NOTES II Corinthians
12:1-6 (click here for study)
Paul has been speaking the Corinthians' language and clearly explaining to them why the so-called "super-apostles" who have infiltrated the fledgling Corinthian church are not superior to him, either inherently or spiritually. In chapter 12 he finally admits the most compelling reason that qualifies him to be a true apostle of Jesus Christ, setting him apart from all the other apostles. Fourteen years earlier, he had been "caught up to the third heaven." While there, God had shown him things "that man is not permitted to tell". Paul had personally seen eternity. He had witnessed the truth about the atonement, the new covenant, the reality of people's eternal relationship to God when they accept Jesus. He had been personally taught by Jesus. We know of no other person who has had such an experience and has subsequently continued living life on earth.
Paul's experience of being "caught up" is reminiscent of Jesus' being "taken up" when he returned to heaven after his resurrection. (Acts 1:9) This experience also resonates with the story of Philip who was taken away after baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch. (Acts 8:39) The word "rapture" which Christians use to describe their eventual physical reunion with Jesus means "caught up", and this experience of Paul's was a form of rapture, although Paul could not say whether his body or just his spirit was involved.
The "third heaven" to which he was carried was a term which referred to the place where God dwelled. The levels of heaven to which the term refers were the immediate heavens of the earth's atmosphere, the second heaven of deep space where the constellations hung, and finally, the third heaven, invisible, which was the dwelling place of God. The word "paradise", which Paul also uses to explain where he went during this experience, is a synonym for "third heaven" and also refers to the place "of bliss and rest between death and resurrection" where believers who have died are "at home with the Lord". (NIV text notes on Luke 24:43 and 2 Corinthians 12:4) While the word "paradise" was originally a Persian word which meant "pleasure garden", in Revelation it refers to the place or state where God and man are reunited in the original intimacy they had before sin. (NIV text notes on Revelation 2:7)
Jesus used the word "paradise" when he assured the repentant thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 24:43) John also referred to paradise in the letter to the church in Ephesus when he quoted Jesus as saying, "To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God." (Revelation 2:7)
Paul's use of the term "third heaven" also reflects the common understanding that God's presence is beyond the heavens humans can see, and this understanding is reflected in the references to Jesus's ascension. In Ephesians 4:10 Paul says, "He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe." Paul additionally refers to Christ's ascension which enables him to fill all things in Ephesians 1:23: "And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way."
The writer of Hebrews also places the presence of God in an outer heaven: "Since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess." (Hebrews 4:14) Again in 7:26 he says, "Such a high priest meets our need-one who isexalted above the heavens."
This third heaven, or the place where believers are reunited with God, is understood to be a place where humans with their mortal bodies cannot go. In 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul writes, "We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord." He comments again on this phenomenon in Philippians 1:23: "I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body."
When Paul describes his mysterious rapture, he is describing a literal "trip" to heaven where he was in the presence of the resurrected Jesus. He saw things he was not permitted to tell. He saw and learned first-hand, both by observation and by teaching from Jesus, the truths he taught throughout his epistles.
An interesting aspect of this narrative of Paul's is his simultaneous certainty and uncertainty. On the one hand, he simply cannot say whether or not his rapture involved his body or not. "I know that this man-whether in the body of apart from the body I do not know, but God knows-was caught up to paradise." (v. 3-4a) He knows he was there, but he can't say whether or not his body went with him. On the other hand, he is absolutely certain that he went to paradise and "heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell." (v. 4b)
Paul's confidence is based not on his scientific observation, not on physical proof, but on spiritual knowing. Paul KNOWS Jesus, and he knows that he went to paradise where Jesus was. He also knows that he cannot prove to anyone else that this event actually happened. Paul, however, is not concerned with proving himself. If people choose not to believe him, he will not argue with them. In chapter 11:31 he stated his bottom line; as he concluded his recitation of suffering and weakness, he said, "The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, inows that I am not lying."
Ultimately, Paul's experience with Jesus is not physically provable. While there is a great body of evidence that it is true (his epistles and the clarity of his explanation of the gospel and the new covenant, for example, as well as his selfless suffering for the sake of Christ and the church), Paul's rapture cannot be scientifically proven.
Paul knows his experience was real because he knows Jesus. Likewise, we know our experiences with Jesus are true because we know how he has changed our lives and done things in us which we cannot explain. Similarly, we will not be able to believe Paul or any other Bible writer to be absolutely truthful unless we know the same Jesus they knew. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we recognize the truth and the Spirit behind the writings of scripture. When a person is not born again, there is no resonating "knowing" when that person is confronted with spiritual truth. (see 1 Corinthians 2:14)
While there is objective reality that supports Biblical truth, ultimately belief is always the result of an individual act of faith. While many may scoff at Paul's claim to have visited heaven itself, God knows the truth. Paul can rest confidently in the Spirit's confirmation of this claim to those who need convincing.
