2 Corinthians 12:2
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. (ESV)
Third heaven? I’ve only ever heard of 7th Heaven. Man, this revelation that Paul was talking about must not have been too amazing because 7th Heaven was just an O.K. show, in my opinion. All jokes aside, what in the world is the third heaven? I always just assumed there was heaven and earth; no in-between. Now you’re telling me there’s multiple heavens – and it’s spoken of in the Bible, too? Let’s dig into this.
Throughout scripture, literary devices were used for multiple descriptions of heaven. We can begin to understand these different uses of the word by looking first at varying passages.
I. Passages containing the 1st Heaven: Earth’s Atmosphere
Deuteronomy 11:11 (ESV)
But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven
1 Kings 8:35 (ESV)
When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, if they pray toward this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them
Isaiah 55:10 (NLT)
The rain and snow come down from the heavens and stay on the ground to water the earth. They cause the grain to grow, producing seed for the farmer and bread for the hungry
Each of these passages describe rain as coming down from the heavens, but of course this meaning of the word is not only limited to rain. This literary device can be used to describe any instance of Earth’s atmosphere such as the clouds, the sky, or even to describe where birds fly.
Genesis 1:20 (ESV)
And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.”
II. Passages containing the 2nd Heaven: The cosmos
Genesis 15:5 (ESV)
And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
Psalm 8:3 (ESV)
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
Isaiah 13:10 (ESV)
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light.
As we see from these passages, everything in outer space - the stars, the sun, and the moon – are all commonly referred to as the heavens. This use of heaven is separate from Earth; however, it is still within the constraints of the visible universe.
III. Passages containing the 3rd Heaven: God’s Dwelling Place
1 Kings 8:30 (NLT)
May you hear the humble and earnest requests from me and your people Israel when we pray toward this place. Yes, hear us from heaven where you live, and when you hear, forgive.
Psalm 33:13 (NIV)
From heaven the LORD looks down and sees all mankind
Matthew 23:9 (ESV)
And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.
We can clearly see from these passages that heaven is used in its most literal form; God’s abode. This is a place that’s both separate from Earth, as well as our universe and even dimension of existence. This is a place meant only for God, his angels, and his chosen elect.
How do we know that Paul was talking about God’s dwelling place when he said “the third heaven?”
We always need to look at the context of the passage surrounding the verse to develop the best interpretation to go with. Otherwise, we could spend all day coming up with conspiracy theories about what this single verse meant. There’s a big clue that’s given to us in verse 3 (ESV) where Paul says, “this man was caught up into paradise…” Paradise can only describe God’s dwelling place. Earth’s atmosphere is no paradise; it’s pretty hard to breathe up there. Outer space is also no paradise; it’s even harder to breathe, let alone live! Moreover, there’s also a second clue in verse 4 (ESV):
and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.
Compare this to the NLT’s translation of verse 4:
That I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell.
These astounding things that were said and heard, which cannot be uttered by man, can only describe the conversations of God and his angels. A skeptic might want to interject, “well what if Paul was hearing a secret alien language from somewhere deep in outer space? Why do you just immediately say that they were the words of God?” And again, I would say that this interpretation most closely matches the context of the letter Paul was writing as well as what we know of heaven as seen throughout scripture.
Who is “the man” that Paul is referring to?
Paul seems to be telling this miraculous story about someone he knows. In fact, Paul knows this person really well – spoiler alert; he’s talking about himself. Why does he have to be so poetic and cryptic about what he’s telling the Corinthians? This simply follows suit with how humble we know Paul to be, as can be seen throughout his various letters. Even in the following verses he goes on to say how much he doesn’t want to boast about this revelation, even though he would be perfectly justified in doing so, considering how miraculous it was. Also as a side note, if you read the NLT translation of this passage they go ahead and translate this whole thing to be written in the first person.
Also in verse 7 (ESV), Paul inadvertently reveals that he is speaking of himself:
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.
Why would Paul have to suffer for the sake of someone else’s revelation? It becomes obvious that Paul truly is the person he is speaking about in this whole passage. In the third person – in the third heaven ;)
So, by understanding the context of who Paul was writing to, how humble we know him to be, and how scripture interprets different literary uses of the word heaven, we can easily decipher the meaning of this weird verse. Whether in body or spirit, Paul was snatched up by God into paradise - the heaven of heavens – and he heard the very words of God being spoken, which no human can even think of uttering back.
This is a really fascinating passage in scripture, but what does is have to do with me?
The third heaven, God’s home, can be your home too someday. While Paul was only telling us of a revelation he had, we know that once he passed away, he went on to live eternally with God in heaven, where he still lives now. And the same can be true for you. Paul was a devout follow of Jesus Christ, dedicating his entire life to Jesus after becoming saved. What was it about Jesus that made him do this? 2,000 years ago, God became a man on this Earth to live among his people and teach them about him. Jesus was God in the flesh; a human just like the rest of us. The only catch is that he lived a perfect, sinless life which nobody else can ever compare to. You and I are sinners, however; we break God’s laws every day. We lie, we’re jealous of other people, and we make material things the focus of our worship instead of God. God being the perfect, just, and completely pure entity that He is cannot let sin go unpunished. If someone commits a crime, they must spend time in jail for what they’ve done. But also, if their bounty is paid, either with money or by someone else taking the place for them, that felon is now set free. Jesus Christ paid your fine on the cross. You deserved to die for your sins, and yet Jesus took your place in death because of how much he loved you. And three days later he rose from the grave, conquering death. This could only have been done by God himself. All he asks of you now is that you repent of your sins to him and ask him to become Lord of your life. You can pray to Jesus right now and have your life changed forever, so what are you waiting for? The third heaven could become your home for eternity where you’d get to be in constant fellowship with God; the creator of the universe.
Hope this helps!