Rapture into the Third Heaven and Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh (Part Two)
As I read the Bible, I’ve often tried to envision myself in the position of certain characters, especially those who experienced profound supernatural encounters with the Lord. How would I have reacted? Would I have been puffed up with an inflated sense of my own importance? Or would I have felt crushed by the immediate disclosure of my own comparative insignificance? Or would I, preferably, have been so captivated by the brilliance of God’s glory that thinking of myself at all would have been wholly impermissible?
It’s hard not to speculate what Moses really experienced as he stood in the presence of the burning bush (Ex. 3:1-6). And what was it like for Elijah when chariots and horses of fire accompanied him as he “went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11)? At least Isaiah tells us that as he saw “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isa. 6:1) he felt spiritually and emotionally unraveled, overwhelmed by the sense of his own uncleanness (Isa. 6:5). Then, of course, there’s the apostle John who, upon seeing the majesty of the risen Christ, promptly “fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17).
In his current fallen state, a human being is simply incapable of maintaining control or composure when in the immediate presence of divine glory. All these encounters, and others I did not mention, are necessarily disorienting and overwhelming. Little wonder, then, that when Paul for the first time attempts to describe his translation into the third heaven, into Paradise itself, he struggles for words and confesses his ignorance about the nature of what actually happened. Let’s read once again what he had to say:
“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).
If Paul “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (v. 4), we likewise must proceed with reverence and caution in our effort to explain this remarkable experience. Due to the theological depth of what is said here, the best way I know to proceed is simply to ask and answer a series of ten questions that arise from the text itself. So let’s begin.
(1) What does Paul mean by saying that he knows a man who was “in Christ” (v. 2)? It’s unlikely that this phrase refers to some sort of mystical unity with the Lord or an absorption of the human into the divine. This is probably just a way of referring to a Christian, a person who is in union with Christ through faith. In other words, “a man in Christ” simply means “a Christian man.”
(2) How do we know that this “man in Christ” is Paul and that he is describing his own experience? Some have pointed to Paul’s knowledge of precisely when this event occurred (“fourteen years ago”), as well as his knowledge of what was “heard” in the third heaven and the uncertainty of his bodily condition. But Paul could have spoken with the “man” who had the experience who passed along to the apostle all the relevant information.
More persuasive is the fact that it would have been entirely irrelevant to his relationship with the Corinthians for him to have cited at length the supernatural experience of an unrelated third party. He is attempting to rebuild their confidence in him as their apostle in the Lord. What end would have been served by referring to something that happened to another, anonymous individual?
We should also take note of v. 6 where Paul says that if he were forced to boast of such a visionary experience he wouldn’t be lying (“for I would be speaking the truth”). Why? Because the event really happened to him.
But surely most important of all, the result of this heavenly experience and revelatory encounter is that Paul was given a thorn in the flesh! The thorn was to prevent Paul, not someone else, from exulting in a prideful way due to the things he, Paul, heard and saw while in the third heaven.
(3) This necessarily leads to our third question: Why did Paul describe this encounter in the third person? If it were truly his own personal experience, why refer to himself as “a man in Christ”?
In his commentary on 2 Corinthians, Murray Harris has summed up what I consider to be the most cogent explanation, one that fits best with the larger context of the letter. Simply put, Paul
“was embarrassed at needing to engage in fruitless boasting (v. 1) and found in this objectifying of his experience a convenient way of distancing himself from this necessary but futile boasting that in itself did not contribute to the common good (cf. 12:19; 1 Cor. 12:7). Again, this literary technique enabled him to avoid suggesting that he was in any sense a special kind of Christian. The vision and revelation had been given to him as ‘a man in Christ,’ not as an apostle of Christ or persecuted believer who merited a reward for service rendered or suffering endured” (835).
In other words, Paul wanted to dismiss any notion that this experience contributed to his status as an apostle or was relevant for their assessment of his right to speak into their life as a church body.
