Paul continues his boasting in 1 Cor 12, this time mentions a vision in which he was transported to the “third heaven.” We do not know when this vision occurred, and the way Paul describes it is hard to place in the book of Acts. He describes his experiences as a vision (ὀπτασία) and a revelation (ἀποκάλυψις). The first word is usually associated with a god allowing himself to be seen by a human, or allowing a human to see something usually hidden (BDAG). Although a little later than the New Testament, the Martyrdom of Polycarp used the word to describe a “trance.” Paul calls his experience on the road to Damascus a vision (Acts 26:19). The second word is Paul’s usual word to describe his revelations from God, usually in the context of salvation history or eschatology.
When did Paul have this vision? He says it was “fourteen years ago,” which is about A.D. 40. Paul is therefore not referring to his Damascus Road experience, but an experience after his conversion but before the beginning of the first missionary trip (about A.D. 48). Paul founded the Corinthian church 50-51 on the second missionary journey.
Why does he Paul suddenly boast about a vision he had some 14 years earlier? This is part of Paul’s “humble boast” throughout this section—he has had visions (just like the opponents) but his are un-reportable and from the distant past. Unlike the opponents, he is not “making up visions” to impress his audience.
Does Paul refer to his experience in the Temple as reported in Acts 22:17-18? Luke uses a similar word to describe Paul’s vision, a “trance” (ESV, ἔκστασις). Chronologically it is possible since it is after his conversion and we do not know how many years between the conversion and that particular Temple visit. A major difference is the vision in Acts 22 includes a warning to leave Jerusalem and go to the Gentiles. (Check out Richard Fellows’ comments on the chronology of 2 Corinthians 12. Fellows says “It seems to me that 2 Cor 12:2 lends a little support to the chronology of Acts.”) It is really impossible to know when or where Paul had this vision. Paul’s only point here is his vision came in the past and it is something he is not able to relate to the church.
Paul reports the vision in the third person and does not really give any details. He does not know if he was “in the body” or not, and really does not know what happened to him when he had the vision. Again, this is a completely different report than would come from the opponents who seem to boast in great detail about their own experiences. It is as if Paul is saying, “Sure, I had one of those visions too, but I do not really consider it worth recalling now…”