In the Western church we cultivate and value people with vision—those forward-looking, direction-setting individuals who can see where God would have the church move in the coming decades. Little place, however, is given to visions per se—that is, to something beheld in a God-given dream, trance or ecstasy. Yet visions were a regular means of divine communication in biblical times. In the Old Testament visions were a familiar medium by which God let it be known what he was going to do (Dahn 1978:514). They are also common in the New Testament. In fact, the outpouring of the Spirit in the latter days is associated with sons and daughters prophesying, young men seeing visions and old men dreaming dreams (Acts 2:17). Typical examples are the vision Peter had of heaven opening and something like a large sheet being let down by its four corners (Acts 10:9-15) and the vision Paul had of a man standing and begging him to come over to Macedonia (Acts 16:9). The value that the early church placed on such experiences can be seen from the fact that Paul in his boasting turns last to visions and revelations (12:1).
Paul cannot pass up an opportunity to reiterate that all this boasting serves no good purpose. There is nothing to be gained by going on to such experiences; but "it is necessary" (NIV I must go on, v. 1). This is the only time that Paul says he must boast. It can be fairly concluded that his rivals have laid claim to visionary and revelatory experiences. But this in and of itself was probably not enough to force his hand. The Corinthians must have looked on the ecstatic as the trump card in what was already thought to be a winning hand. So Paul feels compelled to match his rivals' boasting or lose the church to those he thinks are deceitful workers and Satan's henchmen (11:13-15, 20).
Still, even though he finds it necessary, he does not find it a "prof- itable" exercise (NIV there is nothing to be gained). The Greek term sympheron in Paul's writings typically refers to what is beneficial or helpful. Here it denotes that which is useful. What use are ecstatic experiences for ministry? Can they equip? Can they direct? Can they instruct? They cannot even be properly communicated (things that man is not permitted to tell, v. 4). So what good are they? If they possess no ministerial value, why then boast about them as his rivals are doing? And why are the Corinthians placing such importance on them? That the Corinthians would value ecstatic experiences is not surprising. They were highly prized in the Greco-Roman world and in Judaism. Even in rabbinic circles there is frequent mention of visions, fiery appearances and voices (Oepke 1964b:456).
Having cleared the air about the senselessness of such boasting, Paul finds it nonetheless necessary to proceed to visions and revelations (v. 1). The phrase is without parallel in the New Testament, so Paul may be picking up the language of the Corinthian intruders. The distinction between a vision and a revelation is not immediately obvious. The Greek term optasia denotes that which is seen (compare "optical"). Apokalypsis ("revelation"), on the other hand, is a broader term that applies to all forms of divine disclosure and can involve the whole range of senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch). It is strange that Paul puts what he recounts in verses 1-10 in the category of visions and revelations. It is not actually a vision, since he heard inexpressible things rather than saw them (v. 4). Nor is it a revelatory event in any explicit sense. It comes closest to an ecstasy—that is, a transportation out of one's normal, mundane sphere of existence into the supramundane realm of the divine (v. 2, heaven). So perhaps it is best to understand visions and revelations as a catchall phrase for a wide range of supramundane experiences. Whatever Paul experienced, it was decidedly "of the Lord." The genitive could be objective: "visions and revelations of the Lord himself" (Phillips). Or, more probably, it is subjective: visions and revelations from the Lord (TEV, NIV, JB, NEB).
In order to match his rivals boast for boast, Paul breaks a vow of silence and mentions an ecstatic experience that occurred fourteen years earlier (v. 2). This would place the event during the so-called silent years, when Paul was in the region of Syria and Cilicia (Acts 9:30; Gal 1:21). It happened well before his evangelistic foray in Corinth (c. A.D. 50-52), but not before his Damascus road encounter with the risen Christ (I know a man in Christ).
The story is narrated in the third-person singular: I know a man. . . . He heard inexpressible things. Paul's use of the third person is indeed puzzling. He cannot be telling about someone else's experience; otherwise there would be no grounds for personal boasting. Plus, all the details of the story point to its being a personal experience. Attempts to explain it are wide-ranging: it is symptomatic of his aversion to boasting (Bruce 1971:246); he did it to avoid suggesting that he was special because of his experiences (M. J. Harris 1976:395); the style reflects the sense of self-transcendence that such experiences seem to entail (Furnish 1984:544); he didn't allocate much importance to it (Loubser 1991:77); he will speak personally only of things that show weakness (Kasemann 1942:66-67); or he is distancing his apostolic self from the self in which he has been forced to boast (Baird 1985:654). But it may simply be that speaking of himself impersonally is the only way he can look at the experience with any kind of detachment (Barclay 1954:256; Murphy-O'Connor 1991:118). Paul is already a reluctant competitor. To boast of ecstatic experiences in a personal way may just have been beyond him.
Compared to other first-century accounts of heavenly journeys, Paul's is notably terse. Only two things are mentioned. One, he was caught up to the third heaven (v. 2), and too, he heard inexpressible things (v. 4). The NIV caught up might more accurately be translated "seized" or "snatched" (harpazw). The verb means to "grasp" something forcibly ("plunder," "steal") and suddenly ("snatch"). Luke uses it of the Spirit's physically seizing Philip and transporting him to another geographical location (Acts 8:39-40), while in eschatological contexts it denotes a mighty operation of God (as in 1 Thess 4:17; Rev 12:5; Foerster 1964:472-73).
