If there is a key word or concept I want you to focus on, it is the word “rescue.” From the Greek root rhuomai, “rescue” is parallel in meaning with “salvation,” from the Greek root soter, from which we get not only “salvation,” but the word “Savior.” In the end, everything we experience in life, from triumph to moments that feel like certain defeat, God is always there, working out a purpose through which the people of God will be delivered, saved, rescued. Let’s turn to the text in question.
8 We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again, 11 as you also join in helping us by your prayers, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many2 Corinthians 1:8-11
In verse eight, Paul transitions from his talk of shared consolation and comfort despite the afflictions he and the community have gone through to outline the particulars of what he and his ministry team have suffered. He opens the verse by stating that he does not want them to be unaware. Beyond fleshing out what he referenced previously, this also helps Paul build his case and credibility as an Apostle of Jesus before the Corinthian community.
On a side note, I think that this is something we should not overlook quickly. Sometimes we simply assume that others know what we are going through. I never cease to be astonished when brothers and sisters in Christ share with me their hurt at what they perceive as a lack of understanding or compassion in regard to their trials from a community or fellow believers. It is understandable. When the world crashed down around us, it is apparent to us on a nearly moment-by-moment basis.
However, we are mortal, and none of us are mind readers. Moreover, all of us are carrying burdens, and suffer from the same myopic dilemma. In these cases, I’ve asked the wounded members of the community, upset either with me, as the pastor, or the congregation on the whole, whether or not they shared their burden with others. Did they ask for prayer? In some cases, I’ve been astonished at the complaint because weeks previous, they were adamant that we not publish the prayer request.
Sometimes, we just need to lay our burdens down and invite others in the body of Christ to enter into that space of mourning, or sharing the burden. None of us are an island, and I believe, as Paul shows us, that the spiritual health of a believing community is in proportion to the genuine openness and transparency of its members. Here, Paul lays it on the line. He shares his heart. Paul becomes vulnerable. In a Grec0-Roman culture that valued “manliness” (sound familiar?), this was a counter-cultural move. However, it is a cross-shaped move, and I believe it is the reason Paul was able to continue in relation with this community, receive a hearing, and, in time, to have his letters to them preserved.
Paul moves on in verse 8 to show the depth of his vulnerability. There are two things to note here. One, he talks about his affliction in Asia. My time is limited, but many like NT Wright believe that this refers to an extended imprisonment in Ephesus. If you are interested, I would very much encourage you to read Wright’s biography of Paul. Lacking that kind of time, you can read about Paul’s mission exploits in Ephesus in places like Acts 19, where in verse 11, Luke records that “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul,” so much so that one of the great cultic sites in the ancient world was thrown into a panic, complete with riots. There were also other plots as he made his way through the region, as we find in Acts 20:1-3.
Suffice it to say that it is likely that as a result of the revolution happening in Ephesus through the power of the Spirit at work in Paul’s ministry, Paul underwent an extreme trial of imprisonment, persecution, and possibly physical torture. Here, we have only imagination to color Paul’s claims of being crushed and filled with despair.
Yet, all of this serves as a point of comparison that Paul enters into in verse 9. All these terrible things Paul underwent brought him to the place of feeling as if he had received this death sentence. This is both a literal and figurative statement. Literally, when Paul was imprisoned, most likely on charges of inciting riots and being an atheist since his claims that Jesus was Messiah and Lord contrasted with the worship of Artemis and the cult of the Emperor, he was open to charges that brought with them the death sentence.
Figuratively, however, Paul pushes further. What he was experiencing was a taste of what Jesus himself had endured on the cross. As he suffered these terrible things, he was being brought into union with the sufferings of Christ. If I might be so bold, faith in Jesus Christ always brings with it a death sentence of one form or another. Don’t think you can live your best, most comfortable life now, and claim to follow a Lord who died a most cruel death on a cross reserved for the despised.
Yet, it is in the midst of all this terrible self-revelation that Paul hits upon a sobering affirmation: he underwent this, in part, so that he would have to learn to rely on God, not himself. Not only that, this brought him to a place where he had to learn to rely on a God who is revealed to bring new life out of death.
Here, I believe, books could be written on how crucial it is for every aspect of our life to be cruciform, or cross-shaped. Our tendency as believers is to surrender maybe, say, up to 90% of our lives, our hearts, our habits, and our thinking to Jesus’ Lordship. That other 10%? Well, surely God will let bygones be bygones!
No. Paul’s ordeal makes it clear: it is only at the depth of despairing for life itself; it is only at that point that we surrender that last hand hold on our best plans for our lives that we learn to depend as we ought on God. All of us must be taken to the cross, not because God delights in punishment and cruelty, but so that all of us, all that we are, might be raised and given life.
And now we come to our controlling word in verse 10: rescue. Paul and those with him were rescued from prison and their ordeal. Paul and his crew were rescued from the plots of haters referred to in Acts 20:3. At every point that Paul is sure he will die, God in Christ shows up and rescues, delivers, saves. And here, Paul reminds us, if the one who showed up to save him at that low point is the one who saves, who by His very nature rescues, then He is sure to do so again. The same Jesus that rescued Paul will rescue the community, despite the breakdown in relationships, and this same Jesus will rescue us.
Here, I want to draw us to a close. We often talk about salvation in the church in the sense of that old bluegrass tune, “I’ll Fly Away.” Salvation is about escape. I’m not trying to fault anyone in referencing that song, but I just want to suggest that in some ways, it misses the mark. Sure, the day is coming when we shall be rescued from this body of death, but that rescue is from death into life, fuller life, resurrection life.
Moreover, we don’t have to wait until “some glad morning when this life is o’er.” God has rescued us, God is rescuing us, and God will rescue us. The pattern has been set in the cross and resurrection of Jesus himself, the pattern of dying and rising that will govern every step we take and every breath we breathe in life.
In response, as verse 11 reminds us, we join in this ongoing work of cruciform rescue as we pray for one another, and rejoice, both in our triumphs as well as our sorrows. A church that shares burdens is a church that learns to die together so that we might rise to new life in Jesus Christ.