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to go to God; to put into your mouths that exclamation of the Psalmist: How great is thy goodness, O God, which thou hast laid up for them that fear thee ! Psa. xxxi. 19: to place you in the very situation of our apostle, who, after having been caught up to the third heaven, could no longer endure to live upon the earth, had his eyes opened to every path that led to death, could talk no more of any thing but of dying, but of finishing his course, 2 Tim. iv. 7. but of being absent from the body, 2 Cor. v. 8. but of departing, but of being with Christ, which was to him far better, Phil. i. 23.
I. We begin with some elucidation of the expressions of the text, and of these,
1. The first refers to the era of St. Paul's rapture: I knew a man in Christ, above tourteen years ago. But were we to enter upon a complete discussion of this question, it would occupy much more time than is allotted for the whole of our present exercise. Never had a preacher a fairer opportunity of wasting an hour to his hearers, in useless investigation, and impertinent quotations. We could easily supply you with an ample list of the opinions of interpreters, and of the reasons adduced by each in support of his own.
We could tell you, first, how it is alleged by some, that these .fourteen years denote the time elapsed from the conversion of St. Paul; and that his rapture took place during those three days in which he was without sight, and did neither eat nor drink, Acts ix. 9. And to this purpose we could quote Capel, Lira, Cave, Tostat, and many other authors, unknown to the greater part of my audience.
We might add, that soine other commentators refer this epoch to the eighth year after St. Paul's conversion to Christianity, the forty-fourth of Jesus Christ, and the twelfth after his death.
We could shew you how others insist, with a greater air of probability, that the apostle enjoyed this heavenly vision, when, after his contention with Barnabas, humiliating instance of the infirmity of the greatest saints, he prosecuted his ministry in a different track. Those who adopt this opinion, allege, in support of it, the words of St. Paul in chap. xxii. of the Acts, ver. 17. It comes to pass, that when I was come again to Jerusalem, even while I prayed in the temple, I was in a trance. But disquisitions of this sort are unworthy of the place which I now have the honor to fill. I have matters of much higher importance to propose to you.
2. The manner of St. Paul's rapture stands in need, perhaps, of some elucidation. He has expressed it in terms very much calculated to check curiosity. Whether in the body, I cannot tell ; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell. We, accordingly, presume, not to pursue researches on points respecting which the apostle himself
Let it only be remarked, that God was pleased, in former times, to manifest himself in many different manners. Sometimes it was by a voice : witness that which issued out of the cloud, Exod. xvi. 10: witness that which addressed Moses from the burning bush, Exod. iii. 4 : witness that which thundered from Mount Sinai at the giving of the law, Exod. xix. 16: witness that which answered Job out of the whirlwind, chap. xxxviii. 1: witness that from above the mercy-seat, Exod. xxv. 22.
He was pleased, at other times, to reveal himself in dreams and visions of the night; as to Jacob at Bethel, Gen. xxviii. 12. to Abimelech, Gen, xx. 3, and to Pharaoh's butler, Gen. xl. 9.
He sometimes manifested himself in visions to persons awake. Thus he presented to Moses in Horeb a bush burning with fire yet unconsumed, Exod. iii
. 4. to Balaam, an angel with his sword drawn in his hand, Numb. xxii. 31. to Joshua, the captain of the Lord's Host, Jos. v. 15.
He sometimes communicated himself to men through the medium of inspiration, accompanied with emotions which constrained them to speak out. This was the case with Jeremiah, as we read chap. xx. 8, 9. The word of the Lord was made a reproach unto me, and a derision daily. Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart, as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing.
But of all those miraculous dispensations, the most noble and exalted was that of rapture or extasy. By the term extasy, we mean that powerful conflict, that concentration of thought, that profound intenseness of mental application, under the influence of which the enraptured person is emancipated from the communications of the senses, forgets his body, and is completely absorbed of the object of his meditations.
Rapture is perhaps a degree superior to extasy. Sometimes it affects the mind. This is the case when God, in virtue of that sovereign power which he possesses over the soul of man, excites in it the same ideas, causes it to perceive the same objects, with which it would be struck, were the body, to which it is united, really in a place from whence it is extremely remote. It is thus that we must explain the rapture of the prophet Ezekiel, chap. viii. 3. and that of which St. John speaks. in the book of Revelation, chap. i. 10.
It sometimes affects the body. This was the case of Philip, who, after he had converted to the faith of Christ the eunuch of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, and baptized him, was caught away by the spirit of the Lord, that the eunuch saw him no more, Acts viii. 39.
Though St. Paul has spoken very sparingly of the manner in which God was pleased to reveal himself to him, he has said enough to shew that it is holy rapture he means. But whether it were that which transported the body into another place, or that which transported the mind only: nay, whether there be a real difference between rapture and extasy, no one can pretend to determine without incurring the charge of presumption. The apostle himself declares that it surpassed his own knowledge : whether in the body, I cannot tell ; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth ; such an one caught up to the third heaven .... caught up into Paradise.
8. The third heaven, Paradise : another subject of elucidation. The third heaven is the habitation of the blessed: that in which God displays the most splendid and glorious tokens of his presence; this is disputed by no one. But the other expression employed by St. Paul, caught up into Paradise, has furnished matter for controversy among the learned. It has long been made a question whether Paradise and the third heaven de. noted one and the same place. Certain modern interpreters have maintained the negative, with excessive warmth. A great number of the ancient fathers had adopted the same opinion. They considered Paradise as a mansion in which the soul resided till the resurrection, and they distinguished
it from heaven. Justin Martyr, disputing with Tryphon, condemns, as equally erroneous, the denying of the doctrine of the resurrection, and the opinion which supposes that the souls of men go to God immediately after death. In this they followed the prejudices of the Jews. Many of them believe that the souls of good people are translated to the garden of Eden, to wait for the day of the resurrection ; they accordingly employ this form of prayer for dying persons: “ May his soul be received into the garden of Eden ; may he have his part in Paradise : may he repose, and sleep in peace till the coming of the Comforter, who shall speak peace to the fathers. O ye to whom the treasures of Paradise, are committed, open now its gates, that he may enter in."
But this error, however long it may have subsisted, and by whatever great names it may have been maintained, is nevertheless an error, as might be demonstrated by more arguments than we have now leisure to adduce. You have only to read the prayer which Jesus Christ addressed to his father a little before his death, where you will find him demanding immediate admission into the heavenly felicity. He says, likewise, to the penitent thief on the cross: verily I say unto thee, to-day thou shalt be with me in Paradise, Luke xxiii. 43. Paradise, therefore, is the place in which God displays the most august symbols of his presence, and it is not different from the third heaven.
Now if it be asked why is this name given to the third heaven, it will be necessary to recur to its first original. Persons who have applied to the dry study of Etymology, assure us that the word is of Persian extraction, and that the Persians gave the name of Paradise to the parks and gardens of their kings. It came in process of time to denote all