In our adult Bible study on Sunday mornings, we have been going through the book of 2 Corinthians which has been a great study. This past Sunday, we studied 2 Corinthians 12, which is where Paul discusses his thorn in the flesh which will be a good discussion for another time, but are focusing on something he said in this particular verse:
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 (2 Corinthians 12:2).
The third heaven? I thought there was only one heaven. What is this third heaven? First of all, it is not special stages of heaven some go to as a reward for how they lived their life on earth. The Bible does not support such claim. So what is it exactly? Lets see what Scripture says.
First lets go back to creation. Genesis 1:20 says, "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.'" Notice this verse says, "let the birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens." The "first" heaven refers to the atmosphere.
What is the "second" heaven? Once again we go back to creation, "And God said, 'Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.' And it was so' (Genesis 1:14-15). This is referring to space. Yes, outer space where the stars are.
Now what is the third heaven that the Apostle Paul is referring to? Let us look in Scripture:
And listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive (1 Kings 8:30).
He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision (Psalm 2:4).
if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14).
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).
What is the third heaven? Where God dwells. God is omnipresent but the third heaven is one we cannot see until God calls away from the body or Jesus returns. In 2 Corinthians 12:3, we see Paul referring the third heaven as "paradise." The Greek word for paradise is paradeisos, which is "a Persian loan-word used in the Septuagint to refer to the garden of Eden but in the NT to refer to a place of blessedness where God dwells. Both terms would be recognized by Jewish readers as references to the realm of God’s direct presence" (ESV Study Bible).
The "first" and "second" heaven are ones we can see with our own eyes. Yet the third heaven is not talked about much. We have glimpses from various passages of scripture on what is looks like, but Paul said, "And he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter" (2 Corinthian 12:4).