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"A Boast Restrained"
2 Corinthians 12:1-6
Wednesday AM Bible Study
December 3 , 2008
In this morning's passage, Paul continues to confront the matter of false apostles who had infiltrated the Corinthian church, and to deal with them on their own grounds. Did they boast that they had 'exalted experiences' (see also Colossians 2:18)? Paul could do so too. But it would not be in keeping with the advancement of the gospel for him to do so.
Here, Paul models the sort of humble restraint that ought to characterize a true servant of Christ—keeping the focus, not on the things that would bring glory to himself; but on the objective, verifiable word of God.
I. PAUL'S EXALTED EXPERIENCE (vv. 1-4).
A. The opening words of our text, in some translations, give the impression that Paul had decided that he would not now boast any longer, and would now move on to some other subject. Truly, such boasting was distasteful to him But the best and oldest manuscripts of the text have it that though Paul admits that it is not profitable to boast, he sees it necessary to do so (v. 1). Since the false teachers boasted in "visions" and "revelations" that come from the Lord, so would Paul. Note how, in this verse—along with verse 7—it is made clear that the experience he is about to speak of is his own.
B. Paul speaks of himself cryptically of "a man in Christ" (v. 2). This designation is important. It would be hard to find a better description of a Christian that as "a man or woman in Christ". He speaks of this experiences as occurring fourteen years prior; which may put it around the time of his having been stoned and left for dead in Lystra (Acts 14:19-20). Perhaps the vision that he goes on to describe helps explain the courage with which he went back into Lystra after having been stoned! Paul doesn't say whether this was in the body or out of the body that he had this experience. He doesn't know. But God knew.
C. He speaks of being caught up to the third heaven (v. 3)—probably a reference to the fact that there is first a "heaven" in the sky above, then a "heaven" in space above the sky, and finally a "heaven" in the spiritual realms of glory. That he speaks of the heavenly realms is clear by the fact that he calls it "Paradise" in verse 4 (see Luke 23:43; Revelation 2:7); which is a word of Persian origin that means "an enclosed garden park". It was there that he heard words that it was not "lawful" for a man to utter.
D. Note that this is an event that occurred fourteen years prior—and we read of it only here. We read of many times that Paul boasted in his conversion; but we read of this event mentioned only here—and even then, in a very restrained manner. Who could have a greater and more exalted spiritual experience than that?—to go to heaven and hear things that were not permissible for men to repeat? What a privileged 'insider-view' Paul had! Just think of how he could have boasted! Just think of how eager people would be to flock around him and hear him utter such mysteries! And yet, he would not do so. It was something that Paul refused to make into a boast in his ministry.
II. PAUL'S HUMBLE RESTRAINT (vv. 5-6a).
A. Paul says that of a man who had such an experience, he would boast—and curiously enough, it was about himself that he was speaking! But Paul is careful to make sure that it was clear that this was NOT something he boasted in. Even if he did boast of such an experience, it would not be inappropriate. He would not be a "fool"; because he would be telling the truth. But this was not the things that he wanted to have his ministry based on. Instead, he boasted in only in his infirmities (see verses 7-10). This clearly distinguished him from the false teachers.
B. Paul makes it clear why he refrained from boasting in such an experience, and only boasted in the things that would portray him as weak an needy. It was so that no one would think of him above "what he sees" him to be, or "hears" from him. He wanted to protect people's pure focus on the gospel through the objective word of scripture, and to shine the spotlight of glory onto Jesus Christ alone.
* * * * * * * * * *
This passage gives us warrant for acknowledging that godly people ARE, sometimes, given exalted spiritual experiences by God. But it also warns us that we are not to make those experiences out to be more than what they are, or parade them around in such a way as to draw attention to ourselves. The credibility of the gospel is not built on such things. Rather, our hope is established on the sure promises of God's word; and preachers and teachers in the church are to be judged and valued by their faithfulness to the scriptures—and not by the exalted experiences that they may boast in.
How many false teachers in the church—and cults in the world—would be put out of business if Paul's example of prudent restraint was more faithfully emphasized!
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