2 Corinthians 12:5-10 – A Vision of “Surpassing Greatness”

Paul says he was caught up to the third heaven and receive revelations of “surpassing greatness.” Paul reports this vision in a way consistent with other visions of heaven in the literature of the Second Temple period.

Like other prophets, Paul is “caught up” into the third heaven. He uses the same verb as 1 Thess 4:17, ἁρπάζω. This word has the sense of being snatched away and appears in the LXX in Gen In both cases the verb is passive, as expected in a vision report. In 1 Enoch 39:3 a whirlwind catches the prophet up and takes him into the “ultimate ends of heaven” where he sees the dwelling places of the holy ones.

garden of EdenPaul says he was caught up to the “third heaven” (τρίτου οὐρανοῦ) or into paradise (παράδεισος). The noun paradise is used for Eden and originally described the pleasure garden of the great kings of the Persians. T.Levi 18:10 refers to heaven as the “gates of paradise.” In 2 Enoch the seer is taken up to a “garden of righteousness” in his heavenly visions. In 2 Enoch 8 and “inconceivably pleasant” Paradise is located in the “third heaven.”

2 Enoch 8.1-3 And those men took me from there, and they brought me up to the third heaven, and set me down there. Then I looked downward, and I saw Paradise. And that place is inconceivably pleasant. And I saw the trees in full flower. And their fruits were ripe and pleasant-smelling, with every food in yield and giving off profusely a pleasant fragrance. And in the midst (of them was) the tree of life, at that place where the LORD takes a rest when he goes into paradise. And that tree is indescribable for pleasantness and fine fragrance, and more beautiful than any (other) created thing that exists.

In Paul’s vision, he heard “inexpressible words” (ἄρρητα ῥήματα). This may mean they cannot be spoken in human language (something like Spock’s real name?). But this might mean Paul was not given permission to report what he heard while he was in heaven. This second option is a common feature of heavenly vision reports, some things are so great the seer holds them back from people who are not ready to hear them. In Daniel 12:4 the prophet is told to “seal up the prophecy” and Revelation 14:3 John hears seven thunders but is not permitted to report what they said.

Even though Paul has had a visionary experience on a par with his opponents in Corinth, he chose not to mention it since it has no value for the church at all! Why should he boast in some spiritual experience they can never have? What spiritual benefit could possibly come from Paul telling them the details of the vision?

13 thoughts on “2 Corinthians 12:5-10 – A Vision of “Surpassing Greatness”

  1. Paul DID choose to mention it – buy talking about how we won’t mention it. In the discipline of study of Rhetoric, there is a word or this type of literary device.

    I was sort of wondering what spiritual benefit could possibly come from Paul boasting that he had a great vision….
    and then NOT telling them the details of the vision?

    Other than Paul promoting himself as a “great and special man of God” who has great visions, what purpose does this serve for us? I don’t see any – except ;maybe for Mormons to make up heretical doctrine, just at they did with Paul’s wacky comment about people being “baptized for the dead.”

    It appears to me that Daniel’s comments about sealing up the prophecy, and the 7 Thunders in Revelation, are exceptional comments, set in a larger context of great visions recorded with much specific detail for us to consider. Paul’s comments are basically the opposite – Paul saying that he has special revelation that is too holy to share with the Corinthians, so he’ll elevate himself by boasting about that, but refuse to tell the details to the unwashed heathen, because they aren’t worthy.

    • You are right, this is a standard rhetorical practice in the Greco-Roman world, and Paul uses it often. He says “I do not really need to tell you these things,” but then goes not and tells his readers anyway. It sounds strange to modern readers, but it is the way ethical teaching was often done in the Greco-Roman world.

      I am not sure the sealing up of prophecy is “exceptional” since there are many examples in non-biblical apocalyptic of seers holding back information from the reader. IIRC, this is usually explained as the writer’s way of saying to his audience “I know much more, but you are not prepared to hear it yet.”

      My point in the post is Paul was not promoting himself as a great and special man, his one vision was 14 years in the past and he was not even allowed to talk about it! Compared to the opponent’s visionary experience, Paul is second-rate, and the one experience he had resulted in a “thorn in the flesh”!

      FWIW, I think “baptism for the dead” was a Corinthian practice, no one has really made a convincing argument for what they were doing.

      • It seems we agree that “this is a standard rhetorical practice in the Greco-Roman world, and Paul uses it often…”
        Does God The Father talk that way (in the Law and the Prophets), or does Jesus talk that way (In the Gospels)? I have not thought it through, but I can’t think of any examples of this rhetorical practice from the mouth of God in our Scriptures. Maybe I have missed something.

        I’m not necessarily saying “it’s wrong” to speak like that mind you. But I am saying that just because it’s a common practice in “the world”, and Paul uses it often, does not necessarily mean it is “right” or “godly” to speak that way. Although I should consider this more, my gut seems to tell me that it’s really more like a trick or verbal manipulation, rather than speaking the truth in love….

