Authentic Ministry 26/Second Corinthians
The previous section of this letter ended with Paul being lowered from a city wall in a basket, a humiliating departure from the city of Damascus. In this next section Paul describes being carried up into the highest heaven, providing a stark contrast indeed. This particular boast was necessary because apparently the false apostles were trumpeting some of their ecstatic experiences, and this required a response that spiked the guns of their argument.
“It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities. For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me. And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:1–10).
Summary of the Text
All this boasting is no good, Paul says, so here’s a little more of it (v. 1). Let us talk about visions and revelations. This is embarrassing, so Paul shifts to the third person (although he comes back to the first person in v. 7). He is not doing this because it somehow establishes his credibility, but rather because it trumps the way the false teachers want to establish their credibility. He knew a man who fourteen years or so before was caught up into the third heaven (v. 2), but he was not sure if it was in the body or not. Fourteen years prior would have been around A.D. 42, prior to the first missionary journey. Only God knows if it was in the body or not (v. 3). This man in paradise heard things there that would not be lawful for him to repeat down here (v. 4). I will boast of “third-person me,” but if it comes to “first-person me,” the only thing I can brag about are my infirmities (v. 5). Even if Paul wanted to boast, which he doesn’t, he will not go too far into that folly. He is going to lay off, in case anyone thinks more highly of Paul than what they can see or hear for themselves (v. 6). The vision of paradise was so exalted that God gave him a thorn in the flesh to keep him centered and steady (v. 7). Paul sought the Lord three times about that thorn’s removal (v. 8)—as the Lord Himself had done in Gethsemane regarding the cup that He had to drink. God, in His severe mercy, said no. The reason was that God’s grace is perfected in weakness (v. 9). Our infirmities are the kiln in which God solidifies the final gloss. In submission to this decision, Paul says that he will gladly glory in his infirmities, so that the power of Christ might rest upon him (v. 9). He then says it another way. He takes pleasure in . . . in what? Infirmities, reproaches, necessities, persecutions, and distresses—these are all leaves in his laurel crown. All this is for Christ’s sake—because when he is weak, in that moment he is strong (v. 10).
This reference to paradise here is one of three references in the New Testament. In Revelation 2:7, it is the location of the tree of life. In Luke 23:43, Christ tells the thief on the cross that they will be together that day in paradise. And in this place, Paul equates paradise with the third heaven (vv. 2, 4).
But Jesus also said that He was going to spend three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matt. 12:40), which would make paradise subterranean, like Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:22). So I take the Lord’s resurrection and ascension as the time when He transferred paradise up to the heavenly realms (Matt. 27:52; Eph. 4:8-10).
The Scripture uses the term heaven to refer to different realities. We have the heavens that refer to what we call the sky. Birds are creatures of heaven (Gen. 6:7). Jesus says the same thing (Matt. 6:26). Heaven is where rain comes from (Jas. 5:18). A second use of heaven refers to what is commonly called outer space. After describing the sun going dark, and the moon not giving its light, Jesus says that the powers of the heavens will be shaken (Matt. 24:29). Believers are to resist the temptation to worship these celestial bodies (Deut. 4:19). The stars are called the host of heaven. But there is more. A third heaven contains realities beyond what we can see—called the highest heaven (Deut. 10:14), or the heaven of heavens (Ps. 148:4). This third heaven is where God’s presence is manifested, even though He cannot be contained by the heaven of heavens (1 Kings 8:27). And yet, God’s presence is somehow localized in this Heaven (Heb. 8:1; Acts 7:55). The presence of God is in this Heaven. “For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (Heb. 9:24). Also keep in mind that Heaven is a place that can be simply “opened” to us—as it was at Christ’s baptism (Luke 3:21), or Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 7:56), or Peter’s vision (Acts 10:11).
Considering all these things, we should locate the “third heaven” that Paul equates with Paradise (2 Cor. 12:2, 4), with the highest Heaven, where the presence of God is manifested. An alternative to this would be to equate it with the third sphere of the ancient cosmology (Venus), a view I find much less compelling.
“Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession” (Heb. 4:14).
That Mystery Thorn
Calvin once said that the apostle Paul had “troubles hard enough to break a thousand hearts.” This exalted experience had happened before a lot of those troubles had occurred, and it was such an ecstatic event that God gave Paul a thorn in the flesh to keep him from getting exalted “above measure.” Always keep one eye on the false apostles. If Paul needed a great trial to keep him from getting conceited, what could be done for those false brothers who were already conceited to start with?
We cannot say for certain what that thorn was. My supposition is that it was failing eyesight or eye disease, which would have been a great grief to a scholar like Paul—to whom certain manuscripts were precious (2 Tim. 4:13). Paul says that the Galatians had loved him so much they would have donated their eyes to him (Gal. 4:15). He signed that letter in large letters (Gal. 6:11), which may have been because of eyesight. And when he was on trial in the Sanhedrin, he could not see or identify the high priest (Acts 23:5).
Water to Wine, Weakness to Strength
Power in weakness is one of Paul’s great themes in his instruction of the Corinthian church. He had despaired of life itself one time (2 Cor. 1:8-9). We have our treasure in jars of clay, Paul had said earlier, in reference to a hornet’s nest of troubles. Death was at work in him, but life in the Corinthians (2 Cor. 4:7-12). Then there was that long litany of abuse earlier (2 Cor. 6:4-10), and we have not forgotten what we just learned in the previous chapter (2 Cor. 11:23-33).
And so what is Paul’s response to his request to have the thorn removed? If it was his eyesight, he was asking to be able to see his troubles better. When God said no, after the third request, Paul says several remarkable things. He says that he boasts in his infirmities, and that he does so gladly (v. 9). Doing this is so that the power of Christ might rest upon him. This is not just an admirable stoicism. He is pursuing glory. Whatever else this infirmity can do, it bears the weight of the power of Christ. And this is why Paul takes pleasure in his troubles—not out of masochism, but rather as someone who knew how to read the story he was in. And that story had to do with how the power of Christ rests upon the weakness of men.