Could Paul's stoning have anything to do with his vision in 2 Cor. 12?
Answer: It seems quite plausible that it did.
Paul and Barnabas were on their first missionary journey1. From the island of Cyprus, they made their way to Asia Minor, preaching first at Perga, where it will be remembered that John Mark forsook them and fled back to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). One can only imagine the dangers that dissuaded Mark from accompanying them further.
The two men then boldly pressed on to Antioch (of Pisidia) where they encountered an attentive audience, with a number of Jews and Gentiles converting to the faith (13:14-43). However, within a week, unbelieving Jews had created such opposition that they were forced to leave the city and press on to Iconium (13:44-51). At Iconium, a good number of Jews and Gentiles again came to faith in Christ, and again unbelieving Jews instigated intense opposition. This time, the vitriol had grown worse. They, therefore moved on to the city of Lystra (Acts 14:8+).
While in this city, Paul healed a man lame from birth. When those of the city witnessed this miracle, they tried to deify both Paul and Barnabas, worshipping them as gods. The two immediately began to prevent the crowd from doing so, instead preaching the Message of Christ. Soon, however, unbelieving Jews again arrived from Antioch.
This time the encounter was far more severe: they stoned Paul, dragging his body out of the city where he was left for dead. Here we must ask the question: Is it really possible to believe that Jews, who were quite aware of stoning someone to death, did not complete their task?
Acts 14:19-20a: "But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. 20But while the disciples stood around him, he got up and entered the city."
Luke merely tells us they "[supposed] him to be dead". He then got up and returned to the city — the very city where he had just been stoned! As mentioned, this stoning took place during Paul's first mission, early in his career as an evangelist. Whatever occurred in Lystra seems to have remained with the apostle for the rest of his life.
If, indeed, Paul's experience here is that to which he refers in 2 Corinthians 12, one can begin to understand how physical death was no impediment to the brave apostle to the Gentiles:
2 Corinthians 12:1-4, 7: "I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven. 3And I know how such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows— 4was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak...
7Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!" (emphasis added).
The "surpassing greatness of the revelations" (12:7) appears to be exactly why Paul would no longer fear death — and it is probably why he experienced the perils and brutality that he had. Despite all his sufferings, he maintained an extraordinary perspective:
Philippians 4:11: "Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am."
The following is a list of some of those "circumstances" to which Paul fell victim:
Affliction (2 Corinthians 11:23-27)
1. “Beaten times without number,
2. Often in danger of death.
3. Five times I received from the Jews 39 lashes.
4. Three times I was beaten with rods,
5. Once I was stoned,
6. Three times I was shipwrecked,
7. A night and day I have spent in the deep.
8. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers,
9. Dangers from robbers,
10. Dangers from my countrymen,
11. Dangers from the Gentiles,
12. Dangers in the city,
13. Dangers in the wilderness,
14. Dangers on the sea,
15. Dangers among the false brethren;
16. I have been in labor and hardship,
17. Through many sleepless nights,
18. In hunger and thirst,
19. Often without food,
20. In cold and exposure.”
Paul seemed perfectly willing to embrace death, that which would bring him into the immediate presence of God. After Acts 14, this makes sense; it should be apparent why he would later write the following to the Philippians:
Philippians 1:21: "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain."
We know from Scripture that some false teachers appealed to "visions" or revelations that they allegedly received, visions not given to others, which thus appeared to set them spiritually apart as more authoritative in the faith. It was to these that Paul spoke in his message to the faithful:
Colossians 2:18: "Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen"
As Paul relates his revelation of heaven in 2 Corinthians 12, he does so to draw attention away from himself, and is thus, deliberately vague. He also doesn't know whether he was "in the body" or "out of the body" when he was caught up to Paradise (cf. 12:2-3). Paul's reticence in his description appears to be twofold: 1) That which he witnessed was beyond human terms and thus "inexpressible" 2) Even if he wished to do so, Paul was not allowed to describe what he experienced (12:4).
Unfortunately, his reference to "fourteen years ago" (12:2) does little to disclose when this phenomenal event transpired because, as noted by another contributor, scholars are in disagreement over the date of 2 Corinthians. Here are some suggestions when Paul may have had his vison:
1. During Paul’s ten years in Syria and Cilicia
2. During his time in Antioch
3. At his stoning in Lystra
From what Paul depicts, we might conclude that his vision of Paradise was granted at the time he was stoned and left for dead at Lystra. We do not know for certain whether Paul actually died at that moment but, as previously observed, it seems exceedingly unlikely that he did not.
Irrespective of the outcome of the incident, Paul was miraculously revived. And, for reasons we may never know, he kept the incident quiet for over a decade. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that his assailants succeeded in their mission. It is, therefore, quite plausible that at that moment, Paul experienced the events he conveyed so dramatically in 2 Corinthians 12.
1Jackson, Wayne. A New Testament Commentary, Christian Courier Publications, "The Acts of the Apostles", 2011.