To understand 2 Corinthians as a letter, one must first understand the context in which it was written. This was Paul's second letter to the Christian church at Corinth. His first letter had been less than kind, admonishing the Corinthian church for what Paul saw as many deficiencies in their manner of living and worship. As might be expected, the original letter was not exactly welcome by the Corinthians, and he found, upon questioning his friend Titus in Macedonia, that this first letter had caused division within the Corinthian church. Some church members there took what Paul said to heart and were striving to live and worship as he commanded. Others were not so generous, and began to believe in a different version of the gospel than the one Paul taught. In fact, some Corinthians were outright rejecting Paul's teachings (Mills 1996).
Naturally, this did not please Paul, a man who was used to having and wielding authority without much question. But rather than write another directly admonishing letter to the Corinthians and risk alienating them from his teachings even further (something Paul seems to have had the foresight to envision), Paul's second letter to the Corinthians comes across as more conciliatory, as he goes out of his way to explain the harshness of his first letter, while at the same time admitting no wrongdoing. He essentially tells the Corinthians why they were wrong to reject him after his first letter and why he was right in his writing of it, but he does it in a much softer, more diplomatic way than he did in his first letter. He makes sure to let the church know, however, that God gave him the authority to write as he did in the first letter (with the implication being that the Corinthians needed to stop complaining and take whatever he had to say, since it was written under God's authority….keeping with the "divinely inspired by God" theme that is common among most people who take the Bible literally, even today (Becker 1993).
It was in gently and carefully asserting his authority over them (the church he himself had started, and so felt a close attachment to) that Paul came to write the portion of the letter that we now know as 2 Corinthians 12: 1-10. In this section of the letter, Paul gives his thoughts on authority in the church, why he is a good church leader, and why the Corinthians should follow him. How he words this is interesting, and can actually be considered a study in ancient reverse psychology.
Paul actually admits to being weak. His strength and power come from God. He could not do what he was doing with the church were it not for God's working through him. This was a big gamble on Paul's part, in admitting to personal weakness, as the church could have rejected him for this, not wanting a weak leader. But by admitting to being weak, like most the church members believed themselves to be, Paul made himself "one of them." He was no different than the others in the church, except that he allowed God to work through him so he could lead. This was something any one of the church members could do, would they allow God into them to do His work. Or, they could just let Paul do it, since he was doing it already.
Paul had an impressive resume of good works under his belt by this time, too. He knew it. He had done many things throughout the Holy Land that were good works or extraordinary accomplishment since he had last visited with the Corinthians. He knew they had heard of some of these good works, but not of others. Paul starts out 2 Corinthians 12: 1-10 by saying he does not wish to talk about his list of good works. He does not want to brag (though he knows he has the right to do so). However, he knows other people who are opposed to him are talking about the things he has done, and he wants to set the record straight by addressing any questions or concerns about his actions that the Corinthians may have. He know that by doing this, he will gain the upper hand in the argument that is currently brewing in the Corinthian church over whether or not to follow his teachings (Barrett 1982).
Paul then begins to talk about a "man he knows," a man that is obviously Paul himself. The Corinthians likely know this, as well, but Paul uses the old story of "this happened to a friend of mine" in order to continue to show the Corinthians that he does not want to seem like he is bragging by openly talking about himself.
This "friend" of Paul's was a man of faith in Christ who had a vision fourteen years ago. This was clearly not the vision Paul had on the road to Damascus that lead to his conversion to Christianity, as the man in Paul's story was already "in Christ." So this was another vision, but it was still obviously a vision of Paul's, even though he is not admitting to being the person in question.
The vision this friend (who is Paul) had involved being lifted up to heaven (the third heaven, specifically….in those days, people often believed in different levels of heaven). Other men in history had experienced visions of heaven, or even being brought bodily into heaven. These were great men, the heroes of the Old Testament, men like Enoch and Elijah. These men, however, stayed in heaven, while Paul remained on earth. Still, in having a vision of heaven, in being allowed to see it, Paul was like these great Biblical heroes. He would not come outright and compare himself to them and say he was like them. He wouldn't brag as such, as he saw no point in it (since it was much more beneficial in controlling the people of the church to NOT brag openly….but bragging surreptitiously was a good psychological move). But Paul made it clear to the Corinthians that he COULD claim to be just as great as these men, but of course, he would not actually do so (you can almost hear his silent urgings to the church though…."See, I AM just like those men. I'm just too modest to say so.").
Paul goes on to talk about his "friend's" vision a bit more, though by this point in the letter, he isn't trying so hard to hide the fact that he is really talking about himself. He tells the Corinthians that he does not know if he was in his body or out of his body when he had this vision. He may have been in heaven physically, as Enoch and Elijah were, or he could have had merely a spiritual journey there, which was no less important, but less impressive to tell. All Paul knows is that he was in heaven in one form or another.
Paul doesn't elaborate on what he experienced during his vision. This is because, he tells the Corinthians, that he has been directed not to tell the details of his experience during his vision. It is apparently between him and God, as he gives the impression that this is what God has directed. However, he is permitted to let others know that he has had this experience. He also lets the Corinthians know that it does not matter whether the experience was spiritual or physical, as it is no less valid either way.
In telling the Corinthians that he had a secret experience with God that he can't talk about with them, Paul is following in the footsteps of many other prophets, and he knows it. He makes it clear that the things he saw in his vision were for him only and not to be shared with the world. This makes him special (so it is implied), but he is too modest to say so. The things he saw and heard during his vision were very holy and not to be shared. This is typically Jewish of the time, when only the priests were allowed into the "holy of holies" part of the temple. Some things were just too holy for the average person to know about, and these things were revealed only to God's chosen, who were then either instructed to tell the masses in a way they could understand, or to keep it secret and use the knowledge to direct and lead the people (Seifrid and Randall 2002).
Other prophets, such as Moses, Isaiah, and Ezekiel experienced such things, and by telling the Corinthians that he, too had experienced such things, Paul was putting himself in the category of those venerated prophets and leaders of the people, even without saying so. By merely telling the Corinthians of his secret vision, he was implying that he was like these prophets and should be respected and obeyed as…