The Apostle Paul was apparently rather embarrassed at having to promote himself to the brothers and sisters of Corinth. As he recounts his particular honor, he speaks of himself in the third person. He also immediately counterbalances this self-pro- motion by highlighting the humbling lesson the messenger of satan inflicted upon him lest he should be exalted above measure through the abundance of revelations. Immediately following the severe trials and challenges itemized in 2 Corinthians 11, Paul offers a unique validation of his authority: he had been caught up into the third heaven. He heard things he was forbidden to repeat, “unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Cor. 12:4). It was such a consuming revelation that Paul didn’t know whether he had witnessed it all in his mind or physically experienced it… “whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell” (v. 3).
What was this authority-validating, unique honor that Paul experienced? What is the third heaven?
Interestingly, the Apostle John recounts a similar experience and similar injunction during his eventful stay on the island of Patmos. John was forbidden to record what the seven thunders uttered (cp. Rev. 10:4 with 2 Cor. 12:4) — when time itself would cease to exist and the mystery of God would be finished (Rev. 10:3-7). This period would seem to be the post-millennial kingdom period, when death and the grave will be totally eliminated (Rev. 20:14,15; 1 Cor. 15:25-28). Time will be meaning- less when all of creation will be spirit-based. The infinite will eclipse the finite. This post-millennial kingdom period that John reported seemingly corresponds to the third heaven that Paul experienced briefly. But why would this ultimate period be understood as the “third heaven”?
Heaven and earth stages
There is a simple answer that leads into a far more comprehensive understanding — bridging divine promises, dreams, commandments and prophecies. The simple answer is that there are specifically three heaven-and-earth periods defined in scripture. The millennial kingdom is referred to as “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa. 65:17-25; 66:21-24). This distinction of newness presumes an old heavens and old earth that must be replaced with the new. This would make the millennial king- dom at least the second heaven-and-earth period. Immediately following the final judgment at the conclusion of the millennial kingdom and the elimination of death and the grave (Rev. 20:11-15) comes this next period described as yet another “new heaven and new earth”: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea” (Rev. 21:1).
Since the sea may represent nations (Isa. 57:20; Psa. 65:7; Dan. 7:2,3; Rev. 17:15), “no more sea” indicates the absence of nations. In the previous “new heaven and earth” of the millennial kingdom there was a sea but it was “like glass” (Rev. 4:6; 15:2), indicating the presence of nations but without conflict. The sea of nations was calm and glasslike. Yet in the new heavens and new earth that follows the mil- lennial kingdom there is no sea at all. There will be no nations, no governments, and no death in the third heaven period.
The simple answer to the third heaven question would be that Paul (and John) briefly experienced the ultimate plan of God, but were forbidden to share what they saw or heard with anyone else.
Identifying the third heaven as the post-millennial kingdom period opens a river of thought with several significant tributaries.
The heaven-and-earth promises and dreams
Since the millennial kingdom is identified as a new heaven and a new earth, the logical question would be: What represented the previous heaven and earth? The simple answer would be the previous kingdom of God constructed around the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The foundation for this understanding begins with the promises to Abram in Genesis.
Initially, Yahweh compares Abram’s future descendants to the dust of the earth:
“And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered” (Gen. 13:16). God confirms this promise, comparing Abram’s descendants to the stars of heaven: “Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be” (Gen. 15:5).
Thus God identifies the descendants of Abraham with earth and heaven. These two parallels are maintained throughout the Old Testament many times. Joseph has two dreams projecting how his authority would eventually exceed that of his brothers and even his father and stepmother. The first dream presents himself and his brothers as sheaves of grain that have grown up out of the dust of the earth. The second dream presents his family as the sun, moon and stars of heaven. This earth-and-then-heaven parallel mirrors the same earth-to-heaven progression of the promises to Abraham. Both divine promises and dreams validate the parallel between heaven and earth with the descendants of Abraham.
Therefore it is very logical to hear God addressing the nation of Israel (through Moses) as heaven and earth: “Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth. My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew…” (Deut. 32:1-2). God similarly addresses Israel in the first verses of Isaiah: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the LORD hath spoken” (Isa. 1:2). And in the last verses of Isaiah’s prophecies we see a similar parallel: “And I will also take of them for priests and for Levites, saith the LORD. For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the LORD, so shall your seed and your name remain” (Isa. 66:21,22).
