What is the Third Heaven? 2 Corinthians 12:1‭-‬21

The three heavens as understood by the Jews:

(1) The air or atmosphere where the clouds gather (Genesis 2:1,19), (2) the firmament containing the sun, moon and stars (Deuteronomy 18:3; Matthew 24:29), and (3) God’s dwelling place (Matthew 5:12,16,45,48).

2 Corinthians 12:1‭-‬21 KJV

I must needs glory, though it is not expedient; but I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ, fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not; or whether out of the body, I know not; God knoweth), such a one caught up even to the third heaven. And I know such a man (whether in the body, or apart from the body, I know not; God knoweth), how that he was caught up into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. On behalf of such a one will I glory: but on mine own behalf I will not glory, save in my weaknesses. For if I should desire to glory, I shall not be foolish; for I shall speak the truth: but I forbear, lest any man should account of me above that which he seeth me to be, or heareth from me. And by reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations, that I should not be exalted overmuch, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, that I should not be exalted overmuch. Concerning this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he hath said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Wherefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. I am become foolish: ye compelled me; for I ought to have been commended of you: for in nothing was I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I am nothing. Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, by signs and wonders and mighty works. For what is there wherein ye were made inferior to the rest of the churches, except it be that I myself was not a burden to you? forgive me this wrong. Behold, this is the third time I am ready to come to you; and I will not be a burden to you: for I seek not yours, but you: for the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children. And I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls. If I love you more abundantly, am I loved the less? But be it so, I did not myself burden you; but, being crafty, I caught you with guile. Did I take advantage of you by any one of them whom I have sent unto you? I exhorted Titus, and I sent the brother with him. Did Titus take any advantage of you? walked we not in the same spirit? walked we not in the same steps? Ye think all this time that we are excusing ourselves unto you. In the sight of God speak we in Christ. But all things, beloved, are for your edifying. For I fear, lest by any means, when I come, I should find you not such as I would, and should myself be found of you such as ye would not; lest by any means there should be strife, jealousy, wraths, factions, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults; lest again when I come my God should humble me before you, and I should mourn for many of them that have sinned heretofore, and repented not of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they committed.

2 Corinthians 12:1‭-‬21 ASV

2 Corinthians 12

Verse 1

Subjects treated by Paul in this chapter are: the revelations he received from the Lord (2 Corinthians 12:1-6), the counteracting thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), another regret at the necessity of glorying (2 Corinthians 12:11-12), his independence (2 Corinthians 12:13-15), a reply to false charges (2 Corinthians 12:16-18), and certain cautions and warnings (2 Corinthians 12:19-21).

I must needs glory, though it is not expedient, but I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. (2 Corinthians 12:1)

Though it is not expedient … is rendered, “there is nothing to be gained by it”; but, as Filson said:

Paul does not mean literally that there is nothing to be gained by it, for he hopes by the boasting, forced upon him, to make the Corinthians see that they have been wronging him and following the false leaders at Corinth … he feels driven by a necessity which he cannot evade.[1]
Kelcy has a similar view, “The boasting is not expedient as far as making a real contribution to the spiritual state of the Corinthians is concerned.”[2]

Visions and revelations …

As John Wesley put it, “Visions are seen; revelations are heard.”[3] The plural here, as regards both visions and revelations, supports the possibility that the “third heaven” and “Paradise” could have been the subjects of different visions.

Of the Lord … identifies the Lord as the source of the visions and revelations, not as the object of them. “The genitive of the Lord is subjective, not objective.”[4]

[1] Floyd V. Filson, The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1953), Vol. X, p. 405

[2] Raymond C. Kelcy, Second Corinthians (Austin, Texas: R. B. Sweet Company, 1967), p. 70.

[3] John Wesley, One Volume New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1972), in loco.

[4] R. V. G. Tasker, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1958), p. 169.

Verse 2

I know a man in Christ, fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not; or whether out of the body, I know not; God knoweth), such a one caught up, even to the third heaven.

A man in Christ …

The center and circumference of Pauline theology are summed up in the phrase “in Christ.” The thought behind the use of the third person here is that it was not as himself that these experiences came to him, but that “as Christ” and “in Christ” he was granted those things. On this account, his glorying is “glorying in the Lord,” not in himself.

Whether in the body … out of the body … Paul simply did not know what state he was in; and modesty should restrain all commentators from elaborating on what it was.

Such a one caught up to the third heaven … Since the apostle Paul here quite obviously resorted to the third person when narrating these events, the critics who deny the authorship of the book of Jonah on the ground that it was written in the third person are refuted. The words “caught up” are the same that Luke used of Philip (Acts 8:39) and that Paul used of the resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

Fourteen years ago … “This was in 41-42 A.D., some years after his escape from Damascus.”[5] There is nothing known of any vision Paul had at that time, except what is related here; although he had numerous visions. It is futile to attempt to identify this with any of the known visions recorded elsewhere.

The third heaven …

This is mentioned only here in the New Testament; and there is no certainty about what is meant. Lipscomb outlined the three heavens as understood by the Jews thus:

(1) The air or atmosphere where the clouds gather (Genesis 2:1,19),

(2) the firmament containing the sun, moon and stars (Deuteronomy 18:3; Matthew 24:29), and

(3) God’s dwelling place (Matthew 5:12,16,45,48).[6]

There are no geographical connotations whatever in these words, for the third heaven where God dwells is not a thing of space and physical location at all.

It is a state of being beyond, above and higher even than the second heaven. Robinson’s remarkable blindness to this fact enabled him to write: “Now it seems there is no room for God, not merely in the inn, but in the entire universe; for there are no vacant places left.”[7]

The eternal Spirit is ubiquitous; and as Paul said, “in him we live, and move and have our being” (Acts 17:26).

Finite man cannot understand infinity. The great value of this astounding revelation of Paul the apostle does not lie in what is explained (as a matter of fact, he did not EXPLAIN anything); but its value lies in the revelation that no explanation of such things is possible.

There has never been anything written that carries any greater internal evidence of being the truth, than what Paul wrote here. The visions and revelations referred to occurred more than fourteen years previously; and it may be assumed that Paul would never have mentioned them at all, except for their connection with the “thorn in the flesh.”

Furthermore, when he finally recorded them, he did so with the most tantalizing brevity, requiring only ten words in Greek to describe both the visions of the third heaven and of Paradise. Plainly, Paul did not intend to convey any information at all beyond the fact that he had experienced such marvelous events. He explained his brevity (2 Corinthians 12:4) by declaring it to be:

(1) an outright impossibility to elaborate, and

(2) contrary to God’s will, even if he could have done so. Finite, limited, mortal and sinful people simply do not possess the intellectual tools to comprehend, either the God and Father of mankind, or the nature of his dwelling place.

Of God, men may know only what is revealed; and, even with regard to that, only a fool could believe that man fully understands all of that, in any complete sense. Therefore, as far as “the third heaven” is concerned, this writer does not profess to know anything beyond the truth that an apostle was “caught up” into it.

[5] Norman Hillyer, The New Bible Commentary, Revised (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), p. 1086.

[6] David Lipscomb, Second Corinthians (Nashville: The Gospel Advocate Company), p. 157.

[7] John A. T. Robinson, Honest to God (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1963), p. 13.

It's Your Turn. Write Something. Say Something.