Notes on 2 Corinthians 12:1-6

2 Corinthians 12:1‑6  •  9 min. read  •  grade level: 9
We have had the apostle glorying in what had no glory in men's eyes. Now he turns abruptly, from being let down in a basket to escape a Gentile governor, to being caught up to heaven for a vision of the Lord in paradise.
“I must needs boast, though not profitable; but I will come1 unto visions and revelations or [the] Lord. I know a man in Christ, fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not; or whether out of the body, I know not: God knoweth), such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man (whether in the body or without2 [or apart from] the body, I know not: God knoweth), how that he was caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable words which [it is] not lawful for a man to utter. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on mine own behalf I will not boast save in [my] weaknesses. For if I should desire to boast, I shall not be foolish, for I shall speak truth; but I forbear, lest any should account as to me above that which he seeth me or heareth3 of me.” ( Vers. 1-6.)
The test is, from the conflict of readings, rather precarious. But the truth conveyed runs like a plowshare through all fleshly thought and feeling. Certainly in the boast of the apostle is not one thing palatable to nature, or exalting to himself or of profit humanly. Grace alone characterizes visions and revelations of the Lord, and to these he would come. Yet even though boast one must in the Lord, room for vain-glory is excluded. “I know a man in Christ:” not “I knew,” as the Authorized Version so strangely misunderstands. Still even in the form which the apostle employs to convey the former, personal boasting is sedulously avoided, so much so that even our translators appear to have conceived that he was speaking not of himself but of some other man.
How blessedly Christ meets self in its need and guilt and ruin in order to deliver from its power, not only by the judgment of the first man, but by identification with the Second! It is good to be indebted to another's grace: what is to be thus lost, if one may so say, in the blessedness of Christ! Undoubtedly Paul had the marvelous experience he so vividly alludes to; but he puts it in a way meant to convey to any “man in Christ” that it is his privilege substantially, as it was his in fact miraculously. In chapter 5 we were told that, if any man is in Christ, it is a new creation: the old things passed, all things made new, and all of the God who reconciled us to Himself by Jesus Christ. Here it is one caught up to the third heaven and in paradise hearing what it is not possible or permissible for man to tell-unspeakable words. The sphere he was introduced into, though the communications were beyond what could be conveyed now; but it was of great moment to have the certainty of all. And he whose province it was to make known the counsels of God as to Christ and His own for heaven was thus allowed to hear, that all in Christ should know their portion by such a chosen witness.
The entire allusion is as peculiar as wise and suited. “I know a man in Christ fourteen years ago.” Faith does not boast of visions and revelations of the Lord, any more than of its doings: of trials and sufferings one may speak if compelled, and so too of that which appertains to every man in Christ, though one alone got the vision. So David said not a word about the lion and the bear which he was enabled to kill while engaged in his lowly task, till it was needful to allay the fears of others to God's glory; and the apostle only spoke many years after a wondrous experience which others less spiritual would have talked of everywhere for as many years or more. What would not the Corinthians or their misleaders have made of it?
Prophets of old have known what it is to look on scenes outside man's experience. So Isaiah, the year in which king Uzziah died, beheld the Lord on His throne with the Seraphim in attendance on His glory, that he might fittingly bear witness to the people of their evil but of the Virgin-born Jehovah-Messiah who should establish the kingdom and deliver the people from their sins to God's glory. Ezekiel too was lifted up between earth and heaven and transported to Jerusalem in the visions of God and the temple (chap. 11.), as afterward to Chaldea (ver. 24), and finally to the land of Israel (chaps. 40-48.) for the future temple and city and division of the land. Nor is it only in the great Apocalyptic prophecy of the New Testament that we trace the analogy of these ways of the Spirit, but we see His power in catching away Philip bodily to Azotus or Ashdod, from the neighborhood, one of the roads leading from Jerusalem to Gaza. As for the apostle, he says, “whether in the body, I know not; or whether out of the body, I know not: God knoweth), such an one caught up to the third heaven.” It was not dubious, but transcendent, knowledge, and God who gave it hid from the apostle whether it was in spirit only or in bodily presence also. Certainly, if caught up like Philip, there was left such a sense of the glory as was too deep and bright for human words or for present circumstances. Body there or not, he was not hindered from feeling the glory to be beyond the measure of man. There the glorified will be to enjoy all with Christ at His coming, in bodies like His own; and there the disembodied saint goes to be with Him; there too Paul as a man in Christ, but Paul actually as apostle and prophet that we might learn now, was taken up. “And I know such a man (whether in the body or apart from the body, I know not: God knoweth), how that he was caught up into paradise and heard unspeakable words which [it is] not lawful for a man to utter.” In the mysteries of the old heathen there were “unspeakable words,” but they were strange forms of language to alarm and overawe the mind. Here the things forbade communication as rising completely in their nature above all that surrounds or is natural to us.
But the apostle does boast, not exactly “of” nor “in” but “on behalf of such a one.” God did not deal thus with His servant for no reason but worthily for Himself: and Paul was led by the Spirit in speaking of it fourteen years after the fact to meet the exigencies of the testimony of Christ. It was grace to give the privilege; it was grace not to boast of it for himself meanwhile; it was grace to write of it now, and to write it in the inspired word for all saints in all time. “On behalf of such an one I will boast, but on mine own behalf I will not boast save in my weaknesses.” These we have had in the preceding chapter; they were the suffering of love for Christ's sake in a weak body with all men and things opposed, which Satan was ever skillfully arraying against him. How beautiful are the feet of such heralds of good things! Yet philosophy and religion saw only what was despicable, as in the Master, so in the servant. Do we know what it is to live beyond the depreciation of our fellows? Let us look to it, however, that it be truly for Christ and His glory in those that are His. Nothing is more opposed to Christ, yet nothing more common among Christians than a pretentious self-asserting spirit, which will boast of the distinctive possession of the truth which we know, even though it most condemn us. God looks for reality in a world of shadows and untruth; he looks for the possession and reflection of His revealed light and truth where darkness reigns; He looks for divine love where only self is found, though in subtle forms; He looks for the faith which reckons on Him according to His word in the face of all difficulties and dangers. Assuredly the apostle thus lived and labored: as it is for our profit to see in these two epistles how misunderstood is such a path even among saints, who are apt to welcome a high and self-exalting spirit, even though it indulge in sufficiently contumelious ways towards themselves. So the Israelites, who would have a king like the nations, received one after their own heart, who served himself, instead of ruling them in the fear of the Lord.
“For if I should desire to boast, I shall not be foolish, for I shall speak truth; but I forbear, lest any should account of me above that which he seeth me or heareth of me.” The servant was jealous of his Master's glory, and hence his reticence as to much which would have interested us in the highest degree. “To me,” he could say as none other since nor then nor before” to me to live is Christ;” and he was as vigilant as to this in public ministry as in private walk. “On behalf of a man in Christ” he had much to say, as he does say it elsewhere; and so he boasts here, for here all is of grace. “Who maketh thee to differ? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? Now if thou didst receive, why dost thou glory as if thou didst not receive?” But even here, though speaking truth only, he forbears lest any should account of him beyond what he sees or hears of him. Such is the effect of a life spent in the faith of Christ and His love.