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. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 ESV
In verse one, Paul confesses, “I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.” He is letting his readers know that he is about to provide some more proofs to validate his apostleship and to set him apart from the false apostles who are dogging his ministry. His reference to visions and revelations provide a hint that what he is about to divulge is well beyond the normal arguments for his apostleship. This is going to involve the supernatural and direct communication from God. Visions are typically visible manifestations of God’s power. They are seen. The Greek word Paul uses is optasia and it means, “a sight, a vision, an appearance presented to one whether asleep or awake”(“G3701 – optasia – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 20 Oct, 2016. https://www.blueletterbible.org).
Revelations would seem to indicate verbal communication from God. The Greek word is apokalypsis and it means, “a disclosure of truth, instruction; oncerning things before unknown” (“G602 – apokalypsis – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 20 Oct, 2016. https://www.blueletterbible.org). Paul is going to share a personal experience that included a vision and word from God. He refers to to himself in the third person, simply because he is trying to diminish the aura of bragging that comes from sharing such a story. He says, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2a ESV). It is clear that Paul is referring to himself, because later on he says, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations…” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). This is a personal experience that Paul had and one he shared reluctantly and somewhat obscurely. He does not provide a lot of detail and refuses to share exactly what he saw or heard. But fourteen years earlier, Paul had been given a vision by God and was somehow transported into the “third heaven.” In the ancient mindset, there were three heavens. There was the sky or the visible atmosphere, and then there was the heavens containing the sun, moon, stars and planets. The third heaven or paradise was a reference to the dwelling place of God.
Paul recalls being somehow transported into heaven. He could not tell if it had all been a dream or whether he had actually gone there in his physical body. While there, “he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). Paul does not spend any time describing the sights or sounds of heaven. He provides us with no insights into what it might have looked like. Not only that, he gives us no clue as to what it is that he heard. He only describes it as unrepeatable. This obviously one-of-a-kind, supernatural event clearly set Paul apart. Who else could claim to have been transported to heaven and given a glimpse of the sights and sounds associated with that remarkable place? But while blown away by the experience, Paul refused to boast about it. He would not allow himself to turn his divinely ordained experience into an opportunity to make himself a celebrity. He would boast about “this man,” but when it came to himself, he would rather boast about his weaknesses. He explains, “I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life or hear in my message” (2 Corinthians 12:6 NLT). Paul wanted his life and message to be his calling cards, not his supernatural vision.
It is interesting to note that earlier Paul had referred to the time in his life when he had been saved from arrest by being lowered in a basket from window. He boasted of this as something that revealed his weakness. He had been forced to suffer the humiliation of being crammed in a basket and lowered out a window. For a guy of Paul’s temperament, this would have been a blow to the ego. But now he talks about having been raised by God to the very heights of heaven. This may have been what Paul meant when he wrote, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12 ESV).
An experience like Paul had could have easily gone to his head. He could have seen himself as somehow more anointed and blessed by God. After all, who else could claim to have gotten an all-expenses-paid trip to paradise? But God wasn’t going to let Paul get the big head. In fact, Paul says, “to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). Paul does not say what this “thorn” was. The Greek word Paul uses is skolops and it actually refers to a sharp pointed stake. It was far more than just a “splinter” or an inconvenient annoyance. It was potentially debilitating and described by Paul as “a messenger of Satan to harass me.” Was it a physical disability or a spiritual weakness? Paul doesn’t say. Because Paul mentions conceit, it may have been a proclivity toward pride and arrogance. The constant harassment Paul faced from his always-present adversaries would have easily driven Paul to boast of his superior calling and intellectual prowess. Paul was an educated man who had risen high in the ranks of the Pharisees. He was an Old Testament scholar. It would have been easy for Paul to develop a haughty spirit and arrogant attitude toward those who questioned his ministry. But God lovingly kept him humble. On three different occasions, Paul pleaded with God to remove this “stake” from his life. And each time God refused. But He reminded Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9a ESV). God’s grace was greater than Paul’s problem. His strength was far superior to Paul’s weakness in the flesh. And more than 14 years later, Paul was able to say, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9b ESV). It was an awareness of his weakness that made Paul appreciative of God’s gracious love and power. Anything he accomplished in his life that was worthwhile or worthy of praise was attributable to God, not himself.
Paul would gladly suffer the humiliating of being lowered down the wall in a basket. He would willingly go through the pain of another stoning or the indignity of arrest and imprisonment – for the sake of Christ. Because he had learned the invaluable life lesson of “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).