2 Corinthians 12:1-6

2 Corinthians 12:1-6

Heavenly Forbidden Revelations

Did you know that Jesus has blue eyes, wears a crown, is dressed in white with a purple sash, and rides a rainbow-colored horse? Students, did you know that homework doesn’t stop on earth, but you will have to do it in heaven? Did you know that the Holy Spirit, which is a thing, is “kind of blue”? These are some of the “truths” that 4-year-old Colton Burpo saw when he was in heaven for a brief time. Of course, Colton wasn’t the first or the last one to claim to have visited heaven and seen visions. Books on this theme (sometimes called “heavenly tourism”) dominate bookstores, both Christian and secular. Whether it’s Heaven Is for Real, 90 Minutes in Heaven, The Boy Who Came Back, To Heaven and Back, and countless others, one claim is central: people can go to heaven, experience it, then return to earth to tell the tale. Laying aside the many contradictions between these books (they all can’t be right, as their stories differ and contradict one another), let’s consider the Bible. Let’s consider the two Lazaruses (Lazari?) in the NT (one in a parable, the other in real life), then we’ll consider Paul. Here are people in the NT that have gone to heaven and returned. Based on these experiences, what should we expect? Before moving to Paul, let’s quickly consider both Lazaruses/Lazari in Luke 16 and John 11.

In a parable in Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells his listeners that even if a person should come back from the dead, people wouldn’t believe him because they didn’t believe Moses and the Prophets (i.e., Scripture). What is necessary is the Scripture. That’s why father Abraham says to the rich man who wanted his servant Lazarus to relieve his inflamed tongue and whose five brothers are still on earth in need of eternal life: “Let them hear them” (v. 29). That is, let the brothers hear Moses and the Prophets.

What about the Lazarus in John 11 who’s raised from the dead after being gone for 4 days? Nothing is said in the narrative about him after Jesus raised him except that people try to kill Lazarus (John 12:9-11). But why not tell everyone what happened in those intervening days of bliss? That’s the perfect time to tell us what’s going on in heaven. Here’s why: the story of Lazarus isn’t about Lazarus, or about heaven for that matter. It’s about Jesus, the resurrection and the life (John 11:25). What’s truly sad is that people today eat up all this non-Scriptural heavenly tourism garbage. They believe that it confirms their faith, or that it adds to their knowledge of heaven. What they’re doing, however, is practically denying the finality and sufficiency of Scripture in favor of less-than-orthodox, fantastical, ear-tingling story-telling. Well, if we can’t find it in those two texts, let’s hear Scripture and what Paul has to say about his trip to heaven.

Oh wait…. Something’s wrong here, guys. The very thing we’re wanting is what Paul says cannot be uttered. (So much for all those books on heavenly tourism!) Blast it all! I suppose if we just read our Bibles, we wouldn’t be so heartbroken. What’s going on in our text under consideration? For one, we know that Paul really did go to heaven (v. 2). Granted, he speaks about “a man in Christ,” and it’s on this man’s behalf (not his own) that Paul will boast (v. 5), but as we read on, it’s clear that it was Paul himself who had the vision and surpassing greatness of revelations (v. 7). That’s why he, and not a separate “man in Christ,” receives the thorn in the flesh (v. 7, to be looked at next time). The purpose of the thorn (i.e., to kill conceit in Paul) makes sense only if it was Paul himself who ascended to the third heaven, Paradise (God’s heavenly abode). Moreover, the whole literary context is about Paul’s boastful, foolish speech. He continues boasting (v. 1), and you will recall that in chapter 11, he was “boasting” about his own status, sufferings, and achievements. Paul really went into heaven (whether in the body or out of the body is a matter only God knows). Second, Paul truly experienced visions. The word for “visions” (ὀπτασία) is used a handful of times. It’s used by Luke three times. Luke uses the word in the beginning of his Gospel when Zechariah refers to his temple vision of the angel Gabriel (1:22), then he uses it near the end of his Gospel in reference to the women’s vision of angels at Jesus’ tomb (23:24, cf. 4-5, 9). Finally, he used it in Acts in a speech of Paul’s to King Agrippa (Acts 26:19, cf. v. 13), in which Paul speaks about his vision of the Lord on the road to Damascus. [For all you Polycarp fans, you’ll be excited to know that it’s used of his 3-day, pre-arrest trance/vision of impending martyrdom of being burned alive (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 5.2)]. As far as Paul is concerned (and God, of course!), his visions were authentic.

As Paul sets up this greater reason for him to boast foolishly against the super-apostles, the reader gets excited. You can hear some of the Corinthians (and us!) saying something like this: “What?! You went to heaven, Paul?! You gotta tell us all about it. You just gotta! Then we’ll really know you’re an apostle from the Lord! Then we’ll really know there is such a place!” This would surely put him over the top, wouldn’t it? This would nail the coffin on those false prophets. This is just the perfect piece of apostolic evidence to shut the mouths of all his nay-sayers. Alas, enter verse 4: “and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” He heard “unutterable words” (an ironic jab at those who’d vocalize their many boasts of the things of God). The word “unutterable” (ἄρρητος) can mean either “words unable to be expressed” because of human inability, or “words that must not be expressed” because of their holiness. In this second sense, the words are forbidden to be uttered. I take this interpretation, and I am supported by what Paul says at the end of the verse (“which man may not utter”). The words “may not utter” translate οὐκ ἐξὸν ἀνθρώπῳ λαλῆσαι, and the key words here are “οὐκ ἐξὸν.” The phrase predominately carries the meaning of something not being authorized or legally permitted (cf. Matt. 12:2; Acts 16:21; 22:25). What Paul has in mind, then, are words too holy to be retold for fear of breaking divine law or command.

So, Paul holds his tongue. He admits that what he experienced was true. If he wanted to share his visions with the world, he’d be speaking the truth. (Incidentally, the fact that he knows words to use to communicate the truth of the visions also lends credence to the interpretation that the words were too sacred to retell, not that they were unable to be spoken.) Nevertheless, he refrains. The point has been made. He had far greater visions and revelations of which to boast than these deceitful workmen of Satan. He, contrary to the masked men of the snake, is dependable and trustworthy (cf. 4:2; 6:7; 7:14). What’s Paul after then? Sure, he has an apostolic ace up his sleeve, but it stays in the sleeve. Why? In keeping with Pauline conduct, he is not concerned with boasting in greatness but in weakness (vv. 5, 9). Paul desires that people think of him as they see and hear him (v. 6), as a weak vessel belonging to and living for Christ. Not as someone who went to heaven and back to tell the tale. He wants them to take him as he is, as someone who has in truth shared the revelation of Christ to them (1:19; 4:5; 5:11; 11:3-4), the very thing they so desperately need (not more revelation of Paul’s own heavenly visions). They need to see him as someone whose goal is to exalt the mighty Christ while highlighting his own lowliness. That’s his desire for the Corinthians, and it should be ours for ourselves. These verses, as initially exciting and enrapturing as they may be (literally so in Paul’s case), once again point us to Christ and his glory, not to man. Seeing ourselves as weak and Christ as strong—now that’s the call for the Christian. If that’s our goal, then our theology will be straighter, and our piety purer.

  • Romans 11:33-36

    Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!
    For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor? Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?
    For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.

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