I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (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. (2 Corinthians 12:2)
Question: What is Paul referring to as the “third heaven” in 2 Corinthians 12, and why couldn’t it be described, as he said that he “heard unspeakable words, not lawful for a man to utter”?
Answer: The first question that comes to mind when we ponder this passage is: Who is this man that the Apostle “knew” who had this experience? Most commentators and Bible students agree that it is Paul himself and that he is recounting a vision he had fourteen years previous to his writing of his second letter to the Corinthians. He had received this vision when he was alone, so no one could confirm whether it was strictly mental or whether he had been transported bodily to observe it. It must have indeed been a unique and “stranger than life” experience; so much so, that he had not disclosed it before.
And even now as Paul reflects upon this experience, he finds it difficult to describe, and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter (vs. 4 RSV). As we read on, we find that it came from a sense of humility and perhaps a little embarrassment as he apologizes for speaking of it, On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me (vss. 5-6 RSV).
This vision was one of several that the Apostle experienced in addition to the notable one on the occasion of his conversion on the road to Damascus. We can pinpoint this one in time based upon the approximate year of Paul’s writing his second letter to the Corinthians. The generally accepted timing of the letter is AD 56-57, which would mean this “revelation” occurred in AD 42-43. We believe it is the same one that Paul mentioned during his defense to the crowd in Jerusalem after he was drawn out of the temple, beaten, arrested and bound with chains (Acts 21:27-40). The reference is found in Acts 22:17, And it came to pass, that, when I was come again to Jerusalem, even while I prayed in the temple, I was in a trance.
Within this context, let us now consider what Paul meant by “the third heaven.” There are at least two ways to look at it, with both leading to the same conclusion. Let us first consider it in terms of “space” or distance relationships and the possible “heavens”:
Earth’s Atmosphere – It is referred to as “the heaven” or “heavens” in Scripture; for example, at the time of creation in Genesis 1:20, …and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
Outer Space – the visible “heavens” as described in Genesis 1:14-18, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night… In this “heaven,” we see the moon rising in the night sky and the stars shining well beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
Yahweh’s Dwelling Place – Here is the “third heaven,” wherein is God’s throne and holy temple as we are told by David in Psalm 11:4. Elsewhere in the Psalms, we have these beautiful descriptions: O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens (8:1); For he hath looked down from the height of his sanctuary; from heaven did the Lord behold the earth (102:19).
In this sense, we might visualize the Apostle Paul being brought in vision to the sanctuary of Yahweh in heaven, spiritually far above the literal heavens in all its glory. It was so amazing, so awesome and so wonderful that it was beyond words to describe.
The other way to look at this is from a “time” perspective and the various interpretations of the scriptural “heavens and earth.” The figures of “the heavens” and “the earth” often refer to governing powers, and nations, or people, respectively. Moses was the first to address Israel using these terms in Deuteronomy 32:1. Centuries later, the prophet Isaiah also addressed the rulers and people in his day as the “heavens” and the “earth” (1:2, 10). They were unfaithful and would be eventually done away with and replaced with a new “order of things.” Near the end of his prophecy, Isaiah reveals that Yahweh will indeed create new heavens and new earth (65:17). All of these passages refer to God’s dealings with Israel. After AD 70 and Israel’s scattering, there were no more Jewish “heavens” as the “times of the Gentiles” had begun.
The Apostle Peter confirms that the heavens and the earth, which are now will be destroyed – reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men – and that we should look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness (2 Peter 3:7, 13). The latter refers to the second “heaven” or the restored Kingdom of Israel under Christ during the Millennium.
From the “time” perspective, the three “heavens” are then:
The Mosaic Order and the Kingdom of Israel in the Jewish dispensation.
The Restored Kingdom of Israel during the 1000-year reign of Christ.
The Period beyond the Millennium when the Kingdom is delivered up to God who will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:24, 28).
The “third heaven” in this context would then be this last period of time that would continue into eternity. Very little is revealed about it. Paul, having witnessed it, could still not describe what he experienced when he was caught up into paradise and heard inexpressible words, which is not lawful for a man to utter (2 Corinthians 12:4 NKJV). How fitting it is that this future time, which will last for eternity, would be described as “paradise.” It is the blessed state that was promised to the thief hanging next to Christ during his crucifixion (Luke 23:43). It is the same “new heaven and new earth” that was revealed to John, as recorded at the end of the Apocalypse. The two perspectives of “time” and “space” are brought together in the opening verses of Revelation 21, when John sees a new heaven and a new earth and the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.
And what a revelation it must have been to the Apostle Paul as well! How appropriate it would be if it was given to strengthen him in his ministry to preach unto the Gentiles how the Kingdom of Israel would be restored and lead to a world at peace and in complete harmony with its Creator. Anyone having such an experience would have grounds to boast, but not Paul, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me (2 Corinthians 12:6).
Ken Wood, Richmond, VA