Paul describes an experience of being caught up into Paradise and hearing things that he was convinced that human beings were not permitted to repeat aloud. This experience baffled him as to whether it was a vision or whether it took place literally. II Corinthians 12:4 is central to this current study. Throughout this post I am assuming that the vision concerned Paul himself, and not some third person, which the logic of personal boasting suggests is the proper understanding.
- Paul “was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.” (NIV)
- “I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell.” (NLT)
- “He heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” (ESV)
- Paul “was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak.” (NASB)
Pharisees: “Equal with God? Blasphemy!”
Aside from the tetragrammaton (the Hebrew name for God–YHWH), there is one consistent thing which is unspeakable, and another item which is closely related. The first two passages, which are from John, illustrate what it is not permitted to say, under the pain of death. The second verse, from Luke, is related.
- So the Jewish leaders tried all the harder to find a way to kill him. For he not only broke the Sabbath, he called God his Father, thereby making himself equal with God. (John 5:18, NLT)
- “The Father and I are one.” Once again the people picked up stones to kill him. Jesus said, “At my Father’s direction I have done many good works. For which one are you going to stone me?” They replied, “We’re stoning you not for any good work, but for blasphemy! You, a mere man, claim to be God.” Jesus replied, “It is written in your own Scriptures that God said to certain leaders of the people, ‘I say, you are gods!’ (John 10:28-34, NLT)
- But the Pharisees and teachers of religious law said to themselves, “Who does he think he is? That’s blasphemy! Only God can forgive sins!” (Luke 10:30, NLT)
In John, saying anything that suggests a human being’s equality with God is a capital crime, one which apparently does not require any judicial procedure aside from stones in the vicinity. (Remember, the Talmud–with limitations on the death penalty suitable for a stateless religion–was only even conceived of after 70 C.E.) In Luke, to encroach on what is considered a prerogative of God alone does not merit immediate stoning, but is nevertheless blasphemy. It seems highly likely that what Paul heard in his experience of Paradise was the expression of what he repeatedly “hints at” in places like Ephesians 1 and 5. This is experience of Paradise is akin to Christ’s initial revelation of himself to Paul on the road to Damascus in terms of being supernatural, revelatory, as well as the content.
Why Write about It, Then?
Paul’s insistence that what he heard in Paradise is not to be spoken by any human being raises an obvious question. “If it is not permitted to repeat the content of the revelation, then why are you even writing about it?” Something Christ is recorded as saying helped me with this problem. Jesus said, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” (Matthew 10:27, NRSV) People have observed conversations in the Bible, where later Biblical writers will comment on and respond to things earlier people had written. Some people discuss this under the heading of “progressive revelation,” which is a relatively safe approach for some. There are, for example, competing understandings of the office of the king, as well as differing appraisals of the role of the military in the life of Israel. Another conversation is evident in passages which promise blessings on the righteous and books like Ecclesiastes, which teaches that life is “random.” The four gospels were written decades after Paul’s letters. I have noted that a dialogue is occasionally visible there, and also that the gospels occasionally reflect Pauline influence, and sometimes qualify Paul. This is why Paul, a former Pharisee who retained much of the Pharisaic mindset we see described in John’s gospel, was convinced of the wrongness of repeating what he heard in Paradise and chose instead to leave broad hints to the content, but later scripture writers, especially John, convey that content in plain and simple language, especially in John 17.