An Address on 2 Corinthians 12:1-6

We read in this passage of a “third heaven” into which this man was taken. But can we know, or have some right comprehension of what the third heaven is? By this I do not mean the blessedness of heaven; that, surely, we may regard as impossible. But can we form a satisfactory idea of what the third heaven is in contrast with the first and second heaven? In the first chapter of Genesis we have at least a conception of two heavens. We find there a heaven as the sphere of the clouds, and of the birds of heaven.” Then we find a heaven of the stars; in these, no doubt, we have the first and the second heavens. The sphere of the birds and of the clouds is clearly a physical and created heaven; and so likewise is the second heaven — the heaven of the stars.

Now, in the last chapter of 2 Peter, we learn that these physical and created heavens are to pass away: “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. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, 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?” Again, in Revelation 20, at the end of time, as we say, when the course of human history has run out, and when the great white throne is set up, we read of the passing away of the first heaven and the first earth from before Him who sits upon that throne: that is, we read of the passing away of the present physical creation — the things spoken of in those brief words of the apostle Peter.

Here, in 2 Corinthians 12, we read of “the third heaven,” which cannot be, of course, either of the two physical heavens of which we have been speaking. May we not, then, regard this third heaven as the heaven of God, the home of God? And if His dwelling place be an eternal home, it is an immaterial, uncreated heaven. I think we cannot question that, and that this is what the apostle refers to in 2 Corinthians 13, when he speaks of this “man in Christ” being caught up into the third heaven.

Thus far I have only expressed it as a conviction; but the expressions in the second and fourth verses seem to settle conclusively that the apostle identifies the third heaven with God’s paradise. In the second chapter of Revelation we also get the expression, “the paradise of God”; and here the apostle identifies the third heaven with the paradise of God. “Paradise” means a place of delight, and God’s home surely is a place of eternal delight.

It is interesting to notice several things brought before us here by the apostle in reference to this “man in Christ” being caught up into the third heaven. In the first place, we should remember it is in the apostle’s defence of himself when his authority as an apostle had been called in question. Men had come in among the Corinthian saints to disparage the apostle, to supplant him in their minds and hearts. So far as this was a personal matter, it was not of much account in the eyes of the apostle; but in undermining his apostleship they were putting in question the truth which the Corinthians had received from God through him. So it was a matter to which he must give attention for the sake of the saints. He could not let it pass as he did on another occasion when he wrote, “It is a very small thing that I should be judged of you,” etc. But he was set for the defence of the faith once delivered to the saints, and his apostleship must be maintained. So, in effect, he says: If these people are calling my authority in question, if it is a matter of defence, why, I can boast of as much as they can. If they are Jews, so am I; if they are ministers of Christ, so am I, etc. He then says, Now I am going to boast of something that none of them can boast of. (Read from the 23rd verse of the previous chapter.) “Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more, in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save, one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the assemblies.” Here, says the apostle, is my record; here is a picture of my life as an apostle, and as a minister of Christ. Were these false apostles — who transformed themselves into ministers of righteousness — were they and their labor like this? But that is not all: “I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord,” he says, even to being “caught up to the third heaven,” — the Paradise of God — a wonderful experience to which everyone of them was a stranger.

But there is a great deal more in these verses than the apostle’s defense of his apostleship. What is stated here bears very importantly on several other matters. I may say, by the way, it has been questioned if it was really the apostle who was caught up to the third heaven, but that question is settled in the seventh verse of this chapter; for he says, “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.” It could be therefore none other than himself.

Let us note a few things in connection with this scripture. In the first place, we may notice that he who was caught up into the third heaven was not there as an apostle, but simply as “a man in Christ.” And that is the only possible way in which any man can be there. No one can ever enter the eternal home of God except under cover of Christ. I remember when I was at school, on coming home one vacation I took a friend along with me. Had this friend gone to my father’s door alone, and knocked for admission, no doubt many questions would have been asked him. But going there with me, no questions were asked, because he was entering my father’s door under my cover. My father welcomed and received me, and received and welcomed him because he was under my protection. So with the home of God. There is but one way in: Christ says, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no man cometh unto the Father but by Me.” We enter the Father’s home only under Christ’s cover and protection. Well, a “man in Christ” entering heaven is a man under cover of Christ.

