I've Been To Heaven
About fourteen years before the writing of Second Corinthians, which Paul penned in A.D. fifty-four or fifty-five, the Apostle had a remarkable experience which, if we'd been in his place, we would have marked as a high point, if not the high point of our lives. He journeyed to Paradise. (Second Corinthians 12:1-6)
It wasn't Paul's habit to brag about himself, but certain false teachers, in Corinth, needed to be put in their proper place. Paul relates this story for that purpose; nothing else. For this reason he doesn't directly refer to himself as the traveler. See verses two and three in this connection.
We aren't told why the Lord allowed this to take place. Therefore we can only offer an opinion. Fourteen years earlier would place Paul in Tarsus, close to the time Barnabas came to take him to Antioch (Acts 11:25). Thus, the time was shortly after his conversion. The best conclusion is that God permitted him to go to Paradise for encouragement, knowing the difficulties Paul would continually face for the rest of his life.
Regardless of the reason for the trip, let's examine Paul's recount of the incident.
In verse two, he tells us that he doesn't know if he was "in the body... or whether out..." The point is, whether it was a bodily transfer or just the soul, it was miraculous. We may infer from Paul's statement that it could have been either way. Enoch and Elijah were taken bodily into heaven, therefore there's nothing unusual about this.
Paul continues by saying that he "was caught up." The exact mechanics of the trip is unknown. However, we note in Ezekiel 11:25 "And the Spirit lifted me up, and brought me in the vision by the Spirit of God into Chaldea, to them of the captivity." Also, Acts 8:39, "The Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip..." These passages give an indication of the involvement of the Holy Spirit in the process.
The place of Paul's journey was, "the third heaven." The Jews used the term "heaven" in reference to three areas. "The first heaven is that of the clouds, the second that of the far firmament of the sky and the stars, the third is the actual abode of God, of the angels, and of departed saints in glory." (Lenski) We get another description of this place in verse four where the writer refers to it as "Paradise." The New Testament uses this word only three times. Jesus told one of the thieves who was crucified with Him, "Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43) When Christ was talking to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:7 He states, "To him that overcometh, to him will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the Paradise of God." We conclude from these passages that Paradise, or the third heaven, is the abode of the Divine and Paul was allowed entrance into this realm for a brief time.
Concerning the things he saw, heard, felt, or whatever, the Apostle tells us only that he "heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter." This supports the conclusion that the trip was for Paul's personal consolation and not for his learning more of the gospel to reveal to man. The point is not what he heard, but that he was there.
Putting ourselves in Paul's place we can only begin to imagine what a wonderful and remarkable experience this must have been. To actually be taken into heaven itself, to hear such wonderful and helpful things, would be an emboldenment that would see this man of God through many trials.
There are at least two lessons we may gain from Paul's journey. One is that we may receive consolation from the trip also. It's not as great as Paul's, of course, but to know that one of us, a human being, has actually been to heaven and has come back, even though he can't tell us what he saw or heard, should encourage us as we journey through life toward that eventual goal.
Of even greater importance to us is Paul's attitude toward this incident. We get the implication that this is the first time he's mentioned it since it happened. Fourteen years of silence about such a miraculous trip. Why? Verses five and six of our text tell us. Paul's desire was not to glory in the great things that had happened to him, but rather in his weaknesses. The false teachers in Corinth had accused him of being a weak man. Paul doesn't counteract this attack by saying, "No, I'm not weak." He says just the opposite, "Yes, I'm weak, but I glory in that weakness." Why would Paul do this? He tells us the answer in another portion of this same book. (2 Cor. 4:7) "But we have this treasure (the gospel — JC) in earthen vessels (human beings — JC), that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves."
Paul says, yes I'm weak. Therefore whatever good is accomplished by my work is not of my doing or power but it's the gospel's, the power of God working through me. I boast in my weakness to emphasize the greatness of God's power. Romans 1:16 tells us the gospel is the power of God unto salvation.
What a beautiful Christ-like attitude. Paul gives all the glory to God. The Apostle wasn't a braggart about his accomplishments and experiences in life, as great as they were. What about us?
Remember the parable of the Pharisee and the publican recorded in Luke 18:9-14? The Pharisee bragged about himself, the publican confessed his weakness and prayed for mercy. Which did Jesus say was justified?
When preachers and other Christians talk of their personal achievements; that is, how many congregations they've built up, how many individuals they've baptized, how many people they've visited, how much of this and that they do, etc..., what's the purpose? Was this the attitude of Paul? Naturally, we can receive encouragement for the attainments of others, and this is the only reason we should be concerned about telling our deeds. We're not after the praise of men, but of God, and God doesn't need to be told. He knows.
Therefore, let's let this remarkable incident in the life of Paul remind each of us that even though we may accomplish great things in this life, we'll never match what the great man of God did. Yet he gloried not in what he had done, but in his weakness, that the power of God might shine. The point: "Be ye imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ." (Paul in I Corinthians 11:1)