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What is the third heaven in the Bible?

The «Third Heaven»

2 Corinthians 12:2 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.

The idea of «the third heaven» is a strange concept to us today that raises all sorts of questions. Are there different levels of heaven? Do different levels of heaven correspond to how how well one has lived; more good works the higher the level, with «death bed» conversions being at the bottom? What exactly is «the third heaven»?

These are understandable questions for modern people. This verse is a good example of how 2,000 years and a different culture can come between the text and our understanding of it. If we were a part of Jewish culture 2,000 years ago this sentence would have made more sense than it does to us today.

First, most students of Scripture accept that Paul is writing this verse about himself, and that he is referring to his own visionary experience on the road to Damascus some years earlier (Acts 9:1-9, 22:6-11). It was this experience that caused Paul to claim in another letter that he had seen the risen Christ (1 Cor 15:1-10, cf. Gal 1:12). His half-hearted attempt at modesty in addressing the Corinthians led him to claim rather weakly that he knew a man who had this experience. Well, that man was Paul. He was not trying to be deceitful or evasive, but used this method of writing as a means of getting his point across in the letter.

Remember that there was a group in Corinth, maybe even the majority, who were questioning the authority of Paul (1 Cor 9:1-14, 2 Cor 10-11). This group was following the lead of some who were claiming higher knowledge due to some special powers or ecstatic experience (1 Cor 12; cf. 1 Cor 3:21, 4:6-7). It could be that after diminishing the importance of these «powers» that Paul did not want to use his own special experience to claim authority for himself, even though he admits just a few verses later that he was this man (12:7). His point was to establish his authority as an apostle without boasting about his own spiritual experiences to do so (cf. 12:5). This all simply suggests that the answer to this question will come from within this text and its historical context and not from our own later theological ideas.

Jews of that time did not have the scientific knowledge that we take for granted, so they did not think of the world in scientific terms or descriptions. Instead they attempted to conceptualize the world in terms of what they knew, and usually described it visually. So, when they conceived of the universe, they constructed a multi-layered world, sort of like a large onion composed of various layers with the physical world in which human beings lived at the center. These layers were called «firmament» or shamayim (heavens or sky) in the Old Testament or «heavens» in the New Testament era. There are many other non-Biblical books and writings that also describe these layers. This model was still in use in the Middle Ages (1400s AD) when Dante wrote of the various levels of heaven and hell.

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Most often this model contained seven heavens but in a few writings there were only three layers. Even though the number of layers was different these models of the universe shared some common traits. The lowest heaven, the core of the «onion,» is the visible physical world that all people can see. In most of these models the second heaven is composed of water, a great sea, a firmament dividing the earth from the heavenly beings. This water that surrounded the earth became a common symbol for chaos and disorder that threatened to engulf the world (cf. Gen 6; see Speaking the Language of Canaan for a discussion of the symbolism of the cosmic waters). So often, these waters were understood to be gathered to await the coming day of judgment when they would once again be loosed to destroy the unrighteous. However, the third heaven was beyond the sight of human beings. It was the dwelling place of God and his attendant heavenly beings whom he would send to protect Israel and the righteous. So when Paul claims to have seen the risen Christ he is describing his experience in terms that he, and others, would readily understand. In that cultural context, he would have assumed that God had taken him to the region where it was possible to see spiritual beings, and the risen Christ.

Understanding this takes nothing away from Paul’s own testimony of an encounter with God. It simply acknowledges that Paul was a child of his day, that he lived in a pre-scientific world that had its own views of expressing and depicting the makeup of the physical world. So Paul described his experiences in the only way that he had at hand. His point was not to tell us how many levels of heaven there might really be. His point was to tell us that he had powerfully encountered the presence of God, in fact that he had physically seen the risen Christ. That fact is not directly related to the manner in which Paul tells us about that experience; the point is that it happened and it made a pivotal difference in Paul’s life.

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(2 Cor. 12:2) What is the third heaven?

CLAIM: Paul writes that he “was caught up to the third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2). What is the third heaven?

RESPONSE: We don’t need to speculate too much on what Paul meant by the “third heaven.” In verse 4, he explicitly tells us that this was “Paradise.” This is the same word that Jesus used to describe heaven to the thief on the cross (Lk. 23:43). But why did Paul call it the “third heaven,” if he simply meant Paradise? In the OT, the term “heaven” had at least three different meanings:

The FIRST heaven. This refers to the atmosphere. For instance, in Genesis 1:20, the birds fly in the “expanse of the heavens.”

The SECOND heaven. This refers to outer space. For instance, in Genesis 1:17, God placed the stars and planets in the heavens.

The THIRD heaven. This refers to the dwelling place of God beyond the universe. Solomon told God, “Heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You” (1 Kings 8:27). Since God is beyond the universe, he must dwell in some spiritual place outside of it. This must be what Paul had in mind by calling this place the “third heaven.” While Jewish interpreters during the time of Paul split the heavens into three, five, seven, and even ten different divisions, [1] Paul kept it simple. He calls this place the “third heaven” to differentiate it from the atmosphere (the first heaven) and from outer space (the second heaven).

At the same time, many Jewish texts understood heaven to have three spheres—the third being the highest:

“I saw a third heaven far brighter than those two, for there was in it a height without bounds” (Testament of Levi 2). It goes on to describe seven heavens (Testament of Levi 3).

“Raise him into paradise, even to the third heaven” (Apocalypse of Moses 37:5).

“Those men took me from there, and they brought me up to the third heaven, and set me down |there|. Then I looked downward, and I saw Paradise” (2 Enoch 8:1).

“All things whatsoever I showed thee are in the first and second heaven, and in the third heaven the sun passes through and gives light to the world. But wait, and thou shalt see the glory of God” (3 Baruch 4:7).

