Though Paul recognizes the inherent pointlessness of boasting in general, he also reluctantly acknowledges that it is necessary for him to continue in it for the moment, in order to clear his name and the reputation of his teaching.(v.1)
Although the context so far has been Paul speaking of himself, Paul makes some effort to distance himself from the vision he speaks about here, referring to himself in the third person. It was not uncommon for teachers around this time period to occasionally distance themselves this way to avoid shame. Paul speaks this way here to avoid boasting.(Ahead in verse 7 it becomes more obvious that he is speaking of himself here.)
The experience Paul had was 14 years earlier, about 10 years after his conversion and before his first missionary journey. We might ask why Paul hadn't mentioned this experience in any of his previous writings. An answer may be found in remembering Paul's character.
Although he was very gifted spiritually, he was not one to flaunt his gifts. In 1 Corinthians 14:18-19, Paul was open about the fact that he was very gifted in the ability to speak in tongues. But when he was interacting with others his greatest concern was in benefiting them, rather than displaying his spiritual prowess. It's likely that Paul simply didn't have any reason to bring up this experience to those he wrote to before. But since the Corinthians were surrounded by a very "spiritual" culture and numerous competing ideas and accompanying spiritual experiences, Paul probably found it an appropriate time to talk more openly about his own spiritual revelations. Doing so would compare and contrast him with competing religious beliefs and false teachers.
Paul isn't sure if his experience took place outside or inside of his physical body, but he knows that he was "caught up to the third heaven." In 1st Thessalonians 4:17 when Paul speaks about believers being "caught up" in the clouds, he is using a Greek verb derived from the word used here for "caught up". So Paul's experience was either identical or somehow similar to what believers will experience in the event known as the "rapture".
When the Bible speaks of multiple heavens rather than just "heaven", the first often refers to our atmosphere. The second, or the "heavens" refers to space. The third heaven, or the place "above the heavens" refers to the presence of God, beyond the boundaries of the universe. So Paul was pulled up (or out) into the presence of God. Specifically to a place called "Paradise". Jesus used this word to describe to the thief on the cross where they would both be before the end of the day. (Luke 23:43) It is a place of reward for those who "overcome" this life. (Revelation 2:7) It is the place where believers in Christ go immediately after death.
Paul doesn't go into detail about what he saw or heard there. The words he heard in Paradise were "inexpressible" and are not permitted to be spoken by humans in this life. Whatever Paul experienced was so amazing and foreign to our experience that he was unable to describe it even if he had been permitted to.(v.4)
I can only speculate as to why God chose to require Paul's silence on this. But if I were to guess, I'd wager that if Paul were able to accurately and openly convey the fullness of his experience in Paradise to others in writing, believers everywhere would commit suicide in droves to get out of this life and move on to what is waiting for us! We can tend to spend so much time looking for ultimate fulfillment in this life. But keeping our eyes fixed on "Paradise" will ultimately give us the best perspective on what we experience in this life.
The immensity of Paul's experience causes him to be very cautious in his boasting. So much so that he refers to himself in the third person regarding this event in verse 5. Paul is much more comfortable boasting about his weakness.
Again, in the context of all this boasting, Paul reminds the Corinthians that if he did spend much of his time with them boasting, it would not be foolish, because it would not be exaggeration. It would be simple statement of truth. Even so, Paul generally avoids talking about himself and what God has done through him so that no one will possibly think of Paul as greater than he actually is.(v.6)
I am very interested in pursuing truth when it comes to the Bible, philosophy and the nature of reality. But it is more challenging to pursue a love of truth when I look at myself and when I talk about myself.
It's much easier to highlight my strengths and downplay my weaknesses. It's easy to let people have a higher view of me than they should. But if you and I truly want to pursue and love truth, we should grow in our willingness to present an accurate representation of ourselves to others. No more and no less and always erring, as Paul did, on the side of humility.
Next Week- Paul's "Thorn" In The Flesh
Coffee House Question- What comes to mind when you think about life after death? From where have you developed your ideas about life after death?