(4) When did this experience occur and why does Paul date it? The timing is quite explicit: “fourteen years ago” (v. 2a). Since we know that 2 Corinthians was written in approximately 55-56 a.d., this puts the encounter somewhere in the period 41-42 a.d., or during that ten-year period in Paul’s life about which we know little other than that he spent time in Syria and Cilicia (Gal. 1:21).
As for why Paul bothered to date the event, perhaps he wanted to draw attention to “his prolonged silence about the episode; it was only the present contest with his rivals, brought on by the Corinthians’ disloyalty to him, that had forced him (cf. 12:1,11) to break that silence and reluctantly mention his privileged ascent to heaven” (Harris, 837). In other words, such ecstatic experiences are fundamentally private encounters with God and should not, except under extraordinary circumstances, be divulged to others. They contribute nothing to a person’s qualifications or standing with God, so there is no need to mention them.
Yet another reason for Paul’s dating this event may have been to alert the Corinthians to how long he had been struggling with his painful and distressing “thorn in the flesh”. This often debilitating and no doubt embarrassing weakness had thus plagued him all during the time he ministered at Corinth and yet was no obstacle to his devoted and sacrificial ministry to them.
(5) Was this an “out-of-the-body” experience? We don’t know, because not even Paul himself knew! The experience was so overwhelmingly intense and so utterly shrouded in mystery that Paul was unaware of whether he was in the body or out. Although he is not certain how it all happened, he is quite sure that it did. Note his two-fold declaration that “God knows” (in v. 2b and again in v. 3b). He may be suggesting by this that, at least in his case, the heavenly translation was so powerful that awareness of his physical state of being was altogether eclipsed.
He was certain that he was translated to heaven but didn’t know if his body made the trip or whether his spirit entered the heavenly realm while his body remained on earth. Clearly Paul is affirming the legitimacy (even if not the normativity) of a disembodied state in which a person is conscious and rational and capable of “hearing” and understanding what is said by the Lord. This is very much in line with what he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10. There he affirmed that “there is existence for the soul apart from the body, and that this existence is ‘one of perceptive consciousness’” (Ralph Martin, 400).
One more point is in order. If so-called “out-of-the-body” experiences were inherently impossible due to the unified constitution of human nature, Paul would not have said here what he did. In other words, if this sort of translation were theologically out of bounds, the sort of thing that God would never do, or perhaps even occultic, Paul would simply have said, “I know I must have been in my body, even if I don’t recall it, because being out of the body is by definition inconceivable.” Clearly, he acknowledges at least the potential for this sort of phenomenon, even if he remains unsure about whether that is what he himself experienced.
(6) What does Paul mean in saying he was “caught up” to the third heaven? The word translated “caught up” is a form of the verb harpazein (used in vv. 2,4). Paul uses it in only one other text, 1 Thessalonians 4:17, where it describes the “rapture” of believers at the second coming of Christ. However, it is also found in Acts 8:39 where we read that “the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away” (emphasis mine), and again in Revelation 12:5 in reference to the “catching up” of Christ into heaven (most likely an allusion to his ascension to the right hand of the Father). The word also suggests a sudden and swift translation, not a slow and gradual ascent, which may account in part for why Paul was oblivious to his bodily condition.
Most scholars recognize this as a “theological” or “divine” passive, intended here to emphasize the fact that Paul was not responsible for his experience. It was not a psychologically induced altered state of consciousness or any form of self-induced ecstasy. One cannot train for this or be taught how to bring it about. It is a sovereign and gracious work of God for which no human preparation is possible and which cannot in any way be predicted, far less expected.
When we continue our study in the next article, we’ll turn our attention, seventh, to the meaning and “location” of the “third heaven”, and eighth, to the meaning of “Paradise” and the relationship between these two. We will also, ninth, try to determine what he heard or saw there. Tenth, and finally, we need to ask the question: What was the purpose of this heavenly transport? Why did God bring Paul into his presence if what he heard and saw there was not something he could relate to others?
To be continued . . .