Paul's 2nd Letter to the Corinthians and Paul's Letter to the Ephesians

January 10, 2015

Tom Lowe

 

The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians

 


            IV.    Authority of Paul’s Ministry. (10:1–13:10).                         

                       B.    The Boast of the Apostle. (11:1–12:10).

                                   3.     The Consequences of His Boast. (12:1–10).

Lesson IV.B.3.a:The Revelation. (12:1-6).

 

 

2nd Corinthians 12:1-6 (NKJV)

 

1 It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord:

2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven.

3 And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—

4 how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.

5 Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities.

6 For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me.

 

 

 

Introduction (12:1-10)

 

God had granted Paul a vision of the highest heaven.  Paul had heard words that couldn’t be repeated and had seen sights that couldn’t be described.  But because of his experience, God had given him a “thorn”—a weakness that continually reminded him of his utter dependence on God.  Paul had experienced what others would never experience in this life.  Instead of being able to boast about it, Paul had to suffer because of it.

 

 

 

 

Commentary

 

 

1 It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord:KJV

 

When Paul says it is “not profitable for me to boast” he does not mean literally that there is nothing to be gained by it, for he hopes by this boasting, forced upon him, to-make-the-Corinthians see that they have been slandering him and following false leaders at Corinth.  The words simply express again his distaste at the whole business of boasting which could tempt his flesh to be proud, and his sense that it is a desperate and suspect emergency measure which is not edifying; of what value is it—he is not certain.  He feels driven by a necessity he cannot evade, so he will go on to “visions and revelations” that the Lord has given him.  That Paul had such visions is clear not only from acts 9:3; 16:9; 18:9; 22:17-18; 27:23 but also from Galatians 1:16; 2:2.

 

In the previous lesson, Paul had listed many incidents showing how he had suffered for Christ’s sake.  There wasn’t much glory in that.  I think that the Spirit of God had him write down all his experiences so that no man would ever be able to say, “I endured more than Paul the apostle.” Paul felt compelled to move to the next category about which his opponents had been boasting: “visions and Revelations.”  “Visions and revelations of the Lord” denote different kinds of experience.  Visions are mental pictures which have definite shape and form.  Revelations are truths made clear and apprehended by the insight of the soul; they may not involve something visible as visions do.  Paul’s regret that he must boast is plain throughout this section, and is stressed in verse one.  It is clear from the frequency of disclaimers about boasting in this section (11:30; 12:1, 5-6, 9-11) that Paul thought of bragging about revelations as the height of foolishness.  A revelation by definition was purely God’s work.  The Lord freely chooses to reveal mysteries and truth to those he wants to, not to those worthy of it.  Paul’s vision on the Damascus road proved that point.  He was opposing Christ with all his strength—plotting the destruction of Christ’s followers.  Despite his intentions, Christ appeared to him (Acts 9:1-19).  There wasn’t any redeemable quality in Paul.  There was no room for bragging.  It was a surprise that Jesus chose to appear to Paul.

 

First, God honored Paul by giving him “visions and revelations.”  Paul saw the glorified Christ on the very day he was converted—“Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied” (Acts 9:5; also see Acts 22:6).  He saw a vision of Ananias coming to minister to him—“In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight" (Acts 9:12) and he also had a vision from God when he was called to minister to the Gentiles—“When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking. 'Quick!' he said to me. 'Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’” (Acts 22:17-18).

 

During his ministry, he had visions from God to guide him and encourage him.  It was by a vision he was called to Macedonia (Acts 16:9).  When the ministry was difficult in Corinth, God encouraged Paul by a vision (Acts 18:9-10).  After his arrest in Jerusalem, Paul was again encouraged by a vision from God (Acts 23:11).  An angel appeared to him in the midst of the storm and assured him that he and the passengers would be saved (Acts 27:23).  Along with these special visions that related to his call and ministry, spiritual revelations of divine truth were also communicated to Paul (see Ephesians 3:1-6).  God gave him a profound understanding of the plan of God for this present age.  Certainly Paul understood the mysteries of God.

 

God also honored Paul by taking him to heaven, and then sending him back to the earth again.  This marvelous experience had taken place 14 years before the writing of this letter, which would place the experience in about the year a.d. 41-43.  This would be the period in Paul’s life between his departure for Tarsus (Acts 9:30) and his visit from Barnabas (Acts 11:25-26).  The mention of the date indicates how vivid his memory of the privileged experience still is.  There is no record of the details of this event, and it is useless for us to speculate.  Nevertheless, Paul was so thrilled by the experience that he lost all sense of physical existence and could not tell whether his body was caught up or left behind.  Plainly, though he confesses that only God knows precisely what happened, he considers it possible for man’s spirit to be temporarily withdrawn from his body even during the continuance of physical life.

