A Glimpse of Heaven
Up Close and Personal with the Apostle Paul Series
2 Corinthians 12:2-4 (KJB) 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.
These verses are impressive indeed! They are penned in the third person, with a man referred to as “such an one caught up to the third heaven…” Paul uses this vague reference in pointing to himself. Why were these verses penned using this ambiguous style? Though we do not know for sure, it is plausible to think that the Apostle Paul was humble, indeed not pious, and perhaps was not comfortable referencing himself in these scripture verses. Especially since these verses speak about heaven and Paul likely would have been overwhelmed by this divine opportunity to glance in this splendid realm even for just a few precious moments. Another person who also had an opportunity to see into the realm of heaven did also write in this very same manner. The Apostle John spoke of himself in the third person in various verses throughout the canon of scripture.
Yes, these verses certainly make the reader stop and do a double read in considering the magnitude of this heavenly vision Paul is attempting to get across to us in such a strangely worded fashion. This glimpse of heaven was so overwhelming for Paul that perhaps he struggled to find the right words in describing his “out of this world” excursion.
Let’s come along in this “out of this world” journey with Paul as he pens about the day when he was given a divine opportunity to see into the depths of heaven. Imagine, if we can, what this was like for him revealing a few details of this heavenly adventure.
Some people try to place Paul’s experience within a specific historical window or attempt to make a potential timeline of his life by using other parts of the biblical record of his many missionary journeys in his life coupling them together with these verses found in the book of Second Corinthians. The background of this particular letter was that it was penned to the Corinthian Church.
It is important to note that Paul never gives us a traceable date or time when this opportunity afforded him to see into the heavenly realm. Some scholars believe that it was when he was pelted with rocks, or stoned, and left for dead in Lystra (Acts 16:19). This could be a possibility; however, no one knows for sure for there is no concrete evidence available in making that determination credible.
In fact, in studying further verse four of Second Corinthians chapter twelve, we read that it was unlawful for Paul to repeat or put words to what he saw, “ and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter…”
Yes, you will agree that Paul was a man who now desired to closely follow the decrees and direction of God no matter the cost to him having such a selfless fashion of serving and savoring God. Paul chose to honor God’s order, unlike men in this world who might invoke a plea claiming the fifth amendment not having to testify and give necessary details in a court case, precedence, or other legal matter concerning their potential guilt, knowledge, or personal involvement in a serious situation. Paul was satisfied in obediently remaining quiet about the glorious specifics of heaven he witnessed firsthand and, in this decision, following the divine direction of God rather than choosing to vividly color his relationship with mankind in speaking about impressive heavenly details. Though any specifics he might be able to provide about heaven would be indeed fascinating, Paul knew that choosing to speak so grandly would undoubtedly be a foolish decision, one that would stand in opposition to a direct command of God. Not only would doing so be a foolish decision but speaking would just be prideful prattling for elevating himself rather than honoring God by quietly abiding in the expressed will of God.
We already know, having discussed it in a previous post, that the Apostle Paul was given a thorn in his flesh perhaps in keeping his pride intact. This thorn was possibly given of satan, but if so, it was allowed by God. This physical handicap of unknown sorts (maybe it was a vision problem) likely made him personally even more aware of his innate need of the presence and supernatural working of God in his life. Paul had asked God three times to remove this thorn in his prayers, but for whatever reason, God chose to leave this infirmity intact. Perhaps so that the Apostle Paul could not rely on his own viewpoint, workings, strength, and understanding, but had to rely upon the direction, mercy, and grace of God (2 Corinthians 12:9) rather than look inward to self. Indeed, the Apostle Paul was human and faced the very same weaknesses that Jesus, and we face as we walk on this earth in a tent of flesh.
This unexpected trip to Heaven was an indescribable supernatural matter and only God can work miracles in such extraordinary circumstances. No person could never accomplish a thing in a supernatural arena apart from the power and presence of God. This supernatural adventure was the second super incident recorded in Paul’s life since that momentous day on the road to Damascus. Overall, this was something Paul was determined to keep between himself and God leaving few recorded details for mankind to read and study from his limited vantage point of this earth, and this is where faith in God steps in to play.
However, let’s look at a handful of details revealed for our learning and study about the third heaven. This heavenly realm the Apostle Paul divinely inspired of God to pen of his transport is believed to be positioned above this earth. It is described for us as being found in the air beyond the sky and stars and atop the realm, we can view with our own eyes. This unseen layer is said to contain the third heaven. All any human can see with his finite eyes from a limited viewpoint on this earth is the first and second heaven, or the atmosphere containing the air we breathe and the higher atmosphere looming above us containing the skies and the stars.
According to Paul’s account, he was taken to the third heaven of which no other man alive on this earth can prove beyond doubt he or she has ever visited this spiritual arena. Though some have recounted an out of body experience, none were ever directed of God to record it for our reading and learning. The accounts in God’s Word are complete, and no other account can ever be added, especially with the dire warning found in the book of Revelation concerning any man adding to God’s Word (Revelation 22:18-19).
The second and third heaven is inspired by God to be mentioned; therefore, we can be sure both exist.
Though many scholars might venture to say that Paul’s recollection of his ancient supernatural event seems to be somewhat fuzzy, his description certainly lends credence to it by tying together with a time when he was pelted with rocks and left for dead. With serious injuries noted to be present perhaps from blows to the head and his physical body, both his mind and his vision might have been somewhat clouded. Perhaps he suffered what we might commonly call a concussion, a cerebral contusion, or a contrecoup injury in emergency medicine today, and was indeed divinely transported to this third realm lingering near death.
Others might also claim that the lack of details is due to Paul being physically unable to describe such an unbelievably wonderful place because he literally had no known words with which to describe it. Though we know that nothing is impossible when God is involved in the details.
While other opinions simply state that Paul chose to obedient in following the directions given him of God in not ever speaking of what he saw. This conclusion seems to match best with the nature and character of both God and Paul since Paul’s heart was spiritually regenerated and made alive in Christ.
In conclusion, it is true that no man can further explain details of this supernatural event concerning the third realm with absolute clarity or give answers this side of heaven other than what was divinely recorded by the hand of Paul for us in God’s Word. A person can spend all day supposing the how, why, and what of this event, and any other spiritual event, but it would never lead to any concrete answers. For now, from our limited vantage point, we must believe in faith the unbelievable, the supernatural, the unexplainable, and that which is implausible by placing faith in the significance of God’s Word, and in the power and presence of God at work in Paul’s life, and in this world.
** part four of this series Up Close and Personal with the Apostle Paul is titled Standing Firm in Christ
Please also read the first three posts in this series: