I have always been fascinated by Paul. As a kid, I studied him in Sunday School, charting his journeys around the Middle East to start churches, learning the names of his converts, like Lydia and Titus, and his companions in evangelism Barnabas and Silas. As a teen, I heard numerous sermons on Paul — I think my pastor at the time had a thing for Paul too.
The most famous scripture passages about him, as opposed to the several New Testament books written by him, are the three accounts in Acts of his journey to Damascus. You recall the story — he was knocked down by the power of God and confronted by Jesus to quit persecuting Jesus’s followers and, instead, carry Jesus’s message of love to others. In two of those three passages, the writer of Acts quotes Paul relaying his story.
But in the two passages we read today, we have Paul’s own words, preserved in two letters to congregations he started. He’s ambivalent and defensive. He struggles to rein in his ego and express humility. He doesn’t mention Damascus. He does separate himself from the other Jewish apostles and disciples who were centered in Jerusalem.
To the Galatians he says, “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,* that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
That claim was evidently as amazing and controversial in Paul’s day as it is today. What’s your initial reaction to someone who tells you they have received a direct revelation from God? Distrust? Derision? Skepticism? I’m sure most of you can recall instances when “the media” and the general public have had a field day with various predictions or pronouncements from people claiming to have a direct pipeline to heaven.
Have you ever trusted a modern-day public figure who claimed to base his or her decisions and statements on divine revelation? I can’t say that I ever have.
Evidently people received Paul’s revelations with a great amount of skepticism too. He wrote to the Corinthians:
Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.
The only specific detail in his account is that it occurred 14 years before he wrote the letter. It’s vague and mysterious, and he sort of tries to distance himself by saying it happened to a man he knows. It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to figure out he’s talking about himself.
He says he was “caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man —whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.
Now, what are his readers to make of that description? The Corinthians way back when or us today, how can we possibly evaluate the truth of his vision based on such a description? “caught up to the third heaven”? Sounds like some UFO account, doesn’t it? Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or maybe, “beam me up Scotty.”
He must have been pressed for more information at other times when he had told of his vision, because he writes, twice, “whether it was in the body or apart from the body, in the body or out of the body, I do not know, but God knows.”
Well, what did he hear in this vision? “inexpressible things, things no one is permitted to tell.”
Wait a minute. He isn’t “permitted to tell” what he heard? But I thought he said his whole ministry is based on “a revelation from Jesus Christ”? How can he not be permitted to tell it?
It’s intriguing, “inexpressible things.” He’s so defensive about it, I figure he has tried to explain it before and found that he had way more to communicate than he could possibly get across with mere words.
On a more mundane level, isn’t that the way with most ordinary dreams? Even if you try to describe them immediately after dreaming, you can’t possibly remember or explain all the details.
Paul’s visions were much more than dreams. Whether in the body or out of the body, he can’t tell, but he knows they are true. And again he struggles to explain the importance of the visions:
Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations.
Paul is very protective of his visions, his direct revelation from Jesus himself. It’s hard, he says, to tell about them in a way that does justice to the truth. And it’s hard to admit to such revelations and not be misunderstood.
Imagine, having been so privileged as to be called by God, and then be mocked and scorned for your claim. Imagine, having a vision or revelation and then have it be misunderstood as just a product of your own arrogance and ego and hunger for power. Imagine having your work in mission dismissed because you never met Jesus before His resurrection, so you couldn’t possibly be as intimate with Jesus as those who knew Him when. Paul can’t help but be resentful of those people he sarcastically calls “super-apostles” that he defends himself against to the Corinthians.
I’m thinking that the weakness that he writes about is probably just that — experiencing such revelations and having them dismissed as false or irrelevant.
A lot of commentaries and sermons have speculated on what the thorn really was, whether it was really physical or a symbol, a figure of speech. But I think it’s his struggle to understand the revelations and act on them.
I’m even thinking that the experience he describes of being caught up in the third heaven might have happened before the road to Damascus experience. What if these visions he had experienced, and these inexpressible things he had heard were what led him to persecute Christians to begin with? He seemed so certain that he was doing the right thing by those persecutions. So much that he asked Jerusalem temple leaders for the authority to go to Damascus to persecute Christian jews there.
Recall what he wrote to the Galatians: “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” He even said that God set him apart before he was born.
I think that’s why I identify so strongly with Paul. He was so sure of himself, so bent on doing (quote) God’s work (unquote), that he had to be knocked down and struck blind before he would listen to what God really wanted. We know-it-alls have a real need for someone to puncture our puffed-up egos.
God didn’t set Paul apart before he was born and treat him to incredible revelations and visionary experiences just to let Paul go persecute Christians.
I also think the story in Acts and Paul’s descriptions of his thorn are a good slap-back to some Christians today: Put that in your “free will” pipe and smoke it. Paul was exercising his own free will when God knocked him down and set him straight. Sometimes God’s grace is showered, and sometimes it has to be shoved.
And evidently Paul needed more than one reminder. Back to the letter to the church in Corinth:
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Can’t you just hear Paul? “God, they’re making fun of me and my visions. They’re undermining my ministry. Why don’t you slap my opponents alongside their heads the way you did me?”
And the answer was, “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
God’s power is made perfect in weakness. How many times do we have to hear that before it sinks in? Wasn’t Jesus a good enough example? I think that’s what Paul meant when he wrote so often about preaching Christ and Christ crucified.
The power of love — God’s love — and peace, God’s peace — is ultimately sufficient and made perfect in weakness. This is a difficult thing to wrap your head around.
Paul, who had been given an incredible experience — maybe more than one — of direct revelation from God; Paul, who struggled to be considered one of the apostles even though he didn’t know Jesus before His resurrection; Paul, who dramatically turned from being a know-it-all who persecuted Jesus’s followers into being one of His most faithful and prolific disciples; this same Paul also discovered how to be truly humble, one of the meek that Jesus said would inherit the earth.
Paul wrote, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
And he can say with all truthfulness and humility even of his detractors in Jerusalem, “I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.”
I might have ended my sermon right there, summing up Paul’s significance and humility and the power of God resting in weakness.
But this church believes God is still speaking. So I have one more point to make about Paul’s visions. God is not finished speaking through visions and direct revelations.
You could hear God yourself. Some of you have already recognized God’s revelations to you. I suppose we could say that everyone here has heard God’s call — otherwise we would be somewhere else on this fine Sunday morning.
God showers grace and love on us all. Some of us have to be slapped up the side of the head as Paul was. Some of us have to have more than one thorny reminder of that grace and love. Some of us get a glimpse of the “third heaven” or “surpassingly great revelations.” Some of us may have an opportunity to know someone who has been given such glimpses.
It can be hard to know what to do with these examples of the still-speaking God.
Paul tells us that experiencing the vision is not as important as using it for God’s purposes. And God’s power is made perfect in weakness.
Praise God. Amen.