 

Yet apparently, Paul’s critics were boasting about revelations.  In effect, they were saying that they had been judged worthy of these revelations.  Only a fool boasts in something that is so clearly the work of God. Paul was speaking to a Greek congregation that was tempted to overplay the significance of such manifestations (1 Corinthians 14: 1-5).  There were Judaizers present who were anxious to receive honors, and they boasted about their “letters of commendation” (2 Corinthians 3:1).  But Paul did not look for honor from men; he let God honor him, for that alone is the honor that really counts. The yardstick of all ecstatic (rapturous) experiences and emotional demonstrations is, as Schweitzer puts it, “whether they proclaim Jesus as Lord, or in other words, whether they build up the church.”

 

 

2 I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.NRSV

 

Jewish rabbis were accustomed to speaking about themselves in the third person, and Paul adopted that approach as he unfolded this experience to his friends (and enemies) at Corinth.  So wonderful was this experience that Paul was not quite sure whether God had taken him bodily to heaven, or whether his spirit had left his body.  (There is quite a contrast between being “let down” in a basket and being “caught up to the third heaven!) Paul affirmed here the reality of heaven and the ability of God to take people there (like Enoch, Genesis 5:24; Elijah, 2 Kings 2:11; Christ, 1 Thessalonians 4:15).  The third heaven is the same as “paradise,” the heaven of heavens where God dwells in glory.  It was the Lord Jesus who spoke of the birds of heaven, they don’t go up very high. Thanks to modern science, men today have visited the heaven of the clouds (we fly above the clouds). Out beyond that is the space that contains the stars of heaven and the planets (men have walked on the moon).  That still is not the same as the third heaven where the throne of God is to be found.  How ridiculous it was for the cosmonauts in the Russian sputnik to say they didn’t see God when they went to the Moon.  They didn’t go far enough, my friend.  They must go to the third heaven to find the throne of God, but men cannot get to God’s heaven without God’s help.

 

The interesting thing is that Paul kept quiet about this experience for 14 years!  During those years, he was buffeted by his “thorn in the flesh,” and perhaps people wondered why he had such a burdensome affliction. The Judaizers may have adopted the views of Job’s comforters and said, “This affliction is a punishment from God.” (Actually, it was a gift from God.) Some of Paul’s good friends may have tried to encourage him by saying, “Cheer up, Paul.  One day you’ll be in heaven!” Paul could have replied, “That’s why I have this thorn—I went to heaven!”

 

All against his will he is still setting out his credentials, and he tells of an experience at which we can only wonder and which we cannot even try to look into.  In the strangest way he seems to stand outside himself and look at himself.  “I know a person” he says.  The man is himself and yet Paul can look at the man who had this amazing experience with a kind of wondering detachment. It is obvious that Paul is speaking about himself; relating the experience of another man would hardly have enhanced Paul’s apostolic credentials.

 

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.  In this sentence, Paul switched to the third person, speaking of the event as if another person had told him about it.  It is obvious, however, that Paul is, in fact, the person “in Christ” who was “caught up to the third heaven,” which Paul apparently regarded as the highest heaven.  He speaks of himself simply as a Christian, a man overwhelmed in a gracious moment by the power of Christ (10:17).  By the phrase “in Christ” the apostle is disclaiming all credit for what happened to him; he showed that he regarded this great experience not as a consequence of inherit worthiness or spiritual excellence but because he was “in Christ,” and as such, it anticipated what everyone in Christ will one day experience, the presence of Christ in heaven. In 12:7 Paul would explain that God had given him a “thorn in the flesh” in order to keep him from becoming arrogant about this revelation.

 

So why did Paul speak about the revelation as if he were an observer and not a participant in these revelations?  There are two common explanations: (1) Some have asserted that Paul was trying to express the way he felt during the vision—like an observer of what was happening.  (2) Others understand this as a technique Paul used to distance himself from the boasting he felt he had to do. This is the most likely reason Paul did this, for he seems to be expressing that sentiment in 12:5: “I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses” (2 Corinthians 12:5NIV).  Although he felt compelled to tell the Corinthians about this revelation in order to prove his apostolic authority, Paul used the technique of speaking in the third person to avoid bragging directly about this revelation.  Paul was willing to risk obscurity in his writing in order to guard against pride.

