2 Corinthians 12:1-10 / “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21)
As we’ve been noting for the past number of weeks, Paul has been in the middle of an extended defense of his ministry.
It’s not because Paul is concerned about himself, rather that the Church at Corinth not be led astray from “a sincere devotion to Christ” – alone. 2 Corinthians 11:3 ESV / But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.
The so-called super-apostles thought they were simply wooing the affections of the Church toward themselves away from Paul. And if that were the whole matter, Paul could care less.
But in wrapping up this part of his letter to the Church, he needs to address one more aspect of how the super-apostles appeal to people – and it could not be more timely for us today.
It is in fact a crescendo. He’s been leading up to this as the end of his whole discussion on the issue. It is vitally important.
He sets the stage in 2 Corinthians 12:1 ESV / I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.
There has never been a time in human history when some haven’t tried to garner influence over others by claiming that they have had some sort of supernatural experience, dream or vision which confers special status upon them and gives them spiritual authority over others.
The question isn’t whether or not people may have supernatural experiences at times – clearly that is so.
In Peter’s sermon at Pentecost he cites Joel and that in this new advent of the Holy Spirit: “Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
What that is supposed to look like we’ll try to get to some today. And, Paul is going to tell us about one of his own supernatural experiences in this very text.
But what he will argue is, that such experiences say nothing about him or anyone else in terms of whether or not they should be regarded as special or have unique authority so as to be listened to. This same problem gets brought up Colossians 2:16–19 ESV / Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
Some at Colosse created special holy days, taught what foods Christians should or should not eat and even about special relationships to angels rooted in visions they’ve had. And apparently talked about in great detail.
This, they did rather than simply clinging to the foundational Gospel truths centered in Christ!
This week, I did a simple search on YouTube with the words: “Jesus Told Me.” Among the 1,000s of hits I got were these:
“Jesus told me the age of the earth.” – This young man dreamed meeting Jesus, and Jesus says to him “Ask.” Apparently the most pressing thing he could think to ask his Creator and Savior at that moment was – “what is the age of the earth.” And Jesus says: “6,000 years old, roughly. Really, it’s 5,800 give or take, it really doesn’t matter. 6,000, it’s a good number, stick with it.”
“What Jesus told me about the Church.” Churches will not help you grow spiritually. They are only hirelings. No exceptions. Only go to Jesus, not Churches. Apparently, Jesus has reversed the New Testament teaching on the Church.
“Jesus told me Paul is a liar.” You cannot trust anything Paul said, he was a complete fake leading people away from Jesus.
“Jesus told me we are at chapter 4 of Revelation.” Never mind that Rev. 4 is a vision of Heaven and not chronological but perpetual. She goes on to say that the phrase in Luke 10:18 where Jesus said “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven” if translated into Hebrew reads: “Barak Obama.”
Jesus told me to dance
Jesus told me to stop wearing makeup
Jesus told me to stop drinking and partying around.
Jesus told me to convert to Islam.
Kevin Zadai: “What Jesus told me about the election.” Which after you blow all the smoke away and wasted your 20 minutes amounted to: If we vote and pray, we’ll be a part of forming history.
There’s a news flash! Jesus must be hard up for more hard-hitting information!
And much in line with the Colossians passage here, Jesus told him that the angels have a schedule to visit people in the night and give them dreams.
Recently, I watched the documentary of Marvin Heemeyer who in June of 2004 – in a bulldozer he specially fabricated to take vengeance on those he thought wronged him – did 7 million $ of damage to stores, the Town Hall and other buildings before taking his own life.
On the detailed audio tapes he left behind – he said over and over he was doing this because God told him to, and God verified it by all sorts of providential signs.
All sorts of people everywhere are trying to gain influence in Christ’s Church based on dreams they’ve had on just about every topic imaginable, but especially about the current election and politics. It is astounding. I cannot emphasize enough, along with Paul in this passage – the fundamental truth of Isaiah 8:20 ESV / To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.
Please hear me Church – What Jesus is saying now is what He HAS said! Open your Bible. Take the time to study it and understand it properly.
This IS His voice.
So Paul begins this section by saying look – these guys talk about their dreams and visions and spiritual experiences – and I could too. BUT! 2 Corinthians 12:1 ESV / I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord.
