Firstly, it should be noted how very different Paul opens this second letter to the Corinthians, in comparison to his first. His tone throughout most of his former letter is strongly critical, admonishing them in every manner of doctrine & comparing them to a strange sort of adolescent infant (1Cor 3:1ff), while the majority of the second letter has Paul instead desiring that they be “comforted”. What is the cause of this distinct change of tone, & just what manner of comfort is this?
No matter the minimal measure of their particular distress, it seems normal for western society to continually seek greater ease; so the cause for the wide popularity of this passage. We are a people that rely heavily upon our “creature comforts”, & more so with every generation. Life would be unfathomable for most of us today- apart from our cars, computers, & air conditioning. It would be natural for us to read this sort of nicety into a modern sense of Paul’s “comfort”- if only ignorant of all that he refers to as he speaks of his “afflictions” (2Cor. 11:23ff); for every time he speaks of this “comfort”, we find him also referencing an “affliction”. It is in the midst of just such suffering that the apostle broaches this subject again in the seventh chapter…
2 Corinthians 7:4-5 Great is my confidence in you; great is my boasting on your behalf. I am filled with comfort; I am overflowing with joy in all our affliction. 5 For even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within.
Understand, the reason his tone is so different with the second letter is that the Corinthians had largely heeded all his admonitions in the first! Formerly, he oftentimes had “no praise” for them (1Cor. 11:17), but now, he was even “boasting” on their behalf! Hallelujah for obedient Christians!
And therein lies the rub; since they had largely fallen in line with regards to obedience to Paul, they had also fallen in line with some of his worldly afflictions; thus their need for this “comfort” that the apostle knew in such abundance.
The problem is we tend to interpret both “afflictions” & “comfort” in the context of our lives instead of theirs. The Greek translated “comfort” in all these passages is “paraklesis”, & the striking thing to note is that this “paraklesis” is more often translated as “exhortation” than “comfort” in the NASB, particularly when it is clearly indicating a pastoral message (e.g. Luke 3:18, Acts 2:40, 13:15, 20:1-2, 1Tim. 4:13) Because of this, the word “exhortation” has developed a sort of negative connotation in secular usage, given the poor example of legalistic preaching by some (supposedly) inside the church (e.g. Fred Phelps, of Westboro Baptist Church infamy), as well poor reactions to good gospel preaching by those outside the church, due to the nature of their rebellion.
And that is the point, all true exhortation will engage the gospel (literally the good news of Christ’s glory & saving work) because “paraklesis” has an overarching positive significance for the believer.
The “comfort” spoken of throughout 2 Corinthians is inexorably tied to the more classical sense of exhortation, as expressed by Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of American English:
1. To incite by words or advice; to animate or urge by arguments to a good deed or to any laudable conduct or course of action.
2. To advise; to warn; to caution.
3. To incite or stimulate to exertion.
Conversely therefore, the “comfort” Paul speaks of will not result in a dull, passive state of ease, but a cheerful, strengthened, animated, active, & excited exertion towards a “laudable conduct or course of action”. It is nearly the opposite of how it would be thought to mean by those unaware of either the Greek subtext or Paul’s context.
Know this too, that this “comfort”, or “exhortation” of the Lord may not always seem immediately cheerful; sometimes it may even be painful, but it will always lead towards Christ’s glory, as well as simultaneously towards our benevolence & joy as we follow in the footsteps of our Savior. The severe emotional distress He felt of Gethsemane, followed by the physical afflictions of Golgotha, horrendous as they were, paled in comparison to His (& our) consequential joy. So likewise, Hebrews tells to maintain a sense of joy, even in the midst of suffering, for this faithfully acknowledges the power of our sovereign Lord in all things…
Hebrews 12:1-11 Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. 4 You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; 5 and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, "MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM; 6 FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES." 7 It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. 11 All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
So now, consider once again the core verse of this part of the teaching…
2 Corinthians 1:5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort (exhortation) is abundant through Christ.