Paul and Spiritual Experiences
We’re often told that religious practice is on the decline in the UK. At the same time we’re told that there has been no decline in interest in spirituality in general. One London University Professor has estimated that as many as 1 in 5 will happily describe themselves as spiritual people.
But what is spirituality? For some it will include a wide range of techniques and beliefs that are more or less well-
The apostle Paul would have agreed that there most definitely is more to life than the hum-
Paul did have his experiences; it was just that the way in which he viewed them was quite different from that of his critics.
And so as we continue working our way through this second letter of Paul’s to the Corinthians we must now consider the question of spiritual experience.
The first thing I want to say is that spiritual experiences are real. It is possible for men and women to have holy and wholesome experiences that derive from the Spirit of Christ but it is also possible for men and women to have spiritual experiences whose origin emanate from the father of lies, the devil. Man was never made to live by bread alone – he was designed to live in relationship with God who is Spirit. God has given us his word to guide us back into a true relationship with himself – we fail to heed his word at our peril.
Paul was no stranger to genuine spiritual experience.
He introduces this section of his defence of his apostleship by referring to visions and revelations and immediately he adopts a careful approach. He writes in an impersonal manner as though he were trying in some way to distance himself from what he is saying.
He is "boasting" (v.1) and yet his "boasting" is so very restrained. Paul is once again uncomfortable. He doesn’t want to put himself on the centre of the stage – that place belongs in Paul’s heart and thinking to Jesus Christ and to him alone. Paul also knows that if he were to speak too openly he might lay himself open to the charge of being proud and of bragging. Were he to speak too freely about what he has experienced he ran the risk of causing others to look at him with envy and with jealousy.
So Paul writes about "a man in Christ he knows" and with such words he really could be describing any Christian. Of course he is referring to himself in this oblique way and this becomes clear as he progresses – see, for example, v.7 "So to keep me from being too elated..."
This "man that Paul knows" had enjoyed a most remarkable spiritual experience and he proceeds to tell us just a little about it. This is what he has to say:
It took place 14 years ago
This man was caught up to the third heaven, to paradise
God alone knows whether it was in the body or out of it
This man heard things but isn’t permitted (or able) to talk about them
How much but how little he actually tells us!
Let us look at this a little more closely.
The first thing to notice is how long ago it had taken place -
It is clear that Paul is not referring to his conversion because he had no reticence in talking about that. Indeed we find a number of references in the NT to his own conversion experience, including his conviction of sin and his stunning encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road. Paul’s conversion had taken place some six years before the experience to which he here refers took place. So Paul was already a Christian when this experience took place – this is proof then that genuine spiritual experiences don’t necessarily end with conversion.
Paul was no stranger to visions and revelations during his life and we are told about a number of them:
Acts 9:12 "and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight."
Acts 16:910 "And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them."
Acts 22:17 "When I had returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw him saying to me, ‘Make haste and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.’"
Gal.1:12 "For I did not receive (the gospel) from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ."
Gal.2:2 "I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain."
Eph.3:3 "the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly."
So Paul was no stranger to spiritual experiences but that experience which took place 14 years previously was in a different category entirely, so different that he didn’t speak of it in all that time and when he did he gave us such a brief and reserved account of it. How reticent he was! How discreet he was! How private he was!
"He was caught up..." in other words it was an experience that came upon him and suddenly – he was entirely passive. He was caught up – he wasn’t desperately striving for something, he wasn’t doing anything that might possibly be construed as serving to bring about this experience: it was God who graciously caught him up.
And there in the third heaven, paradise, the immediate presence of God, he heard things and he received the most tremendous revelations imaginable. And yet the content of what he heard and understood on that eventful day he never shared with anyone, indeed he writes that what he heard were truths that no man could pass on. This was a special experience, a unique experience. Paul was the only person in the whole of the Bible who had such an experience, the only person of whom we are told that he went to heaven and subsequently returned to earth to continue living. This was a very special experience indeed and probably specifically designed to prepare and equip the apostle for his life of ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles. (We will return to this a bit later.)
