Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable; but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows— 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. 5 On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in regard to my weaknesses.6 For if I do wish to boast I will not be foolish, for I will be speaking the truth; but I refrain from this, so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me. – 2 Corinthians 12: 1 – 6 (NASB)
Q: In 2 Corinthians 12: 1 – 6, how does the apostle Paul handle “visions and revelations of the Lord” in light of the legitimacy of his apostleship? In our church today, what are the biblical standards of evaluating authentic ministry and how should we proceed with those who claim to have seen supposed visions and revelations from God?
Background to the Epistle
Paul received distressing news about “false apostles” (2 Cor. 11: 13) who were leveling all sorts of accusations against Paul and his messengers. Paul wrote 2 Cor. 10 -13 as a response to these accusations and to dispel the suspicions they had raised in the minds of the church members in Corinth. Apparently the Corinthian church had been deeply influenced by these men, had accepted their (false) gospel (2 Cor. 11: 1 – 4) and submitted to their overbearing demands (2 Cor. 11: 16 – 20). All this caused a major crisis in the relationship b/w Paul and the Corinthians. (Kruse, p. 1189)
Context and Exegesis of 2 Corinthians 12: 1 – 6
Who were these “false apostles” that were severely attacking Paul? From various hints provided in chapters 10 -13, it emerges that Paul’s opponents were Jewish Christians who were proud both of their Jewish ancestry and that they were servants of Christ. Furthermore, they may have been influenced by the Greek world and had incorporated into their own understanding of apostleship certain Greek ideas. In the Greek world there was stress upon the importance of oratory skills and a fascination with wonder-workers who experienced visions and revelations and had performed mighty works. (Kruse, p. 1190)
For the sake of the Corinthian church, Paul felt obliged to point out that he had experienced visions and revelations of God (12: 1 – 5) and that he did perform signs and wonders (12: 11 – 13). (ibid) In 12: 1, Paul goes on to boast about his visions and revelations from the Lord, however, he is quite explicit in the fact that “it is not profitable” by doing so, but much to be lost if he doesn’t. There are other instances in the NT that state that Paul had experienced many other visions and revelations of God (Acts 9: 4 – 6; 16: 9 – 10; 18: 9 – 11; Gal. 1: 15 – 16), however, Paul singles out one which occurred about 14 years ago, and therefore some years after his conversion. This particular vision seemed to have had a deep impact upon him and sharing this extraordinary vision of heaven or paradise itself would’ve placed him on a level with the great heroes of faith and thereby completely outflank his opponents. (Kruse, p. 1203)
Paul here adopts a complex strategy when sharing his vision experience where he suggests a “vision” experience second to none but to attribute it to a “person in Christ” and to say as little about it as possible. The reason for this strategy was to not try and compete with his rivals and boast that he had a superior vision that any one of them – that would be fruitless and deeply misleading that would draw needless attention to himself as a superior person. It’s clear enough from 12: 6 – 7 that that “person” is Paul himself, but by narrating the account in the third person he can refrain from boasting about himself (v. 5) and thus turn the Corinthians’ attention again to his weakness. (Barclay, p. 1370) Paul could have capitalized from his awe-inspiring vision of the “third heaven … to paradise” yet he doesn’t because he wants people’s evaluation of him to be based upon what they see and hear of him now, not upon some experience he had years before.
Here Paul emphasizes his central point where only experiences that showed his weakness were suitable material for any enforced boasting (v. 5). Afterwards, he would go on describing about a “thorn in the flesh” that was given to him (v. 7 – 8). Having heard a word from God where He said “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” (v. 9) Paul is able to boast about weaknesses, not because he enjoys them but because he knows that the power of Christ rests upon him in his weakness and suffering, for “when I am weak, then I am strong.” (v. 10) (Kruse, p. 1204) Thus Paul develops the paradox of power in weakness: this is where he would choose to boast – in insults and injuries- since that is where the power of the Lord is at work (2 Cor. 12: 10; cf. 10: 17). He has turned the “foolish” boast into an expression of the gospel, and with this final paradox he subverts all the worldly values on which competitive boasting depends. (Barclay, p. 1371)
Having been a member of a charismatic/Pentecostal church for some years in my past, I’ve been accustomed with “supernatural” testimonies and manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit like speaking in tongues and prophetic sayings. Of course, in today’s “mainstream” evangelical Christian culture, on any given Sunday one is bound to see programs of supposed faith healers and or televangelists who claim to have received “divine” and “supernatural” revelations and visions from the Lord and try to persuade viewers and their followers to donate money or support to their respective ministries and in return they promise that God would supernaturally bless them. The Catholic Church itself is not immune to similar instances of visions and revelations. In the recent past, there have been numerous sightings and news reports about visions or images of the Virgin Mary or Jesus appearing in people’s backyards, windows, doors, and even on burnt toast! In both cases, droves of people come to see such incidents, some probably come out of curiosity and others for genuine personal/spiritual purposes, and a lot of attention is given to such supposed spiritual manifestations. Perhaps this reflects an innate drive within the human heart, soul, and mind to yearn after something beyond the physical and visible world we experience daily and “touch” the supernatural.
