Over the last few weeks and months, several families in our congregation have endured grievous trials. Some have lost loved ones. Others have seen their elderly parents or grandparents decline in health. A few have had challenges of one kind or another with their children. Some have had health or financial concerns of their own. Still others have found it necessary to seek out new jobs and new careers. And I’m sure that this is only a partial list of what the members and friends of this church have gone through.
It should not surprise us that our lives are filled with hardships. Pastor West faithfully reminds us of what David wrote in Psalm 34: Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all (v. 19). And James told us what our attitude toward these many trials ought to be. He wrote, My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience (Jas. 1:2–3).
We know what God’s Word says about our trials. Any kindergartner can open up the Bible and find this information for himself. The challenge is in living it. How well do we do under fire? Do we embrace the promises of the Bible and cling to the assurances of God’s favor? Or do we despair of hope?
Well, if you’re under fire right now, as most of us are, then the words that the apostle Paul wrote in our text are for you. He reminds you that your comfort must be sought in God himself. Even the things that we find most unpleasant in this life further the advancement of his kingdom in this world and minister the comfort of salvation to those who come to him through the Lord Jesus Christ.
The God of All Comfort
The apostle began our text in verse 3 by praising God for the mercy and comfort that he gives to his people. He wrote, Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort.
This is also where our Heidelberg Catechism begins. It assumes that we all need comfort, and this is true. But as hard as it is to lose a loved one or a job, we need comfort concerning something far more damaging than such things. Our sin is so great that it disrupts our fellowship with the triune God. Isaiah wrote, Behold, the LORD’S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear (Isa. 59:1–2). If we expect to have eternal life with the triune God, then it is absolutely imperative that we have the comfort of the forgiveness of sins. There is no other way. Thus, when the catechism asks, “What is thy only comfort in life and in death?” there can be only one answer: “That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil, and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him.”
In fact, the comfort of the gospel is so important that the writers of our catechism identify it not merely as a comfort, i.e., one among many, but as our “only comfort.” It is so important, in fact, that it is almost as if there are no other comforts. Or to put it a little more accurately, all other comforts are extensions of this one comfort. With this understanding, the apostle praised the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as the God of all comfort.
Unbelievers will deny that the gospel is such a great comfort. They will tell you that you will still have all kinds of problems even after your conversion. And we all know how true that is. But consider how the catechism answers their concerns and provides a comfort that no one can take from this.
For example, they will remind you that God hates sin. Since it is completely impossible to stop sinning in this life, God must be angry with you all the time. Yet, our catechism simply declares the gospel truth that Jesus Christ paid the full penalty for our sins by suffering the just judgment of God in our place. In him, God’s wrath has been appeased. He is no longer angry with those whose sins have been washed away by the blood of the Lamb.
But what about the future? Unbelievers may acquiesce to the idea that your past sins have been forgiven, but they will remind you that your life on earth is not yet over. You will continue to sin. Doesn’t God get angry with you all over again every time you violate his holy law? Our catechism, again setting forth the simple truth of God’s Word, answers the subjection with a single word. Not once, not twice, but three times it uses the little word “all.” Jesus satisfied for all your sin. He redeemed you from all the power of the devil. And his salvation is so certain and secure that all things must conspire together for your good.
The promise of complete deliverance from all our sins is declared unequivocally in I John 1:9. John wrote, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Therefore, although we agree that God hates all sin (past, present and future), we find unimaginable comfort in the fact that the work of Jesus Christ has removed every single obstacle between God and us. Martin Luther expressed his confidence in the gospel’s comfort in his well known hymn A Mighty Fortress as follows:
And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed
His truth to triumph through us.
Beloved, because we have put our trust in the precious blood of God’s one and only Son we never have to fear the wrath of God. The sweetness of his love and forgiveness toward those who come to him in faith is far, far more amazing than the bitterness of his anger.
But, unbelievers continue, there are so many things that you have no control over. How do you know that one such thing will not separate you from your Savior? Given the long list of calamities that afflict mankind, this certainly seems plausible. Perhaps a terminal illness, financial ruin, the haunting specter of a past sin, or the myriad of temptations that we face every single day. But, again, one little thought sets this entire argument on its head. Our catechism reminds us that our salvation was never under our control: we did not earn it, we do not deserve it, and we would not have remained true to it if we had not been preserved by the mighty power of the Holy Spirit. From beginning to end, it is the work of a sovereign God who has set his love upon us and has shown us mercy through his Son. Even the hairs of our heads, which seem so small and insignificant, cannot fall to the ground unless it is God’s will that they do. And, if God so regards our hairs, how much more precious to him is our perseverance in the true faith?
Psalm 103:10–11 says, He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. God has given us so much contrary to what we deserve. How could we possibly not live each and every day in the comfort of his mercy?
Comforted to Comfort
Verse 4 goes on to describe one of the purposes of God’s comfort, viz., he comforts us so that we might comfort others. The text says, Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.
