Last night, as I was chatting with a close friend of mine who requests many of my entries, she made a comment that her brother-in-law believed that Paul had traveled in a vision to the third heaven. I replied that this was almost certainly the case, and moreover was something that was widely understood. At least I thought that this was something that was widely understood, and the fact that it was not as widely understood as I thought suggests that it would be an issue worth exploring. After all, the explanation of how it was that we can be fairly confident that Paul went to the third heaven–that is, to God’s throne–and heard things that it is not permissible to utter is useful in better understanding quite a few aspects of the Bible, especially as far as the writing of the New Testament is concerned.
The passage in question that discusses Paul’s supposed vision of the third heaven is 2 Corinthians 12:1-11, which reads: “It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such a one I will boast; yet of myself I will not boast, except in my infirmities. For though I might desire to boast, I will not be a fool; for I will speak the truth. But I refrain, lest anyone should think of me above what he sees me to be or hears from me. And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong. I have become a fool in boasting; you have compelled me. For I ought to have been commended by you; for in nothing was I behind the most eminent apostles, though I am nothing.”
The overarching theme of this passage is boasting, and from beginning to end Paul shows himself deeply concerned with the subject. He begins by saying that it is not profitable for him to boast and closes the relevant passage by saying that he has become a fool in boasting because he was compelled to do so by his audience. I have heard it said in sermons, and it seems a reasonable surmise, that Paul had a special problem with boasting. Be that as it may, Paul says something truly dramatic here and couches it as if he was saying it about someone else. He says, in effect, that he is not going to boast about himself but he is going to boast about someone who was given this amazing vision about the third heaven, even if he doesn’t know whether he was taken in the flesh or merely in a vision, and then after saying this he comments that lest he, Paul, be exalted above measure, he was plagued with a mysterious thorn in the flesh–another mystery from this passage. Obviously, for God to be concerned that Paul would be exalted above measure, Paul was the one who saw the vision, and this concern about being exalted above measure would also tie in to Paul’s concern not to boast and his irritation that in order to defend the legitimacy of his own apostolic mission that he would need to boast about the vision that he had been given.
In our age, we might consider this to be false modesty. Yet Paul’s indirect and modest approach was one that was quite common among the writers of scripture, and is is an approach that our age would do well to emulate. For example, the two-part volume of Luke-Acts never once includes the name of the author, which can be determined through Luke’s subtle use of the first person plural in those passages where he was an eyewitness and a member of Paul’s missionary party and through a process of elimination when Paul’s traveling companions as recorded in his epistles is taken into account. Similarly, the apostle John refers to himself as the apostle Jesus loved or some other related term in his gospel, leaving process of elimination as the only way to be confident that John in fact was the writer of the epistle. The case is the most dramatic, possibly, when we look at the gospel of Mark. During the dramatic arrest scene at the Garden of Gethsemane towards the end of the epistle, Mark remarks about a young man who fled naked after having curiously gone to the place where Jesus and His disciples were meeting. In all such cases there is a desire to tell the truth, especially where one was an eyewitness or participant, without being greatly concerned with personal glory. In our own age of marketing and spin and puffery, the modesty of the early Christian apostles and other leaders is an example we would do well to copy ourselves.
Another area of mystery here is that Paul was unsure of whether he was caught up in the body or was merely having a vision. The Spirit is said in the Bible to do both. John, for example, when he was given a vision of the third heaven, was permitted (indeed, commanded) to write about what he saw, which became the Book of Revelation. Here we are made aware that he saw a series of visions about the Day of the Lord while his body remained in exile on the island of Patmos. On the other hand, the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch refers to Philip being caught up in the spirit with his body being physically moved as a result for some considerable distance. Paul himself was not told, apparently, whether the travel was in the mind or was a bodily one, although that matters little as the message was sent.
What are the implications of Paul’s statement of traveling to the third heaven? These are at least less mysterious than the visions and the material that he heard but was not permitted to repeat or share. Although other cosmologies posit seven or nine heavens, among various other numbers, depending on whether we are looking at WB shows or Dante’s Paradise, the Bible considers there to be three heavens. The first heaven is our own atmosphere, where Elijah was taken up in that famous chariot of his . The second heaven is outer space, the home of stars and planets and comets and asteroids and black holes and quasars and other possibly still more exotic phenomena. Beyond outer space is the third heaven, the realm of God’s throne, a realm that mankind cannot reach even should we master the immense difficulties of interstellar travel. Obviously, therefore, if we can barely leave the neighborhood of our planet without nearly impossible travel times, for someone to travel to the third heaven in any way would require divine assistance. Paul was certainly grateful for this vision, even if he appears more than a little bit embarrassed that he felt compelled by the suspicion and mistrust of the brethren of Corinth to mention it in the first place. Would we be so reluctant to boast if we were in his place?
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