Online Bible Commentary
2 Corinthians 12:1 It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come 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 whether out of the body I do not know, God knows--such a one was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know such a man--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows-- 4 how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. (NKJV)
Paul begins this passage by admitting that he is boasting. In the previous chapter he admitted that he is boasting on purpose to keep up with all the boasting that the false teachers had been doing. The church members were impressed by the boasting of the false teachers and thus Paul felt the need to do some of his own, even though he knew that it was wrong, “not profitable” (v. 1a). Even though his actions were wrong his motives were for the good of the people.
Paul writes “I will come to visions and revelations from the Lord” (v. 1b). God revealed Heaven to him. God blessed him with visions and revelations that, undoubtedly, strengthened his faith and made him unafraid of death.
In verse seven of this chapter Paul reveals that the “man in Christ” (v. 2a) who was caught up was himself. So Paul boasts of a great blessing that the Lord had bestowed upon him some fourteen years earlier. Since Paul is writing this letter about 54 A.D. the event must have occurred about 40 A.D. Paul was converted by Christ on the road to Damascus about 34 A.D. He then retreated to Arabia and Damascus for about three years and preached some. The years from about 37 A.D. to 46 A.D. are Paul’s silent years. It is believed that he fled to Tarsus and did some missionary work in obscurity during that time. Then Paul’s first missionary journey began about 46 A.D. So this event must have occurred during Paul’s silent years in Tarsus.
It is possible that this vision was a near death experience. Since we do not know what was happening to Paul in those silent years, we cannot say for sure what caused the event. Paul himself says that he did not know if it was an “in the body” or “out of the body” (v. 2b) experience. He may have been taken up while in the body, or it may have been the carrying off of his spirit to Heaven, perhaps in a near death experience.
Paul writes that he was “caught up to the third heaven” (v. 2c). Scripture implies that there are three heavens. The first heaven is the earth’s atmosphere, the second heaven is our solar system, and the third heaven is beyond our solar system. That is the location of Heaven. In recent years science has caught up with the Bible a little because we now know that there are many solar systems besides our own.
Paul writes that he was “caught up to Paradise” (v. 4a). The phrase “caught up” is the Greek word “harpazo”, which means to catch, steal, or carry off. It is the same word used to describe the rapture, when Christians are “caught up” to Jesus in the sky at the second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
The word “Paradise” is the word used for Heaven at that time. It is found in only three places in the Bible, all in the New Testament. Other than here, it is used two times by Jesus when he said “today you will be with me in Paradise” to the criminal next to Him on the cross who had expressed belief in Him (Luke 23:43) and describing the location of the tree of life (Revelation 2:7).
Paul writes in verse four that in Heaven he “heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (v. 4b). It would appear from this statement that he heard so much that he considered it sacred, “not lawful” to repeat. It would seem that he was so overwhelmed with the sounds and beauty of Heaven that he did not feel permitted to describe it all. His senses came under assault to the extent that he considered this amazing experience an experience that God gave to him personally. And what else would we expect from Heaven. It will be the experience of all experiences.