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[1] Brauch writes, “In the time of Paul some Jews made a finer distinction than that made in the Old Testament, dividing the heavens into five (3 Apocalypse of Baruch 11:1), into seven spheres (Testament of Levi 3:1; Ascension of Isaiah 9; in the Talmud b. Hagigah 11b), and into ten (2 Enoch 20:3b; 22:1).” Walter Kaiser, Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce, and Manfred Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 2 Corinthians 12:2 “The Third Heaven.” Additionally, the pseudepigraphical work (The Apocalypse of Moses, 37:5) refers to the “third heaven.” Cited in Colin G. Kruse, 2 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 8, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1987), 195.

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The Three Heavens

There are mansions of splendor and robes that are dazzling white. The third heaven is our eternal home as children of the Most High God. It’s the city where the Lamb is the light, where tears are never shed and goodbyes are never uttered. There is no sorrow or pain, only joy and sheer perfection. It is the city where we will one day join the angels in singing, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God Almighty!” around the throne of God.

Heaven is for real!

The second heaven is where Satan rules his evil empire with legions of demons and fallen angels. Demons have power. They have personality. They have purpose. Satan has come to rob, to kill and to destroy. If he can mislead you down a wrong path that will destroy your life’s purpose…he has won the battle. The second heaven is his campground.

Make no mistake about it! Satan is a fallen angel who quotes Scripture to deceive and destroy the righteous.

The first heaven is the heaven you can see with your natural eyes. It contains the sun, the moon and the stars. We are now waiting on the final two blood moons that I discuss in depth in my book Four Blood Moons.

America is fascinated by the supernatural. While our modern society will devour books and movies about ghosts and witches in droves, the most supernatural book in the universe is the Word of God. From the very first word in Genesis, the genius of God explodes as the universe is created from a handful of dirt. God spoke four words and light forever conquered darkness. He flung the glittering stars like diamonds against the black velvet of the night to reflect His glory. The sun, the moon and the stars are celestial evangelists who travel across the heavens declaring His greatness!

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Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.”

Let’s talk a moment about angels, God’s secret agents. I don’t believe in angels because someone told me they saw one, or because I watched a movie late last night featuring Hollywood’s rendition of an angel. I believe in angels because the Word of God says they are real. If God’s Word says it, I believe it…because “Thy Word is truth” (John 17:17).

What is an angel? Angels are created beings (Colossians 1:16). They have superior knowledge, and they are without number.

Psalms 91:11 says He will give his angels charge over you to keep you in all your ways. Angels. Plural. Every Believer has the right to believe that two angels have been sent from heaven to protect and defend you at all times.

Psalms 34 tells us that the angels of the Lord encamp round about those who fear him. And these angels deliver him from evil. Encamp literally means to surround. So if you are a Believer, then angels surround and protect you everywhere you go.

Angels are innumerable, invisible and invincible. When you give your heart to Christ, you are under the protection of Almighty God and his angels. Your protection is far greater than your enemies!

The President of the United States has the Secret Service. But YOU have angels, God’s secret agents, to protect you in all your ways. They have awesome power when executing the judgments of God. They can control the powers of nature and the universe. They are not intimidated by the forces of evil. In the great Tribulation, God is going to release His angels to crush the ungodly en masse. And I will tell you, THAT is power!

What else do angels do? Their office is two-fold. First, they worship and adore God, the Redeemer of mankind. John wrote in Revelations 5:11-12, “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne… and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand…saying with a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!’”

The second thing angels do is to serve God by carrying out His judgments. God judges nations, and He judges individuals. The Bible tells us that it is “appointed once to die and then the judgment (Hebrews 9:27).” There are two appointments every person will keep: one is with death, the other is Judgment Day when they stand before God Almighty and answer for every thought, word and deed.

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God judges child abuse! Whoever wrongs or injures a child intentionally brings the wrath and vengeance of God upon themselves through that child’s guardian angel. On Judgment Day, the same angel that drags Satan into the flames of an eternal hell will chain the child molester, the sex trafficker, the men and women who have harmed innocent children…and drag them straight to the judgment they deserve for all of eternity. I didn’t say that. A loving and merciful Jesus said that. Angels defend children.

Numbers 32:23 warns us by saying, “Be sure your sins will find you out.” Nothing is done in secret! God sees everything! Angels drove Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

For every sin, Satan is ready to provide an excuse. He is a fallen angel, ready to manipulate Scripture so that it sounds right…unless you are so familiar with the Word that you can recognize the truth. If Satan misquoted Scripture in an effort to deceive the Son of God, he will certainly do the same to you.

Let me be clear on this. Rationalization of your sin is Satan’s substitute for repentance! Walk away from the forbidden fruit. There is a high price for low living.

God’s way is not always the easiest path, but it will bring you out to rich fulfillment like no other journey you could ever imagine…if you will only persevere to the end. God’s message to our generation is this…struggle is evidence that you are next in line for a promotion! Don’t quit now! It’s during the struggle that you find out who you really are.

Heaven is for real! There are countless tales of how God reveals Himself to us. This article just paints the broad-brush strokes of this exciting topic, but my book, The Three Heavens, will be out in May and is much more detailed; it includes real-life accounts of people who have been to heaven and come back to tell of its splendor. My book is available now through Amazon, and I encourage you to order a copy for yourself and one as a gift for a friend.

The greatest lie Satan tells us is that there’s plenty of time. Plenty of time to get our lives right with Christ. Plenty of time to share the Salvation message. Plenty of time to sit back and relax.

I’m telling you that the trump of God could sound at any moment. Do not wait! Share the Salvation message from the uttermost to the guttermost because very soon we will be called up in the twinkling of an eye. And it will happen just that fast!

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