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Caught up to the Third Heaven
This section is the climax in Paul’s defense. The experiences mentioned earlier made a big dent in the claims of the false apostles and now they disappear totally. None of the false apostles can excel Paul in his experiences he narrates here. These are experiences unique to Paul and no one can hold a candle to him and he also makes it clear that it is all not because he was strong.
This section deals with the special honor God gave him, namely that he was caught up to the third heaven. This had to be the ultimate proof to the Corinthians that he was the genuine God-sent servant.
From the way he describes this experience we can conclude that Paul is not saying this for his own glorification. He speaks of “a man in Christ” and it sounds as if he is speaking of someone else. But he speaks of himself. This can be derived from 2 Corinthians 12:7 where he speaks in the first person singular, namely ‘I’ and ‘me’ while describing his special revelation.
2 Corinthians 12:1. As we begin this section first I would like to point out the big difference this has with the last verses of the previous section. There Paul was let down in a basket to escape from his enemies. Here he is caught up to the third heaven. In the previous section he talks about his infirmities and he even boasts about them. Everything he experienced made him small but made Christ great. Now he writes about his special experience which no one else ever had.
He writes about this experience not because it is beneficial for him but for the Corinthians and even for us. He had been silent about this experience for about fourteen years and this in itself is quite an achievement. Can you keep a beautiful and an extraordinary experience only to yourself? I am sure you would like to share it with others. But Paul was not so. Now the time has come for him to speak about it, but without conceit. Further God had already given him a ‘medicine’ against it as seen in 2 Corinthians 12:7 and we will come to that later.
Paul could speak of “visions and revelations” given to him by the Lord. Some of the visions he got we see in Acts (Acts 9:12; Acts 16:9Acts 18:9). One of the revelations the Lord gave him, perhaps the most beautiful one you can read in Ephesians 3 (Ephesians 3:1-1 Kings :). These are the things that made him tower over the fraudsters. At the same time these were things that made him incredibly small in his own eyes, for they came from God. He was deeply impressed by them.
2 Corinthians 12:2. In addition to those visions and revelations from the Lord something special happened to him. He did not know how it happened and what state he was in. It may be that he was in the body – I imagine a kind of dream state – and then the heavens came to him or God caught him up along with his body. It could also be that the Lord led his spirit into the third heaven while his body remained on earth so that he was in this state right in heaven for a moment. He did not know but God knew it. That was enough for him.
The third heaven is the highest place in creation. Heaven is the place where God lives and where His throne is. This gives the height to which Paul was lifted: above the clouds in the sky, which could be called the first heaven and even above the stars and the planets which could be called the second heaven. It is the place where also satan has access to as we read in Job 1:6; Job 2:1.
2 Corinthians 12:3-Numbers :. But satan has no access to paradise. A different atmosphere prevails in paradise. It is the place where the spirit and the soul of the fallen asleep believers are and where they rejoice in the Lord Jesus undisturbed. Paul had a glimpse of it and even heard some things. What he heard there made a huge impression on him. The words he heard were “inexpressible” to be reproduced in human language. It was a heavenly language. This is not meant for human communication. Even if it were so he could not speak it because no one would understand it.
God gave him this particular experience as an incentive to his service. That fits well with the service that God committed to him. His service was in connection with a Christ who is now glorified in heaven. Wherever he went that was the main theme of his preaching. The experience he had in paradise, the third heaven, should have remained in his memory and motivated him continuously in his work for the Lord.
Is this not so with you also? We must agree that these were experiences unique to Paul; but we must also admit that each one of us knows certain beautiful experiences with the Lord Jesus. They may not be great visions, but every day events which in themselves are not great but for us they are proof that the Lord is at work in our life. Such experiences with the Lord encourage us to serve Him devotedly.
2 Corinthians 12:5. What is Paul boasting about? He wants to boast only about a man in Christ, because it is all about Christ. Then the man Paul has disappeared from the scene. He is as it were absorbed by Christ and nothing more is seen. It is nice to remember that God sees Christ in you (2 Corinthians 5:17). The more you are aware of this, the more it will define your life. Then no more do you think of yourself and no longer do you live for yourself. The secret of such a life is Galatians 2:20 (Galatians 2:20). Read that verse and pray that God lets this verse work in your hearts and decide your life.
