Rapture into the Third Heaven and Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh (Part One)2
What are we to make of the many claims made by certain individuals that they have “visited” heaven and have seen and heard things of what life and experience are like there? I want to be careful in passing judgment on the sincerity and motivation of such people, but I think we can gain insight as to whether or not they are telling the truth by looking closely at one man’s undeniable “rapture” into the third heaven.
With this in mind, I want to devote this and a few subsequent articles to what the Apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10. His portrayal of this profoundly supernatural experience should give us some principles that will help facilitate our evaluation of any claims made by others to similar encounters.
Although I only want to address 2 Corinthians 12:1 in this article, let’s take note of the broader context in which it appears:
“I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man 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. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise – whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows – and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 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. 12:1-6).
Note well. Paul doesn’t say that “nothing is to be gained” by visions and revelations, but that there is no spiritual profit for the Corinthians if he were to boast in them. He was personally greatly strengthened, encouraged, and instructed by such supernatural experiences and they must have served him well in the face of hardship and the temptation to compromise. But they were of no use, says Paul, in determining the comparative value of his ministry as over against that of others. As will become evident when we come to vv. 5-6, Paul asked that he be evaluated solely on the basis of what the Corinthians could “see” and “hear” of him (v. 6b).
In the final analysis, heavenly translations such as that described in this chapter are unverifiable. After all, Paul could have fabricated this story just as the false apostles in Corinth no doubt fabricated accounts of their own alleged revelatory encounters with God. Needless to say, Paul knows that “God knows” what really happened (see 12:2b, 3b; 11:31). But since Paul was forbidden from saying anything about the content of what he heard and saw in Paradise, the Corinthians could only judge based on the moral integrity, spiritual devotion, and Christ-like sacrificial nature of his life and ministry among them and on their behalf.
If there is a lesson to learn from this, right at the outset, it is that supernatural visions and revelations are not to be denigrated, far less denied, but neither are they to become the basis on which we judge the legitimacy of a person’s “ministry” or “calling” or the extent of their “anointing”.
Let us never lose sight of the fact that the primary reason Paul mentioned his heavenly translation was to provide a context for understanding his “thorn in the flesh,” his weakness about which he is happy to boast (11:30). Paul wants to draw attention to this “thorn” and its purpose in subduing his prideful heart. In such obvious weakness, together with insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities he will be content and “boast all the more gladly” (12:9-10).
We see repeatedly in 2 Corinthians how Paul is compelled against his will to defend his apostolic authority. He finds it distasteful and foolish to do so (cf. 10:8,17-18; 11:1,16-21,30; 12:5-6), but the well-being of the Christians in Corinth is at stake. They have left him no choice. Boasting is necessary, says Paul, though it is not profitable. Nothing is gained by it (12:1). If those who question his authority are demanding apostolic credentials, he will provide them (although he considers it foolish to do so, the work of a madman; 11:17,21), not least of which are the “visions and revelations of the Lord” granted him (12:1).
Clearly, then, had it not been for the insidious spiritual influence of false apostles in Corinth we probably would never have known of this remarkable experience that Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul mentions it reluctantly, and only because his hand is forced (what does this say about those who publicly and repeatedly go into graphic detail about their alleged heavenly visitations as a way of legitimizing their “ministries” and expanding their sphere of influence?).
The Corinthians were welcoming into their midst men who readily and often boasted of their spiritual credentials (10:12-18) and were acknowledging the authority only of those who claimed to have experience in ecstatic encounters. Thus, Paul is forced against his will to employ the same tactics as these impostors lest the Corinthians be led astray to their spiritual harm.
Let’s begin by defining Paul’s terms. Visions and revelations are related but not synonymous. The word “revelation” is the broader term, “visions” being but one of many ways that a revelation might be given to a person. A vision is always seen whereas a revelation might come in the form of an audible voice, an internal impression, an angelic encounter of some sort, a dream, a trance state, or a word or image disclosed to the mind of a believer. Thus, whereas all visions are revelations, not all revelations are visions.
Some have actually argued that “visions” and “revelations” are unimportant, perhaps even dangerous, and that they lack the capacity to build up the church or to encourage believers. May I simply remind you that Peter declared on the day of Pentecost, citing Joel’s prophecy, that the seeing of “visions” was to be a characteristic feature of the outpouring of the Spirit in the last days, i.e., in the present church age (Acts 2:17-21).
