Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A GLIMPSE OF HEAVEN (2 Corinthians Chapter 12)

2 Corinthians 12:1-4, “I must go on boasting.  Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.  I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.  And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”

As I write this a movie has recently been released entitled “Heaven is for Real.”  The movie is based on a book that tells the real life story of a father who endeavors to share of his son’s near-death experience and corresponding trips to heaven (or what he thought to be heaven).  There have been many others who have spoken of having had similar experiences, but as with all such matters, it is important to “test everything” and “hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:22).

Paul “was caught up to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2).  The context clearly affirms that he was the “man in Christ who fourteen years ago” of whom he was speaking (Cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7).  It is interesting and instructive to contrast his response to that heavenly experience with that of those we hear of from time to time.

Paul reluctantly shared of his heavenly experience.  We don’t find him speaking of it elsewhere in his epistles.  Even here, in 2 Corinthians, he shares of it only because he was compelled to.  In boasting of it, he acknowledged that he was speaking “as a fool” (Cf. 2 Corinthians 11:17).  But his boasting was not as men are typically prone to do.  Paul was an opponent of human boasting (Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:29, 5:6, 13:4).  And boasting is never good when it is done to draw attention to oneself.  Paul boasted not for that reason, but to re-affirm to his opponents his apostolic ministry credentials (Cf. 2 Corinthians 11:16-33, 13:3).  Paul had been called to proclaim the truth about Christ and nothing mattered more to him than that.  He labored in ministry towards that end.  Since some were doubting him, he offered to them proof lest he lose the opportunity to freely speak to them of that which he himself gloried in—Christ and His cross (Cf. Galatians 6:14; Philippians 3:3).  He understood himself to be merely a “by-grace” servant of Christ (Cf. 1 Corinthians 4:1, 15:10). 

Paul spoke in guarded terms of his experience.  Paul’s hesitancy to boast is apparent in the manner in which he spoke of his experience.  He deliberately “played down” his own part in it (“I know a man”).  Paul’s reference to “the third heaven” is a reference to the unseen realm in which God dwells, the first and second heavens referring respectively to the atmosphere and the expanse of heaven.  Paul had that experience, a revelation of “surpassing greatness” (Cf. 2 Corinthians 12:7), but he was limited as to what he could share about it.  “He heard things which cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:4).  What Paul heard, human words would be wholly inadequate to relate.  Additionally, he was not permitted to share the content of what he had experienced.  The experience was for him alone, no doubt working to strengthen and encourage him in his future service amidst his sufferings (Cf. Acts 9:16; Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 11:23-29; Philippians 1:21-24).

Paul’s experience did not come without cost.  “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from being conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7).  Paul was privileged to be given a foretaste of heaven, but the matter was of such privileged significance that it required intervention by God lest Paul become conceited in it.  The nature of the “thorn” is much disputed, but whatever it was it was of such consequence that Paul pleaded three times for its removal.  The Lord said no to Paul’s request, but promised to Paul grace sufficient to meet his weakness (Cf. 2 Corinthians 12:8-10).

Paul shared of his heavenly experience not to draw attention to himself or even to the reality of heaven.  He shared no details of what he saw or heard and spoke of the experience only here in his epistles.  By way of contrast he shared openly and repeatedly of his conversion experience (Cf. Acts 22:3-21; 26:9-20; Galatians 1:11-17; 1 Timothy 1:12-17).  The message he consistently proclaimed—and you will find the emphasis throughout his epistles—was Christ and his gospel (Cf. 1 Corinthians 2:2).  His concern was that people be won to Christ.  If they are won to Christ, Christ will get them to heaven.

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