 

Although Paul didn’t give many details about this ecstatic experience, he did write that he was “caught up to the third heaven.” What does that mean?  In Paul’s day, the notion of multiple heavens—from 3 to 7 heavens—was common.  Scholars who have systematically analyzed the use of the words “heaven” and “heavens” in the Old and New Testaments believe that the Scriptures use the word “heaven” to refer to three separate places.  The first heaven is the earth atmosphere (see Acts 1:9-10); the second heaven is the entire universe, which contains all the stars (see Genesis 1:14).  The “third heaven, beyond these two heavens, is where God himself lives—“who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him” (1 Peter 3:22).  This is the “heaven of heavens” (Nehemiah 9:6; psalm 68:33).  Whether or not Paul had this three-fold division of the heavens in mind, it is clear that he considered the “third heaven” as the highest heaven.  Paul saw his revelation as an extraordinary and unique revelation (12:7).  Nothing less than going to the heaven above all heavens would silence those who boasted of their own revelations.

 

In their traditions the Jews said that four rabbis had had this vision of God.  Ben Azai had seen the Glory and had died.  Ben Soma beheld it and went mad. Archer saw it and “cut up the young plants,” that is, in spite of the vision he became a heretic and ruined the garden of truth.  Akiba alone ascended in peace and in peace came back.  We cannot even guess what happened to Paul.  We don’t need theories about the number of heavens because of the fact that he speaks of the third heaven.  Perhaps he simply means that his spirit rose to an unsurpassable ecstasy in its nearness to God.

 

It was 14 years ago that Paul experience this revelation.  Although Luke records a number of visions and trances Paul received (Acts 9:3-7; 16:9; 22:17-21), including the one Paul experienced while visiting Corinth (Acts 18:9-10), none of those visions fit the description here.  Paul was not alluding to the Damascus road vision, for he clearly stated that he was already “in Christ” (i.e., a Christian) when this vision was given.  The visions and revelations in Corinth and Troas (Acts 16:9) had occurred several years before he wrote this letter.  The trance that Paul experience in Jerusalem came close to the time period, but in that trance Paul wasn’t lifted up to heaven.  Instead, God simply gave Paul a clear command (Acts 22:17-21).  In contrast, Paul described this revelation as such a rapturous experience that he heard words he could not repeat (12:4).  The fact that Paul couldn’t express what he heard might explain the silence about this revelation in the book of Acts.

 

14 years before the writing of 2 Corinthians would be around a.d. 40, close to the beginning of Paul’s ministry.  Paul may have experienced this revelation when he was in Arabia (see Galatians 1:17; 2:2), or when he was in Antioch (Acts 13:1-3), or when he was stoned outside of Lystra an assumed dead (Acts 14:19-20).

 

Whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows.  Apparently, the Corinthians valued visions and revelations and would have been interested in the technicalities of the type of vision and how it could be categorized.  Paul discouraged any extensive debate over the vision he had experienced by admitting his own ignorance about such details and reminding the Corinthians of God’s omnipotence.  God is the only one who knows the mysteries surrounding Paul’s vision. The fact that Paul admitted the possibility that he could have been in the body was perhaps a rebuttal of the Greek notion that only one’s soul could ascend to God.  The Corinthians most likely were strongly influenced by these Greek notions, for Paul had to explain the Christian concept of a bodily resurrection (see the 1 Corinthians 15:1-58, especially verses 35-44).

 

What Paul is describing here would be the most sublime condition conceivable, the heavenly presence of Jesus.  It would have been an experience comparable to that of Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration.  But Paul, like them, would be getting a glimpse of the glory that is yet ahead at the Parousia[1] (4:14-5:10) and by it be strengthened for the sufferings which awaited him in the course of the mission to the Gentiles: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the Glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18; 2 Timothy 4:8).  It is only the man in Christ who has this anticipation.

 

 

3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—NIV

4 was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.NIV

 

Paul was granted for an indescribable moment intimate companionship with the Lord within the courts of heaven itself.  For an instant he was “at home with the lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).  But he did not know if he was in or out of the body, so rapturous was the event that briefly parted the mists of earthly existence and transported him into the ultimate heavenly glory of the presence of the Son of God.

