One of the many obstacles Paul faced in Corinth was responding to braggart preachers who arrived after he had departed (II Corinthians 11:16-18). In confronting these critics, Paul (almost playfully) boasts of his own accomplishments in Christ. After outlining his sufferings (II Corinthians 11:23-33), the apostle shifts to the third person for his most dramatic boast (II Corinthians 12:1-9). He famously writes of an ecstatic experience:
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. (II Corinthians 12:2 NASB)In stating that the incident occurred fourteen years ago, Paul is registering a definitive memorable experience, a happening that occurred nearly a decade before he entered Corinth. Paul may be sharing this episode for the first time as there appears to have been a gag order placed upon such visits (II Corinthians 12:4). The time marker serves as a reminder that this event was unique and not an everyday occurrence even for a spiritual guru like Paul.
Though Paul regularly experienced visions, many involving Jesus (Acts 9:3-6, 9:12, 16:9, 18:9, 22:17), the apostle does not classify this incident as a vision. In fact, he does not classify it at all. Paul asserts that God only knows how it happened conceding only that he was “caught up” (Ezekiel 8:1-3; Wisdom of Solomon 4:10-11; I Enoch 39:3, 52:1). Paul evidently asked the natural question that Talking Heads sang about in “Once in a Lifetime” - “you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”
In refusing to speculate as to whether he was abducted or underwent an out of body experience, Paul resisted the urge to categorize his experience. Some have suggested this ambiguity is a rebuttal of the Greek notion that one’s soul could ascend to God. This discussion fits with the Corinthians’ interest in the body/spirit dichotomy (I Corinthians 15:35-44; II Corinthians 5:6-8).
Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) comments:
Not knowing whether he was in the body or out of it (II Corinthians 12:2-3) might be rhetorical aporia (feigned uncertainty), but Paul has already contrasted being at home in the body with the afterlife of being away from the body and at home with the lord (II Corinthians 5:6-8). Although in some Jewish texts only the souls were caught up to see heaven (I Enoch 71:1-6), sometimes the experience sounds as if it involves the entire body (Ezekiel 2:2, 3:14, 24, 8:3, 11:1, 24; Wisdom of Solomon 4:11; I Enoch 39:3).” (Keener, 1-2 Corinthians (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 238).”The modern reader must resolve that if the details were important, Paul would have shared them.
Paul further complicates the incident by mentioning “paradise” in the same breath as “third heaven” (II Corinthians 12:4). Paradise is a loan word from Persia and appears only three times in the New Testament (Luke 23:43; II Corinthians 12:4; Revelation 2:7). In the intertestamental literature it had come to mean the realm entered upon death or the dimension where God dwells. As Paul incorporates two distinct terms, some have suggested a two step progression in which the third heaven was merely a step on the stairway to paradise.
This view is unlikely. Jewish literature often equates the third heaven with paradise (II Enoch 8:1; Apocalypse of Moses 37:5, 40:1). The fact that Paul uses the same verb for “caught up” (harpazo) in describing both places also underscores a singular experience (II Corinthians 12:1, 4). Most tellingly, as Paul is discussing the pinnacle of ecstatic phenomenons, there would be no need to reference the third heaven if it were not a watershed event. The very nature of the text screams for a single event.
The passage is also problematic to modern readers as Paul assumes a subtext that is no longer common - the third heaven itself (II Corinthians 12:2). This marks the only time the third heaven appears in Scripture and there was no consensus in Jewish literature as to how meany “heavens” existed.
Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) explains:
“Because the Persian loan word ‘paradise’ meant ‘garden,’ it applied well to the garden in Eden (Genesis 2:8-3:24 LXX; Josephus [37-100]Antiquities 137). Jewish people spoke of paradise as in heaven (T. Ab. 20:14; 3 Baruch 4:6) and expected a new paradise or Eden in the future (4 Ezra 7:36, 8:52; 2 Baruch 51:11). Jewish texts placed paradise, the new Eden, on earth in the coming age, but heaven in at the present. Jewish texts ranged from 3 to 365 in the number of heavens they imagined; the most common numbers were three (Testament of Levi 2-3) and seven. Texts often placed paradise in one of these (in the third in 2 Enoch 8:1; Apocalypse of Moses 37:5, 40:1); the lowest of ‘heavens’ was the lower atmosphere. Paul presumably envisions paradise as in the third of three heavens .” (Keener, 1-2 Corinthians (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), 239)Thomas D. Stegman (b. 1963) concurs:
“Paul declares that he was transported to the third heaven, a place he then identifies as Paradise. He thus intimates that he was temporarily taken up by God to the highest place in heaven, where the divine glory dwells. Given that Paul referred to ‘visions and revelations’ of the Lord Jesus, does he suggest here that he was set in the presence of the glorified Christ? Perhaps, although he does not register what he saw. Instead, he reports that he heard ineffable things, which no one may utter. These ‘unutterable utterances’–surmised by some commentators to be angelic praises or revelations of divine mysteries–were beyond what human language could convey. What is more, even if he were able, the Apostle states, he is not permitted to do so.” (Stegman, Second Corinthians (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture), 268)Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) describes this cosmology succinctly, “The third heaven probably means ‘right up to the highest heaven,’ the heaven of the Lord’s abode as distinct from the starry heavens (the second heaven) and the earth’s atmosphere (the first heaven [compare I Kings 8:27]) (Gundry, Commentary on Second Corinthians).”
Paul is discussing a single event, rare even for him, that represented the apex of spiritual encounters. The number and terminology are insignificant as whether one names that abode as the third heaven, paradise or something else, Paul was transported into the very presence of God.
Do you have any spiritual experiences too sacred to discuss? Did this episode in Paul’s life occur before, during or after his profound experience on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-9)? How did Paul get to the third heaven? What was the apostle doing when he was transported? How would you explain this incident?
In its simplest form, this passage answers Paul’s bragging detractors and the message is clear - you can’t top this. Paul’s visit to the third heaven means that if the criteria is ecstatic, supernatural experience, Paul wins. Hands down.
Throughout his diatribe, Paul is aware of the foolishness of his own boasting, the same complaint he has against his detractors (II Corinthians 11:16-18, 21, 23, 12:1). He readily admits, “I am speaking as a fool (II Corinthians 11:21 NASB).” Even amidst his own “boasting”, Paul does all he can to deprecate himself. He also uses the passive voice of “caught up” to describe the happening (II Corinthians 12:1, 4), meaning it was done to him not by him. He did nothing.
Thomas D. Stegman (b. 1963) expounds:
“There is a certain playfulness with which Paul recounts his journey to the third heaven: he is not certain how he was taken up, he does not report what he saw, and he cannot repeat what he heard. He thereby suggests that, while this mysterious experience was important to him personally, it did not provide him with information he could use in his ministry. It is certainly not reason to boast about himself. Rather, he implies a critique of the intruding missionaries: ‘If their experience was the same as Paul’s, it contributed nothing to their ministry. If it was something about which they talk, it was less ineffable than his.’” (Stegman, Second Corinthians (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture), 268)In speaking of visions, Paul also reverts to the third person, refusing the word “I”. (The modern equivalent might be someone who instead of admittedly speaking on their own behalf instead says, “I have this friend....”) For Paul, there is no “I” in heaven as the apostle realizes he did nothing to generate or merit the experience.
Paul recognizes that it is the height of folly to brag of revelations from God. Only an idiot boasts of something so clearly the work of Another.
What was the purpose of Paul’s visit to the third heaven? In what ways, if any, did it benefit him? Do people still visit the third heaven? What is your most dramatic spiritual/supernatural experience? When have you taken credit for God’s handiwork?
“The less you speak of your greatness, the more shall I think of it.” - attributed to William Shakespeare (1564-1616)