Saturday, July 5, 2014

2 Corinthians 12--Third Heaven

2 Corinthians 12, starting at verse 2: I know a man in union with Christ who, 14 years ago—whether in the body or out of the body, I do not know; God knows—was caught away to the third heaven. 3 Yes, I know such a man—whether in the body or apart from the body, I do not know; God knows— 4 who was caught away into paradise and heard words that cannot be spoken and that are not lawful for a man to say. 5 I will boast about such a man, but I will not boast about myself except of my weaknesses. 6 For even if I want to boast, I will not be unreasonable, for I would say the truth. But I refrain from doing so, in order that no one should give me more credit than what he sees in me or hears from me, 7 just because of receiving such extraordinary revelations.

There is so much information here, it is definitely best to break it down into several components:

Third Heaven (Physical versus Spiritual versus Figurative): In what sense could there possibly be a “third” heaven? Twice scriptures speak of the "heavens" and the “heaven of the heavens” as not being sufficient to contain the creator of the universe, Jehovah God. Nehemiah said that Jehovah created both the heavens and the heaven of the heavens. In all these cases, what is being referred to is physical, the first "heavens" being our atmosphere, and the second (“the heaven of the heavens”) being what we today refer to as “outer space” which contain the stars (or, as older translations phrase it, “the heavenly hosts”). Once we get past those two heavens what else is left (as far as "heaven(s)" referring to a place, location or area)?

While some may want to theorize that it could be what lies beyond our galaxy, that is unlikely. This is because for the ancients, outer space included all the stellar cosmos. What makes considerably more sense is that the phrase "third heaven" is that which CAN contain Jehovah God--his very presence--the spirit realm in which the angels surround the Creator of all things. Although some may argue that Paul’s writing is the first mention of this third heaven, in actuality, the presence of God’s throne is mentioned throughout scripture. It seems very likely that Paul here refers to that as the third heaven. Indeed, he was not merely taken up into the sky (the atmosphere), nor was he somehow transported through the voids of outer space. No, he was taken (in a vision) to a heaven where there was intelligent conversation. In scripture, the only mention of intelligent life, other than here on earth, is heaven where the angels and God himself reside.)

Yet another possibility is that this third heaven is intended to be understood as being a superlative degree of an experience. In other words, Paul, in trance or vision, was “caught away” to see something that in itself was so awesome, so dumbfounding, so magnificent, that it was beyond words. But yet Paul wasn't beyond words because he mentions that what he saw was unlawful to relate. He seemed to understand what he saw and heard--BUT he felt compelled to hold back comment on it. More on this later.

Paradise: Although many religions and Bible commentators try to confuse people with this concept, in scripture it is very easy to understand. Paradise is mostly used in respects to our earth in a peaceful, productive, unpolluted (physically and spiritually) condition. There is only one scriptural reference where “the paradise of God,” in context, refers to heaven. So this begs the question, why would Paul seemingly lump “third heaven” and “paradise” as if it were one and the same place? I do not have a definitive answer, but again, considering the Bible as a whole, one logical possibility is that in this particular instance Paul was referring to the same “paradise of God” that is mentioned in Revelation.

Another possibility is that Paul actually is mentioning two different visions but appears to lump them together. In this case, he may have been given insight not only into the heavenly Kingdom but also into the coming paradise as mentioned in the scriptures linked here. I don’t know which of these two, or even if there are other possibilities, is correct. Searching other current-day commentators, it appears they also are uncertain. (One thing that confuses me about the possibility that Paul was writing about paradise on earth is that he he himself was heaven-bound and was writing to a congregation of anointed, heaven-bound Christians. Why would he be shown a vision of earth when heaven would make sense for Paul's personal future? Although paradise earth is a clear and definite promise in scriptures, in this context, it doesn't seem likely to me, but I'm no scholar.)

Not Lawful to Mention: First we need to identify which law is being referred to here. Paul himself had no trouble talking about many features related to Jesus and Christianity. Similarly, Peter likewise writes about the “new heavens” (Christ’s Kingdom rule in full sway) and “new earth” (obedient mankind preserved through Armageddon). Even John, who was imprisoned when he wrote the book of Revelation, spoke of God’s Kingdom taking over earth’s administration. So early Christians did not hold back from proclaiming God’s Kingdom because of Roman law. Even in the face of accusations of sedition, they still boldly spoke out. The second possibility is Jewish law. The apostles had twice been dragged into Jewish court (the Sanhedrin) and threateningly commanded not to speak about Jesus and the culpability of the Jewish leaders for Jesus’ death. So it is unlikely that Paul was talking about any human authority or rules. If not human rules, then it must have been a directive from God and Christ.

Yet Paul and others did indeed write, speak and teach about features of the coming Kingdom. They didn't fear Roman rule, they didn't fear Jewish leaders, and there was already an abundance in the Hebrew writings speaking of both heaven and earth. So what feature(s) of this was something not lawful? Perhaps a hint is found in Daniel 12:4. There, Daniel is told to keep at least part of his message secret. Although this may or may not be related, it does demonstrate that there was at least one other time when God told a man about a matter and then told him, ‘don’t tell anyone’ until God gave permission. So did Paul see certain features of the coming Kingdom that God and Christ want to surprise us with? Could be. Time will tell.

Third Heaven and/or Paradise and Unmentionables: So is the "third heaven" the spirit realm where God himself resides or was it superlative experience? Is the "paradise" mentioned here the coming restored earth or the "paradise of God" (again, God's heavenly presence)? Are the unlawful words a yet-to-be-revealed surprise or something else? What really is the “takeaway” here? What lesson is there to learn from this passage? 

Let’s go back to the context of 2 Corinthians 12. In verses 5 through 10, Paul says that whatever it was he experienced, the point is not that he himself is anything special, but rather that God is indeed using him and has blessed him not only with privileges related to proclaiming the Good News, but also with teaser-insights into the future. One thing is for sure, whatever this vision was invigorated Paul so much that even 14 years later when he wrote 2 Corinthians, he remained determinedly looking forward to the fulfillment of that vision. 

Like Paul, we also need humility when it comes to trying to understand difficult passages like this one at 2 Corinthians. Indeed, if Paul felt he was nothing special, me even more so. I have not been given any visions, I do not claim to have any special understanding. I am only capturing my personal meditation and research here. Also, we need endurance, determination and vigor to continue faithful and proclaim the Kingdom message. We need to see the Kingdom and the paradise as clearly in our mind's eye as Paul did in his vision!

Are you curious to know what the particulars are about those unmentionables? So am I. The best way to ensure that we find out is to prove ourselves faithful so that when the time comes, we can find out.

More extensive examination of the use of the word "heaven" in the Bible.
Watchtower official examination of 2 Corinthians 12:2-4

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