Boast Only of Weakness
Paul refuses to boast about his unique experience with the Lord Jesus. "I will not boast about myself," he says, "except about my weaknesses." (v. 5) This is not the only place Paul boasts about his weakness. In his first letter he discusses the difference between worldly wisdom and spiritual wisdom, and he states that he did not come to Corinth with eloquence or wisdom; he came, rather, with the message of Jesus. He had no fanfare or charisma which would have caused people to follow him. In fact, he said, "I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling." (1 Corinthians 2:2) His preaching, he said, was not great oratory but was maked by the Spirit's power so the people's faith would not rest on worldly wisdom but on "God's power." (v. 5)
As he addressed the Corinthians' problem of falling prey to worldly power and status, he emphasized again that he had become a "spectacle" for the cause of Christ. "We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored!" (1 Cor. 4:10) Paul's ministry has never been based on personal charisma, great preaching, or a magnetic personality. Always he has been insignificant and weak in the eyes of the world. His power has been a gift of God. Never has his success as a teacher or evangelist been because of his own powerful personality.
Paul has adapted to those to whom he ministered, adopting customs and prohibitions that his hearers observed in order not to offend their consciences. He became weak for those who were weak. (1 Cor. 9:22) He also empathized deeply with his spiritual children when they were weak or led into sin, feeling their weakness in himself. (2 Cor. 11:29-30) Further, he openly stated that he was glad when the Corinthians felt strong when he himself was weak. Their strength was a means of strengthening him. ( 2 Cor. 13:9)
In all of his ministry, Paul's weakness was the point at which God's power became evident. The crucial factor, however, was that Paul admitted his weakness. If he had rationalized it or tried to compensate for it, God could not have worked so powerfully through him. Paul's gifts and personal strengths including his education and intelligence God undoubtedly redeemed and used. Without Paul's admission of his limitations, however, God could not have revealed himself so powerfully through Paul because Paul would have been relying on his native gifts instead of depending completely on God's power. Only his unashamed admission of weakness made him available for God to do such miraculous things through him.
Because Paul realizes that his blessings and accomplishments, including his unique rapture into the presence of God, are the result of God revealing himself through his own transparent weakness, he insists that people not think of him as more important than he really is. Personal arrogance has no place in the life of a Christ-follower. Paul admonished the Romans not to think of themselves as important but rather to evaluate thyemselves "with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God ha[d] given [them]." (Romans 12:3) He practiced what he preached, further writing to the Romans that he would glory only in Christ, speaking only of what Christ did through him. (Romans 15:17-19) He emphasized this humility by stating that until we are eternally in the physical presence of Christ, we know only "in part, and we prophesy in part." (1 Corinthians 13:9) In spite of his calling as an apostle of Christ, in spite of his singular rapture into the presence of God and his return to minister on earth, Paul sees himself as merely a vehicle for Jesus to become real to others. He has no blessings or accomplishments which are for his own advantage. He exists only to serve Jesus, and he can take absolutely no credit or honor for anything God has done or will do through him.
Implications for us
Paul's remarkable experience with the Lord Jesus in paradise is significant in light of the details of theology and reality which he taught. For many of us who were educated in unbiblical doctrines and a belief in an incomplete atonment, this passage in 2 Corinthians is extrememly important. Many of us were never really taught from the epistles. In fact, Paul's writings were dismissed as difficult and culturally biased. Leaving Paul out of Bible study, however, leaves us open to deception and self-serving manipulation of scripture.
If we are to believe the Bible is the inerreant and inspired word of God, and if we are to believe that Paul was one of its inspired authors, we must take everything he says seriously. We must see his declaration of being in the presence of God as true and realize that God took him to Himself for the purpose of teaching and commissioning him to speak for Him. This fact adds authority to Paul's teachings we were taught to ignore.
In this passage, Paul states that his rapture occurred fourteen years ago. (v. 2) This epistle was written in 55 A.D. The date of his earliest writing is either 48 AD or 51 AD. Some scholars believe Galatians was written between 48 and 49 AD, while others date it as late as 57 AD. 1 Thessalonians, however, was written in 51 AD. Paul's rapture occurred in 41 AD. It predated all of his letters and most of his evangelism. The theology he teaches, therefore, is an outgrowth not only of his incredibly detailed scholarship of the Old Testament but also of his instruction which he receive from Jesus himself in paradise.
