EZEKIEL is exceptionally careful about claiming that he has encountered God. Unlike Isaiah, who was plain and direct (6.1), he avoids definite statements as far as he can: “something that seemed like a human form . . . something like gleaming amber . . . something that looked like fire, and . . . splendour . . . this was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD”. (1.26-9). The truth emerges without a definitive statement that the being he encounters is the LORD himself, when God confirms that his people have been rebellious against him (2.3).
The prophet’s visions of wheels within wheels, and the four living creatures, have become part of the iconography of Judaism’s daughter faith, Christianity. The four creatures were, much later, identified with the four Gospels: Matthew with the human, Mark with the lion, Luke with the ox, and John with the eagle (1.15). This is not the world of reasoned theological discourse and debate; it is a world of vision and dreams, the God whom we encounter when we are least prepared, not the one we purposefully go in search of, Sunday by Sunday.
It is frustrating to be given glimpses of heaven, but no more. Isaiah provides us with a certain amount of information, but only what is strictly relevant to his prophetic call. Ezekiel gives a little more, but the visions are visions sent specifically to him. He can be guided by them but we cannot enter into them fully. At least not by merely reading about them.
In this contrast between experience and observation, there has always been a dilemma for individual Christians and whole churches alike. There is an element of our experience of God which comes to us corporately, through liturgy and sacrament; and through the ministry of the word. But there is also a dimension of spiritual experience which remains stubbornly personal. It cannot be subjected to official scrutiny (though church authorities have tried), because it is not intended for general consumption. It is unalterably individual. No wonder we can struggle to make sense of it when someone does try to put their spiritual encounters into words.
Ezekiel’s spiritual encounter has raised questions of authority and authenticity. When we turn to Paul, we find different influencing factors. Paul does not say that this was his own vision, for he relates it of somebody else, “I know a person” (v.2). This has not stopped most commentators ascribing the vision to Paul himself. Certainly there is a logic about his distancing himself personally from the experience he relates. He is trying to draw the gaze of the Corinthian Christians away from the miraculous and exciting. Instead, he wants to fix it to the earthy and earthly realities of their discipleship.
Instead of boasting of his close encounter, or broadcasting the insights gained from it, Paul remains cautious. He is not sure (v.2), he cannot say (v.4), he must not reveal (v.6). In writing like this, he is not being stingy. Rather, he is treading a fine line (one that often exercises preachers) between expressing this personal dimension of the life of faith, and seeming to claim credit for it as therefore being somehow “special” or “chosen”. “With great power comes great responsibility,” he might have said, if he were Spiderman and not the Apostle to the Gentiles.
If we want proof of the wisdom of the line that Paul has taken here, we find it in the Gospel. What happens when people encounter the charism of vision and divine truth? “Where did this man get all this?” (v.2): the wisdom? the powers from his hands? Note that it is “powers”, plural. This is language describing the miracles of a wonder-worker. It is not the recognition of “power” singular, that quality inherent in the person himself which marked him as God’s anointed.
When they ask where he got these powers from, it is tempting to shout an answer to their questions: “From God, you morons, isn’t it obvious?” But it was not obvious. Not to them, then, and not to most people now. It is obvious to us because we have already experienced that encounter for ourselves — perhaps not as spectacularly as Paul, but then Paul teaches that spiritual encounters are not always dramatic. A vision need be no more than a moment of clarity, or a recognition of reality. Not even a thorn in the flesh can weaken its lifetime hold on us.