between the apostle and the church, as displayed in verses 1 to 7. Wright wants us to notice the back and forth nature of the relationship Paul presents. This is a new concept for me, to observe patterns about relationships between the people in the Scriptures.

In verses 1 to 7, I see respect for the lordship of Jesus over both Paul and the church. He is an apostle, yes, but only by the will of God. Paul does not own the people in Corinth, nor do the people own Paul.

What is exchanged between the Messiah and his followers? I see “mercies and comfort” being given by the Messiah to his followers. I see a sharing in sufferings.

What is exchanged between the apostle and the church? I see “concern and awareness” being given by the apostle to the church. I also see hope being exchanged. The apostle does not hide the fact that he is afflicted.

Prayer

After the 12 questions, the study guide urges us to pray for the “places in life where there is suffering and sadness” and to use the words of Paul in this chapter in our prayers.

A concluding note says that we cannot know for sure what was behind Paul’s change of plans in this passage. We do know his visit and trip did not go well. He was in distress. And  he was open and transparent about it. Often, in times of affliction, that is what we need– someone who doesn’t pretend to be “superman” but who is real and honest. Someone who shows compassion, concern and hope.

18 comments

  1. forestsfailyou
    forestsfailyou

    I actually studied this passage one on one last friday. The person leading asked “What gives you the most comfort?” The leader mentioned that comfort comes from Christ and trying to find comfort in other things leads to eventual sorrow (everyone from Cs Lewis to Tim Keller to St. Augustine make this point)because nothing could help us like Christ can. I was highly irritated at the time of the study and didn’t really focus as much as I could have, but I remember mentioning Paul suffered greatly between his first and second letter and while some might consider suffering divine punishment, we are told that sufferings from Christ give perseverance, character, and hope.

    • “Paul suffered greatly between his first and second letter and while some might consider suffering divine punishment, we are told that sufferings from Christ give perseverance, character, and hope.”

      Yes that is a MAJOR earth-shattering theme of 2 Corinthians from what I can tell! Suffering is NOT divine punishment. Those who live with the old testament obey=blessed/disobey=cursed mentality have nothing to do with Christ or His gospel.

  2. Forests,

    I’ve dropped this line of thinking: “What gives you the most comfort?” I no longer appreciate that kind of question in bible study. My answer to what gives me the most comfort is rum and sex.

    I really appreciate however, the way N.T. Wright approaches “comfort”, by opening his study with this: “Describe a time when you needed comfort.”

    The first question is a constricting, binding type question that conforms the student(s) to something the teacher wants to say. I call this a loaded question. The study members have little choice but to withdraw into themselves as the fog of guilt sets in.

    The second question (formed as a statement) is an opening, liberating type question that allows the student(s) to discover something the teacher wants to say. I call this a disarming question. The study members are guided to be disarmed and transparent with each other as the peace settles in.

    I am no expert in the Christian authors, but from what little I have learned about them, everyone from Cs Lewis to Tim Keller to St. Augustine do not use loaded questions but attempt to liberate and discover in a way that N.T. Wright does brilliantly.

    • forestsfailyou
      forestsfailyou

      Oh yes. I am sure if you heard that question from an elder korean it might spark a claim of binding conformation. However he 21 year old girl told me she would really like a back massage.

    • Charles Wilson
      Charles Wilson

      Yes, it’s important to ask the right question! When I hear, “What brings the most comfort,” I anticipate that a “true comfort” vs “false comfort” discussion is sure to follow. But I don’t see in this passage Paul comparing the comfort from Christ to other comforts. Rather, what I find interesting is the flow of comfort from God to “we” (Paul and Timothy?) to the Corinthians so that whether Paul and others were afflicted or comforted, in both cases there was comfort flowing to the Corinthians. He speaks of comfort flowing from Christ in the same way that sufferings also are coming from Christ as being shared. Both affliction and comfort flow abundantly. And it is more interesting in that both things are described as “sharing.” There is common ownership and passing between the parties. I’m curious then how it goes from Jesus, to Paul, to the Corinthians apart from the practical experience of prayer and relief as mentioned in verses 8-11. How can comfort I receive from Christ be shared with someone else? I’d like to think about these things more.

