Paul Caught Up to the Third Heaven

The below passage is well known and has been interpreted in a number of ways. Have you ever thought that it relates to Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus? The timeline fits and Paul refers to his conversion experience a number of times for example in Galatians 1:13-17.

2 Corinthians 12:1-4  It is doubtless not profitable for me to boast. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord:  2  I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven.  3  And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—  4  how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.In describing his trials and ordeals for the sake of Jesus, Paul ended in the previous chapter with his escape from Damascus. It would be natural for him to begin by referencing his Damascus Road experience before he was in the Anointed. It would be strange not to mention this first encounter while boasting about “revelations and visions.”

It is significant that Paul categorized the experiences that he was about to reveal as “visions” and “revelations,” rather than travels. Both terms in Scripture refer to something that does not actually relocate the prophet, but appears as real and tangible to his perception (cf. Ezekiel 8:3; Ezekiel 40:2; Revelation 4:1).

This encounter with Jesus occurred before the well-known first fourteen-year period of Paul’s Christian life (counting from his baptism at Damascus by the hand of Ananias {Acts 9:17-18; Acts 22:12-16} until he began to fulfill his apostolic charge from Jesus to the Gentiles, having been officially commissioned and sent out from the Antioch assembly in response to Jesus’ speaking via the Holy Spirit through a prophet in that assembly {Acts 13:2-4}). This fourteen-year, pre-apostolic period for Paul (as a Christian but not yet a functioning Apostle) was well known both orally and from Paul’s very first letter (Galatians 1:11 – 2:10), written shortly after his first missionary journey, but before the Jerusalem council in Acts 15.

His statement that he could not tell whether this experience was “within the body” or “without the body” refers only to his perception. Objectively, according to other eyewitnesses, Paul interacted with Jesus on the Damascus road with his own physical mouth. Luke records that he “fell to the ground,” and “trembling and astonished said, ‘Master, what do You want me to do?’” Luke then says that those traveling with him also heard Jesus’ voice (Acts 9:7), but did not understand the language (Acts 22:9) because Jesus spoke in Hebrew not Greek (Acts 26:14). The other witnesses also saw the bright light (Acts 22:9), yet they did not see Jesus (Acts 9:7). But Paul did see Jesus as he stared into that bright light of the third sky (heaven or the unseen realm), as he indicated in 1 Corinthians 15:8. Thus from the eyewitness accounts, Luke indicated that Paul remained on the ground, and spoke with his physical mouth in answer to what Jesus was communicating to him. To Paul, it seemed as though he was actually seized into the very presence of God, face to face with Jesus seated at the right hand of God. But his perception on this was not sufficient to make a definitive statement. In any case, he was not describing an “out of body experience” as many commentator’s claim, or the eyewitnesses would not have reported that he was answering the voice speaking to him.

In Galatians 1:13-16 Paul spoke of his Damascus Road encounter, then in vs. 17 his retreat to “Arabia” shortly thereafter. He then placed Mt. Sinai in “Arabia” (Galatians 4:25), which suggests that this is where Paul was when he had his second encounter with Jesus. Paul retraced Elijah’s steps when he searched for answers after encountering “the Messenger of YHVH.” Elijah then immediately began to fast, and travelled south to a cave on Mt. Sinai where God then spoke directly to him (1 Kings 19). It was when Paul repeated Elijah’s retreat to Mt. Sinai that Jesus appeared to Him a second time and taught him “the mystery” directly, by divine “revelation”

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