Paul and the Super Apostles
This week’s question is in response to something Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12. Here’s the pertinent snippet:
It is necessary to brag, not that it does any good. I’ll move on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who was caught up into the third heaven fourteen years ago. I don’t know whether it was in the body or out of the body. God knows. I know that this man was caught up into paradise and that he heard unspeakable words that were things no one is allowed to repeat. I don’t know whether it was in the body or apart from the body. God knows. I’ll brag about this man, but I won’t brag about myself, except to brag about my weaknesses. (2 Corinthians 12:1-5, CEB)
Here’s the question:
I think get the general point here. He’s all like kinda humble bragging while warning about humble bragging I guess? “Don’t boast, but let me tell you I’ve seen some cool shit! Not gonna tell you about it because that’s bragging and we don’t do that unless we brag about God”
So first, is that right? Is that what he’s getting at here?
Second ... “the third heaven” ?
I’m really honestly stunned that this didn’t have an asterisk and a footnote because that’s just way out of left field. Is there a first and second heaven? Like — ok I just finished reading “Love Wins” by Rob Bell and in that book, he talks about heaven (and hell) here (as in heaven/hell on earth) and later (as in after you die or whatever). Is that maybe what he’s getting at? But even then ... the third one?
I love these questions! I can remember hearing about the third heaven as a kid and asking “What does that mean?” The answer I got was that heaven has levels, specifically three. No one could explain what it meant, or how it worked. But we sure believed it, because the Bible told us so.
Let’s start with the boasting / humble brag part. 2 Corinthians is indisputably written by Paul, but there are questions about the unity of the text. The short version is that it’s likely 2 Corinthians is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster letter—meaning that it seems the letter is a composite of several different correspondences from Paul to the Corinthian community. What’s clear in this section is that some other people have come to Corinth preaching a different message than Paul, and they were apparently better communicators. Paul actually calls them the “super apostles” (which would be an incredible band name, “Paul and the Super Apostles.” Am I right?).
Further, it has gotten back to Paul that the Corinthians have essentially said, “His letters talk tough, but his presence is unimpressive.” Ouch. This is the context for Paul’s bragging. He’s trying to prove his credentials, offer up his bona fides as someone who had experienced the risen Christ. While it’s totally obvious he’s talking about himself, the use of third person is common in recounting these kinds of experiences in the ancient world. Paul is arguing that he’s had experiences of God—experiences that he can’t even articulate—and that the calling he experienced transcends the polished speech and impressive appearance of the “super apostles.” So that’s the source of the humble brag, I think.
As for the third heaven, which Paul also calls Paradise, it’s a reference to first century Jewish mysticism. Personally, I think it’s Paul’s way of saying he had an experience that brought him into union with God, in which he heard things—things he can’t begin to share or describe. Think of it as Paul having a kind of ecstatic experience. I don’t think we are meant to literalize the language, or to even try to make it fit into our cosmology. The ancients believed in a three-tiered universe made up of heaven, earth, and under the earth. We now know that if you go up from any place on earth (and up us always relative; it might actually be down) you will be in space, not God’s throne room. For me this is one of those moments in which we seek to honor the experience of our spiritual ancestors, here Paul, but not be tied or beholden to their explanations.
I hope this sheds some helpful light on what Paul is trying to do here. He’s using his experiences to argue that he is just as qualified, actually more so, than his polished, impressive detractors. It seems that church has always been fraught with problems, doesn’t it?