What does it mean to be caught up in the 'third heaven'?
“I know a man in Christ who, fourteen years ago, was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body, I do not know – God knows. And I know that this man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows – was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.” – 2 Corinthians 12: 2-4
The above scripture has puzzled many Christians over the years, with some struggling to figure out how to interpret it. Others wonder if they are missing out by not having had that experience. They question whether such an awesome manifestation is reserved for ‘special Christians’ only.
Family and Religion asked Rev Dwight Bryan of the Dominion in Christ International Church to share his understanding of the passage. He said that the Apostle Paul was recounting the extraordinary events of a man caught up to the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12: 1-4).
For Bryan, although Paul did not explicitly state it, most Bible scholars believe that he (Paul) was speaking about himself.
“He tells of seeing things that are not permissible for him to speak about. This account was, no doubt, a supernatural experience where, in a vision, Paul was taken up to heaven, the place where God the Father resides. The reference to the third heaven is to make it clear that this is not the atmospheric heaven above the Earth, where spiritual activity does, in fact, take place. This is also not the stellar heaven that we can see on a clear, starry night, which we refer to as outer space,” he pointed out.
Bryan reminded believers that Paul is not the only person in the Bible to have had a heavenly vision, noting that the prophet Isaiah saw the temple transformed into the very throne room of God in all His majesty, with the angels worshipping Him.
Bryan noted also that in the Book of Revelation, John had a vision of the heavenly throne room, with the 24 elders bowing before God and the living creatures giving Him glory.
“So, while God does, in fact, give glimpses of heaven to individuals while they are still on this side of eternity, nowhere in scripture are we instructed to seek after these experiences or that they should be worn as some type of spiritual badge of honour. In fact, after mentioning the heavenly experience, Paul quickly changes gears and begins to focus on his human frailty and his ongoing need to rely on God’s grace,” Bryan noted.
For Christians who believe that they are missing out on not having the experience Paul describes, Bryan quotes James 1:27, which points out that the true badge of spirituality is found in serving others and practically demonstrating the love of Christ to them.
According to Bryan, any form of boasting or pride in one’s spiritual achievements runs totally counter to scripture. Highlighting the story of the Pharisee who stood to pray, and bragged to God about his fasting and giving, he contrasts that to the publican who cried out to God for mercy and went home justified.
“Every Christian should definitely desire to have a growing and increasing walk with God. However, the motive for doing so must always be checked. If it is just so we can amass spiritual bragging rights, then shame on us. If we want to be available vessels fit for the Master’s use, then our desires are aligned with His will,” Bryan shared.
Bryan notes that while as Christians we should desire spiritual gifts, we should not seek after spectacular manifestations such as encounters with angels or trips to heaven.
“The misplaced desire for the unusual is a ripe breeding ground for the enemy to interject counterfeit signs and wonders. The scripture tells us that he can appear as an angel of light. Many a believer has been led into deception in the pursuit of spectacular manifestations, falling prey to deceiving voices. Others, in their desire to attain greater spirituality, have harmed themselves trying to fast for 40 days and nights without food or water.”
Bryan said that each believer should focus on his other walk with God, with an emphasis on becoming brilliant on the basics.