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What Paul Saw in Heaven

There’s an article in the latest Bulletin for Biblical Research in which I explore Paul’s heavenly experience in 2 Cor 12. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in the same passage has been the subjection of much speculation (and I ponder that as well), but the more interesting question to my mind is what Paul saw on his “trip” to the third heaven.

We have a good bit of relevant data to consider. Jewish and Christian beliefs and Pauline descriptions of heavenly and ecclesiological realities suggest that in the “third heaven” Paul enters the heavenly model for the earthly temple. If so he would witness God and the Son of Man enthroned and glorified in the heavenly equivalent of the holy of holies.

But the “heavenly ecclesiology” of Paul and other NT authors stresses the temple nature of the church and the church’s access to the holy of holies in heaven. I explore the possibility that Paul would have seen the church-temple enthroned with God and the Messiah (Eph 2:6). If so, it makes sense that this event was formative for Paul’s mission and theology, and also explains why he might not have elaborated on what he saw for the congregation in Corinth.

Not two weeks after I submitted this article my grandmother asked me about this passage out of the blue. She was reflecting on a prayer service for my grandfather in which she believes she saw Jesus standing with a few deacons as they prayed over him. She’s no charismatic, but Church of Christ (and therefore not prone to alcohol, to put it mildly, and averse to charismatic sensations of any sort). She’s a sober, sane person not given to speculation or hyperbole.

She’s also not prone to asking me about biblical passages, other than chatting about Ephesus; her husband was stationed in Izmir (Smyrna) when my mother was a little girl, and they used to picnic at the ruins.

I can’t speak for my grandmother, but for my part our conversation was a very tender and encouraging moment, not least given the fact that I am prone to ponder the usefulness of deep academic study of biblical passages. And I can’t commend my article, but I can report that reflecting on the heavenly nature of the church is terrifically encouraging…