More than that, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 that the “manifestation of the Spirit” (v. 7) in the form of spiritual gifts is given “to each” Christian. Such gifts are bestowed “for the common good” (v. 7), that is to say, so that all in the body of Christ may benefit and be strengthened and built up and instructed and encouraged in their Christian life. And among such gifts given are “healings” and “the working of miracles” and “prophecy” and “various kinds of tongues”. Later in 1 Corinthians 14 he explicitly declares that prophecy is based on the reception of a “revelation” (v. 30). Not only that, but when he instructs Christians on how to approach the corporate meeting of the church, he writes:
“When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (v. 26a; emphasis mine).
Each of these expressions of ministry and manifestations of the Spirit, says Paul, are for “building up” (v. 26b) of the body! Earlier in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul unmistakably attributes to the gift of prophecy (which, as noted, is based on revelatory disclosures) the capacity to build up, encourage, and console the body of Christ (14:3, 4b). It simply isn’t possible to read Peter and Paul and fail to notice that they believed revelatory gifts and other miraculous phenomena were of great benefit in edifying the body of Christ.
It’s true, of course, that Paul didn’t speak often of his supernatural experiences. However, we should always be careful in drawing unwarranted conclusions about the normative character of an event based on the frequency with which it is mentioned. There is only one occasion where Paul mentions that he himself speaks in tongues (1 Cor. 14:18), yet he obviously spoke in tongues regularly, perhaps on a daily basis in his private devotions (1 Cor. 14:19). In other words, “lack of frequent reference does not necessarily mean lack of frequent experience” (Lincoln, 72).
Luke records for us a few instances in which Paul had “visions” and “revelations” and other supernatural encounters, indicating that Paul must have shared such experiences with some of his friends and co-workers. Seven in particular are known to us, none of which, however, meet the criteria of the encounter he describes in 2 Corinthians 12 (which as we shall later note, occurred somewhere in the period a.d. 41-43).
(1) In Galatians 2:2 Paul said that he “went up [to Jerusalem] because of a revelation.” But since we know that the two possible dates for this event were either a.d. 46 or a.d. 49, it was too late to qualify for Paul’s third heaven encounter.
(2) On three occasions in Acts, Paul describes his revelatory encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-19; 22:6-10; 26:12-18). But this occurred around a.d. 33, and the content of what Paul saw or heard is disclosed (Acts 22:7-8; 26:14-18), unlike the revelation of 2 Corinthians 12 which he was not permitted to describe. And there appears to be no doubt that his Damascus road experience was “in the body”.
(3) Paul had a vision of a man from Macedonia (Acts 16:9-10) that led him to Philippi, but this occurred in a.d. 49. Again, the content of the vision was disclosed, unlike the one in 2 Corinthians 12.
(4) The Lord appeared to Paul in a vision and instructed him to return to minister in the city of Corinth (Acts 18:9-10). This happened sometime around a.d. 51, again with the content divulged, not hidden.
(5) While in the temple in Jerusalem, Paul fell into a trance in which Jesus told him to “make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me” (Acts 22:18). Most believe this occurred in a.d. 35 during Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem following his conversion. And, like the other experiences recorded in Acts, the content and words of the revelatory experience are described, setting it apart from the experience of 2 Corinthians 12.
(6) Much the same thing happened later in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 23:11. There we read that “the following night the Lord stood by him and said, ‘Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.”
(7) Finally, there is also the angelic revelatory encounter that occurred at sea en route to Rome (Acts 27:23-24).
Therefore, when combined with 2 Corinthians 12 we know of at least eight profound supernatural experiences that served to instruct, guide, and encourage Paul in his ministry to others (and this does not include Acts 14:8-11 which appears to be an example of a revelatory “word of knowledge”; cf. also Acts 13:6-12).
One final comment is in order. These visions and revelations are said to be “of” the Lord (12:1). Did Paul mean that they came “from” Christ Jesus as the source or that they were “about” Jesus in terms of their content? The fact is, Paul gives us no information at all concerning the nature of what he heard. Perhaps both ideas are intended. But it is more probable that he is referring to visions and revelations for which the Lord Jesus is responsible. They came from him.
This is obviously a delicate and important balance for us to maintain. On the one hand, we should not dismiss or diminish the importance of the supernatural and revelatory encounters that God provides for certain of his saints. On the other hand, neither should we elevate them to supreme importance or treat them as if they alone, more so than character and conduct, authenticate the legitimacy of one’s calling and ministry from God.
To be continued . . .