Many vain speculations have been made as to when and how the apostle was thus caught up, admitted into, this “third heaven.” The apostle himself tells us he did not know whether he was bodily caught up or not. He had been into paradise, in the third heaven; he knew that; but if it was with or without his body, he could not tell.* Why should any speculate about it then? One thing is clear, the apostle not only thought it was possible to go there in the body, but also out of the body. Then, at any rate, there is consciousness for the spirit or soul of man after death. If there were not another verse in all Scripture bearing on that question, this one passage settles absolutely that the disembodied spirit after death is conscious.

{*The blessedness of the things witnessed and heard was such and self-consciousness so absent, that whether in the body or out of the body, the apostle could not tell. Have we not in this a suggestion of the condition of those who have “departed to be with Christ, which is far better” — [Ed.}

In the Old Testament we read that “Enoch walked with God and God took him.” Elijah too was caught up by a whirlwind. Where were they caught up to? To the heaven of clouds, the heaven of the stars, or the dwelling-place of God? All down through the ages those who died in the faith, as Hebrews 11 tells us, have gone where Enoch and Elijah went; without question they went to the home of God, the third heaven, and they went there under the cover of Christ. And the dying thief too, who went to Paradise, went there under the cover of Christ; for the moment he took his place in self-judgment and repentance, casting himself upon Christ’s mercy, the blessed Lord said to him, “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.” He had joined the other thief in reviling the Lord at first; but suddenly, when his soul is laid hold of by the Spirit of God, he confesses himself a sinner, rebukes the other thief, saying, “Dost thou not fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done nothing amiss.” He confesses himself a sinner, and casts himself upon the mercy of the Lord; and the blessed Saviour becomes his protection against his great and many sins, and says to him, “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.” So has every spirit of just men all along through the ages gone to paradise under cover of Christ.

In the fourth verse the apostle tells us that having been caught up into paradise, he heard “unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” Is it possible for us to form any conception of what the apostle was a witness to in the third heaven? If we turn to the eighth chapter of Proverbs, we find there the Son of God under the title of “Wisdom.” And what is it “Wisdom” says? Mark, it is before creation, before the foundations of the earth were laid — in eternity, when there was none but God Himself. Communications between the divine Persons are here given us: “Then was I by Him, as one brought up with Him: and I was daily His delight, rejoicing always before Him; rejoicing in the habitable parts of His earth, and my delights were with the sons of men.” How that speaks to us of the Father’s delight in the Son, and of the eternal purpose. His eye was looking towards the eternity to come, when that purpose would be revealed and fulfilled — when the physical new heavens and new earth shall be established, and God and man dwell eternally together, and that “rejoicing together in the habitable parts of His earth” will be realized! Here we have the expression of it: “I was daily His delight, rejoicing always before Him.” What delight in each other! What divine communications from Divine heart to Divine heart!

Well, the apostle was caught up to the third heaven, and what did he hear? He says, I cannot declare what I heard; I heard unspeakable, or ineffable, words in the home of God; not the language of man, but the tongue of heaven in that home of God. Can we doubt that he heard divine communications of which we have been speaking? What else could it be? In the home of God, He must be the Speaker, and in the language of that place. Could the apostle find words in our language to express the fulness of that fellowship? Nay; that was impossible for a man to express.

In closing I will turn to Revelation 2:7 to show that in eternity we shall participate in the life and joys of that place. We know that we have been laid hold of by the grace of God for that home. We are on the way to it, and when we are in it we shall participate in that fellowship of which the apostle has been speaking, and of which Proverbs 8 is an expression. We have here, in Revelation, the promise of “the Tree of Life” — a symbolical expression, no doubt. Revelation is full of symbols. “The Tree of Life” symbolizes Christ as the Sustainer of life in the home of God. From Him we derive life; we live by Him, and we are going to live by and with Him for ever. He says: “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the Tree of Life.” If the Tree of Life is the symbol of the life in the home of God, eating is the symbol of participating with Him. But I will not enlarge upon this. It is wonderful!

Man has lost the earthly paradise which God had made for him; but think of this marvellous grace of God, to send His only begotten Son down here in this world, when we had lost everything, to lay hold of us, and exalt us even to taking us to His own home with Himself! Here is grace — the grace of God! May the immensity of it, and the glory of it, lay hold of these poor narrow hearts of ours; for He has delivered us from the eternal doom of sin, and “made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.”