Paul did not want to boast about himself but about his infirmities. His infirmities prove that he was by no means an impressive person, but God decided to show His power in him.
2 Corinthians 12:6. Of course Paul could have used the circumstances he had been through, both in suffering and in paradise, to prove himself. If he had done so he had said the truth only. The natural temptation is to talk a lot about one’s own experiences and that again is to win the admiration and appreciation of people.
To imitate Paul’s attitude is not easy. He deliberately chose the art of depiction that would ultimately ascribed all glory and honor due to God and Christ. He guarded others from yielding to the temptation to appreciate him more than what is consistent with bare facts. Are you sometimes doing your best to make people think a little bit better about yourself than what they think of you or see in you? This is the natural temptation which is inside of each one of us. We like to project ourselves better than what we are.
Paul did not desire a hero worship for himself, not a glory to which he is not entitled. His main concern was to prevent people from giving him the honor and glory which belonged only to God and Christ. He had a lot of things to boast about especially his ‘visit’ to paradise. We are always surrounded by the lurking danger called self-glorification. Paul by nature was a sinner like any one of us. But the privilege of having the excellent revelations always put him the more in danger of falling in pride. God was not unaware of this. Therefore He gave Paul a bodyguard to protect him from this danger. Let us see Paul’s response in the next section.
Now read 2 Corinthians 12:1-6 again.
Reflection: Have you had special experiences with the Lord by which you are encouraged to live for Him?
My Grace Is Sufficient for You
2 Corinthians 12:7. Paul had an exceptionally outstanding experience of which he could be very proud. Someone said once: ‘It is not dangerous to be in the third heaven but to have been there’. In order that he is not conceited by “the surpassing greatness of the revelations” God gave him a bodyguard as a preventive. And what sort of bodyguard! It was “a messenger of satan” to beat him with his fist. That was not a pleasant company. Since no less than fourteen years this servant of satan accompanied him.
This messenger angel of satan caused to him “a thorn in the flesh”. No one would like to go near a thorn bush, for it will cause only pain. The angel of satan saw to it that the pain had a lasting effect and he did not do it gently. Paul felt as if he was beaten with fists. Some say that this thorn meant a disease in his eyes. This is deduced from Galatians 6 (Galatians 6:11). It could also be a speech impediment as deduced by some from chapter 10 of the letter which we are dealing with at the moment (2 Corinthians 10:10).
2 Corinthians 12:8-1 Samuel :. Anyway it was something that constantly reminded him of his own weaknesses. He would be happy to have been delivered from it, for he prayed for it, even three times. The Lord did not answer that prayer but He gave him a balm for the pain, namely, His grace.
What a comfort and a consolation this answer has been for many through the centuries! Even today the consolation derived from this answer is still available undiminished to you. May be you are also bearing something that you would like to get rid of and despite your earnest prayers the long awaited deliverance has not yet come. I trust that you can say from experience that the Lord said to you also: “My grace is sufficient for you.”
Have you already prayed for more than three times and yet you have not received the answer? Does it seem that that your prayer would not be answered? Then I may point you to a man who also had a very difficult life. He is none other than Jeremiah. He was sitting right in the midst of suffering. Yet he says in Lamentations 3: “For the Lord will not reject forever, for if He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness. For He does not afflict willingly or grieve the sons of men” (Lamentations 3:31-Micah :). This is the language of faith, the language you also can speak.
The greatest victory that satan can win is that we begin to doubt the love of God because He does not give what we ask for. We are not to begrudge him this victory. God uses your problem to keep you small and weak so that He can manifest His power fully in your weakness. You must understand that everyone who serves Him will always have something which keeps him weak in his life. This is God’s way to keep us from pride and that we do not forget that we need Him in all things.
