In his second letter to the church of God in Corinth, Paul records these fascinating words.
I must needs glory, though it is not expedient; but I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ, fourteen years ago whether in the body, I know not; or whether out of the body, I know not; God knows, such a one [was] caught up even to the third heaven. And I know such a man whether in the body, or apart from the body, I know not; God knows, how that he was caught up into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter (2 Corinthians 12:1-4).
For a fuller picture, read all the way through verse 10.
This delightful section of scripture is characterized both by mystery and marvel. It is amazing for what it does not say; it is rich in what it does say—although subtly in some particulars.
The Larger Context
One can scarcely appreciate the significance of this segment of sacred narrative without knowing something of what has gone before, and that which likewise follows.
One of the major themes in 2 Corinthians is a defense of Paul’s apostleship against certain church critics. Traces of this opposition appear in the first letter. Clearly there were factions in the Corinthian congregation (1:10-17; 4:18-21). The crux of some of the discontent appears to focus upon Paul—his apostleship and authority (9:1-3).
Apparently there were some within the ancient brotherhood who falsely claimed apostolic authority as well (2 Corinthians 11:13). Others fell under this evil influence that arose in opposition to Paul, and they were attempting to make additional converts to the self-willed movement (2 Corinthians 2:5ff; 7:12). The apostle had attempted to stem the rebellion by a visit to the city (2:1; 12:14; 13:1-2), but the effort had not turned the tide.
Eventually, the apostle learned of some improvement in the disposition at Corinth, which led him to write 2 Corinthians, in which he would defend his apostleship further (2:14-7:4), and, among other things, encourage the Corinthian brethren to complete their pledge to assist the poor saints in Jerusalem (chapters 8 and 9).
The Narrower Context
Paul’s recitation of events in connection with certain “visions and revelations” was a part of his ongoing apostolic defense; it was divine documentation. “Visions” appear to suggest the mode of communication, while “revelations” constituted the result.
False teachers often appeal to alleged “visions” to buttress their counterfeit claims (2 Thessalonians 2:9; 1 John 4:1). It is likely that some of Paul’s critics made such assertions (cf. 11:13-15). The apostle feels compelled, therefore, to offer his own genuine experience—in a highly capsulated format—in comparison to which all others would fade into nothingness.
He began by affirming that under ordinary circumstances, it would not be best for him to introduce his heavenly experience, since it might be perceived as “glorying.” Because of his critics’ opposition, however, he feels compelled to mention the incident.
The visions and revelations are “of the Lord,” which may mean either “from the Lord” as the source, or “of the Lord,” in the sense of seeing him. Most commentators feel the sense is that the Lord was the origin of the visions (Barnett, 558).
Traits of the Heavenly Scene
The late Wick Broomall, a highly respected scholar, classified the information regarding Paul’s experience in seven ways. With grateful acknowledgement to his work (1280), I will follow the same general plan, but with my own occasional alterations, considerably expanded comments, and the supplementation of an additional consideration. The context of 12:1-10 is:
1) Personal – The reference to “a man” that Paul knows is a veiled allusion to the apostle himself; verses 5ff make this too apparent to be denied. Though he uses his heavenly experience as a defense against unjust criticism, still, he is reticent, on a personal basis, to refer to himself in the first person (much as John similarly refrained from doing in his impersonal references to “that disciple” (John 18:15, etc.). It is a manifestation of the apostle’s humility. “All commentators agree that the man in the vision was Paul himself” (McPheeters, 5.141).
2) Relational – Paul affirms his relationship to the Lord Jesus. He is a man “in Christ” (i.e., a “Christian” man), having entered that union at the time of his obedience to the gospel (2:14, 17; cf. Galatians 2:26-27; Acts 22:16). The vision, then, had its origin neither in paganism, Judaism, nor personal illusionism. The “in Christ” relationship is absolutely indispensable for all accountable souls in this final dispensation of human history (from Pentecost to the return of Christ)—a point that must be pressed vigorously in an age of theological compromise (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
3) Historical – The event was not imaginary; rather, it was an actual historical circumstance. The supernatural experience occurred fourteen years prior to the time of this writing. Such was not in connection with his conversion, some twenty years earlier, but an event effected after that time. If the date of this epistle is estimated to be about A.D. 56, then this episode possibly took place during that period when Paul was in Cilicia for several years (Acts 9:30; 11:25). Those years are shrouded in obscurity, and there is no incident in the book of Acts that corresponds to this case. The fact that Luke makes no mention of this phenomenal event in his historical record of Paul’s career would appear to be powerful testimony to the integrity of the book. A journalist, writing from strictly human impulses, would never have bypassed this miracle, without adorning it with lavish depictions. Had not Paul mentioned it here, we never would have known about it.
