From 2 Corinthians (in A Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit)
In 2 Corinthians 11 – 12, Paul finds himself bullied into a corner by the boasting of his rivals and feels compelled to fight folly with folly by engaging in his own limited campaign of boasting. Under the heading, “visions and revelations,” Paul recounts the remarkable and, as he describes it, inexplicable experience of being snatched up to Paradise. Although this is the only Pauline occurrence of the word “vision” (optasia), elsewhere in Paul’s letters, disputed and undisputed, “revelation” (apokalupsis) typically comes through the Spirit. While Paul does speak more generally of revelations being “from the Lord,” as in 12:1, the cumulative evidence suggests that Paul distinguishes between ultimate source and intermediate agency, as 1 Corinthians 2:10 makes explicit: “God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” Similarly, both Ezekiel’s numerous Heavenly, visionary ascents, as well as the ascent of the seer in Revelation, occur through the agency of the Spirit. This suggests that Paul’s journey to the third heaven, and the “surpassing revelations” he was given as a result, should be included in this discussion of the pneumatology of the letter. This conclusion is strengthened as we consider Paul’s addendum to this argument in 12:11-13, where he provides further evidence of supernatural, divine validation of his apostolate: the performance of signs, wonders, and powers. In the three other contexts where Paul links his evangelistic work with such sensational activities, the Spirit is explicitly referenced as the source of the phenomena:
- Romans 15:18-19: “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God.
- 1 Thessalonians 1:5: “Our gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.
- 1 Corinthians 2:4: “My speech and my message were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”
While it would venture too far from the subject matter of this chapter to explore the historical and socio-religious setting of these phenomena, a few observations germane to the pneumatology of the letter are in order. Paul’s Heavenly journey, this mysterious ecstatic rapture to Paradise, was clearly regarded by Paul as a momentous event. His reticence in disclosing it, and his fumbling caution as he relates it (beginning in the third person, “I know a man,” yet ending in the first person, “I was given a thorn in my flesh”) only underscore its significance for Paul. That Paul refers to only one revelatory event after introducing this material with the plural, “visions and revelations,” most likely indicates that he considers this the most significant example of many that he could draw on. In essence, he plays his highest trump card against his naysayers in Corinth and expects to silence his opposition. This (albeit implicit) pneumatologically grounded, polemically aimed “foolish boast” significantly augments the pneumatology of the earlier chapters of 2 Corinthians. In 2 Corinthians, the Spirit not only transforms hearts, but also ravishes the soul with visions of Heavenly mysteries, which, in this instance, left the apostle as mute as he hopes to leave his opponents. Yet for all its obvious impact, Paul does not locate the true power of the Spirit here, nor does he regard “surpassing revelations” as the ultimate manifestation of the Spirit’s work in his apostolate. This status Paul reserves for the least conspicuous work of the Spirit: strength cloaked in weakness.