Paul says that he was snatched up to the third heaven. Heaven is the abode of God and of those closely associated with him (see "our Father in heaven," Mt 6:9; "the angels in heaven," Mk 13:32). A journey to heaven where revelations are received about things on the other side is a familiar idea in first-century apocalyptic and rabbinic materials (Bietenhard 1976:191-92). The notion of a multiplicity of heavens began to surface in the intertestamental period (2 Macc 15:23; 3 Macc 2:2, "king of the heavens"; Wisdom of Solomon 9:10, "the holy heavens"; Tobit 8:5, "the heavens"). Some Jewish materials speak of only one heaven (such as Philo; 2 Esdras 4:9), while others tell of three (Testament of Levi 2-3, "the uppermost heaven"), five (3 Baruch 11, "the angel led me to the fifth heaven") and even seven heavens (such as Pesiqta Rabbati 98a, "God opened seven heavens to Moses").
Paul is not sure whether he was in the body or out of the body when he made his heavenly journey (v. 2). Bodily translation is a distinctly Jewish notion (as in "he immediately became invisible and went up into heaven and stood before God," Testament of Abraham 8; compare 1 Enoch 12:1). Even so, a Hellenistic Jew like Philo can state that it is contrary to holy law for what is mortal to dwell with what is immortal (Who Is the Heir of Divine Things 265; compare Josephus Jewish Wars 7.8.7). For the Greek and Gnostic alike it was the soul freed from the body that was able to soar to heaven. Ecstatic experiences of this sort often entailed a loss of sense perception and voluntary control, so that Paul may genuinely have not known whether he was physically transported to heaven or not. God alone holds this knowledge (God knows, vv. 2-3), and to Paul's way of thinking it mattered very little. What mattered was what he heard. This man, he says, heard inexpressible things (vv. 3-4). The phrase arreta rhemata can mean words that are either ineffable (too lofty to be spoken) or inexpressible (too difficult to verbalize). Things that a man is not permitted to tell, in the second half of verse 4, makes the former option the likelier one. The verb exestin (permitted) denotes that which is lawful or allowable (compare 1 Cor 6:12; 10:23). Paul has no right to share the details of his experience, and so he doesn't. His rivals, on the other hand, freely divulge and in so doing call into question the genuineness of their purported experiences.
Paul seems to start all over again in verses 3-4: And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body, I do not know . . . Is he relating a second ecstatic experience? The opening and suggests this. But the virtually identical phraseology says otherwise. Paul's fumbling and restarting are merely symptomatic of great unease. Even though his hand is forced, he is having a hard time getting the words out.
This second time around, the third heaven is identified as paradise. Paradeisos is a Persian loanword for a circular enclosure and is generally used of a garden or park area (Bietenhard and Brown 1976:760-61). Mytes from many nations speak of a land or a place of blessedness on the edge of the known world. Paradise for the first-century Jew, on the other hand, was located in heaven—or even in a third heaven (2 Enoch 8.1-8; Adam and Eve 40.1)—and was thought to be the abode of the righteous after death (3 Baruch 10.5, "the place where the souls of the righteous come when they assemble"). It was in this uppermost heaven of all that God dwelt, and with him the archangels (Testament of Levi 3). So the very fact that Paul was transported to God's abode meant that he could compete with anything his rivals boasted about. Jesus, it will be remembered, promised one of the men crucified with him that he would be with him in paradise that very day (Lk 23:40-43). So also in Revelation 2:7 the right to eat of the tree of life in paradise is promised to the one who overcomes.
About a man like that, Paul says, I will boast; on the other hand, I will not boast about myself (or, more accurately, "on behalf of a man . . . on behalf of myself" [hyper + the genitive]; v. 5). The distinction between the narrator and the individual in question is maintained. Why this is becomes clearer with the final phrase of verse 5: I will not boast except about my weaknesses (technically, "in my weaknesses" [en + the dative]). Paul can boast if he looks at himself dispassionately. But when he considers himself personally, he can commend only what his rivals would consider weaknesses (Bruce 1971:247).
An important qualifier is thrown in at this point. If I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool (v. 6). The term fool (a + phrwn, or "un-wise") denotes a lack of sense or reason. Although Paul plays the fool, what he says is by no means foolish. And if he chose to boast in something other than his weaknesses, he would not be making a fool of himself (as the Corinthian intruders were). Why not? Because, unlike his rivals, who had an exaggerated opinion of themselves that had little or no foundation in reality, he would be speaking the truth. So Paul could legitimately boast, but he refrains from doing so for too reasons. First, he would have no one think more of [him] than is warranted by what he does or says (v. 6). The word translated warranted (logisetai) means to "draw a logical conclusion" from a given set of facts (Eichler 1978:822-23). Paul wants the Corinthians' judgment of him to be based on what they themselves have witnessed and not pie-in-the-sky claims that he makes about himself. Second, he refrains because of the surpassingly great revelations that he experienced (v. 7). Hyperbole has the force of a superlative (JB "extraordinary"; NEB "magnificent") rather than a comparative (NIV surpassing). So extraordinary were the revelations that others would be tempted to think highly of him if he were to share the details. And so he refrains from saying any more.
Starting your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus is easy. You’re already logged in with your Bible Gateway account. The next step is to enter your payment information. Your credit card won’t be charged until the trial period is over. You can cancel anytime during the trial period.
Click the button below to continue.
You’ve already claimed your free trial of Bible Gateway Plus. To subscribe at our regular subscription rate of $3.99/month, click the button below.
It looks like you’re already subscribed to Bible Gateway Plus! To manage your subscription, visit your Bible Gateway account settings.
Now that you've created a Bible Gateway account, upgrade to Bible Gateway Plus, the ultimate online Bible reading & study experience!
Bible Gateway Plus equips you to answer the toughest questions about faith, God, and the Bible. There's no software to install; it's all integrated seamlessly into your Bible Gateway experience. Try it free for 30 days!
Three easy steps to start your free trial subscription to Bible Gateway Plus.