Written by: Don Carson
"I MUST GO ON BOASTING," Paul writes (2 Cor. 12:1), though of course he has been doing so only in the most ironic way (see yesterday's meditation and the one for September 21). But now he faces a new dilemma. Apparently his opponents have been boasting about their spiritual experiences. They may even have been saying something like, "Well, of course, Paul had that Damascus Road experience, but that was a long time ago. What has he known of God since then? Yesterday's grace grows stale." In this case, of course, Paul cannot simply deploy irony and boast about the opposite of all that his opponents judge important, as he did in chapter 11. For the opposite of having various spiritual experiences is not having them--and in Paul's case, to deny that he has enjoyed such experiences would not be true. So reluctantly he goes on "to visions and revelations from the Lord" (2 Cor. 12:1). But he cannot bear to talk about himself in this regard, so he retreats to a literary device: he speaks about himself in the third person: "I know a man in Christ," he writes (2 Cor. 12:2), though clearly he is talking about himself (2 Cor. 12:5-6).
Even in this case, Paul offers three emphases to turn the focus away from himself and strip any virtue from the habit of boasting.
First, in his case, he says, the spectacular experiences of heaven he enjoyed fourteen years earlier he was "not permitted to tell" (2 Cor. 12:4). The "third heaven" (2 Cor. 12:2) is the abode of God; "paradise" is where God dwells. Some of what he saw was "inexpressible": people who have not enjoyed such visions do not have the categories to grasp them. More importantly, these visions were meant to strengthen Paul; he was not permitted to talk about them. Hence his silence.
Second, Paul is afraid people will think too much of him (the opposite of our fears), so as a matter of principle he dislikes talking about inaccessible matters. If he must be judged, he wants to be judged by what he does and says (2 Cor. 12:6), not by claims of visions and revelations that are inaccessible to public scrutiny.
Third, Paul recognizes that along with the great advantages he has received, God has imposed, through the agency of Satan, a "thorn in [the] flesh" that is not going to be removed, despite his most fervent intercessory prayer (2 Cor. 12:7-10). It was given to keep him from becoming conceited, to keep him "weak," so that he would learn that God's strength is perfected in our weakness, and he would therefore never rely on or be puffed up by the extraordinary grace he had received. In this fallen world, it is a mercy that great grace is accompanied by great weakness, as well as the other way around.