By Mike Leake, Crosswalk.com
Do you hope to go to heaven when you die?
Most people would answer with a definitive “yes.” One of the first things I learned in going to church is that everybody has heaven as their hopeful destination.
Before really understanding the gospel, I’d assumed that the way to heaven when you die is by being a good enough person. Imagine my shock, then, when I stumbled upon this verse in 2 Corinthians 12, where this dude named Paul talked about going into the “third heaven.”
“Wow! I’m just trying to get into the first one,” I thought, “and now you’re telling me there is at least a third heaven that I need to try to get into.”
What does Paul mean by this statement? Are there different levels of heaven? If so, what are these levels? Is this kind of like Dante’s “levels of hell,” and the super spiritual people get to go up to the third floor? Is that where they keep the good donuts?
What Is the Context of 2 Corinthians 12:2?
The Corinthians were a bit like us. They liked talking about the miraculous and the astonishing. If you really wanted to grab their attention, talk about something phenomenal. Heavenly tourism books would have been best-sellers in Corinth, just like they are here.
In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul gives his own story of being transported into heaven. But it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek. He is boasting about his experience.
He is playing their game, getting them all excited about this heavenly experience, and then he bursts their balloon. He doesn’t give any details but shifts the conversation to talking about weakness. It is here, says the apostle, where our boasting should be placed.
The key verse in this passage is the Lord telling Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
This is important because it tells us that Paul’s main point here in 2 Corinthians isn’t to outline the afterlife. He isn’t teaching what the afterlife is to be like.
Rather he is using basic cosmological terms of his day in order to make a point. We shouldn’t use this as a detailed treatise on what heaven is like.
If Paul is using basic cosmology of his day, what was this belief?
What Is the Meaning of ‘Heavens’?
It’s likely a misquote. But the first man in space Yuri Gagarin was rumored to have said, “I went up to space, but I did not encounter God.” Gagarin could be translated as saying he went to “heaven,” but he didn’t see God there.
In ancient cosmology, the word heavens have a wide meaning. John Barry gives a helpful summary of ancient cosmology,
“According to ancient cosmology, there are seven levels: the sky, the clouds, the sky above the clouds, the firmament, the waters above the firmament, the heavens, and the heaven of heavens, where God dwells. The three heavens view understands the first heaven to be the visible sky or the ‘firmament’ (see Genesis 1:8 and note), the second heaven to either be the ‘heavens’ or the division between the ‘heavens’ (the ‘waters above the firmament’; Psalm 148:4), and the third to be the ‘heavens of heavens’ or ‘highest heavens’ (1 Kings 8:27; Psalm 148:4). All views agree on the places, but they label them differently (John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible).
In verse 3, Paul uses similar wording to talk about being “caught up into paradise.” This could mean that either that paradise is one level higher than the “third heaven,” or he could be using these synonymously.
Using these two words synonymously would not be without precedent. In The Apocalypse of Moses 37:5, we read of God handing Adam over to Michael, the archangel, and saying, “Lift him up into Paradise unto the third heaven…”
Is This a Picture of the Temple?
Another somewhat attractive view is the idea that this is connected to the Garden of Eden, the tabernacle, and the temple. The key aspect to the Garden of Eden — as well as the temple and tabernacle structure, is the presence of God. Jason Hood, who puts together this hypothesis, says it this way,
“While the purpose of multiple ‘levels’ is not always transparent, it is clear in the triadic scheme that distinctions in levels of holiness, exaltation, and (for those admitted) intimacy are being depicted. Paul has been granted entrance to the heavenly Edenic paradise, the most holy place. An experience in the innermost throne room is surely consonant with the description ‘surpassing greatness’” (“The Temple and the Thorn: 2 Corinthians 12 and Paul’s Heavenly Ecclesiology,” Bulletin for Biblical Research).
The point, then, is that Paul has been given deeper access to the presence of Almighty God. The third heaven, then, isn’t about different levels of heaven (like the third floor is where the good donuts are), but it has more to do with the presence of God. If we’re correct, then we can see how this fits into Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 12.
How Does This Serve Paul’s Argument?
What point is Paul attempting to make in 2 Corinthians 12? As noted earlier, the Corinthians are enamored with flashy things. They love the super-apostles.
They like their celebrity preachers. And what is happening is that they are dismissing Paul and his simple gospel. Paul is being relegated to the status of an inferior apostle.
Now, Paul doesn’t care about his own personal status. But their rejection of Paul is dangerously close to their rejection of the biblical gospel.
In order to keep them tethered to the gospel, Paul has to do what he hates doing, namely, defend himself. That’s one of the big points of 2 Corinthians. This puts him in the unenviable spot of comparing his ministry to that of these “super-apostles.”
They claimed to have special revelation, of being close to the Lord, etc., and so Paul is competing with them. He has been to the third heaven.
This would be like saying in the Old Testament that he had been into the very Holy of Holies. But what is important to Paul’s argument here is what he does with this great revelation. Or rather what the Lord does in Paul after having received this heightened vision.
It leads to suffering. It leads to a thorn. Rather than leading to boasting and superiority, it leads to humility. Paul cannot lean on his vision; he must lean on Christ. This is where true strength is found.
The point, then, is that being in the presence of God doesn’t lead to being puffed up. It promotes humility. It’s very similar to what we see in Philippians 2.
Having the mind of Christ doesn’t mean that you will be a braggart who can win at Bible Trivia. Having the mind of Christ, and following Christ, will mean that you have a heart that stoops.
By doing this, Paul is calling into question these “super-apostles.” If they think they’ve truly been with Jesus and into the Holy of Holies, and yet their ministry is centered around secret knowledge, avoidance of suffering, debasing simple gospel ministry, etc., then Paul is questioning whether they’ve been into the presence of God.
Bernard of Clarivaux gets it correct when he says this,
“If the great Apostle had to be transported to that place which he could not know by his own learning or climb to by his own strength even with a guide, then I, so tiny compared to Paul, must never presume that I can climb to the third heaven by my own strength and effort” (2 Corinthians, vol. 29, The New American Commentary).
What Does This Mean?
What is the third heaven? It’s likely a way of speaking about being deeper in the presence of God. It’s what believers in Jesus are awaiting in eternity. And if we happen to catch little glimpses of this or are granted special seasons where God’s presence overwhelms us, we will be marked by humility — and not platforming our experience.
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