THERE IS NOTHING TO BE GAINED BY IT. Nothing.
So I had a spiritual experience. So what?
In fact, because such things have such a tendency to inflate the ego and generate ill results – God has taken extensive measures to be sure I CAN’T boast in them.
Let me make note of something here that you may not have thought of before.
No less than 35 times in the Gospels, we are told this or that happened concerning Jesus, to fulfill what had been prophesied in the Old Testament.
Matthew 2:14–15 ESV / And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Jesus by His own testimony brought nothing new. He was fulfilling all the types, shadows and prophecies of the Old.
Matthew 5:17 ESV / “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
Take for instance His exchange with Nicodemus in John 3. He takes this highest of Jewish teachers to task because he should have known what Jesus was on about – if he really understood his Bible. And so Jesus’ talks about the new birth in reference to Ezekiel.
In fact, He never once talks about what Heaven was like before He left it. Never mentions ant dreams, or revelations at all. The silence is deafening.
When John the Baptist sends men to ask if Jesus really is the one or if they should look for another, He in effect tells them to look around and see if the Messianic passages of Isaiah are being fulfilled?
Even in John 13:34 ESV / A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. He is essentially quoting from Lev. 19 except for the phrase “as I have loved you”: The new dimension brought on by the prophesied advent of the Holy Spirit to be sent.
Remember how even Paul took the Gospel he had received by revelation and submitted it to the other apostles in Jerusalem who confirmed he was preaching the Gospel they had already received from Jesus.
I cannot issue this warning enough to you all Beloved – do not, do not, DO NOT, receive some new revelation from anyone. Hold fast to the Word of God already preached to you and what you hold in your hand and can examine – the Bible you already have.
Every cult, every false religion, can trace its origin to someone claiming to have some new revelation and to reveal secrets they’ve been privy to.
No matter how persuasive, eloquently expressed, even supernaturally accompanied – reject it. How much more explicit could Jesus have been in Matthew 24:23–26? ESV / Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. See, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.
They will come telling you how you can find Jesus better because of their revelations.
And they lie.
Now to be honest, if all I had before me this morning was this opening verse – it would be enough for us to really digest and stand on. But we must finish the portion.
Contrary to much Pop-Christianity, there is nothing to benefit others in the relaying of our secret experiences with God. Even if they are authentic! They contribute nothing to others but to incite misdirected admiration, speculation and turn eyes from Christ to yourself.
This is Paul’s example and how he proceeds in his argument.
You want to hear about spiritual or paranormal experiences? Try this one on: 2 Corinthians 12:2–4 ESV / I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.
One reason why Paul picks this particular event in his past may be because it predates his ever coming to Corinth.
It is a way of saying if such an experience was important for your spiritual growth – I should have brought it up when I first came here. But no, I’ve been silent about it.
It would have run contrary to what he said in his first letter: 1 Corinthians 2:2 ESV / For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
His supernatural experiences could add nothing to the message of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. In fact, they’ll detract from it.
Even God’s best gifts, if not handled rightly, can detract from Christ.
As to why he speaks about it in the 3rd person, lots of theories exist. Perhaps because it was so sacred. As he says, some of what he heard isn’t lawful for a man to repeat.
Maybe it was a way of detaching himself from it – how he mentions a few verses down that because of such visions God needed to drop him down a peg so he didn’t think it made him special in any way. And then there was the Jewish tradition of not including oneself in visionary accounts.
No matter what the reason, the basic idea is clear – he had had such experiences, but they could not contribute in any way to anyone else’s growth in Christ. So they were useless, even counter productive to mention. When wrestling with similar issues in the revivals of his day Jonathan Edwards wrote:
“It is by the mixture of counterfeit religion with true, not discerned and distinguished, that the devil has had his greatest advantage against the cause and kingdom of Christ…By this means [Satan] deceives great multitudes about the state of their souls; making them think they are something, when they are nothing; and so eternally undoes them; and not only so, but establishes many in a strong confidence of their eminent holiness, who are in God’s sight some of the vilest of hypocrites.”