Heaven and earth will pass away
The identification of the divinely-constituted Jewish nation as “heaven and earth” is presumed in New Testament prophecies. Jesus presents to his disciples the pro- phetic parable of the fig tree while looking down on the temple from the Mount of Olives. The parable of the fig tree is a prophecy of how the resurrection of the Jewish nation will herald Christ coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. This national resurrection is expressed as the fig tree progressing from
the death of winter to the rebirth of spring — when the branch is tender and puts forth leaves and summer is nigh. By prophesying of Israel’s national rebirth, Jesus prophetically presumes its death.
The nation of Israel still existed as Jesus was foretelling its spring-like rebirth. Im- mediately following this parable and his statement that the generation witnessing the flourishing of the fig tree would not pass away before all things took place, Jesus confirms the conclusion that the nation would have to die before it could be reborn. Jesus says, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matt. 24:35). In order for new heavens and a new earth to appear, the previous heaven and earth would have to be dissolved. The Roman army, under the father-son team of Generals Vespasian and Titus, accomplished the prophecy. Heaven and earth passed away with the destruction of the Jewish nation.
Peter uses similar terms when prophesying of the destruction of the Jewish nation:
“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat. Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:10,12,13). Peter describes the military destruction of the Jewish national constitution as the burning up of heaven and earth in the day of the Lord along with the hopeful anticipation of the new heavens and new earth.
The first heaven was the kingdom of God under the Jewish constitution. The second heaven will be the millennial kingdom of God. The third heaven will be the period following the end of the millennial kingdom, when the Creator will be in perfect harmony with creation, when He will be “all and in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).
Heaven and earth “tributaries”
There are other tributaries from this river of thought that can take us into such concerns as divine law. The two witnesses God calls against Israel (the first “heaven and earth” kingdom) are identified as heaven and earth: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live” (Deut. 30:19). According to divine law, the hands of the witnesses must be first against the accused (Deut. 17:6,7; 19:15-17). These necessary two witnesses of heaven and earth would confirm this law by withholding the rain and dramatically reducing agricultural productiveness.
Another tributary is the progression of “earth before heaven” — the curse of the dust of the earth preceding the heavenly blessing, the natural before the spiritual (1 Cor. 15:46); death before life and humbling before exaltation (in Jesus’ case, the towel and the thorns and the cross before the crown).
This principle of “earth before heaven” is beautifully portrayed in the ritual the High Priest performed on the Day of Atonement. To preserve his life, he had to transform the incense into a cloud through fire; this enveloped the ark of the covenant in the Most Holy so that God would not slay him: “And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not” (Lev. 16:13). This transforma- tion of aromatic dust into a mercyseat-enveloping cloud portrays the change in nature springing from the atonement work of the Messiah. Those suffering under the curse of the dust, who offer a pleasing aromatic benefit to their Creator, will be transformed in nature from the curse of the dust to the blessed divine nature of the cloud. God identified Himself as the cloud that led Israel in the wilderness, filled the tabernacle at its dedication, filled Solomon’s temple at its dedication, received up Christ into heaven, and accompanies him upon his return in like manner as he was seen to go. The Day of Atonement transformation from dust to cloud ritually portrays our hope of mortality changing into immortality. The earth-before-heaven progression expounds a divine principle manifested subtly throughout creative activity, and in law, visions, prophecies, historical events and promises. (The book Creation’s Gospel examines many of these applications of the “heaven and earth” Scriptural theme in greater detail.)
Paul and John were not allowed to express what they had seen and heard in the third heaven. It was for them alone. One might ask how we could possibly un- derstand without experiencing it for ourselves. Mankind has a very difficult time comprehending even the simplest divine expressions, often distorting God’s words by filtering them through its self-worshipping ego. How can the finite mind explain infinity? It shouldn’t be surprising we are offered very little information in Scripture about the third heaven. Though reluctant to do so, Paul appropriately offered his extraordinary experience with the third heaven as a badge of his authority.
Jim Dillingham (Dunbarton, NH)