  3. Brian, thanks for this write-up. I can see the beginnings of a potential virtual bible study/discussion group going on here; perhaps this will be a future use of ubfriends :)

    A few comments:

    You said, “What if someone in your study group answers with a recent time, saying they need comfort now? Ramming through the study guide would be pointless if there were some immediate need among the people studying.”

    But Brian, if we don’t follow the study guide then we’ll stray from the Bible text. Don’t you realize that faithful bible study is the answer to all of our problems? Sorry, I couldn’t resist. That’s actually a great point that you’ve brought up. Any discussion centered on the Bible should be a highly organic and interpersonal process. And in terms of sermons, I’ve heard many where the speaker avoids unpacking the text and applying it to an issue pertinent to the audience for the sake of getting through their entire exegesis on the passage; they think that they are being faithful to the Bible text in doing this. But exegesis is simply a tool that allows a preacher/teacher to pull out possible applications as the Holy Spirit illumines his mind. A good bible teacher will 1) contextualize the passage ahead of time to his audience and 2) think on his feet so that he can contextualize the passage to the participants when they articulate new needs or concerns. God speaks to us through the Bible text when we very honestly come to him with our assorted thoughts, issues and needs.

    Also, if you’re looking to delve more into Wright and his theology, this podcast has some good discussions on it:

    http://mereorthodoxy.com/mere-fidelity-surprised-nt-wright/

    http://mereorthodoxy.com/nt-wright-reformed-critics/

    His view of justification is closer to the Reformed view than some modern reformers think.

    • Ha! You almost got me that time David! I was like, what in the world is he talking about? I almost ripped off another blog post in response to “if we don’t follow the study guide then we’ll stray from the Bible text.” :)

      Thanks for the further reading!

    • Charles Wilson
      Charles Wilson

      Well said, David. A good reminder that people should not be forgotten in Bible study or sermons. Of course, the Bible tells us about God, his people, his will and workings, etc. But we cannot ignore the way in which these writings came about in addressing real people in real situations with real needs and concerns and how the knowledge of God was applied to them and their situations.

      I think that this is one reason why messages are often criticized as being bland and boring. Sermons have become Bible studies that have become lectures and commentaries rather than speaking to people.

    • Thanks, Charles. One good thing about UBF reflection/testimony writing and sharing is that we are a given a chance to share some very real and candid parts of our lives through this avenue. Some will talk about how honest sharers open themselves up to gossip or slander, and for sure this might happen. But I’ve also seen some pretty remarkable changes occur in the community when people do share what’s on their heart through testimonies or messages.

      Also, I’m beginning to notice that certain leaders are opening up about what needs to change in the ministry (maybe I’ll write about this some day). My prayer is that us lay memebers will dialogue with these leaders in the hope that they will begin to honestly address some of these issues in their messages or what have you (I’ve actually seen glimpses of this here and there). It would be great to have a leadership development workshop based on speaking the truth in love from scripture so as to address real issues in the ministry.

    • Charles Wilson
      Charles Wilson

      David, I’ve heard similar comments about the benefits of testimony writing and sharing. Usually, though, they involved newcomers either as sharers or listeners. It can be inspiring or convicting for a newcomer to hear an honest testimony from someone. Also, because they are not as familiar with UBF style testimony writing or expectations, newcomers may write more freely or openly in a way that benefits them and others. I don’t write or share testimonies anymore. And, sorry to say, if I do happen to be in a sharing meeting (which is rare), I find it quite boring.

      I am curious to hear more about dialogue and change as you mentioned.

    • Charles, due to some recent experiences, I’m actually not sure how much the mindset is changing within the leadership. It seems as though for every encouraging conversation or connection that I make with leaders, there is oppositely something exasperating or confounding that I come across. I’ll just keep these things to myself for now because it’s hard for me to process or make sense of these polar opposites experiences. Sorry if this sounds somewhat cryptic. Anyway one of my major goals is to steadily and prayerfully build authentic relationships with leaders (and of course other ubf members) who are willing.

