Comfort for the Downcast (2 Cor 7:5-7)
Every so often we need to be reminded of the historical nature of the Bible. Contrary to how many have conceived it, this glorious book did not fall gently like manna from heaven. Its many narratives, prophecies, and letters were forged in the grit of real life struggles and the multitude of human relational dynamics not unlike what we encounter today.
Nowhere is this better seen than in 2 Corinthians. In fact, the lengthy paragraph before us (2 Cor. 7:5-16) is unintelligible apart from an understanding of the movements of Paul and Titus and the personal interactions between them and the Corinthian church. So let me briefly set the context for this incredibly instructive and encouraging passage.
As best we can tell, Paul made an urgent and confrontational visit to Corinth in the spring of 55 a.d., which he described as "painful" in 2 Corinthians 2:1. He immediately returned to Ephesus and changed the plans he had earlier made to visit Corinth twice more: once on his way to Macedonia and then on his return trip (cf. 2 Cor. 1:15-16). Fearful that his enemies would destroy the work of the gospel in Corinth, he wrote what some have called the "severe" or "tearful" letter (2 Cor. 2:4, 9), entrusting its delivery to Titus.
In late 55 a.d. he left Ephesus and went to Troas, hoping to meet Titus there with news of how the Corinthians had responded to this forceful appeal. Much to his chagrin, Titus was nowhere to be found (cf. 2 Cor. 2:13). Evidently he and Titus had planned to meet in Macedonia (probably Philippi) should the meeting in Troas not occur. Hence, Paul made his way to Macedonia, anxiously awaiting the arrival of Titus from Corinth. While there he suffered greatly, both in terms of external opposition and internal anxiety and distress, unsure of how his spiritual children would respond to what he had written. Finally, Titus arrived from Corinth with the good news for which Paul had prayed. The apostle's response is described in the passage before us (2 Cor. 7:5ff.).
Evidently, the Corinthians initially felt sorrow on hearing Paul's letter (vv. 8-9), but soon repented of their sinful behavior and expressed their love and longing for him (vv. 7, 9, 11-12). Titus is greatly comforted and refreshed by their response and upon his reunion with Paul in Macedonia reports to the apostle this glorious turn of events. His regret over sending the severe letter is short-lived when he learns of the godly and sincere fruit it bore in their experience (v. 8). Now he is relieved and filled with joy both at how Titus was encouraged and refreshed by them as well as their genuine and godly repentance (vv. 6-7, 9-12, 13).
Our concern in this meditation is with his opening comments in vv. 5-7. It's a remarkably honest and vulnerable confession by Paul of his state of mind and body:
"For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn - fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more" (2 Cor. 7:5-7).
Several things are worthy of note.
First, in 2 Corinthians 2:13 it was his "spirit" that couldn't find rest when Titus failed to appear. Now it is his "body" (v. 5). Whereas "body" (Gk., sarx) may be inclusive of his spiritual and psychological state of being, the emphasis is on the frailty and vulnerability of his physical frame. Paul was not above or insulated against experiencing great physical agitation and weakness. This was caused by a multitude of afflictions (v. 5), what he calls "fighting without and fear within" (however, both "fighting" and "fear" are plural in the Greek text, pointing to multiple occasions when he confronted each).
The "fightings" were not physical battles, as if to suggest that Paul was a regular participant in some ancient version of pugilistic combat! He has in mind ecclesiastical controversies and theological disputes that he apparently faced on a regular basis (cf. the use of this word in 2 Tim. 2:23; Titus 3:9; James 4:1).
What is of special interest is his reference to "fears within", which no doubt included his anxiety about how Titus would be received (not to mention the physical safety of his beloved emissary), his concern about how the Corinthians would respond to his letter (would they reject him or repent of their sin?), and his lingering worries concerning the influence of the false teachers in Corinth.
Take heart: Paul was just like you and me! Murray Harris is right in pointing out that Paul "openly admits to being in emotional turmoil and having persistent fears. So far from being imperturbable or being a model of inner tranquility, he was deeply affected by his circumstances, especially his pastoral circumstances (cf. 11:28-29), although he was certainly not emotionally fragile" (527).
He obviously cared deeply both for Titus and the believers in Corinth. Their spiritual and physical welfare weighed heavily on his heart, and he is unashamed to confess the burden and anxiety and overall toll it took on him, body and soul.
Second, thank God for the "But God's" of the Bible! "But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus" (v. 6; cf. Isa. 49:13). Yes, Paul was "downcast", dejected, perhaps even in some sense depressed because of the "fears" (v. 5) that wracked his heart as he waited, dare I say, impatiently in Macedonia.
Don't overlook an incredibly instructive dual emphasis in this verse. On the one hand, Paul is encouraged by the arrival of Titus. His anxiety diminishes upon seeing his trusted friend and brother in Christ. Don't ever let anyone tell you Paul wasn't a people person, as if all that mattered were theological concepts over which he pondered in a remote ivory tower. The welfare of his beloved brother, Titus, mattered profoundly to him! As Paul says in v.7, it wasn't simply the arrival of Titus that cheered him but the fact that Titus was himself cheered by the reception he received from the Corinthians!
But second, take special note that, typical of Paul, he sees God's providential hand in it all. God was the ultimate source of this comfort. He rejoiced to see Titus and to know he was safe and to hear the good news of what had transpired in Corinth. But all this was from God! He is, after all, "the Father of mercies and God of all comfort" (2 Cor. 1:3), and his ways of dispensing it to us are many and varied. It's truly breathtaking to see yet again the intimate oversight of God in the most mundane of human affairs and how he orchestrates seemingly routine events (such as the return journey of Titus) for our spiritual growth and edification.
The third important observation concerns Paul's joy on hearing how the Corinthians responded to his severe letter (v. 7). When Titus brought his report to Paul he focused on three things. He "told us of your longing," writes Paul. But their "longing" or "ardent desire" for what? Perhaps for Paul himself. Perhaps their desire to be reconciled to the apostle. In any case, Paul is ecstatic upon hearing of their change of heart.
Titus also reported on their "mourning" or "grieving", whether over their inexcusable treatment of Paul or their failure to heed his earlier letters and appeals to repent. Their "zeal" may be a reference to their fresh enthusiasm to comply with Paul's directives, but given the prepositional phrase "for me", it is more likely a reference to their eagerness to unite fully, in heart and mind and spirit, with their beloved spiritual father.
The result? "I rejoiced still more," exclaimed Paul (v. 7b)! There was great joy upon seeing Titus, but even greater joy, now more than ever, upon hearing how he had been received and how passionate these believers had become for Paul and holiness of life. Paul's fellow apostle, John, put it best in saying, "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth" (3 John 4). Paul couldn't have agreed more.
What a rich treasure has been entrusted to us: the sacred Scriptures, the inspired word of God, as I said earlier, forged in the context of real life struggles and the multitude of human relational dynamics. Here, in the messy and often frustrating arena of human failure and weakness and repentance and reconciliation, we find encouragement and instruction and hope. And this too, from God.