12 I will now go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ, who fourteen years ago—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—who was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know how such a man 4was caught up into Paradise and heard unutterable words, which a man is not permitted to speak…
7 In view of the extraordinary nature of the revelations and to keep me from exalting myself, I was given a thorn in the flesh, an agent of Satan to torment me. 8 Concerning this I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might leave me. 9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in distresses, in persecutions, in difficulties, in behalf of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong. [2Cor12:1-4;7-10]
Paul’s vision and the “third heaven”
Although Paul refers to the individual in the third person, it is clear that he is the man who had been caught up into heaven. That follows from the fact that a “thorn in the flesh” was given to Paul in view of the visions and revelations he had received. In terms of the apostle’s reference to “the third heaven”, that is most likely simply a point of clarification. For as well as referring to the realm in which God dwells with His angels and the souls of the departed, “heaven” in the bible can also refer to the earthly atmosphere (as in Gen8:2) and the stars and planets beyond it (Gen22:17). So, Paul is unlikely to be referring to a particular department or hierarchy within God’s heavenly habitation.
But that is not to say that that realm is in any sense egalitarian. For angels and human souls once resurrected are material entities occupying a particular space. They cannot all be proximate to the divinity. There is already a hierarchy (in terms of proximity and involvement with the Godhead) within the angelic realm (e.g. Lk1:19). Jesus is adamant that such will be the case with redeemed humanity, and, after all, He should know (Mt19:28-30; Mk10:40; Rev3:4).
A thorn from whom?
The thorn in the flesh Paul received will have been a physical ailment or discomfort that he experienced, in his own words “to keep me from exalting myself”. That was in view of the revelations he received which I’ll come to in a moment. But notice God’s economy here – it is symptomatic of the much bigger picture I have been disclosing. It was an agent of Satan who provided this physical misery for Paul and no doubt had a great time doing it. But at who’s instigation? Clearly it was God, for Satan would have been delighted if Paul had exalted himself with pride at what had been disclosed to him. The Lord and His faithful apostle knew better: “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in distresses, in persecutions, in difficulties on behalf of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (v10).
Satan to be humiliated
The main point I am making is that Satan, not for the first time, effectively acts as God’s unwitting lackey. For as is the case here, the discomfort he or one of his minions is causing is at God’s behest. Old Testament Job was a more substantial example of this extraordinary arrangement (and it is an arrangement – note the dialogue between God and Satan in Job1:6-12). Moving to the global level Satan’s malign activity and the temporary authority he has been given is also at God’s behest (Lk4:6; Jn12:31), fulfilling as it does His purposes for humanity. It is through this mystery that mere children of dust shall come to fulfil a wondrous destiny. It is a destiny that Lucifer and many of his associates simply were not willing to tolerate (cf. Heb2:5-9) whilst other angels who remained faithful are nevertheless intrigued (1Pet1:12).
Mankind’s adversary falls for the bait
The devil’s offensive against God’s humanity project started at Eden resulting in “the Fall”. It was completed at Calvary resulting in the Jewish Messiah being crucified at the insistence of His own people. These appeared to be diabolical victories, yet they will result in Satan and his party’s calamitous humiliation. For, by his successful beguiling of Eve and its dire consequences both for the human race and the One who would be required to redeem it, mankind’s Adversary has unwittingly played right into God’s hands. He has ensured that the One who after the Father had occupied the highest place that heaven affords be incarnated as a Man and become most intimately associated with human beings rather than angels. At the same time, through the evil he released and the suffering that comes with it, the devil has provided the necessary grist (cf. Rom8:17) by which mere children of dust should ultimately come to achieve apotheosis.
Once that mystery has been apprehended, the ultimate mystery of the universe can itself be resolved (cf. Rev10:7). For it becomes evident why the God who is love personified permitted (or as Paul intimates in Rom8, facilitated) the process by which evil and its resultant suffering should enter and continue in the world to this day. For God loves humanity so much that He intends that some to whom He provides the necessary means of grace become fitted to be His Son’s corporate Bride (Rev19:7). Rom8:20-21 and more particularly Heb2:10 provide more biblical evidence for what is being presented here – a fuller explanation is set out in the final (seventh) chapter of The Little Book of Providence.
My spiritual encounter
For I too claim to have received a revelation from the Holy Spirit (two in fact, coincidently(?) 14 years apart). I also received some angry emanations from a very different spiritual source which I have only discussed with one other person, being my closest non-Christian friend. (I had no choice – she personally witnessed it). Such words that were intelligible (i.e. human and in English) were cryptic but I believe I got the gist. But then as Paul wrote, there are words and revelations from the spiritual realm that “should not be spoken of by any man”, and by implication to any man (v3). That is for the sake of faith, intended to be the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things that are not currently seen (Heb11:1).
In terms of exegetical insights which I believe were received under the influence of the Holy Spirit, I am in the process of imparting them. It is essentially an extensive reinterpretation of the bible, especially as it has been understood in the Western Church. That particularly applies to the Protestant Evangelical theology I adhered to for the first 28 years of my Christian life. As you may have noticed, the way I have come to understand matters turns the distinctive teachings of the Reformers on their head. The resulting synopsis has been set out in the aforementioned book. It is radical for sure, and no doubt poorly written in view of my non-academic background . However, in my own estimation it is entirely coherent. That is surely the litmus test for any claimed new biblical insights, but one that others need to assess. As I have frequently pointed out and hopefully demonstrated from their writings, my interpretations would have appeared far less radical to fifth century Augustine’s Christian antecedents.
Hopefully that will also be the case for more open-minded Christians today, perhaps most especially those within Eastern Orthodoxy. They will already be familiar with the notion of mankind’s deific destiny. And although still officially recognized as a Saint, their Church rejected much of Augustine’s distinctive teaching on law, grace and original sin with its resultant dire prognosis for humanity as a whole. And they are still further removed from the theology and church polity of Protestant Evangelicalism.
“Gospel” means Good News
In contrast to the latter party’s various depictions of what is intended to be Good News, what Paul heard and witnessed within the confines of the third heaven will certainly have been in line with the message of the Christmas angels to the shepherds: glad tidings / great joy / all people (Lk2:10). For what was revealed to Paul clearly filled him with joy, so much so that he needed a satanically imparted physical affliction to keep him from bursting. Nearly 2000 years later we are much closer to knowing more of the nature of that revelation. And it is likely to be worth the wait, for as the same apostle had written earlier: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those that love Him” (1Cor2:9).
And many more may come to love Him once a certain prophecy has been fulfilled. Namely that the proportional few who currently praise God for what they understand to be His gracious dealings exclusively towards themselves shall be enhanced by many more who come to adore the Creator for what He is (cf. Ps119:7). For such will have been enlightened concerning His munificent providence, His intelligible goodness and gracious intentions towards all people of good will.