2 Corinthians 12:1-6 The Apostle’s Visions WC McCarter
In an age when America has been labeled “post-Christian” and there is a mass exodus from the church, folks are not necessarily running to atheism. For the most part, people still have a need to check their “religious duty” off of the weekly to-do-list. What is it that people most often claim to be now? They claimed to be “spiritual,” as if they have progressed beyond Christianity. They are no longer archaic, legalistic Bible-people. They have ascended to a new plane. They remain moralistic. They like for their “religion” to make them feel good about themselves and are thus therapeutic in nature. They like God, but only at a distance. They will call on Him only when they absolutely need Him. The religious folks of today are what sociologist Christian Smith has called, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists.” Now that is . . . “spiritual” (I mean that sarcastically, of course).
With this kind of worldview, it is easy for folks to become stirred by emotions and only interested in the miraculous. In fact, media covering such things (whether books, television, or movies) are great sellers. Evangelical church buildings sit at only half capacity on Sunday mornings, but people flood the theaters to see the latest, “I had a vision of heaven” documentary. Well, let me bring you to another man who had a vision of heaven. I think it is appropriate for Christians to take this man as a great example of how to manage these sorts of things. Why do I think we should take his experience and witness as our example and deny what the popular culture believes? This man was an apostle, the apostle Paul. He had a great vision, but he did not make a movie out of it. He did not even write a book about the experience. He only mentions the fact that it happened with no elaboration.
Let’s take a look at what the apostle said about his visions of heaven to see what we can learn from his experience. I invite you to read with me from II Corinthians 12:1-6. This is the Word of God. READ Scripture.
Visions and Revelations (1)
This passage is the first of a two part series. Next week we will look at verses seven through ten about The Apostle’s Thorn. The first of these is verses one through six which declares The Apostle’s Visions. The apostle Paul had an experience unlike any other. Of all the folks that claim to have seen a great, white light, or were ushered into heaven by angels, or saw God sitting on His throne–of all those people–I trust what the apostle Paul says and how he handled it. Notice the humility that he exhibits.
In the apostle’s spiritual battle with the “super-apostles,” he must repeatedly explain to the Corinthians (and also to his opponents) why it is that he endures so much hardship and humiliation. It would have been effortless for his opponents to simply state that Paul was not blessed by God. All they had to do was point to all of the trouble and sufferings that Paul had to constantly undergo. We can almost hear those false teachers say, Surely God is not blessing Paul’s ministry. Clearly Paul is not preaching and teaching God’s will. Just look at his sorrows. Don’t you see how weak he is? Those experiences are not that of an apostle of God, a preacher of the truth. Follow us, we will teach you the ways of God.
How can the apostle respond to this? It seems to be a strong argument by his opponents. What is Paul’s claim to divine authority? Will he really rest on the fact that he had faced persecution and trouble almost everywhere he went? What is the explanation? Well, Paul has been hesitant to even respond to this matter, but he begins to reply in verses one through ten. He even states in verse one that he knows that it is not profitable for his sake to boast of his successes and unique relationship with the Lord Jesus, but it is necessary to bring it up at this point in time. He even uses the third person to tell of his glorious experiences with God. We know that he is referring to himself because he later returns to the first person. He is backed into a corner and begins to respond to the claim that his sufferings represent God’s disapproval of him.
He says, “I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.” Like many of the Old Testament prophets and people of God before him, Paul could speak of visions and revelations of the Lord. Notice that there are two terms used and both are plural. These divine and wonderful things may not have happened often (notice that he refers back to an event 14 years before), but it happened on more than one occasion. Since there are two different terms used, we can assume that Paul received messages from God and experienced God in more than one way. As one commentator has said, “. . . the difference is that a vision is always seen, whereas a revelation may be either seen or perceived in some other way. . . .”
