What would you do if God brought you into his presence and gave you a vision of heaven? Write a book about it? Get interviewed on TV? Make a movie?
Or keep the whole thing to yourself, for fear that the attention would give you a big head?
As we’ve seen repeatedly in previous posts, Paul hates boasting. He only speaks of his own private spiritual experiences when he’s forced into it in order to make a point. Nobody in the church of Corinth even knew, for example, how much he spoke in tongues until that gift became such a contentious issue that he had to tell them (1 Cor 14:18-19). Up to that point, it was none of their business.
Paul had experienced a remarkable spiritual vision, but kept it to himself for fourteen years:
I know a man in Christ who was caught up into the third heaven fourteen years ago. I don’t know whether it was in the body or out of the body. God knows. I know that this man was caught up into paradise and that he heard unspeakable words that were things no one is allowed to repeat. I don’t know whether it was in the body or apart from the body. God knows. (2 Cor 12:2-4, CEB)
As becomes clear, Paul is speaking about himself. Why, then, does he begin in the third person? It may be his deep reluctance to tell the story. Or he may be mocking his opponents, who have no compunction at all about bragging of their spiritual experiences.
Whatever might be the case, Paul’s mention of “the third heaven” and “paradise” suggest that he was lifted into the very presence of God. Bodily? Possibly: but Paul himself doesn’t know, and it doesn’t seem to matter. In God’s presence, he heard things that “no one is allowed to repeat.”
And he didn’t. The experience must have happened early in his ministry. In all of his travels, with all of the churches he founded and ministered to, with all of the people to whom he delivered the gospel, this is probably the first time he’s told the story, and only because he feels he was forced to do so (2 Cor 14:11).
In today’s world of social media, we compulsively post pictures of where we went and what we had for lunch, and tweet our every feeling and opinion of the moment. None of that is necessarily a bad thing. But it’s worth reflecting how easily this plays into a culture of impression management and pride: See how awesome I am?
Why would Paul not tell his story? His own explanation is, “I’m holding back from bragging so that no one will give me any more credit than what anyone sees or hears about me” (2 Cor 12:6b, CEB). What matters, in other words, is not that he has an envy-inducing story that’s better than anything the so-called “super-apostles” could boast. Instead, he wants the Corinthians to stop being so impressed by his rivals’ stories and to get their heads straight: You bet I have stories to tell. But so what? That’s between me and God. What counts is what you’ve seen in me. So ask yourself: does my life embody the truth of the gospel or does it not?
And as Paul has said so many times throughout the letter, the way the gospel is demonstrated in a person’s life often comes through how he or she deals with weakness and suffering. More on that in upcoming posts.