8 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. 9 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. 10 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. 11 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
Something of a deep, life changing significance, occurred in the life of Paul. Sometime between the writing of 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians around 55/56 A.D. Paul had, what he described, as a brush with death that seemed to affect his perspective on life, his apostleship and his relationship with God. In verse 8 he uses the word, ‘beyond’ (Greek word ‘Huber’) tells us that he viewed this experience as exceptional, extreme.
When we read what Paul says in Philippians,
I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:13
what he describes in 2 Corinthians must have been an experience that tested that truth because of its severity and potential for ending Paul’s life. Paul uses graphic terms to describe the depth and intensity of the situation he was in, “utterly burdened,” others translate that as “burdened beyond measure,” “beyond our strength,” the word despaired describes a situation where there seemed to be no way out, we might say backed up against a wall. This is not the kind of despair that we have when we are annoyed at someone or with something, it is the facing death in terrible circumstances type of despair.
There is a lot of speculation as to what was the cause of this burden, this despair. I don’t know, but let me give you some options.
What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
1 Corinthians 15:32
Was it fighting beasts in the arena at Ephesus? Was it the riot in Ephesus in Acts 19:23-31 where Paul leads people away from trusting in the special powers of trinkets made by Demetrius the silversmith?
It may have been physical persecution from his enemies, or death sentences passed against him by a court, or hardships like extended hunger or beatings to the point of death whilst in prison. Some have thought that Paul had some kind of severe illness, maybe painful or even life-threatening, the consequences of which led him to believe he would not live long. Of course, we’ll never know for sure. What’s more important is how it transformed Paul’s perspective on life and the lessons we should learn from it as well.
Paul does use the term “sentence of death” (vs 9). The word translated “sentence” (apokrima) appears only here in the New Testament and can also be translated “response” or “answer” or something similar. So, (stay with me), it implies that Paul, in the midst of this extreme and terrible situation asked God, or asked himself, or asked those around him the likely outcome and the reply or conclusion was “you will die!”
Now we don’t know any of this for certain, but one thing is clear, Paul did not die at that time and was convinced that God would deliver him now and in the future (vs 10) from encounters with death. God is able, capable and powerful to deliver us from our worst of situations.
What is amazing is that Paul can still reach out to and trust God.
Whether we face physical illness, financial stress, relational disappointments or the loss of a family member, we can find it hard to see in it anything remotely approaching a purpose or reason.
These experiences, we tell ourselves, are senseless and lacking in any value to us at all. Some Christians write them off as an attack of the enemy, never discerning what God is teaching them or trying to say.
But, as overwhelming, excessive, and burdensome as this brush with death was for Paul, he knew that God was in it! The point of it all Paul says, was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead (vs 9). For those of us who regard all such trials and suffering as wrong and slowing up our walk with God this may come as a considerable shock.
One can imagine Paul saying to himself before he ever said it to the Corinthians, ‘I’ve grown too self-reliant. I’ve become used to trusting in my own personality, my own ability, my education, my reputation, my depth of theological wisdom. I’m close to taking credit for what only God can do.’ Trusting in oneself above God is an affront to God. How far will God go to ensure that Paul doesn’t trust in himself and his own ability and spiritual smartness? How seriously does God regard this tendency in the human heart, whether Paul’s or yours or mine? To what lengths will he go to guarantee that he alone gets the glory?
In Paul’s case, God knocked out every man-made prop and reduced him to utter despair. If God did not intervene and deliver him he was utterly lost, he would die. “Oh come on Nigel stop being so extreme and serious!”
If you consider what self reliance tells us, it goes a bit like this. God, I’m more capable than you are of accomplishing this task. God I don’t need you on this one. God, I’m wiser than you are in working this one out, how this should be done. God, I’m better than you are at sorting through options and discerning the proper path to follow, and so on and so on.
Let me quote James Denney ( 8 February 1856 – 12 June 1917) a Scottish preacher.
“It is natural . . . for us to trust in ourselves. It is so natural, and so confirmed by the habits of a lifetime, that no ordinary difficulties or perplexities avail to break us of it. It takes all God can do to root up our self-confidence. He must reduce us to despair; He must bring us to such an extremity that the one voice we have in our hearts, the one voice that cries to us wherever we look round for help, is death, death, death. It is out of this despair that the superhuman hope is born. It is out of this abject helplessness that the soul learns to look up with new trust to God. . . . How do most of us attain to any faith in Providence? Is it not by proving, through numberless experiments, that it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps? Is it not by coming, again and again, to the limit of our resources, and being compelled to feel that unless there is a wisdom and a love at work on our behalf, immeasurably wiser and more benign than our own, life is a moral chaos? . . . Only desperation opens our eyes to God’s love.”
That is profound and very challenging, it provokes us to think about our lives and what it means to follow Christ.
Verse 9 says “but that was to,” other versions say “in order that,” so God is in control. God is sovereign over all life including the troubles and afflictions of life. There is always design in our distress, can you say that? Can you speak that out loud? Shout it out loud if you have to.
God so values our trust in him alone that he will graciously dismantle everything else in the world that we might be tempted to rely on. His desire is that we grow deeper and stronger in our confidence that he himself is all we need.
We sing, do we not? “You’re all I want, you’re all I ever needed” yet can live something utterly different. Paul found that God is the only one who could deliver and will deliver. The only one who will never fail or falter or prove untrustworthy. There is a divine peace that can be found in learning to rest in God alone when at our most tested. Paul’s affliction, as severe and unsettling as it was and continued to be, led him to one conclusion, God alone is able to deliver.
God is the Deliverer, and man is the delivered. God is the Rescuer, and man is the rescued. One of the great concepts in the Old Testament is this concept of deliverance. God the Deliverer, man the delivered, and God is the one who provides the plan and the substance of deliverance for you and for me.