What did Paul mean in 2 Corinthians 12:2 about the third heaven?

What did Paul mean in 2 Corinthians 12:2 about the third heaven?      By Jack Kettler

“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)

What is the third heaven the apostle Paul is talking about? Was Paul talking about himself?

Two entries from theological dictionaries followed by two commentary entries will be consulted. The entries from the dictionaries will be a helpful overview of the usages of heaven seen in Scripture.

Heaven from Smith’s Bible Dictionary:

“There are four Hebrew words thus rendered in the Old Testament which we may briefly notice.

1.      Rakia, Authorized Version, firmament.

2.      Shamayim, this is the word used in the expression “the heaven and the earth,” or “the upper and lower regions.” (Genesis 1:1)

3.      Marom, used for heaven in (Psalms 18:16; Isaiah 24:18; Jeremiah 25:30). Properly speaking it means a mountain as in (Psalms 102:19; Ezekiel 17:23)

4.      Shechakim, “expanses,” with reference to the extent of heaven. (33:26; Job 35:5) St. Paul’s expression “third heaven,” (2 Corinthians 12:2) had led to much conjecture. Grotius said that the Jews divided the heaven into three parts, viz.,

5.      The air or atmosphere, where clouds gather;

6.      The firmament, in which the sun, moon, and stars are fixed;

7.      The upper heaven, the abode of God and his angels, the invisible realm of holiness and happiness the home of the children of God.” (1)

Heaven from Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary:
“Definitions. The phrase “heaven and earth” is used to indicate the whole universe (Genesis 1:1; Jeremiah 23:24; Acts 17:24). According to the Jewish notion there were three heavens,

(a) The firmament, as “fowls of the heaven” (Genesis 2:19; Genesis 7:3 Genesis 7:23; Psalms 8:8, etc.), “the eagles of heaven” (Lamentations 4:19), etc.

(b) The starry heavens (Deuteronomy 17:3; Jeremiah 8:2; Matthew 24:29).

(c) “The heaven of heavens,” or “the third heaven” (Deuteronomy 10:14; 1 Kings 8:27; Psalms 115:16; 148:4; 2 co 12:2).

Meaning of words in the original,

(a) The usual Hebrew word for “heavens” is shamayim, a plural form meaning “heights,” “elevations” (Genesis 1:1; 2:1).

(b) The Hebrew word marom is also used (Psalms 68:18; 93:4; 102:19, etc.) as equivalent to shamayim, “high places,” “heights.”

(c) Heb. galgal, literally a “wheel,” is rendered “heaven” in Psalms 77:18 (RSV, “whirlwind”).

(d) Heb. shahak, rendered “sky” (Deuteronomy 33:26; Job 37:18; Psalms 18:11), plural “clouds” (Job 35:5; 36:28; Psalms 68:34, marg. “heavens”), means probably the firmament.

(e) Heb. rakia is closely connected with (d), and is rendered “firmamentum” in the Vulgate, whence our “firmament (Genesis 1:6; Deuteronomy 33:26, etc.), regarded as a solid expanse.

Metaphorical meaning of term. Isaiah 14:13 Isaiah 14:14; “doors of heaven” (Psalms 78:23); heaven “shut” (1 Kings 8:35); “opened” (Ezekiel 1:1). (See 1 Chronicles 21:16).

Spiritual meaning. The place of the everlasting blessedness of the righteous; the abode of departed spirits.

(a) Christ calls it his “Father’s house” (John 14:2).

(b) It is called “paradise” (Luke 23:43; 2 co 12:4; Revelation 2:7).

(c) “The heavenly Jerusalem” (Galatians 4:26; Hebrews 12:22; Revelation 3:12).

(d) The “kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 25:1; James 2:5).

(e) The “eternal kingdom” (2 Peter 1:11).

(f) The “eternal inheritance” (1 Peter 1:4; Hebrews 9:15).

(g) The “better country” (Hebrews 11:14 Hebrews 11:16).

(h) The blessed are said to “sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and to be “in Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22; Matthew 8:1); to “reign with Christ” (2 Timothy 2:12); and to enjoy “rest” (Hebrews 4:10 Hebrews 4:11).

In heaven the blessedness of the righteous consists in the possession of “life everlasting,” “an eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17), an exemption from all sufferings forever, a deliverance from all evils (2 Corinthians 5:1 2 Corinthians 5:2) and from the society of the wicked (2 Timothy 4:18), bliss without termination, the “fulness of joy” forever (Luke 20:36; 2 co Luke 4:16 Luke 4:18; 1 Peter 1:4; 5:10; 1 John 3:2). The believer’s heaven is not only a state of everlasting blessedness, but also a “place”, a place “prepared” for them (John 14:2)” (2)  The two commentary entries will provide scholarly exegesis for the text in question.