        You wrote:
        “there are many examples in non-biblical apocalyptic of seers holding back information from the reader…”
        I’ll take your word for that – and I think this also points to “non-biblical” pagan influences in Paul’s thought patterns, teaching, and language. Again, very little comes to mind for me from the pages of our “Bible” of this kind of practice in writing, other than the writings of Paul.

        Some people have referred to Paul as a “Gnostic”, who believed he was one of a chosen few to have special knowledge that was not for others. If you look at how Paul refers to “mysteries” in his writings, compared to everyone else in the Bible, there is some basis for this question to be raised. I found looking in a concordance to see how certain words like “mystery” were used out our Bible to be interesting.

        You wrote
        “I think “baptism for the dead” was a Corinthian practice, no one has really made a convincing argument for what they were doing.”

        We agree- nobody really knows what it was, it was one odd comment from Paul, and no one else in the Bible has anything to say about it – so shouldn’t we just ignore Paul’s words on this strange unverifiable point, since Paul’s words are not the words of God and Paul has no other witnesses to back him up?

      • Jesus said, in the Sermon on the Mount:
        “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” [Matthew 5:37]

        Based on the words of Jesus here, I believe it would be wrong to use clever rhetorical tricks like saying “I won’t tell you about X” and then tell them anyway about X. And since this would apply to Paul just like anyone else, Paul was wrong to use this rhetorical practice. Paul didn’t sound like Jesus here, so we should reject the voice of Paul and instead listen to the voice of Jesus.

        Maybe I am mistaken- if so, can you open your Bible and show me the voice of God in the Torah, the Prophets, or the Gospels that would illuminate my error in understanding the voice of God?

  2. Not gonna lie, this move is kinda sketchy to me. Why would Paul conceal something from us? “But wait, there’s more…” Is Paul establishing the existence of an even higher level of Christianity, and “inner circle”? What does one have to do to become a member? What are the benefits? Without a greater understanding of the self-sacrificing nature of Paul’s life and ministry, this looks like some kind of scam tactic. If Paul saw something in his vision that he is withholding from his readers by choice, then he might not be as transparent as he lets on. This is probably why I favor the idea that Paul was not permitted to share what he saw. Because if he could share it I think he would. And like you said, this explanation mirrors the vision of the thunders in Revelation.

  3. Despite this passage being difficult to understand, it is clear that although Paul states that no man should boast Paul continues to boast in himself but of his weaknesses rather than in pride. Paul first beings by describing having been caught up to the third heaven and hearing inexpressible words. Although this experience was not described in great detail, some commentators assume that when Paul mentions 14 years ago it was during the time of his conversion when this revelation was revealed to Paul. As a result, this revelation must have led to a desire to boast in which the Lord placed a so called “thorn in the side” of Paul. So although Paul cautions against boasting, Paul continues by stating that by boasting in his weaknesses it causes him to place himself in the position of humility even though he has the title of Apostle, has great knowledge of the scriptures, and the Lord has also revealed many things to Paul in which were not revealed to any other man.

  4. Paul being caught up to heaven in a vision has always been a really awesome thing for me. I just cannot imagine what he was able to see and experience. I think that the first reason that Paul did not say what he saw that was in heaven because he was not allowed to is probably a very valid reason. I think that it would make sense that God would allow Paul to come see Heaven, but not be able to speak of it because it was only for his eyes to see at the time. I also think that it is also likely the second reason that the people were not ready for it also applies. To me, it makes sense that both of these things go hand in hand. If the people were ready to hear about heaven, then God would have told Paul to share that message with the people, but since they were not ready, then God told him not to share with the people. I think that the reason that Paul makes this boast is to combat the idea that the super apostles were superior to him. Since none of them ever had the experience that Paul had, they could not claim to be better than him. I think that maybe the spiritual significance of Paul sharing this was so that the people could know that the experience of seeing Heaven was so great that Paul could not even share with them what he has seen.

  5. In a way, I feel Paul is sealing his information from us to try and grow our attention a bit more. It is like when you are with a friend and you ask them how they are doing and they reply with, “I’m fine” when clearly they are not. Paul may not boast about this story as it lacks specific detail, something people pay far too much attention to while stories are shared. I am not sure if the lack of detail is Paul not quite remembering everything that had occurred or if it is strictly Paul not wanting much of any of his experience getting out publicly.

  6. This entire chapter is fascinating to me. Paul was careful in choosing the way he spoke to the Corinth Church. He said he went to the third heaven so the church could understand that the third heaven was the highest level. The first level is the atmosphere: the land where we live. The second level is the atmosphere, where the sun, the moon, and the stars are, and the third level is heaven, God’s dwelling place. Another interesting thing about this passage is that Paul could boast about his vision, but he chose not to, partially because God told him not to, and secondly, he knew by talking about it he would not gain anything from it.

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