Beyond the Stars
2 Corinthians 12:1-12
Space travel. We've been doing it a long time, but never have gone very far at all. And we have a lot of trouble and problems when we do. It's like we aren't really meant for other worlds.
It is a long distance to the moon, and yet it is small compared to the distances to Mars and other planets. Then when one measures the distance to the next closest star, or our neighboring galaxy of Andromeda that is way out there in space, we must say that man hasn't been very far yet.
The very interesting thing is that the Bible has the record of two men who journeyed into outer space and beyond the stars, and then returned -- neither of whom are in the Old Testament. I know someone will say, "What about Enoch and Elijah?" I do not think they were caught up to heaven. The Lord Jesus said, "And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven" (John 3:13). Some will say, "I thought Elijah was caught up to heaven." Yes, but after all - there are three heavens. There is the first heaven where there are the birds of heaven. There is the second heaven where there are the stars of heaven. There is the third heaven which is the abode of God. Elijah had been caught up into the air spaces. Up to the time that the Lord Jesus made that statement, possibly there had been no one else who had been in outer space.
Then we know of two other men who have been to heaven and returned. The apostle John on the Island of Patmos was caught up into heaven. He writes about what he saw and heard in the Book of the Revelation. He was in the third heaven where the throne of God is. "After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter. And immediately I was in the spirit; and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne" (Rev. 4:1-2). Paul was the other man who was taken up into heaven. The record of this is in the chapter before us.
Therefore there are three men who have been able to report from heaven. The Lord Jesus, who is God manifest in the flesh, said more about heaven than anyone else did, and yet He really said very little about it. John doesn't have too much to say about it. Paul doesn't have anything to say about it. Paul tells us something here that he would not have mentioned at all if he had not been forced to defend his apostleship. He tells about his trip into outer space.
It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord [2Cor. 12:1].
Paul had just listed many incidents showing how he had suffered for Christ's sake. There wasn't much glory in that. I think that the Spirit of God had him write down all his experiences so that no man would ever be able to say, "I endured more than Paul the apostle."
Actually, we should be very careful about the songs we sing. I think of the one:
"Jesus, I my cross have taken, All to leave and follow Thee; Naked, poor, despised, forsaken, Thou from hence my all shall be." -- Henry F. Lyte
I heard of a so-called converted Hollywood star sing that song! I don't believe that person had given up very much. It would be hypocritical for most of us to sing it. It would be better if we all sang a song like this:
"Alas, and did my Savior bleed And did my Sovereign die! Would He devote that sacred head For such a worm as I?" -- Isaac Watts
It is the Lord Jesus who needs to be glorified. Today we hear testimonies from men and women about their conversions. Generally the testimony is a remarkable conversion. We don't often hear about the "ordinary" conversions. The thing which I note in a testimony is where is the Lord Jesus? Too often the story goes on and on about the person and what he did and how he lived in sin and how remarkably he changed, while very little is said about the Lord. Sometimes one wonders whether Jesus was really needed or not. He gets very little praise and very little glory in many testimonies I hear.
I like the testimony which says, "I turned from a religious system to Christ." Then Jesus became the center of his life. He wants to grow in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the thing that is important.
Having told us how much he had suffered for Christ's sake, now Paul will come to visions and revelations from the Lord. We already know that the Lord had appeared to Paul on the Damascus road. Have you ever noticed that Paul has very little to say about those personal appearances? Now here is another such incident.
I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven [2Cor. 12:2].
It was the Lord Jesus who spoke of the birds of heaven, which fly up in the air spaces. They don't go up very high. Out beyond that is the space that contains the stars of heaven. That still is not the same as the third heaven where the throne of God is to be found. How ridiculous it was for the cosmonauts in the Russian sputnik to say they didn't see God when they went to the moon. They didn't go far enough, friend. They must go to the third heaven to find the throne of God. Good news: you don't even have to leave your seat to do so!
Paul speaks of his experience of being taken up into the third heaven. He dates it for us. He says it happened fourteen years before he wrote this epistle. That would be approximately the time when he had made his first missionary journey. We are told about his experience at Lystra on that first journey. "And there came thither certain Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who persuaded the people, and, having stoned Paul, drew him out of the city, supposing he had been dead. Howbeit, as the disciples stood round about him, he rose up, and came into the city: and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe" (Acts 14:19-20)
Was he dead? I don't think they would have left him there unless they were pretty sure he was dead. It is my personal opinion that God may have raised him from the dead. Paul was rather uncertain whether this was a vision or whether he had been caught up in reality at that time. It is quite evident that he is describing his own experience here.
And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) [2Cor. 12:3].
Was he actually dead and caught up into heaven? Or had he been knocked unconscious and had a vision? Paul is not dogmatic about it, and we should not be dogmatic about it either. Either way, he saw the third heaven. Notice his report:
How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter [2Cor. 12:4].
Most men would have written several volumes on ponderous tones on such an experience. And they would have given a whole series of messages about it. Some today have written of their death experiences, the tunnel, the light, etc. But this is all that Paul says. This is his report. He says so much and yet he says so little. There is no description, no promotion, no sales talk, no display, no hero worship of man.
Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities. For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me [2Cor. 12:5-6].
There is no self-glory here. The man who was taken up into the third heaven and heard unspeakable words is the same man who was let over the wall in a basket.
What did Paul see? Probably all that John saw in his vision from Patmos, and probably much more, which is the part he is forbidden to tell. Wonders beyond comprehension or description. But I plan to go find out someday!
Paul's Thorn In The Flesh (12:7-12)
And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure [2Cor. 12:7].
Paul says he will tell us about his infirmities, but he will not tell us about the third heaven. Why? Because he was told not to talk about it.
I think many times Satan tries to remove God's witnesses from the earthly scene. He wants to get rid of them. He uses sickness, disease, a thorn in the flesh.
What was Paul's thorn in the flesh? An old Scotch commentator said Paul's thorn in the flesh was his wife. Well, I'll imagine that old Scot was having trouble at home, and I think he was wrong. I believe that Paul had been married but was a widower. He wrote lovingly of womanhood, and I think he had once had a wonderful wife. He would not remarry because he didn't want to subject any woman to the hardships which he had to endure.
It is interesting that God put a zipper on the mouth of Paul and silenced him. He simply does not reveal these things to us. We can suppose it was an eye disease, but we're just guessing at best.
Someone has said that the reason a dog has so many friends is because he wags his tail instead of his tongue! I suppose most of us would have wagged our tongues a great deal if we had been caught up into the third heaven. Now why did God give Paul a thorn in the flesh? It was to keep him humble, to keep him from exalting himself above measure, having had such a vision.
For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me [2Cor. 12:8-9].
Now I have a notion that Paul's problem was very poor vision. When we get to his Epistle to the Galatians, we will find that he mentions that he had to write in large letters, which would indicate that he did not see well. Whatever the thorn was, Paul asked the Lord three times to remove it, and the Lord refused. The Lord heard him the first time and the second time and the third time. It was not that the Lord did not hear his prayers; it was that the answer of the Lord was no.
Sometimes you and I keep asking the Lord for something to which He has already answered no. If He doesn't give us what we ask for, we think He has not answered our prayer. Sometimes His answer to my prayers is no. And eventually I discover that His 'no' was the best possible answer He could have given me.
He said to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for thee." He said He would not remove the thorn but that He would give Paul the grace to bear the thorn. "My strength is made perfect in weakness." In other words, it was obvious in Paul's ministry that he was so physically weak that the Spirit of God was empowering him. "Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me." This was Paul's response to the Lord's answer. Paul would glory in his infirmities and not in the fact that he had had a vision. That is something you might turn over in your mind the next time you hear someone tell about a vision they have had of the Lord. It probably would be better if that person had a zipper on his mouth. The chances are that he had no vision at all but had eaten something he should not have eaten the night before.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong [2Cor. 12:10].
What a contrast this man is to Samson in the Old Testament. The Spirit of God came upon Samson and he became strong. People marveled at his physical strength, but there came a day when he was very weak. The strong are made weak, and the weak are made strong. God can use the weak man.
I am become a fool in glorying; ye have compelled me: for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing [2Cor. 12:11].
Notice how he elaborates on this. He is apologizing again even as he has done many times earlier. Paul considered himself the least of the apostles, yet he says, "In nothing am I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I be nothing." Someone should have defended him but, apparently, no one did.
Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds [2Cor. 12:12].
There are certain sign gifts which were given to the apostles to authenticate their message. They had the gift of healing. They could raise the dead and speak in tongues, which does not mean unknown tongues but languages and dialects. Paul had gone through the Galatian country, and there must have been fifty dialects and languages in that area. Paul could speak them all. Had he studied them? No. In that early day it was necessary to get the Word of God out into the Roman Empire in a hurry, and so these apostles were equipped with these gifts. Today missionaries and translators must spend years learning the languages they will use.
"Signs of an apostle were wrought among you." They could identify him as an apostle because he had the gifts of an apostle.
We have just come through a wonderful section of Scripture. Someone has said that one of the reasons Paul was not to tell us about heaven was because there would be a mass exodus up out of this world to get there. I don't know about that, but it is true that we could spend our time contemplating heaven and lose sight of a lost world that needs to hear of the Savior. Heaven is a wonderful place, but very little is said about it in the Word of God. Probably it is so wonderful that human language cannot describe it. It is our business to try to reach folk with the gospel so that they will be in heaven someday.
Although I cannot tell you much about heaven, I can tell you about the One who is in heaven. We can talk about Him, the Lord Jesus Christ, and we are to fix our eyes on Him. Beholding Him, we will become like Him in many ways. The pilgrim journey through this world will be a great deal easier if we will keep our eyes fixed on Him. The sun won't be so hot, the burden of the day won't be so heavy, the storms of life won't be so fierce if we keep our attention fixed upon the Lord Jesus Christ, until that day we join Him...beyond the stars!
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