In Matthew Poole’s Commentary on this passage is a reasonable explanation set forth:
“Some doubt whether en cristw, in this place, be so well translated in Christ, (so signifying, that the person spoken of was a Christian, one that had embraced the gospel), as by Christ, (as the particle is sometimes used), so signifying, that this vision was given to him by the grace and favour of Christ. The man he speaketh of was, doubtless, himself, otherwise it had been to him no cause or ground of glorying at all. Thus, several times in Scripture, the penmen thereof speaking in commendation of themselves, they speak in the third person instead of the first.

In his saying, it was about fourteen years ago, and in that we do not read that he did ever before publish it, he avoids the imputation of any boasting and glorying; and showeth, that had he not been now constrained, for the glory of God, and the vindication of his own reputation, to have spoken of it, he would not now have mentioned it.

Whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body. I cannot tell: what the circumstances of the apostle were in this ecstasy, he professeth not to know; and therefore, it seems too bold for us curiously to inquire, or positively to determine about it. It is not very probable that his soul was separated from his body; but whether his body was, by some angel, carried up to the sight of this vision, or things absent were made present to him, the apostle himself, being deprived of the use of his senses, could not tell.

But such a one (he saith) he knew, caught up to the third heaven; by which he means the highest heavens, where God most manifesteth his glory, where the blessed angels see his face, and where are the just souls made perfect. The Scripture, dividing the world into the earth and the heavens, calleth all heaven that is not earth or water; hence it mentioneth an aerial heaven (which is all that space between the earth and the place where the planets and fixed stars are); hence we read of the fowls of the heaven, Daniel 4:12, of the windows of heaven, Genesis 7:11, of a starry heaven, where the stars are, which are therefore called the stars of the heaven, Genesis 22:17; and then the highest heaven; which was meant in the Lord’s prayer, when we pray: Our Father which art in heaven; and is called the heaven of heavens. This is the heaven here spoken of.” (3)

 Barnes’ Notes on the Bible provides a more detailed description the text:  “I knew a man in Christ – I was acquainted with a Christian; the phrase “in Christ” meaning nothing more than that he was united to Christ or was a Christian; see Romans 16:7. The reason why Paul did not speak of this directly as a vision which he had himself seen was probably that he was accused of boasting, and he had admitted that it did not become him to glory. But though it did not become him to boast directly, yet he could tell them of a man concerning whom there would be no impropriety evidently in boasting. It is not uncommon, moreover, for a man to speak of himself in the third person. Thus, Caesar in his Commentaries uniformly speaks of himself. And so, John in his Gospel speaks of himself, John 13:23-24; John 19:26; John 21:20. John did it on account of his modesty, because he would not appear to put himself forward, and because the mention of his own name as connected with the friendship of the Saviour in the remarkable manner in which he enjoyed it, might have savored of pride. For a similar reason Paul may have been unwilling to mention his own name here; and he may have abstained from referring to this occurrence elsewhere, because it might savor of pride, and might also excite the envy or ill-will of others. Those who have been most favored with spiritual enjoyments will not be the most ready to proclaim it. They will cherish the remembrance in order to excite gratitude in their own hearts and support them in trial; they will not emblazon it abroad as if they were more the favorites of heaven than others are. That this refers to Paul himself is evident for the following reasons:

(1) His argument required that he should mention something that had occurred to himself. Anything that had occurred to another would not have been pertinent.

(2) he applies it directly to himself 2 Corinthians 12:7, when he says that God took effectual measures that he should not be unduly exalted in view of the abundant revelations bestowed on him.

About fourteen years ago – On what occasion or where this occurred, or why he concealed the remarkable fact so long, and why there is no other allusion to it, is unknown; and conjecture is useless. If this Epistle was written, as is commonly supposed, about the year 58 a.d., then this occurrence must have happened about the year 44 ad. This was several years after his conversion, and of course this does not refer to the trance mentioned in Acts 9:9, at the time when he was converted. Dr. Benson supposes that this vision was made to him when he was praying in the temple after his return to Jerusalem, when he was directed to go from Jerusalem to the Gentiles Acts 22:17, and that it was intended to support him in the trials which he was about to endure. There can be little danger of error in supposing that its object was to support him in those remarkable trials, and that God designed to impart to him such views of heaven and its glory, and of the certainty that he would soon be admitted there, as to support him in his sufferings, and make him willing to bear all that should be laid upon him. God often gives to his people some clear and elevated spiritual comforts before they enter into trials as well as while in them; he prepares them for them before they come. This vision Paul had kept secret for fourteen years. He had doubtless often thought of it; and the remembrance of that glorious hour was doubtless one of the reasons why he bore trials so patiently and was willing to endure so much. But before this he had had no occasion to mention it. He had other proofs in abundance that he was called to the work of an apostle; and to mention this would savor of pride and ostentation. It was only when he was compelled to refer to the evidences of his apostolic mission that he refers to it here.

