What does it mean to be caught up to the third heaven?
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(All quotations from the King James Version unless stated otherwise).
I make the assumption that your question really relates to just the first 10 verses as verses 11 to 21 need no explanation.
2 Corinthians 12:1 It is not expedient for me doubtless to glory. I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 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. 3 And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) 4 How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter. 5 Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities. 6 For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me.
It is generally understood that the man Paul refers to is himself as he goes on to say that the thorn in the flesh was given unto him to prevent him being exalted by the revelations.
‘Caught up’ is the translation of the Greek word ‘harpazo’ which does not signify the ‘direction’ of the ‘catching’. It means literally to ‘snatch away’. It is translated in the king James version as ‘catch up’ 4 times; take by force 3 times; catch away 2 times; pluck 2 times; catch 1 time; pull 1 time.
The difference in meaning is important because I believe that to be taken to the third heaven is a journey in time not in space.
Heaven in scripture is used to denote the way that the earth is ordered. There are three stages in the purpose of God.
1. From creation to the flood
2. From the flood to the return of Christ
3. The kingdom of God established on the earth
2 Peter 3:5 For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: 6 Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: 7 But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men... 10 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... 11 Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, 12 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? 13 Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
The fire that he speaks of will not literally destroy the heaven and earth but is used as a figure for the fiery judgment of this world by Christ which will usher in a new order of government.
Acts 17:31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
When Christ returns he will establish the kingdom of God upon earth.
The third heaven is the kingdom of God on earth ‘wherein dwelleth righteousness’.
Both Matthew and Luke record that Christ was transfigured on the mount and seen by the disciples glorified in the kingdom of God and speaking to Moses and Elijah. This was transportation in time and a fulfilment of what he had previously told the disciples.
Matthew 16:28 Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.
Luke 9:27 But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of God.
Matthew 17:1 And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, 2 And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. 3 And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him... 9 And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.
Luke 9:28 And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray. 29 And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering. 30 And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias: 31 Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.
I believe that the third heaven that Paul was taken to was likewise the kingdom of God on earth.
The paradise that Paul speaks of is that of the kingdom of God. The word is used in two other places.
1. Luke 23:42 And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.
There is no coma in the Greek and the translators have put the coma in the wrong place. That day Jesus was not in paradise but in the tomb and he remained there until the morning of the first day of the week.
The malefactor understood that Christ would set up his kingdom on the earth in the future so he says ‘remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom’
Jesus’ reply was to give him the assurance that self-same day that he would be with him when he came into his kingdom ‘Verily I say unto thee to day, thou shalt be with me in paradise’.
Gabriel says of Jesus
Luke 1:32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
This clearly refers to a kingdom on the earth.
Daniel 2:44 And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.
This is future to our time and yet to be established.
2. Revelation 2:7 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.
Revelation describes Christ as reigning upon the earth over the mortal population for 1000 years and refers to this kingdom in a figure as the paradise of God.
Revelation 20:6 Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
I believe that Paul in vision was given revelations of the glories of the kingdom of God and the divine nature which he is not allowed to divulge.
2 Corinthians 12:7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.
We are not told what his ailment was and speculation is of no value. The exhortation of his explanation that having the weakness or affliction forced him to rely upon God is what is important for us; for we all have weaknesses and afflictions and can take example from Paul.
Paul explains what is going to happen on the earth:
1 Corinthians 15:22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming. 24 Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. 25 For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. 27 For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. 28 And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.
This will be the fulfilment of God’s purpose.
Numbers 14:21 But as truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD.
Habakkuk 2:14 For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
It is the first request in the ‘Lord’s prayer’
Matthew 6:10 Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
In conclusion, the third heaven is the kingdom of God which is to be established on the earth when Christ returns.
Micah 4:2 And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 3 And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah 26:9 With my soul have I desired thee in the night; yea, with my spirit within me will I seek thee early: for when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.
I hope you have found this helpful.
May God bless you,