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Today's Study

2 Corinthians 12:2: Caught Up to the Third Heaven?

In 2 Corinthians 12:2 Paul refers to "a man" (probably himself) who is "caught up to the third heaven." Isn't there only one heaven? What is this third heaven?

Of the 231 times that the word heaven occurs in the New Testament, the vast majority are absolute uses: voices come from heaven, Christ ascends to heaven, there is a kingdom of heaven. Heaven in these verses stands for either the dwelling place of God or the place the rain comes from. The context provides the information needed to decide which is meant.

In this passage, however, Paul is talking about a journey somewhere. The man he is referring to is almost certainly himself. It was considered proud or boastful to directly refer to great honor or great shame coming to oneself. If you wanted to make such a reference, the proper way to do so was in the third person: "Such and such happened to a man." This is the convention that Paul is using here. He has felt forced by the apparent claims of his opponents in Corinth to visions to refer to his own visionary experiences. Rather than roll out a list of experiences, starting with the Damascus road incident, he cites the one vision that he knows will top any of theirs, a vision in which his experience of heaven was so real that he is not sure if it was a vision or a physical rapture to heaven. This vivid experience took place fourteen years before Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, or about A.D. 44. This places the event in the period between Paul's departure from Jerusalem after his conversion (Acts 9:30) and his commissioning for his first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3). During this period he was very active in ministry in Syria and Cilicia, eventually being recruited by Barnabas to minister in Antioch. Into this period we must put many of the experiences he refers to in 2 Corinthians 11.

Where, then, is the third heaven to which Paul was caught up? In the Old Testament there seems to be a threefold division of heaven into the heaven in which the birds fly, the heaven where the stars exist (often thought of as a "firmament"), and above that the heaven where God resides, referred to as "the highest heavens" (1 Kings 8:27; 2 Chron 2:6; 6:18; Neh 9:6; Ps 148:4). Unfortunately, this information is derived from occasional references in the Old Testament and not clearly taught in it. There is no Old Testament discourse on the nature of heaven. 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). Paul does not indicate to which of these schemes he subscribes until he gets to 2 Corinthians 12:4 and says that he was "caught up to paradise." The term "paradise" is a Persian loan word referring to a walled garden, which came to indicate the abode of God (even when located in the seventh heaven,Ascension of Isaiah 9:7; b. Hagigah 12b). In the New Testament it is identified as the place where Jesus was with the blessed dead (Lk 23:43) and the location of the tree of life (Rev 2:7; compare Rev 22:1-5 for a fuller identification of where this tree is). Thus Paul is indicating that he was caught up to the very presence of God, the highest of the heavens.

The New Testament does not encourage speculation about the structure of heaven. In fact, while we can discover the various patterns that this or that biblical author apparently believed in, none of them teach on the divisions of the heavens. When Paul says "the third heaven" we cannot be sure that he himself firmly believed that heaven was divided into three and only three parts, or only that he realized that his readers would understand that he meant the highest of the heavens. The point is that for Christians the divisions of heaven are relatively meaningless. They know that they are on earth now and that where they long to be is in the presence of their Lord, whether that be the third, fifth, seventh or tenth level of heaven. Wherever Jesus is, all of the intermediate levels are relatively meaningless, for the Christian goal is Christ more than heaven. Paul is indicating, then, that he received a foretaste of what it will be like to be in the very presence of the Lord.