Incidentally, these verses do not mean that we are allowed to pray only three times for a thing. The Bible is full of exhortations to persevere in prayer. See for instance in Luke 18 (Luke 18:1-Ruth :). These verses make it very clear that God allows certain things in your life to keep you humble. You prayed several times for a thing, but after a certain period you are convinced that you should not pray further about it because He considers that it is better you live with it. At the same time you will experience His help and strength in a way which you would not have learnt otherwise.
2 Corinthians 12:10. This prompts Paul to say that he is well content with weaknesses. Were they not opportunities in which Christ’s power became visible in his life? He would gladly do and suffer anything for the sake of Christ. He was always very happy to see less of himself and more of Christ. He practiced what we read in John 3: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
When this is the deepest desire of your heart you will not balk at trials and afflictions which would show forth how weak you are and how strong Christ is. When you are weak in the face of all these difficulties then you are strong, for the power of Christ dwells in you. The power of Christ takes possession of you, because you cannot overcome difficulties in your own strength.
I would like to come back to Paul’s three time prayer. This is reminiscent of the three time prayer of the Lord Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. We find this in Matthew 26, Mark 14 and Luke 22 (Matthew 26:36-1 Corinthians :; Mark 14:32-Luke :; Luke 22:39-1 Corinthians :). There He asks His Father three times if it would be possible that the cup (the judgment on the cross) pass from Him.
Of course there is a big difference between this prayer and that of Paul. Paul prayed that he might be delivered from something which kept him from pride. This makes clear that sin was present in Paul and its action was to be restrained.
But the case with the Lord Jesus was different. In Him there was no sin. That is why He prayed to the Father so, because He did not like to come in contact with sin. The horror of the cup that the Lord had to drink was that it made Him sin. He must take upon Himself the sins of those who believed and those who are going to believe and thereby suffer God’s complete judgment. It was impossible for Him to long for that. It was his imperfection that led Paul to pray. But for the Lord Jesus it was His perfection that constrained Him to pray.
Another point to note is what the Lord Jesus immediately added to His prayer: “Yet not as I will, but as You will.” He was in complete agreement with the way the Father decided for Him. He never wanted to choose a way other than what the Father decided for Him, but He abhorred the prospect of coming into contact with sin which would cause a separation between Him and His God. That is the reason for His prayer. After that prayer there is perfect peace into His heart and then He allowed His enemies to capture Him to accomplish the whole work He was destined to finish saying: “The cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11).
It will enrich your faith life and your prayer life when you learn to say: ‘Not my will but Yours be done.’ The submissiveness of your will to the will of God is the secret of peace in your heart in the midst of so many things that you wish were different otherwise.
Now read 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 again.
Reflection: Do you have ‘a thorn in the flesh’ in your life? What do you think of God’s will for you?
Paul’s Concern for the Corinthians
2 Corinthians 12:11. Paul looks back on his defense. He repeats what he had always said namely that he had become “a fool” to talk about himself. But the Corinthians had forced him to do so because they had started listening to other apostles, indeed false apostles. These men had spoken very negatively about Paul. The Corinthians had allowed their negative influences although they were supposed to know better. Has not Paul been the means through which they came to faith in the Lord Jesus?
It should not have been necessary for Paul to defend himself. It was the Corinthians who ought to have defended him. He was not a whit behind the most eminent apostles who were with the Lord Jesus. This is with regard to his service. His person mattered nothing.
2 Corinthians 12:12. When he was with the Corinthians they were witnesses to the signs and wonders and mighty deeds that he had done. Those signs and wonders were not flukes, but they were things he did with all perseverance. Through perseverance someone shows what kind of man he is. In Paul’s case the Corinthians could recognize that he stood up to what he preached and that his preaching originated from a Higher Authority.
2 Corinthians 12:13. Compared to other churches Paul’s service to the Corinthians was not lacking in any way. He was fully committed to them as he was to the others. The only difference was that he did not accept any money from them as he did from other churches. Did they see it as a proof that he did not really love them? As he had mentioned earlier he never wanted to give them the impression that he was after his own profit or advantage.
Their spiritual standard was such that they would have wanted to take pride in saying that they also made their contribution in the sustenance of the apostle. Paul wanted to avoid this. He wanted to serve them without any obligation so that he could tell them freely where they were lacking. Did they say that Paul was wrong in not asking for any financial support from them? With some irony he asks them to forgive him.