 

This verse repeats the thought of 12:2.  Some commentators assert that Paul was referring to a different revelation than the “third heaven” vision, but it seems that “paradise” is used as a synonym.  For Paul to equate the third heaven with paradise would have not been unheard of in the first century.  The Jewish apocryphal book The Apocalypse of Moses equates the two.  Thus, in this sentence, Paul was merely repeating that he had actually been transported to heaven, though he didn’t know how.

 

One lovely thing we may note, for it will help a little.  The word paradise comes from a Persian word which means a walled-garden.  When a Persian king wished to confer a very special honor on someone especially dear to him, he made him a companion of the garden and gave him the right to walk in the royal gardens with him in intimate companionship. In this experience, as never before and never again Paul had been the companion of God.

 

Jesus also had used the word “paradise” as a synonym for heaven.  He had promised the thief on a cross next to Him that He would meet the thief in paradise on that very day—“Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).  Then, in revelation 2:7, Jesus promised the tree of life, the one in paradise, to all those who overcome.  The latter reference is an obvious allusion to the Garden of Eden, where the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil stood in the middle of the garden—“And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9).  In fact, the root meaning of the Greek word paradeisos, translated here as “paradise,” is “enclosure” and had come to refer to an enclosed park.  Thus the word implied a restored Garden of Eden, the beautiful place God was preparing for His people, the immediate resting place of the righteous dead and the ultimate place where believers will dwell after the resurrection. Today, the tree of life and paradise are in the same place, and that is heaven according to Revelation 22:14—“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.”

 

And heard things so astounding that they cannot be told.Given the extraordinary nature of this revelation (12:4), this is a surprisingly brief description of it.  All Paul revealed was that he had been transported to heaven (“paradise”) and had heard “inexpressible things.” God honored Paul by granting him visions and revelations, and by taking him to heaven; but he honored him further by permitting him to hear some “inexpressible things” while he was in heaven.  These things could be spoken by God and by beings in heaven, but they could not be spoken by men.  The New Testament deliberately veils the next life.  What Paul heard in paradise was both unspeakable and not lawful for a man to utter.  It was to be kept sacred between him and God.  He was not permitted to tell the Corinthians what he heard! It would be sacrilege to repeat them even if he could.

 

Could the Judaizers relate any experiences that were like this one?  Even Moses, who was intimate with God, met the Lord on the mountaintop; but Paul met the Lord in paradise.  Paul had exercised great spiritual discipline during those 14 years, for he had told this experience to no one.  There is no doubt that this vision of God’s Glory was one of the sustaining powers in Paul’s life and ministry.  But no matter where he was—in prison, in the deep, in dangerous travels—he knew that God was with him and that all was well.

 

What Paul saw and heard in heaven was meant for his own edification.  Most likely, God was strengthening and encouraging him for the extraordinary trials and suffering he would have to face in order to preach the Good News“But the Lord said, "Go and do what I say. For Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for me" (Acts 9:15-16).  Paul mentioned it here only to invalidate the plans of his opponents in Corinth.

 

The emphasis here is instructing.  Although accounts of revelations and visions typically focus on what a person has seen, Paul highlighted what he had heard.  For Paul, listening to God and responding to his Word was extremely important—“And now you also have heard the truth, the Good News that God saves you. And when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago. (Ephesians 1:13; also see Romans 10:14, 17; Galatians 3:5).

 

It is not certain that this verse describes a second vision.  If “Paradise” (Luke 23:43; Revelations 2:7) was the third heaven, or was in the third heaven, this can be the same vision described in verse 2; in that case, Paul speaks only of one vision, as an example of the many he might describe.  But it is fully possible that Paul gives two examples, of which the one in verses 3-4 is the second.  In either case, Paul is clearly conscious that he has been granted a great privilege in such visions, and he may imply that the arrogant “false apostles” at Corinth cannot match these proofs of divine blessing.  The experience, as in verse 2, was so absorbing that for its duration he had no bodily feeling and could not tell whether he was in the body while it happened.  It was something that happened to him in such a way that he felt like a mere onlooker.

 

5 On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses.NRSV

6 But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me,NRSV

 

You and I are not going to heaven till we die or till are Lord returns.  But we have a marvelous encouragement in the fact that we are today seated with Christ in the heavenly places—“And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).  We have a position of authority and victory “far above all” (Ephesians 2: 21-22).  While we have not seen God’s Glory as Paul did, we do share God’s glory now—“I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:22); and one day we shall enter into heaven and behold the Glory of Christ—“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (John 17:24).

