Rapture into the Third Heaven and Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh (Part Four)
Most people spend their lives worried sick that others will not think highly enough of them. So they disguise their weaknesses. They magnify their strengths. They labor not to give offense. Much of their personality and relational style is far from natural, but has been carefully crafted to elicit the approval and praise of those whose respect they covet.
The apostle Paul, to say the least, was a bird of a different feather. One of his greatest fears was that people would think too highly of him, and for all the wrong reasons. He knew that it would be easy to gain a following of devoted admirers, people who would stand in awe of his many spiritual gifts and marvel breathlessly at the countless miracles in his ministry. Building a reputation on the basis of charisma takes little effort. People are drawn to power. Supernatural and sensational deeds are magnetic. It only takes passing reference to some ecstatic and bizarre spiritual encounter to gain a following.
This is one of the primary reasons why Paul spoke so enigmatically in 2 Corinthians 12 of his heavenly translation. He cast his story in the third person, choosing to speak of “a man in Christ” (v. 2a). It was “this man” who was caught up into paradise (v. 3a). Again, in v. 5 he perpetuates the third-person ruse a bit longer, declaring that “on behalf of this man” I’m happy to boast.
But if Paul was concerned lest the Corinthians base their judgment of him on superficial grounds, to what does he actually appeal? For what reasons ought they to embrace him as an apostle? The answer is found in 2 Corinthians 12:5-6. There we read,
“On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me” (2 Cor. 12:5-6).
We must never think that these two verses are an insignificant interlude between the stunning portrayal of Paul’s heavenly rapture in vv. 1-4 and his breathtaking description of his thorn in the flesh in vv. 7-10. Rather, I suggest that in vv. 5-6 we see the true heart of the apostle, the depth of his humility, and the attitude all of us should assume when it comes to the public disclosure of any supernatural experience.
Paul has already made it clear that if he is to stoop to the level of his opponents and boast, he will do so only on the basis of his “weaknesses” (cf. 11:30; 12:5,9,10). Two in particular, now at the forefront of his argument, are his ignominious departure from Damascus (see 11:32-33) and his debilitating thorn in the flesh (see 12:7-10). And in order to make sense of the latter, in order to provide a context in which its purpose might be understood, he’s forced to describe his most remarkable supernatural experience. But as far as Paul is concerned, an experience such as this has no bearing on the qualifications or fitness of a person for pastoral or missionary or apostolic ministry.
The primary reason Paul refrains from reciting further visions and revelations isn’t because they didn’t exist or because they were uncommon in his life, but because they cannot provide verifiable evidence of the authenticity of his calling. He is determined to rely only on evidence that the Corinthians can plainly see and hear (v. 6). But I’m getting ahead of myself.
If you are still wondering whether or not the “man in Christ” is really Paul, v. 6 should forever put your doubts to rest. Here he says it in no uncertain terms. If I wanted to boast about it, I could. I have more than sufficient grounds. It wouldn't be foolish for me to draw attention to such revelatory experiences, for they really happened. They are true. “There! At last Paul has done it: he has confessed himself to be the person who was afforded these surpassingly great revelations. He had little choice” (D. A. Carson, 142).
But so what? After all, the only “boasting” that counts is boasting in weakness, and he is happy to do that. He much rather preferred that the Corinthians formulate their opinion of him based on conduct and character, not charisma. “In the context of vv. 1-5 Paul is implying that esoteric visions or revelations do not afford a legitimate basis for evaluating apostolic authority. It is the ‘weakness’ of humble, suffering service for the corporate good – what Paul means by diakonia (cf. 11:8) – not private ecstatic experience, that forms the proper credentials of ministry and the true sign of apostleship” (Murray Harris, 848).
Clearly Paul “refuses to let his reputation rest on inaccessible claims, appeals to ecstatic or supernatural visions” (Carson, 143). In other words, “no matter how spectacular the private claim, no matter how esoteric the putative vision, it cannot displace conduct and speech as more reliable indicators of how closely anyone follows Christ” (143).
This ought to provide a wake-up call for many in the body of Christ today. The tendency to exalt gifting over character has wreaked havoc in the church. Far too often people turn a blind eye to the spiritual immaturity of a particular individual because of the extraordinary power so evident in his/her ministry. Doctrinal aberrations and even blatant moral failure are conveniently dismissed or even completely ignored because of what appears to be a highly anointed prophetic gifting.
It’s not surprising that in such circumstances a double standard comes into play. The average, less gifted believer is held strictly accountable for their behavior in the body of Christ. There is no laxity in the application of biblical standards of conduct. But the spiritual star, the anointed and highly gifted platform personality, is granted considerable freedom. They are excused from routine responsibilities. They enjoy privileges and perks unavailable to others. Expectations are lowered in their case. Demands are virtually non-existent. They are treated with kid gloves and reap huge offerings. Anyone so highly favored of God, anyone so powerfully anointed is virtually untouchable.
Paul could easily have opted for this approach and firmly secured his exalted status in Corinth. Offered the opportunity to boast straightforwardly about his most spectacular spiritual experience, he declines. “I refrain from it,” he writes in v. 6, “so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.”
There are two critically important lessons for us in this statement. First, whatever people may think of us and whatever authority we may gain as a result, let it be on the grounds of what they “see” us do and “hear” us say. Let it be on the basis of verifiable conduct and established character and not solely on the grounds of our alleged ecstatic encounters.
Paul would never have denied the reality of his supernatural experiences, but neither did he expect people to embrace him and submit to his authority based solely, or even primarily, on them. “Look at my life,” said Paul. “Take note of the choices I make and the suffering I’ve endured and the words I speak. Let the consistency of my character, not the charismata I’ve received from the Spirit, be the grounds for your judgment.”
A second, and equally important, lesson for us is the remarkable fact that Paul was genuinely concerned lest others think too highly of him! I fear lest people “think more of me” than what is justified by my behavior (v. 6), said Paul. Stunning! Most of us are only too happy if people think more highly than is warranted, regardless of the grounds for their decision. We’re not averse to letting people think of us what they wish, so long as it is good and to our benefit, even if their reasons for doing so have little to do with our personal conformity to the image of Christ.
What made Paul to differ? Had he discovered some spiritual secret to which only a few had been given access? No. The difference was Christ. The centrality of Christ. The beauty of Christ. The sufficiency of Christ. For Paul, it was the keen awareness that there is no greater joy than knowing and savoring and relishing Christ, not even the “joy” that comes from seeing one’s name in print or having one’s words quoted or sitting on prominent platforms or gathering thousands of adoring fans or traveling the conference circuit in a “ministry” owned Lear Jet.
Paul was content with whatever status he attained by virtue of what Christ, through the Spirit, had graciously produced in his life. It was enough for him that the character of Christ was formed within and was manifest without. It was enough for him that, when people looked and listened, they thought well of Jesus.
To be continued . . .