Whether in the body, I cannot tell – That is, I do not pretend to explain it. I do not know how it occurred. With the fact he was acquainted; but how it was brought about he did not know. Whether the body was caught up to heaven; whether the soul was for a time separated from the body; or whether the scene passed before the mind in a vision, so that he seemed to have been caught up to heaven, he does not pretend to know. The evident idea is, that at the time he was in a state of insensibility in regard to surrounding objects, and was unconscious of what was occurring, as if he had been dead. Where Paul confesses his own ignorance of what occurred to himself it would be vain for us to inquire; and the question how this was done is immaterial. No one can doubt that God had power if he chose to transport the body to heaven; or that he had power for a time to separate the soul front the body; or that he had power to represent to the mind so clearly the view of the heavenly world that he would appear to see it; see Acts 7:56. It is clear only that he lost all consciousness of anything about him at that time, and that he saw only the things in heaven. It may be added here, however, that Paul evidently supposed that his soul might be taken to heaven without the body, and that it might have separate consciousness and a separate existence. He was not, therefore, a materialist, and he did not believe that the existence and consciousness of the soul was dependent on the body.

God knoweth – With the mode in which it was done God only could be acquainted. Paul did not attempt to explain that. That was to him of comparatively little consequence, and he did not lose his time in a vain attempt to explain it. How happy would it be if all theologians were as ready to be satisfied with the knowledge of a fact, and to leave the mode of explaining it with God, as this prince of theologians was. Many a man would have busied himself with a vain speculation about the way in which it was done; Paul was contented with the fact that it had occurred.

Such an one caught up – The word which is used here (ἁρπάζω harpazō) means, to seize upon, to snatch away, as wolves do their prey (John 12:10); or to seize with avidity or eagerness Matthew 11:12; or to carry away, to hurry off by force or involuntarily; see John 6:15; Acts 7:39; Acts 23:10. In the case before us there is implied the idea that Paul was conveyed by a foreign force; or that he was suddenly seized and snatched up to heaven. The word expresses the suddenness and the rapidity with which it was done. Probably it was instantaneous, so that he appeared at once to be in heaven. Of the mode in which it was done Paul has given no explanations; and conjecture would be useless.

To the third heaven – The Jews sometimes speak of seven heavens, and Muhammed has borrowed this idea from the Jews. But the Bible speaks of but three heavens, and among the Jews in the apostolic ages also the heavens were divided into three:

(1) The aerial, including the clouds and the atmosphere, the heavens above us, until we come to the stars.

(2) the starry heavens, the heavens in which the sun, moon, and stars appear to be situated.

(3) the heavens beyond the stars. That heaven was supposed to be the residence of God, of angels, and of holy spirits. It was this upper heaven, the dwelling-place of God, to which Paul was taken, and whose wonders he was permitted to behold – this region where God dwelt; where Christ was seated at the right hand of the Father, and where the spirits of the just were assembled. The fanciful opinions of the Jews about seven heavens may be seen detailed in Schoettgen or in Wetstein, by whom the principal passages from the Jewish writings relating to the subject have been collected. As their opinions throw no light on this passage, it is unnecessary to detail them here.” (4)

 In closing:

 As in a previous study, a large well-known religious group was mentioned that twists the Scriptures. That same group uses the 2 Corinthians 12:2 text as a proof text to advance its outlandish interpretation to promote its agenda. The interpretation is so bizarre that interaction with the interpretation is unworthy of exegetical Bible study. 

 To revisit William Smith’s Dictionary, the Jews divided the heavens into three parts being:

 ·         The air or atmosphere, where clouds gather;

·         The firmament, in which the sun, moon, and stars are fixed;

·         The upper heaven, the abode of God and His angels, the invisible realm of holiness and happiness the home of the children of God.

 To revisit Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, agreement with William Smith’s Dictionary is readily apparent:
·         A. The firmament, as “fowls of the heaven” (Genesis 2:19; Genesis 7:3 Genesis 7:23; Psalms 8:8, etc.), “the eagles of heaven” (Lamentations 4:19), etc.

·         B. The starry heavens (Deuteronomy 17:3; Jeremiah 8:2; Matthew 24:29).

·         C. “The heaven of heavens,” or “the third heaven” (Deuteronomy 10:14; 1 Kings 8:27; Psalms 115:16; 148:4; 2 co 12:2).

 The dictionary entries, along with the commentators, Poole and Barnes,agree. There is nothing mysterious or some hidden meaning in the text.

 Paul was caught up to the third heaven, the upper heaven, the abode of God and His angels. The third heaven is the future home of all of the redeemed by the blood of Christ.

 “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

 “To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)

 Notes:

 1.      Smith, William, Dr. “Entry for ‘Heaven‘” “Smith’s Bible Dictionary” 1901.

2.      M.G. Easton M.A., D.D., Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, published by Thomas Nelson, 1897, Public Domain.

3.      Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible, 2 Corinthians, Vol. 3, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985), p. 634.

4.      Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, 2 Corinthians, Vol. 2 p. 3146-3147. Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of numerous books defending the faith. They can be ordered at www. JackKettler .com

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