 

Such an honor as this would have made most people very proud.  Instead of keeping quiet for 14 years, they would have immediately told the world and became famous.  But Paul did not become proud.  He simply told the truth—it was not empty boasting—and let the facts speak for themselves.  His great concern was that nobody robbed God of the glory and gave it to Paul.  He wanted others to have an honest estimate of him and his work (see the Romans 12:3).

 

When Paul says, “I will not boast, except of my weaknesses,” he indicates again the distinction between two aspects of his existence.  Of his experience “in Christ,” an undeserved act of grace, he will boast, for the credit goes only to the Lord.  Moffett translates it: “Of an experience like that I am prepared to boast, but not of myself personally.” When his boast turns away from Christ to himself, Paul can boast only of his “weaknesses.” They turned out to be a blessing because they kept him from unchristian pride in his visions; they had made him ready to receive the divine grace and power by which alone he can live and work effectively for Christ.

 

Just in case the Corinthians should wonder why the apostle seems to undervalue so legitimate a subject for boasting, he furnishes them with the motive for his discretion in regard to his revelations.  If he would desire to glory, he would not be a fool; such boasting would be in accord with the truth.  Only a fool boasts beyond the truth.  But the real reason that he refrains from boasting about his elevation to paradise is that he does not want anyone to form an opinion of him which goes beyond what he sees in Paul or hears from him.  He does not want to be judged “by his report of his own spiritual experiences, but by his laborious and painful life in the service of the Gospel.”  The apostle has discovered that, no matter how highly the Lord favors and blesses him, it is the Lord’s will that he remain utterly humble; also that no man think more of him than can be gained from normal personal contact.  As the Lord was lowly in His ministry among men, so the vessels dare be earthen only, if they are to transmit the gospel (4:7).

 

Paul could honestly say more than he did; he could speak of other revelations that God has granted him.  Were he to do so, he would not be a deluded fool, as some at Corinth have thought him to be—“If we are out of our mind, it is for the sake of God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you” (2 Corinthians 5:13).  But though to recap further instances would be speaking the truth, he refrains (literally, “spares” them), so that they may judge him not by his secret visions, which could be challenged by hostile men, but by what he has done and suffered.  This record even his enemies cannot deny; all must admit the truth of such experiences as he has told in 11:23-27.

 

Paul sensed he was on shaky ground when he started referring to a revelation that he couldn’t describe.  He didn’t want anyone to mistakenly think that he was boasting about himself in this revelation.  Therefore, he once again issued a disclaimer that he wasn’t boasting about himself—“On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast . . .”

 

If the Corinthians thought Paul was boasting, then they shouldn’t consider him a fool, for, unlike his critics, he was telling the truth—“For such boasters are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder! Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).  Paul hadn’t broadcasted his vision because he wanted people to judge his integrity and the truthfulness of the gospel for themselves.  They could evaluate the evidence from what they had seen and heard.  Anyone could claim to have a vision from God.  Paul had experienced one of the highest order.  But he had refused to base his authority and his message on his spiritual experiences.  Instead, he had determined to put all this away and preach the clear message that Christ had been crucified for people’s sins (1 Corinthians 2:2).  Paul wanted the Corinthians and all those who heard him to judge his message on its own merits and on the way in which the Holy Spirit was using the message to transform people’s lives—“For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:3). The Corinthian preoccupation with the external and the spectacular was regrettable to Paul (1 Corinthians 14:20).  He could boast of these things truthfully (1 Corinthians 14:18; Philippians 3:4), by which he implied that the claims of other men in Corinth were suspect.  But what mattered to Paul was not his achievements but God’s work through him and the gospel that he preached.  He had no desire to become a “superman” or encourage hero worship. 

 

How could Paul have such a great experience and still remain humble?  Because of the second experience that God brought to his life. In the next lesson, Paul turns his attention away from his vision and to his weaknesses.  Paul, no doubt, was alluding to his “thorn in the flesh,” which he would discuss in 12:7-10.  The thorn in the flesh was another instance of God’s direct intervention in Paul’s life (see 11:30-33 for Paul’s recounting of another experience in which he considered himself weak).

 

 

 


[1] Parousia is the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, and it can refer either to His appearing in the air to rapture or catch away the Church (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), or to His second coming to Earth to setup His millennial kingdom (Matthew 24-25; Revelation 19:11ff; 20:4-6).

 

 

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