A Particular Incident (2-6)
While the apostle evidently had several visions and revelations, he only speaks of one incident here that happened 14 years earlier. Why he chose this one particular time, I do not know; and he does not give us much information about it because he was not permitted to do so. Even though Paul does not relay to us many specific details of this exact revelation, there are still many interesting details surrounding the event.
First, Paul does not know whether this happened in the body or out of the body. Of course, he states that God does know and is the only one who does know. Maybe due to the overwhelming nature of the event Paul lost all awareness of the physical. He honestly did not know if this was something his soul experienced or his soul and body. What an amazing thought of being in the presence of God!
Second, he says that he was caught up to the third heaven. Many people in Paul’s day claimed to have extraordinary experiences of heaven and stated that it happened in the highest heaven. Some would say that they traveled to the 365th heaven, some the seventh, but most often the reference was to the third heaven. The idea most common was that the first heaven was the sky that we see with the clouds and the birds; the second heaven referred to outer space with the sun, moon, and stars; while the third heaven was the place where God resides. Paul calls this third heaven, “Paradise.”
The third interesting detail surrounding this revelation is how Paul says that he was “caught up” to God’s heaven. It was as if God unexpectedly reached down from heaven, abruptly grabbed Paul, and suddenly snatched the man up to where God was in Paradise. This doesn’t happen to just everybody.
Thus, we know a little bit about how this experience came to happen, but we know only two things about the content: one, Paul heard inexpressible words and two, Paul was not allowed to explain those words. Now, we know those two things, but that information tells us absolutely nothing about the actual content of the revelation. Paul says that he heard inexpressible words. What can this mean? Apparently what Paul heard (and possibly saw) was something that could not be expressed in human language. It would have been impossible for Paul to explain to the Corinthians, to us, or to anyone what he had heard while in the heavenly presence of God. So, why was he not permitted to utter these things? What Paul probably means here is that although it would be impossible to relay in human language what he heard in heaven that would not necessarily keep Paul from attempting to relay those wonderful things on earth. Therefore, he was not even permitted to try to explain to content of the revelation.
As many scholars have shown, it was Jewish tradition (and even widespread in Greek culture) to use a rhetorical device of picturing one’s own experiences as happening to someone else in order to indirectly brag on those experiences. Paul does not want to directly boast in himself as verse five indicates, so he has relayed this majestic experience as though it happened to some other man. Another rhetorical device that Paul is using here is to assert that he could boast, but then to not actually do so, and in essence Paul outdoes the boasting of his opponents “while maintaining the foolishness of their boasting.” The opponents liked to boast and thought Paul couldn’t.
The apostle could continue to boast. From a human, worldly perspective Paul had every reason to go on boasting in his heavenly and unique experiences. Yet, the only boasting he will do is in his infirmities, which the opponents were undoubtedly using for the complete opposite reason. Paul, without the use of rhetorical devices, says candidly that boasting in such things is foolish. He does not want to be hypocritical and make himself out to be someone that he is not. He does not want the Corinthians to think too highly of him than they should. Of course, the opponents, the false teachers, the “super-apostles” were doing exactly what Paul said he would not do.
Conclusion and Christian Application
What a wonderful grace it was for God to provide the Apostle to the Gentiles with such amazing visions and revelations. Paul did not deserve those experiences. He had not earned the right to visit Paradise. That is grace, Paul received something from God that he did not deserve. By way of conclusion, notice several things from the passage that I think are relevant to discerning heavenly reports today.
#1 Paul was an Apostle.
#2 Paul was hesitant to boast.
#3 Paul cannot remember some of the particulars.
#4 What Paul heard was inexpressible.
#5 Paul was not permitted to report what he experienced.
#6 It is foolish to boast in such things.
Now, if we take those things and compare them with some of the things that we hear and see today, do they line up with Scripture?
The point of this sermon is to mainly direct us into next week’s sermon. I hope that you will be here to see where all of this is heading. We will pick up where Paul leaves off at the end of verse five when he says, “. . . yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities.”