For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many. – 2 Corinthians 1:8-11 ESV
Paul has just finished talking about the affliction he has suffered as a result of his ministry and the comfort he has received from God. He willingly accepted the first and gladly praised God for the second. And he wants the Corinthians to know that his knowledge regarding suffering and affliction is firsthand and not academic. He knows what he is talking about. So he refers to a real-life incident of which they seemed to have some knowledge. “For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia” (2 Corinthians 1:8 ESV). We do not know exactly what occasion Paul is referring to, but we know that his life and ministry were marked by regular persecution and difficulty. Later on in this same letter, Paul gives an autobiographical glimpse into the kinds of trials and tribulations he had suffered on behalf of Christ.
Are they servants of Christ? I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. – 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 NLT
Whatever happened in Asia, it was bad enough to make Paul and his companions question whether they would make it out alive. “We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it” (2 Corinthians 1:8b NLT). This had been an occasion when Paul felt like he had received a death sentence and was going to end up martyred for the cause of Christ. This provides us with an insight into how Paul viewed his life and ministry. While he knew that his affliction was to be expected and viewed as nothing more than partaking of the sufferings of Christ, he was human and felt the same apprehension any normal man would when facing death. He never knew the outcome of his work on behalf of Christ. It could end well or it could turn out poorly. He had experienced both outcomes. But he had also experienced the comfort of God, which made it possible for him to continue his ministry with boldness and confidence.
Paul had even learned to accept the possibility of death with a certain degree of confident assurance, because it caused him to rely even more greatly on God. The possibility of death was a real possibility in Asia, but it had a positive impact on his life. The “sentence of death” hanging over their heads caused them to put all their trust in God – “we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9 NLT). The promise of the resurrection comes into much clearer focus when facing death. There comes a time in every person’s life when they have to come face to face with death, and there is little they can do to stop it. And there is nothing they can do to impact what happens after death. Yet Paul had a confidence that, because he believed in the resurrected Christ, he would experience life after death, and one day enjoy receiving his resurrected body. As he wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter, “For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies” (1 Corinthians 15:53 NLT).
But Paul’s reliance upon and confidence in God didn’t stop with his assurance of life after death. It was the promise of the resurrection that gave Paul his courage to face the trials and difficulties of life with boldness. He knew his future was in good hands. He didn’t need to fear death, so he could live his life with a sense of abandonment. He even told the believers in Philippi:
But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy. – Philippians 2:17 NLT
He told his young protege, Timothy:
Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord. Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the ministry God has given you. As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing. – 2 Timothy 4:5-8 NLT
Paul could suffer through all the afflictions and difficulties that came with his job because he trusted in God. He had not only experienced the comfort of God, he had been an eye-witness to the salvation of God. God’s intervention and protection gave him confidence. “And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in him, and he will continue to rescue us” (2 Corinthians 1:10 NLT). And Paul also realized that it was the prayers of the saints that played a big part in the success of his ongoing ministry and God’s miraculous provision for and protection of him. So he encouraged the Corinthians to keep up their prayers on his behalf. They were partners in his ministry because they lifted him up before God. They were his helpers because they prayed for him. There was little they could do to assist Paul physically because of the distance between them. But they could pray, asking God to do what they could do. Prayer is a form of dependence upon God. In prayer, we are asking Him to do what only He can do. We are placing ourselves at His mercy and submitting ourselves to His care. Paul was a firm believer in God-reliance. He was learning to trust God for anything and everything, including his very life. Difficulties are designed to make us dependent upon God. Trials have a way of forcing us to trust Him. Afflictions can be perfect opportunities to experience His affection. It is in the daily affairs of life that God intends for us to see the faithful expression of his love.