Towards the end of the largely unchronicled interval between Paul’s return to Tarsus and his call to Antioch, he had a strange experience, which left its mark on him for the rest of his life. He gives some account of it in 2 Corinthians 12.2-10, where he says that it happened fourteen years before the time of writing. Since the time of writing was about AD 56, the date of the experience would have been AD 42 or 43. The experience belongs to the category which is commonly designated “ecstatic,” but it is difficult to come to a definite conclusion about its nature because Paul himself describes it in such vague terms. What he says is that “whether in the body or out of the body” – a question to which he can give no answer – he found himself rapt to the extraterrestrial realm variously called “paradise” and “the third heaven” and there heard things impossible and impermissible to put into words.
This type of experience, described in this kind of language, is not unparalleled in Paul’s world. We have a literary parallel in the account of Enoch’s bodily transportation into the celestial realms and his return to earth (1 Enoch 12.1ff; cf. 71.1ff). But, whereas we are told quite particularly what Enoch saw and heard, Paul gives no such details. What he heard was incommunicable. In his account of the experience itself, he stands outside it and relates it as if it had happened to a third party – to “a man in Christ” whom he once knew or, even more vaguely, to “so-and-so.” Only when the normal mode of existence has been resumed and he describes the sequel does he continue the narrative in the first person singular.
As a parallel from real life rather than apocalyptic literature, we have the story of four rabbis – Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Abuyah, and Aqiba (all of whom flourished in the earlier part of the second century AD, and so were two generations younger than Paul) – who entered Paradise. Ben Azzai looked and died, Ben Zoma looked and went mad, Elisha ben Abuyah became an apostate. Only Aqiba survived the experience unscathed. What, exactly, is meant by their “entry into Paradise” is a matter of debate, but some mystical experience is probable in their case, as in Paul’s. The point of the story is that such an experience is perilous and liable to leave its mark indelibly on one who undergoes it.
Paul did not escape from this experience of his unscathed but, because of the spirit in which he accepted its disagreeable consequences, they became a blessing to him instead of a curse (2 Corinthians 12.7-10).
The sequel to Paul’s mystical experience was a distressing – indeed, a humiliating – physical ailment which he feared, at first, might be a handicap to his effective ministry but which, in fact, by giving his self-esteem a knock-out blow and keeping him constantly dependent on the divine enabling, proved to be a help, not a handicap. Many guesses have been made about the identity of this “splinter in the flesh.” Their very great variety proves the impossibility of a certain diagnosis. One favorite guess has been epilepsy – a guess which, if substantiated, would put Paul into the company of such men of action as Julius Caesar and Napoleon – but it is no more than a guess.* Whatever it was, it was probably the “bodily ailment” from which he suffered when he first visited the Galatians – an ailment which was a “trial” to them as well as to him and which might have been expected to repel them or make them spit in aversion whereas, on the contrary, they welcomed him as “an angel of God” (Galatians 4.13-14). His thrice-repeated prayer for the removal of the ailment was answered not by his deliverance from it, but by his receiving the necessary grace to bear it – not simply to live with it but to be thankful for it. If his ministry was so effective despite this physical weakness, then the transcendent power was manifestly God’s, not his own. Infirmities like this were welcomed, together with the other hardships which were part of the apostolic lot, if they were the condition on which the power of the risen Christ operated through him. They constantly reminded him not so much of his own inadequacy as of the total adequacy of Christ, in whom, when he was personally most weak, he knew himself to be most strong.
*In a footnote, Bruce mentions some of the other guesses: ophthalmia, Malta fever, malaria, neurasthenia, an impediment of his speech.
From: Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free by F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), pp. 134-136.