How this account differs from books we can find on sale in the Christian marketplace today. I suppose this extract comes from what is called a "near death experience".
"It’s been six years since I had a life-
The author relates his "reluctance" to share his experiences before writing:
Then one day God gave me a good shove in the pants, basically telling me to open my mouth and start talking. Yes, he spoke to me out loud, and though he didn’t add "or else," I didn’t want to push my luck. Obviously, God wanted me to tell others about his heaven."
The spirit of this could hardly be further from Paul’s however well-
The true apostle doesn’t tell us about God’s heaven – I wonder what has made God change his mind now – nor does Paul tell us of the encounters he made in heaven, he doesn’t tell us who he saw there, he doesn’t describe indescribable colours, he certainly doesn’t write in a light-
There are a number conclusions we can draw from all of this:
There are different types of genuine spiritual experiences: for want of a better way of speaking about them there are those that are ordinary and there are those that are exceptional and mysterious.
Just because we might have had an experience is no reason in itself for us to talk elaborately about it. Conviction and conversion are experiences that can profitably be talked about but it may well be more appropriate to keep quiet about other experiences.
The fact however that there are different experiences and post-
The fact however that Paul refers to a special experience which took place 14 years previously strongly suggests that such experiences are rare. While we should not give up on the idea of ever having a further/deeper experience of God and his love neither should we imagine that such experiences are the bread and butter of the Christian life. We should be wary of those who suggest otherwise lest we develop into some sort of Christian junkie always anxious for our next "fix" or "high".
Paul did not work for this experience but was "caught up" as God graciously intervened in his life. This experience was a gift not a reward for services rendered. Beware of spiritual advice that treats God as little more than a machine to supply us with blessings.
Boasting about Weakness
Just as he had done earlier in the defence of his apostleship Paul intends to turn the whole idea of boasting on its head. Instead of elaborating on the details of his exceptional spiritual experiences Paul is once again far happier to redirect attention towards his weaknesses v.5. The Paul who was happy to recount his basket-
Of course Paul knows that he could truthfully say a whole lot more about the kind of experience that impresses onlookers but he really doesn’t want to do so. He wants to be evaluated, if evaluated he must be, not according to any claims he might make but according to the fruit that is plain to see in his life and his Christ centred teaching. You can look at his life and see how he lives: is his life characterised by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-
If Paul didn’t want others to think more highly of him than then should and applied these criteria then surely we should seek to be able to judge with right judgment too. Let us take care not to be swayed by wrong arguments, wrong emphases and wrong evaluations.
The Lord who had given Paul such great spiritual experiences also gave Paul a gift that he found initially much less welcome – "a thorn in the flesh".
Paul knew that the blessings he had received were enormous and not given to many (any?) others. How easy the human heart reacts with feelings of pride and superiority as though somehow we have done something to deserve God’s grace which by definition is and must always be undeserved. Was Paul, the once proud Pharisee, still tempted to pride even though now he had become a Christian?
The thorn in the flesh was perhaps a physical problem but not necessarily so. The important thing about it does not lie in our ability to precisely identify it but the stated purpose it was given in order to secure. It enabled Paul to keep his feet on the ground and not to be blown away by the extent of his blessings and privileges.
But why was Paul given such privileges in the first place especially if he was not intended to transmit the content of what he heard to others?
A variety of possibilities have been suggested:
1. It is probable that if there were a full revelation of the glories of heaven, we should not be able to comprehend it; or even if we did, we should be incredulous in regard to it.
2. There are great truths which it is not the design of God to reveal to men. The question is not, do we know all, but have we enough safely to guide us to heaven, and to comfort us in the trials of life.
3. It is God’s purpose that we shall here walk by faith and not by sight.
4. It was designed for the support of Paul himself, in view of the very remarkable trials which he was about to endure. God had called him to great toils and self-