4) Mysterious – The event was concealed in a considerable degree of mystery—even to Paul—for he did not know whether he was carried away in both body and spirit (as in the cases of Enoch and Elijah), or if his spirit merely left the body and took flight alone, thus leaving the flesh dead (James 2:26), hence a subsequent resurrection. One thing is certain; from the apostle’s vantage point it could have happened either way. This implicitly demonstrates that Paul was no materialist, for he readily concedes that his spirit could have existed independent of his mortal body, and that it would have been conscious.
5) Miraculous – The apostle suggests he was “caught up,” i.e., with supernatural power. The Greek term is harpazo (14 times in the New Testament), employed several times in the New Testament of supernatural actions (see: Acts 8:39, Larkin, 136-37; Hodge, 282; 1 Thessalonians 4:17; Revelation 12:5). [Note: First Thessalonians 4:17 bears no relationship to the modern sectarian notion of a “rapture” of the saints preceding an alleged thousand year reign of Christ upon the earth (Jackson, 117-120).] Paul was “caught up even to the third heaven . . . into Paradise” (vv. 2, 4). Some think different realms are here in view—with Paradise being the intermediate state of the soul, while “the third heaven” represents the final abode of the righteous. At times, however, the two expressions appear to merge into one glorious state (Revelation 2:7; 22:2; cf. Robertson, 4.264). The distinction matters little in this context. Undoubtedly it was the most breathtaking experience thus far in Paul’s life—to be eclipsed only by the apostle’s final entrance into the presence of the Almighty and his beloved Son (Philippians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 5:8).
6) Revelatory – This was a divine “revelation” in which the apostle both saw and heard certain things, which were “not lawful” for him now to reveal. There are two important things to glean from this “blank” space. First, a human writer, guided by his own impulses, would have filled in the silence. How could one refrain from relating such thrilling details, except by a profound respect for divine law? Second, Paul’s apostolic credibility had been established on multiple occasions over a long period of time. He could confidently affirm that “in nothing” (cf. “not a whit” 11:5) was he behind “the chiefest apostles,” as demonstrated by the “signs of an apostle” which had been wrought at Corinth (12:11-12). How had the Corinthian saints received the “gifts” that were at their disposal (1 Corinthians 12:4-11), if not by means of the apostle who founded that church? Thus, he did not need to embellish his already-solid credentials by placating the curiosity of his malevolent critics! Another point: one is impressed with how brief and modest Paul’s description is—especially when contrasted with “the lying details of Mohammed’s [alleged] visit to heaven” (Farrar, 291). To that incident one might add the fabrication of Ellen G. White, the founder of Seventh-day Adventism, who claimed to have peered into the sanctuary of God, observing the two tables of stone containing the Ten Commandments, with the fourth enclosed by a soft golden halo (White, 32-33).
7) Indelible – As a reminder of the “exceeding greatness of the revelation,” and to temper the apostle’s spirit, so that he “should not be exalted overmuch,” he was given a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him focused on the glory of Christ instead of the blessedness of his own experience—and any personal pride that might result from such. Oceans of ink have been utilized in attempting to define this “thorn,” but for all the effort no one knows what it was. It apparently was persistent and painful. There is no explanation as to why it was labeled “a messenger of Satan,” unless we are to conclude that the expression acknowledges that all illnesses ultimately have their roots in the historical fact that the enemy of God has murdered the human family (Luke 13:16; John 8:44).
8) Enabling – Paul prayed to the Lord Jesus to remove this terrible “thorn,” but the Savior “said” (a perfect tense form, suggesting perhaps the finality of Christ’s answer; Robertson, 4.266), “My grace is sufficient for you.” The spiritual equation thus is: vision+thorn+grace = strength. The Lord’s blessings sometimes come in unusual packages! The humble man of God accepted the divine discipline and turned it into a victorious incentive to grow stronger. “Wherefore I take pleasure in my weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (v. 10).
What a man—this apostle of Christ! It has been said that the measure of a man is not the friends he has, but his enemies. Paul has had more than his share—both ancient and modern. But he has, and will, outlast them all, and triumph over them, as his reputation grows brighter with the passing of time, and his detractors disappear into the darkness of their own obscurity.