2 Corinthians 12:5–6 ESV / On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me.
i.e. I don’t want you to think any more of me than what I really am. The only thing you need to know about me is that I am weak, frail, human being who proclaims a glorious message about a glorious Christ – to which I contribute nothing. In fact, this dynamic is so crucial in God’s eyes: 2 Corinthians 12:7–9 ESV / So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
As supernatural as my visions were, so God supernaturally acted to keep me from pride over them.
I know there is much debate and speculation about his “thorn in the flesh”.
I take as his meaning that it was some sort of demonic harassment – perhaps through those who so violently opposed him everywhere. That they were demonically inspired in their rage and violence. He suffered so much from it that he earnestly and repeatedly prayed for it to be removed.
No doubt it is the kind of thing that would make him fearful and reluctant to keep preaching the way he did. All of the physical attacks, beatings and betrayals had to be daunting. Whatever it was, it hindered him. Humbled him. And God refused to remove it.
It forced him to rely on nothing other than God’s grace alone to continue. An so he can conclude: 2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV / For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Look at this litany, and in it, don’t miss his meaning.
He finds himself beset by:
a. Weaknesses – Most likely physical sickness and disability – but any perceived personal defect or shortcoming.
b. Insults – Reviling and mistreatment by others, especially misunderstanding. Whatever opened him to being thought ill of, hence engendering insults.
c. Hardships – Difficult external circumstances.
d. Persecutions – Actual dangerous, intimidating and vicious opposition.
e. Calamities – The distress brought on by major loss and misfortune, especially when prolonged.
Now he is no masochist. He isn’t content with such things because he likes them. No, he is content with them because he knows how they rob him of pride and self-reliance, so that the Gospel and the Gospel alone takes center stage. So that Christ and Him crucified is not detracted from by drawing any admiration or attention to – himself.
Nothing could have been absolutely more antithetical to the super-apostles than this point of view.
They sought attention. He deflected it – so the spotlight was always upon Jesus Christ.
Now I want to bring this portion to a close by means of the great application that seems to emerge from the entire discussion here, and from the Bible as whole on this topic.
And everything we’ve considered thus far and need to consider is this: Anything or anyone that takes our eyes off of Christ and on to anyone or anything else is soul-destroying.
Let me note three things in this regard. 1. The Warning of Jesus
This warning could not have been sounded any more powerfully than it was by Jesus Himself as we saw in Matt. 24. He told us such things will proliferate the longer His return delays.
And some of them will be so convincing, so persuasive that even many who profess to be Christ’s will be deceived. Only those truly born again will pick up on it. And the pressure to acknowledge or sanction the individuals will be enormous and perhaps costly. If you don’t buy into their dreams and visions, you’ll be looked at as anti-spiritual.
1. The Warning of Jesus 2. The Example and Teaching of Paul
Spiritual gifts don’t make you spiritual, and spiritual experiences don’t make you special.
We should have learned that lesson from 1 Cor. Never was a Church more gifted and less Christlike than that one.
Look at Solomon and his visitations. He ended in disgrace.
Balaam’s donkey had a spiritual experience too. So what?
Judas lived with Jesus for 3 + years. Eating, walking, listening, and being sent on healing and preaching missions.
And ended up as the ultimate betrayer.
He experienced Jesus healing lepers; giving sight to the blind; walking on water; feeding the 5,000 from a few loaves and fishes; casting out demons and even raising the dead. And in the end – all of his collective experiences meant nothing to his soul. They didn’t change him one iota.
No one’s dreams or visions can contribute to my soul’s growth in Christ more than the Word, and the Spirit’s illumination of it and influence to walk according to it.
Do you remember Jesus meeting up with the 2 on the road to Emmaus after His resurrection? Look carefully at what Jesus does with them there: Luke 24:25–45 ESV / And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread. As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,
He takes them – the resurrected Jesus takes them back to The Word!
Why? Because experiences come and go. They fade. The memory of them morphs over time. But the Word of God abides forever.
1. The Warning of Jesus
2. The Example and Teaching of Paul 3. Our responsibility to properly steward our spiritual experiences
Again, from Paul’s example and teaching, we catch this: What IF you or I are given some sort of dream or vision?
Rule #1 – Keep it to yourself.
