Rev. L. Althouse
Aug. 27, 2006
Background Scripture: 2 Corinthians 12:1-10.
Devotional Reading: James 4:1-10.
I don’t know just how many sermons I’ve heard in my 76 years. But, if my memory serves me well, up until last Sunday, I don’t think I’ve ever heard or delivered one on 2 Corinthians 12:1-6, Paul’s recounting of an ecstatic mystical experience: “I know a man in Christ who 14 years ago was caught up to the third heaven - whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know; God knows.” (12 Cor. 12:2)
First, some explanations, “I know a man in Christ” is Paul’s oblique way of saying that this is really his experience. “In Christ” is his definition of a Christian. The Jews of Paul’s day believed that there were different levels of heaven. Some believed that the third heaven was the highest, but others believed in a seventh heaven.
I believe we rarely, if ever, hear sermons on this experience because many people are uncomfortable with ecstatic spiritual experiences. “Respectable” mainline Christians are suspicious and dismissive of any spiritual experience that appears not to be under the control of reason.
I have been fortunate to know a fair number of normal people who have had abnormal spiritual experiences, and several myself. I do not think of these as supernatural - in conflict with the natural order, but supernormal - beyond our normal experience.
Paul’s “caught up” is similar to descriptions that have been related to me: the sense, not of having achieved something, but of having been lifted up by a higher power to a vantage point beyond our normal three-dimensional world. Paul’s comment, “whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know,” is also similar to many experiences reported to me. (Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam, Part XII, describes such an experience.)
Paul’s seeming reluctance to speak of this is also common to people who have had such an experience. His status as an apostle had been challenged by some in Corinth, and he cites this “third heaven” experience to validate his authority. Still, he is reluctant because he knows it was pure grace, an unearned gift of God, not something he deserved: “On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast…” (12:5)
Paul goes on to speak of his “thorn in the flesh,” an affliction of some kind that, despite his “third heaven” experience, has kept him humble. Although he has prayed for deliverance, this affliction continues.
Just as Paul found God in the “third heaven,” so he also found God in this continuing “thorn in the flesh” and God’s assurance that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9).
What we can choose
Although only some have the supernormal “third heaven” experience, all of us at some time or other experience our own “thorn in the flesh.” It may be a physical injury, a chronic illness of the body or mind, an economic or vocational loss, or a painful human relationship, but the bottom line is a sense of powerlessness, a sense of not having whatever it takes to bear this burden.
Still, as Paul found, it is when we are “weak” in terms of our own personal resources that may be the time when finding God’s grace is sufficient to meet and overcome our afflictions.
Often we cannot control what comes our way in life, but we can control how we will respond to what confronts us: we can choose to meet these with faith in God who alone can bring us through our affliction. Instead of declaring, “I am finished,” we can join with Paul in saying: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardship, persecutions and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (v.10)
This farm news was published in the August 23, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.