2 Corinthians 12:14. At the same time he says that he will not deal differently when he comes “this third time” to them. Again he will not accept any money from them.
By the way, how can Paul speak of “this third time” when we find no proof for a second visit to Corinth in his itinerary mentioned in Acts? An explanation could be that he set out for a second visit but the Corinthian’s poor progress made him postpone it. He wanted to spare them a sharp reprimand and give them time to change the wrong things for the better. This can be inferred from what he says in chapter 1 (2 Corinthians 1:15; 2 Corinthians 1:23).
Now for the third time he was ready to come and this time he loved to come because he had their well-being before his eyes. He was interested in them personally and not in their money or possessions. They were his children in the faith. As a real caring father he did not want to get any profit from his children, but on the other hand he wanted to give them as much as he possibly could out of all that he had. Like parents who save money for their children, Paul had great spiritual wealth which he wanted to distribute among his children.
2 Corinthians 12:15. He was not bothered whether or not they understood his mind. He loved them extraordinarily and what he says here is a proof of his genuine love. Whether love is reciprocated or misinterpreted the nature of love remains the same. Despite all the troubles the Corinthians gave him he continued to care for them. In fact the hassle they created for him augmented his concern for them all the more and thus his love for them only became more abundant.
He who is influenced by gossip always explains wrongly the things the other one does. But Paul thereby was not discouraged. He went to the deepest possible level. He was willing to spend and to be spent for them, if only they went again in the right way of the Lord.
2 Corinthians 12:16-Esther :. Didn’t they accept his proofs of love despite all he did for them? Let it be. In no way he has been burdensome to them. As for him he let them interpret his work as crafty and deceitful, if only they shouldn’t think that he did things for his own interest. He certainly didn’t adopt any questionable means. Perhaps they thought that he sent others to them to have profits.
2 Corinthians 12:18. Now he could boldly look them in the eyes and even challenge them about the attitude of his co-worker Titus and the brother who was with Titus. They had to admit that those two brothers were of the same spirit of love and service as they had noticed in Paul and that they acted in the same way.
2 Corinthians 12:19. How persistent and troublesome when the once sown seeds of mistrust take up root! It is very difficult to uproot them. The false teachers had done a very damaging work. But Paul was tireless and confident to restore the breach of trust. The thought that Paul was trying to defend himself is brought by Paul in the presence of God. You can only do that if you have a clear conscience before God. And Paul has. Christ was the content of his ministry. The presence of God was the starting point of his service. The goal of his service was edifying the believers in Corinth.
See how he addresses them; he calls them “beloved”. This is not a casual remark; it shows the feelings of his heart. This is the best way to win the erring believers. Does it mean that he was lenient towards their falsehood? No not at all. Love “does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).
2 Corinthians 12:20. That is why Paul adds a warning to his comments that must deeply touch them. There are yet a few things which are not in order. He didn’t make up the list he sums up. They are things that were present among the believers in Corinth. No doubt they are present even today among believers.
2 Corinthians 12:21. For Paul to see such errors in the church when he would visit them was a humiliation. He would consider as if God Himself kept ready such humiliation for him and that too in their midst. He would experience it as a personal failure before God, for he has not succeeded in persuading the Corinthian believers to put away the wrong things. How sad he should be to see some still have not repented for the sins they had committed. The damage sin causes is more than what one can imagine.
It is not enough to break with sin. Sincere repentance is essential. Only then the way is open to receive and enjoy God’s blessings through His servants. When there is no sincere repentance for a sin the risk is huge to fall into the same sin again.
When you reflect on the beginning of this chapter you see a big contrast with the end. The chapter begins with a man in Christ who was caught up into paradise and it ends up with people who have not yet distanced themselves from terrible sins. Both are possible. I trust that you have truly broken with your previous sins and that now you live as a man in Christ.
Now read 2 Corinthians 12:11-21 again.
Reflection: How does Paul relate to the Corinthians? How does he express himself about that relationship?
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op 2 Corinthians 12". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25