A remarkable feature of the rest of the book of Acts and of the rest of Scripture – apart from the Revelation – is that there is not a single such dream ever communicated to the church at large for their use in terms of spiritual growth. Never.
When Paul receives the vision to go to Macedonia, or on the ship on his way to Rome, or Peter & his vision to go to Cornelius’ house – those are all directly connected to Gospel ministry – never as mystical curiosity.
When Jude wrote because he was concerned that some might be loosening their grip on the faith delivered once and for all to the saints, he notes that those who are contributing to that problem are those who “rely on their dreams”. The result being:
Jude 12–13 ESV / These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever.
When Peter, James and John saw the vision on the mount of transfiguration – Jesus told them not to even mention it to others until after He was risen. They took that seriously.
Mark probably came to know it from Peter later on.
Note 2 things:
a. Mark, from Peter, relates that Peter was so terrified in that encounter, he didn’t know what to say and so stupidly said “Let us make tents for you and Moses and Elijah.” It is not a shining moment for Peter.
b. When Peter does say something about it, it is about 30 years later. And then tells his readers they should look not to his account, but to the more sure word of prophecy!
It might be safely said that no one had a more supernatural experience than Lazarus. 4 days dead and in the grave. And yet not one syllable about what he experienced. No one.
As far as we know he never ventured beyond Bethany, never went on the speaking circuit and never wrote a book about it. How unlike today!
Why? Because his dying and being raised from the dead held no importance in itself. The importance was in who raised him.
If Christ draws you more intimately to Himself by some supernatural experience, then please, for Jesus’ sake, treat such intimacy as sacred and don’t profane it by telling others. Especially not in detail and interpreting or misinterpreting what it might mean. To do so violates that intimacy, and due to our fallenness, by default makes people attach specialness or importance to us which does not belong to us.
It shifts the spotlight from Christ to our experience.
Measure it by the Word.
And be quiet about it.
It is as unseemly to talk about it as it is to share intimate details of your marital life.
Do you want people to know you better, think better of you, or think more of Christ?
Then point them back to the Word. Where you KNOW they can encounter Him, with or without a supernatural experience.
Why is all of this so absolutely essential? Why is Paul so adamant?
John 5:22–23 ESV / For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.
Colossians 2:9 ESV / For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,
2 Corinthians 3:18 ESV / And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
No supernatural experience makes us any more special or spiritual, than the miracle of Balaam’s donkey speaking made it more human.
Our transformation into Christ’s image – God’s ultimate goal and supreme blessing for us – cannot be located in anyone else’s vision, dream or experience.
It is in beholding Christ!
2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV / For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Would you know God?
Would you know the deep things of Christ?
It is all in Him!
Hebrews 1:1–4 ESV / Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
How can a second-hand hearing of someone else’s experience add to that?
How can telling you MY experience add to that?
Of course it can’t. It can only shift the spotlight from Him. And that is the most soul-destroying thing which can be done – to turn anyone’s eyes away from Christ – and on to their dream, vision or experience.
Jesus alone perfectly reveals the Father.
It is Christ who left His glory to take on the likeness of human flesh.
It is Jesus who walked in perfect obedience to the Father.
It is He who suffered and died for our sins.
It is Jesus who rose from the dead after atoning for our sins and now sits at the right hand of the Father.
It is Jesus who intercedes for us continually before the throne.
Jesus who is our Advocate when we sin.
Jesus who with the Father sent the Holy Spirit.
Jesus who will raise us from the dead when He returns.
Jesus who will judge the living and the dead.
And Jesus who is Himself our great reward.
And you want me to think something about you because you had some dream or vision or revelation?
Tell me about Him as He is on the pages of the Bible and leave your dreams and visions out of it.
Jesus alone can deal with our sin.
Jesus alone is the means to know God more deeply, accurately, intimately and perfectly.
The only thing I’ll boast about says Paul is that I am a weak, sinful, no-account who brings absolutely nothing to the table but the Gospel I preach.
As was true in his first letter so now – and it is why he is so vehement against these super-apostles who are drawing crowds by talking about their dreams and visions:
1 Corinthians 2:2 ESV / For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Let this be the final word this morning: Philippians 2:5–11 ESV / Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Let us get ourselves and our experiences out of the way, so that men and women can see Jesus.