Here again one of the first things we notice is the triple use of the word all. The previous verse reminded us that all comfort comes from God. This verse adds two more thoughts. First, it says that God comforts us in all our tribulation. Here the word tribulation is singular, which makes it seem as though the apostle Paul regarded the entire Christian life as a life of tribulation. In a minute, we’ll see that this was certainly an accurate description of his life. But the fact is that it is an accurate description of our lives as well. Jesus said, Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof (Matt. 6:34). And our catechism portrays our present life as a “vale of tears” (HC 26). Our lives from the day we are born until the day we die are filled with sorrow and tears. But the good news, according to our text, is that God comforts us at every step along the way. Another of our beloved hymns states this precious truth as follows:
Though sorrow, need, or death be mine
Yet am I not forsaken;
My Father’s care is round me there;
He holds me that I shall not fall:
And so to him I leave it all.
Paul’s third use of the word all is in the phrase that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble. Here the word translated any is the same word translated all at the end of verse 3 and the beginning of verse 4. The Lord not only promises to comfort us in all our tribulation, he also promises to minister the same comfort to others through us. He promises to comfort them in all their tribulation.
Now, if the purpose of God comforting us is that we might comfort others, then we have a responsibility to minister comfort. Let me remind you again that the only comfort that matters in the grand scheme of things is the gospel. What other comfort can you give someone who just lost a baby to leukemia or whose job of twenty-three years just disappeared into thin air? Needless to say, the comfort of the gospel must be joined together with deeds of kindness. We might call this “back fence evangelism,” i.e., demonstrating the power of the gospel to an unbeliever before we actually give him the gospel itself. In fact, this principle is true even among believers. James wrote, If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? (Jas. 2:15–16). And John asked, But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him? (I John 3:17). But if we give an unbeliever only the necessities of this life without telling him of his need to turn to the Lord, we may have made his life here more comfortable, but we have not given him any real comfort. In fact, we have withheld from him the one thing by which alone he can avoid everlasting misery.
Whether we’re dealing with a believer or an unbeliever, we have the same responsibility. The God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, expects us to use that comfort to comfort others in all their tribulation.
Suffering Makes Our Comfort Increase
The last two verses of our text give us one more sobering but joyful reassurance. In verses 5 and 6, Paul makes it clear that God increases our comfort by increasing our suffering. In fact, he uses our suffering and our comfort to increase the comfort of others around us. He wrote, For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ. And whether we be afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effectual in the enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer: or whether we be comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation.
Just as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so also the comfort of Christ abounds in us. No one knew what this means as well as the apostle Paul, and he tells us what it means in the verses that immediately follow our text, particularly verses 7 through 10. He was comforted in God’s people. Not only did he suffer so that they might hear the Word of God for themselves, but he also gave them an example of suffering so that they might suffer righteously, too, and in their suffering also find comfort. He also explained the extent of his own suffering. It was so great that he even despaired of life itself, believing that the only thing that he had to look forward to was the resurrection of the body. Note here that Paul did not despair of hope but of life, i.e., he could not see any way to avoid dying for the gospel. Yet, God delivered him and thereby comforted him.
The suffering mentioned in these verses is specifically suffering for the gospel. We suffer first because we believe the gospel. And we also suffer because we preach the gospel. Ironically, it is also by the preaching of the gospel that we are comforted because we cannot preach the gospel without seeing two things: how wonderfully faithful God is to us in our suffering, and how mercifully he uses our preaching to bring others to faith in Jesus Christ and to build them up as his faithful and productive disciples. He reassures us that their faith is genuine when we see them following the example of Moses, who chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season (Heb. 11:25).
The Lord’s people bear their suffering joyfully because they know the cornucopia of blessings that come out of their affliction. Peter also knew what it meant to be under the gun. He wrote, Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ (I Pet. 1:6–7).
The apostle Paul suffered and was comforted. So did the Corinthians to whom he wrote. James and Moses, likewise. And you, too. Every day that you walk on this earth you suffer, and by that suffering you learn more and more of the comfort of the gospel. You have a responsibility to use the comfort that has been given to you to comfort others.
Remember, though, that both your suffering and your comfort have been sanctified to you by the suffering and comfort of Jesus Christ. Psalm 22 describes his suffering by way of prophecy. It foretold how his persecutors would mistreat him, even dividing his clothes among themselves and casting lots for the seamless garment. His suffering was so bad that Psalm 22 introduces it with the words, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? (Ps. 22:1). Isaiah 53, likewise, pictures the Messiah as a man of sorrows, whose life was filled with loneliness, rejection and dejection. In the gospels, we read how his family and later his own disciples turned away from him, leaving him to die alone. No other man ever suffered so much, yet his greatest suffering came when he bore the wrath and curse of Almighty God. Your suffering and mine do not even begin to compare to his. But God also comforted him. He raised him from the dead and seated him at his own right hand in glory. Now, he executes the progressive advancement of his kingdom and rejoices in the comfort that he gives to every one of his elect. All of this is what makes the gospel your only comfort in life and in death.
Further, the Lord Jesus also gave you an example to follow. As he gave himself entirely for your comfort, so you must give yourself completely to his service and to comforting others. That, beloved, is what his Word calls you to do today. Amen.