Doctrines which we must acknowledge to be the result of his being taught in the presence of the living Jesus include the understanding of living by the Spirit instead of the law (see the book of Galatians) and the state of humanity in death. When Paul declares that he would rather be out of his body and in the presence of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6-9; Philippians 1:22-24), his declaration reflects what he saw and learned in paradise. He had seen reality, and Jesus had personally taught him.When Paul says that we must now live by the Spirit and jettison the law as our standard of living, he can say that because he had been in the presence of the living Christ who explained and demonstrated that reality to him. When Paul writes that God has sovereignly chosen us to belong to him (Romans 11:22-32 and Ephesians 2:10), he is speaking with authority because he entered eternity and saw the reality of God's sovereignty as it looks outside of time. When he writes enigmatically of a coming antichrist and describes Jesus' second coming (1 Thessalonians 4 and 2 Thessalonians 2), he can say these things with authority because Jesus told him these things and because he had been in eternity where God could show him what is to come.
Paul's mysterious rapture into the presence of Jesus is one of God's great gifts to the church. We not only have Paul's epistles with their revolutionary teachings of new covenant reality, but we have the evidence that Paul received his instruction from the risen Christ in the setting of eternity. We do not have to rationalize Paul's clear teaching. We can accept as eternally true the unequivocal statements he makes, and we can know that they come from a personal revelation of truth from Jesus.
In this short passage embedded near the end of his second letter to the Corinthians, we have one of the most remarkable passages in the New Testament. We have the evidence that all of Paul's teachings, which many of us were taught to doubt and interpret, are indeed inspired directly and personally by the living Christ. We also witness Paul's deep humility and dependence upon God. This man who had been zealous for the law and intense in his desire to eradicate Christianity had been literally stopped in his tracks by the Jesus he sought to discredit. Further, he had been taken into the presence of God and returned to teach new covenant truth to the fledgling church. In spite of these singular appointments and blessings, however, Paul became more instead of less humble. He saw himself as of no significance in the powerful spread of the gospel. He saw Jesus as the One entirely responsible for its growth and for his own apointment as an apostle. He did not view his privilege of being taken to heaven as giving him extra authority or importance or significance.
Rather, Paul saw himself as weak and without any natural gift to recommend him. He was simply available for Jesus to use. He was a vehicle through which the Savior could make himself known.
God is asking us to surrender our identities and our gifts to him. He is asking us to trust him to make of us what he wishes to make and to trust him to assign us the work he wants us to do. Our natural talents and training are not what equip us for God's work. They are a reflection of our inheritance of being created in God's image, but they are not useful to God. Unless we die to our natural identities and become born again by the Holy Spirit, our talents will be in the way of God's work. We will rely on them instead of on the power of the Spirit. Our talents may impress others and "qualify" us to hold certain positions of responsibility, but unless God redeems our talents, they become tools of worldly wisdom instead of avenues for the revelation of Jesus.
God is asking us to hold our accomplishments and gifts loosely. He is asking us to let him renew our hearts with life from his Spirit, and he is asking us to allow him to take and give the gifts he wants us to have. Spiritual gifts come from God's Spirit residing in us, and they are sovereignly assigned to us. They may or may not bear any similarity to the things we knew to be our natural talents.
God redeems not only our souls but also our memories, our pasts, and our gifts. When he gifts us with his Spirit, our work in the world becomes defined. God then uses us to be bearers of truth. He equips us in ways that cannot be physically or materially explained to be His presence in the world.
What attribute or gift do you particularly value about yourself? God is asking you to offer it to Him, willing to give it up and to receive Jesus himself in its place. Receiving Jesus miraculously restores our identities, but they are new identities. They are more truly US than we ever were before. Receiving Jesus gives us new purpose and peace and contenment. Recieving Jesus brings new responsibilities and the call for us to say "Yes" to them.
When you accept your new identity in Christ, however, you will discover that He gives you Himself as your power and your strength. You are not left alone to figure out how to live. You are literally a transformed person, born from above with the presence of God in you. You will be able to love Jesus and to know him in new ways. You will discover that He has planned for you from eternity. You will discover that your life has meaning far more significant than any you previously thought it had. You will discover that God has chosen you to represent him in a completely unique way, a way that only He knows and that he will personally equip you to fulfill.
Praise God for sacrificing himself for us. Praise God for bringing us to life with his own Spirit. Praise God for personally equipping us to serve him in ways he has prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10) Praise God that no part of us or our lives was random or accidental but was, instead, known in his plan from eternity.
Praise God for giving us his word and for giving us truth. Praise him
for giving us his Spirit to perceive them. And praise him for the literal
presence of Jesus that will never leave us without his power to do the work
he appoints us to do.
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CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted March 4, 2003.