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.
2 Corinthians 12:2-4
Do you ever think when people recall great encounters with God, how you would have reacted or responded if in the same situation? Do you ever read the the amazing encounters that people had in the Bible and think “what would I have done or said?”
What was it really like for Moses as he stood before the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-6)? What was really like for Elijah when he heads off to heaven accompanied by chariots and horses (2 Kings 2:11)? We do get some idea of what was going on in Isaiah’s head when he saw the Lord (Isaiah 6) but I reckon it’s just the tip of the iceberg. What was happening to John when he records that in meeting the risen Christ he fell at his feet as though dead (Revelation 1:17)?
For me I wonder if we are incapable of fully comprehending an encounter with God. Overwhelming is my best description. Little wonder then, that when Paul for the first time attempts to describe his experience of the third heaven, he struggles to construct a proper sentence.
If Paul “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (vs 4), then in all honesty how are we going to fully work out everything that God is doing. So let’s look at these verses step by step and see where we end up.
Paul tells us that he knows a man who was “in Christ” (vs 2). Simplifying his words Paul knows a man in Christ or a Christian man. We don’t need to complicate the issue, if we complicate it here then as we move through the verses we will only build on that complexity.
So, this man in Christ is it Paul? Some say the reference to fourteen years ago could imply that it was someone Paul had met who had experienced “the third heaven.” But why then is Paul referring to something that happened to an anonymous individual? What purpose did that serve? Surely he is reluctantly trying to say that he too has had similar experiences to the false apostles.
The most important thing to remember is that as a result of this heavenly experience or encounter Paul was given a thorn in the flesh! The thorn was to prevent Paul, not someone else, being proud and boastful about the things he heard and saw while in the third heaven.
Yet we know Paul did say “he knew a man,” why didn’t he say it was me who saw this and heard that? I think the simplest explanation is that he did not want people to feel he was a “special” kind of Christian. That there was some sort of higher plain that was reserved for the Christian elite. It is a kick out at Gnosticism. The vision and revelation had been given to him as ‘a man in Christ,’ not as an apostle of Christ who merited a reward for service rendered.
The experience is clearly dated for us “ fourteen years ago” (vs 2).
Trying to put this in context, 2 Corinthians was written in around 55-56 a.d., this puts the encounter somewhere around 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 (Galatians 1:21). Maybe he tells us this because others may have claimed this so called “quiet period” to be unfruitful, we don’t know. Yet another reason for Paul’s dating this event may have been to tell the Corinthians exactly how long he had been struggling with his “thorn in the flesh.”This often debilitating and no doubt embarrassing weakness had thus plagued him throughout the time he ministered at Corinth and yet was no obstacle to his ministry to them.
Someone once asked me if Paul’s experience was an “out-of-the-body” experience. I don’t know if we can say for certain, it was difficult for Paul himself to describe. We can say it was overwhelming and intense and vivid to Paul. He seemed very certain that he was transported to heaven but I don’t know if his body made the trip or whether his spirit entered the heavenly realm while his body remained on earth. The problem in what we are reading is it’s theologically stretching for many of us. However Paul is very sure the event happened.
Paul describes the experience as “caught up” to the third heaven.
The word translated “caught up” is a form of the verb harpazein (used in verses 2 and 4). Paul also used this word in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 where it describes the rapture of believers at the second coming. It is also used in Acts 8 where the Spirit of the Lord carries Philip away.
Most theologians say that the description emphasises the fact that Paul was not responsible for his experience. Meaning It was not a psychologically induced or emotionally induced, or atmosphere induced. That it was not something learned or trained. 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. It was sovereign.
I think I will leave it there for this blog and try and look at in my next blog what and where is the third heaven and paradise. We also need to ask the question: What was the purpose of this incredible experience? Why did God bring Paul into his presence and how did what Paul saw and heard relate to others?