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2 Corinthians 12:1-5 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
12 Boasting is necessary, though it is not profitable, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago, whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows, such a man was caught up to the third heaven. 3 And I know how such a man, whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows; 4 was caught up into Paradise and heard unspeakable words, which a man is not permitted to speak. 5 On behalf of such a man I will boast; but on my own behalf I will not boast, except in my weaknesses.
In 2 Corinthians 12:2-3, Paul refers to a certain man who was “caught up to the third heaven.” Who was a man in Christ? Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, emphasizing that God was using him as an apostle. (2 Cor. 11:5, 23) He then referenced “visions and revelations of the Lord.” In this context, Paul did not mention any of the other brothers. Therefore, we can reasonably infer that the man in Christ was the apostle Paul himself, who had received visions and revelations. So, to reiterate, It was the apostle Paul who was “caught up to the third heaven” and “caught up into paradise.” He referred to “revelations,” divine or supernatural disclosure from God to the apostle Paul of what will occur and exist in the future. (2 Cor. 12:1-5) Revelation is the “content and process of God’s making Himself known to people. All knowledge of God comes by way of revelation.”—Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1383.
What is the “third heaven” to which Paul refers?
Well, let’s begin by defining “heaven” in the Bible. “1. heaven, i.e., the realm of God (Ezr 5:11; Da 2:18; 5:23); 2. sky, the area just above the earth where flying creatures are (Da 2:38; 4:9[EB 8]); 3. (most versions) Heaven, a title or euphemism for the true God (Da 4:23[EB 26]+), 4. שְׁמַיִן וְ־ אֲרַק (šemǎ·yin w- ʾǎrǎq) the universe, formally, the heavens and the earth (Ezr 5:11; Jer 10:11; Da 6:28[EB 27]+)” (Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Aramaic) Yes, it does refer to the physical heavens. (Gen. 11:4; 27:28; Matt. 6:26) But we see that “heaven” is also used in other senses. It can refer to the spiritual heavens, the abode of God and his angels, an invisible realm beyond the physical heavens. (Isa 57:15; 63:15; Ps 33:13, 14; 115:3) Therefore, in many Bible verses, the “heavens” refers to God himself and his rightful rulership over all of His creation. God’s throne is in the spiritual heavens, over which he rules. (Ps 103:19-21; 2Ch 20:6; Mt 23:22; Ac 7:49) From his highest or foremost place, God, in a sense, “looks down from heaven upon the sons of men,” and the physical heavens and earth. (Ps 14:2; 102:19; 113:6) From this grand place, he speaks, hears prayers, and proclaims judgment. (1Ki 8:49; Ps 2:4-6; 76:8; Mt 3:17) The apostle John tells us, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” The heavens can refer to the Kingdom of God and divine rulership.—Rev. 21:1.
The New Earth: The Earthly Hope
In the O[ld] T[estament] the kingdom of God is usually described in terms of a redeemed earth; this is especially clear in the book of Isaiah, where the final state of the universe is already called new heavens and a new earth (65:17; 66:22) The nature of this renewal was perceived only very dimly by OT authors, but they did express the belief that a humans ultimate destiny is an earthly one. This vision is clarified in the N[ew] T[estament]. Jesus speaks of the “renewal” of the world (Matt 19:28), Peter of the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21). Paul writes that the universe will be redeemed by God from its current state of bondage (Rom. 8:18-21). This is confirmed by Peter, who describes the new heavens and the new earth as the Christian’s hope (2 Pet. 3:13). Finally, the book of Revelation includes a glorious vision of the end of the present universe and the creation of a new universe, full of righteousness and the presence of God. The vision is confirmed by God in the awesome declaration: “I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:1-8)
The new heavens and the new earth will be the renewed creation that will fulfill the purpose for which God created the universe. It will be characterized by the complete rule of God and by the full realization of the final goal of redemption: “Now the dwelling of God is with men” (Rev. 21:3).
The fact that the universe will be created anew shows that God’s goal for humans is not an ethereal and disembodied existence but a bodily existence on a perfected earth. The scene of the beatific vision is the new earth. The spiritual does not exclude the created order and will be fully realized only within a perfected creation. (Elwell 2001, 828-29)
 It is unwise to speak of the written Word of God as if it were of human origin, saying, ‘OT authors express the belief,’ when what was written is the meaning and message of what God wanted to convey by means of the human author.
 Creating anew does not mean a complete destruction followed by a re-creation, but instead a renewal of the present universe.
So, how are we to understand Paul’s reference to “the third heaven.” In what sense is it the third? “In Scripture, seven symbolizes completeness or perfection. … “Three” may well share in this meaning of completion or perfection, although not so forcibly (2 Kgs 13:18).” (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible) The Bible also repeats things three times to emphasize, show the degree of something, or indicate added strength. (Isa. 6:3; Ezek. 21:27; Rev. 4:8) When Paul spoke of “the third heaven,” he was stressing the future (revelation) perfect form of rulership, the Kingdom by Jesus Christ, wherein ‘all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him (Matt 28:18), and those who will rule with him as kings, priests, and judges. (Rev. 5:9-10; 20:4-5) The apostle Peter wrote, “But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”—2 Pet. 3:13.
Caught up to the third heaven … to paradise (12:2–4). Jewish literature of the period refers to one, three, five, seven, and even 955 heavens. In each instance—and this seems to be the case here as well—the point is that the one ascending has reached the highest heavens, the very abode of God. In this passage, “third heaven” and “paradise” refer to the same locale.—Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Romans to Philemon., vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 254.
Many scholars attempt to relate Paul’s reference to the third heaven to the early Jewish literature that there were stages of heaven, “even 955 heavens.” However, we certainly do not depend on early rabbinic views, as this view is not found in the Scriptures. Jesus told these rabbinic leaders; specifically, you are “making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:13) Thus, in the inspired, inerrant Word of God, not Jewish literature, the heavens are not referred to as being divided into stages or levels. The context must be considered whether Paul speaks of the heavens within earth’s atmosphere, the heavens of outer space, the spiritual heavens, or any of the lexical possibilities. The reference to “the third heaven” indicates the future (revelation) perfect form of rulership, the Kingdom by Jesus Christ and those like Paul who will rule with him as kings, priests, and judges.
God created the earth to be inhabited (Isa. 45:18), to be filled with perfect humans who are over the animals and under the sovereignty of God. (Gen 1:28; 2:8, 15; Ps 104:5; 115:16; Eccl 1:4) Sin did not dissuade God from his plans (again, Isa. 45:18); hence, he has saved redeemable humankind by Jesus’ ransom sacrifice. It seems that the Bible offers two hopes to redeemed humans, (1) a heavenly hope, or (2) an earthly hope. It also seems that those with heavenly hope are limited in number and are going to heaven to rule with Christ as kings, priests, and judges either on the earth or over the earth from heaven. It seems that those with earthly hope will receive eternal life here on a paradise earth as originally intended.
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