  4. Thanks, David. I liked the NT Wright’s view on marriage and his opposition to same-sex marriages. I hope that Brian will like this part of Wright’s Bible study as well :)

    • Hi Vitaly! Yes surely I will disagree with NT Wright in some areas. I have seen conservatives jump on NT Wright’s words and some try to define him as “against” this or “for” that social issue. He has some interesting views on evolution, for example.

      I think Wright has a far more robust thought fabric than simple “opposing samesex marriage”. He reminds me of our friend John H. A.. We disagree when it comes to ssm, but John has not yet condemned me to hell :)

      Here are some of of Wrights’ thoughts that allow me to trust him as a teacher even though I disagree with him on ssm:

      “NTW: Monogamous, lifelong same-sex relationships were known in the ancient world as well as in the modern—there is plenty of evidence, despite what people sometimes say. When Jesus reaffirms the traditional Jewish standards of sexual behavior (he was talking in a Jews-only context where people would know what his shorthand sayings meant), and when Paul, speaking in a largely Gentile context, spells out a bit more clearly what is and what isn’t part of the new-creation lifestyle for those “in Christ,” this way of life was always counter-intuitive in that world, as it is again today.

      But it’s important that we do not reduce the Bible to a collection of true doctrines and right ethics. There are plenty of true doctrines and right ethics there, of course, but they come within the larger thing, which is the story of how the Creator is rescuing and restoring the whole creation, with his rescue and restoration of humans at the heart of it. In other words, it isn’t about “do we allow this or that?” To ask the question that way is already to admit defeat, to think in terms of behavior as a set of quasi-arbitrary, and hence negotiable, rules.”

      – See more at: http://jonathanmerritt.religionnews.com/2014/06/03/nt-wright-homosexuality-science-gender/#sthash.MFKHj2Vh.dpuf

    • I hope Wright someday gets to talk with Matthew Vines. There has been much good dialogue opened up by Vines.

      And yes, for all our readers who don’t know, I have a celebration, full-inclusion view toward both women and all LGBTQ people. My other blog, justbeingthere.org, is where I share my thoughts as a gay rights pacifist.

      And yes, after making that blog, some gay men at UBF have reached out to me. Try going through ubf marriage-by-faith when you are gay…

  5. Thanks for the articles, Vitaly and Brian. Wright’s argument for a connection between the binary man-woman union and the consummation of heaven and earth is a compelling assertion. But his concluding statement (in the article Vitaly provided) gives me some pause. He says,

    “Finally, God’s purpose is seen in fruitfulness, rather than the fruitlessness of same-sex unions. Wright’s allusion to the fact that the blessing upon humanity is one that focuses upon the fruitfulness granted to the union of the male and female binary underlines his point even further.”

    Some same-sex couples are known to adopt children who would otherwise become wards of the state or neglected, in some manner. They are committed to providing for them materially and emotionally just as any heterosexual couple would. I’m not saying that this is compelling evidence to legitimize or redefine marriage to include same-sex partnerships, but I think that it says something about the potential “fruit” of such unions.

    If loving, same sex couples are willing to take in and raise unwanted children who have the potential to become productive members of society, then what does that say about such unions? Or is this simply God’s providence or prevenient grace at work? Just thinking out loud.

    • Good questions David. Questions that are taboo in many parts of Christendom. One thing I greatly appreciate about the Catholic Church is that they are willing to discuss such questions. Their dogma does not change quickly, but they allow much conversation about all kinds of topics. And they rightly value celibacy which is important to consider.

      You pointed out one statement that also sparked PTSD reactions in me from Wright’s words:

      “God’s purpose is seen in fruitfulness, rather than the fruitlessness…”

      Can we really bind marriage to fruitfulness? What about a man and a woman who cannot reproduce? And more generally, why do we tie Christian worth to bearing fruit? Doesn’t that fly in the face of Jesus words, such as the “consider the ravens”?

    • For sure, I would get lambasted for a comment like this in certain Christian circles. But I think it’s valid to at least pose these kinds of questions. I wonder what type of dialogue is going on in the Catholic church in this regard and what type of “fruit” (lol) it’s bearing.

      Physical fruit-bearing is obviously necessary for the existence of mankind. But if the fruit of the Spirit is not ultimately manifested in that physical fruit, then I think that these efforts are for naught.