It seems quite evident that not much has changed the past 2000 years or so in that people today, like the Corinthians of Paul’s time, are fascinated with wonder-workers, visions, and supernatural revelations. And to say the least, many in the church have abused such experiences and many in the church have fallen victim and have been taken advantage of by pastors and leaders who claim to have had supernatural revelations from God. Many cults and “churches,” with aberrant theology that run contrary to the Word of God, have led many astray from the true gospel by laying strong emphasis on divine revelations and visions to lay claim to the legitimacy for their existence and authority – take the Mormon church for example which was founded upon more or less by the supposed visions and revelations of Joseph Smith. Paul warned that even Satan himself can come in the form of “an angel of light.” (2 Cor. 11: 13 – 15) Often, many wind up worshipping the spiritual gifts instead of God or worshipping the one with the gifts rather than God; both are forms of idolatry. On a different but related note, some church members who may not have had supernatural visions or experiences might unnecessarily feel spiritually inadequate or left out; on the other side, those who have experienced visions might become smug and feel superior to those who haven’t and might even claim to others that it was b/c of their unconfessed sin or lack of faith that they aren’t experiencing the supernatural.
In my past and even now, I, like many others can be easily seduced with pastors and evangelists who might claim to have divine powers from God or had had visions. In my own personal conversion experience, I had a rather dramatic vision of God – almost like a “Damascus road” experience like Paul had- and I have often struggled how I should interpret this vision and how much emphasis I should place on it when sharing the gospel with others. However, as I studied 2 Cor. 12, it seems evident that Paul didn’t place so much emphasis or any boasting on his personal visions or revelations as the primary basis for establishing the legitimacy of his apostleship, his ministry, or his calling. He does so very sparingly, almost reluctantly. For Paul, the marks of true apostolic ministry were its fruit (2 Cor. 3: 2 – 3), the way in which it was carried out (i.e. in accordance with the meekness and gentleness of Christ; 10: 1) and the sharing of Christ’s sufferings (4: 8 – 12; 11: 23 – 28). (Kruse, p. 1191)
Thus here we have two quite different ways of evaluating authentic ministry. One stresses only the manifestations of power and authority without any place for weakness and suffering like many of today’s popular “Word-Faith” and “prosperity gospel” churches preach. The other, while also affirming the importance of power and authority, insists that true ministry depends wholly upon the activity of God who chooses to let his power rest upon his servants in their weakness and to manifest his power through the folly of gospel preaching (12: 9 – 10; cf. 1 Cor. 1: 17 – 2: 5). (ibid)
This is not to say that Christians should always remain completely wary or skeptical of visions and revelations today. They have their proper place in edifying the body of Christ. 1 John 4: 1 encourages us to “not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist.” The church should be like the Berean church as mentioned by Luke in Acts 17: 11 – 12 where they were “examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed…” Proper preaching and teaching of the gospel that is based on the Word of God should be the primary criteria for discerning the truth.
- Kruse, Colin G., 2003, 2 Corinthians, from New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Ed., G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, R.T. France, editors
- Barclay, John, 2003, 2 Corinthians, from Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, James D.G. Dunn, John W. Rogerson, editors
- Expositor’s Bible Commentary, The, Pradis CD-ROM:2 Corinthians/Exposition of 2 Corinthians/III. Paul’s Vindication of His Apostolic Authority (2 Cor 10:1-13:13)/B. Boasting “As a Fool” (11:16-12:13)/4. A vision and its aftermath (12:1-10), Book Version: 4.0.2