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 corinthians 12:1-6]
if you’re wondering “what did i just read?” you’re not alone! there are a few things at play here that make these verses a bit disorienting. first of all, it’s important to know that paul is talking in the third person when he describes the man he knows in the vision. the man is paul. paul transitions back into first person speech in verse seven, essentially confirming that he is talking about himself.
when paul describes humbling or humiliating situations he experiences, he always speaks in first person. but to separate himself from the “super-apostles” who boasted greatly in dreams and visions they claimed to have, he did not attribute this vision directly to himself. he did not want to receive any glory for this experience.
do we know what happened to paul? was he actually physically caught up into heaven, or was his spirit caught up? paul states twice that he does not know, therefore we don’t get to know! we can only trust that the lord caught him up for instruction, encouragement and communion with him. we can also surmise that this event was one of the things that allowed paul to endure what he did, and to finish his race.
what is the third heaven? some jewish rabbi’s believed that there were different levels of heaven, but this is not what paul is saying here. common terminology at that time referred to the “first heaven” as the atmosphere, the “second heaven” as the stars, and the “third heaven” as where God existed to rule and reign. this would have been a familiar figure of speech for the corinthians at the time.
paul’s description of his vision is purposefully vague. at the time (and even now) people would describe their visions with detail and in a very self-glorifying, and in paul’s estimation, foolish way. paul says only that he heard things which he could not utter, but these things certainly shaped his ministry.
one thing is for sure, paul thought it important for the corinthians to know that he did indeed have powerful experiences with God, but he knew not to dwell on these things as the “super-apostles” did. he didn’t need for the corinthians to glory in him and his relationship with the Lord, but to attribute glory to God and have a personal relationship with him themselves.
we can also benefit from paul’s revelation of a vision and his subsequent boasting in weakness. you see, the corinthians had fallen prey to cults of personality. you’ve probably done the same a time or two in your life, and i certainly have. you think you believe truth, but it’s only because of the person who is speaking it. they seem trustworthy, charismatic, maybe funny, knowledgeable, etc., etc., etc. but what happens when that person fails you? when they show their sinful humanity does your belief in the truth die along with your respect for them?
that’s how you know you were following a person and not Christ himself. you might be doing that right now. ask yourself, do i believe what i’m hearing because of the person speaking it, or because it’s the truth of scripture? if someone less interesting told me the same thing, would i be as inclined to believe it?
these are important and difficult questions to ask, and paul was ensuring that the corinthians were hearing and believing truth from the source, not absorbing everything some charismatic speaker could throw at them. when your faith is built on a person, how easy it is for satan to sneak in with lies and sin, but when your faith is built on Christ – no one can snatch it from you.
so let’s boast in our weaknesses too, and follow leaders who do the same. let’s base our faith not on visions and revelations from man, but on scripture. can visions be edifying? sure, when they align with scripture! but it’s not the basis of our faith.
Lord, reveal to us the times we’ve fallen prey to a cult of personality. help us to repent of basing our faith on experiences, visions, revelations, or anything that comes from people and can’t be fully trusted. help us to boast only in you and to put on the belt of truth to see everything in life more clearly. in Jesus name, amen.
~ erin boettge