What does the phrase “third heaven” mean? It is part of scripture in the KJV, 2 Cor. 12:2. As far as I know, there is no reference to a “second Heaven.” And the only reference I could find to a “first heaven” is in Rev 21:1. Can you try to explain this phrase to me please?
The most common view out there, it seems at least from my experience, is that this refers to “levels” of heaven. Those who suggest this view point out that sometimes what we call the “sky” is called heaven, the place where the birds fly (see the phrase “birds of the heaven” in verses like Job 35:11, Psalm 79:2, 104:12, Jeremiah 4:25, etc.) The second heaven, they would suggest, is the greater sphere of the universe, containing the sun, moon, stars, and planets, such as in Deuteronomy 4:19, 17:3, Joshua 10:13, II Kings 23:5, etc. The third heaven, they would suggest, is the place where the Lord and the angels are said to dwell (as in Genesis 22:11, 22:15, Deuteronomy 4:39, etc.)
This view seems very nice on the surface of it, but it leaves a multitude of questions. First of all, since the word “heaven” means “lifted up” or “exalted,” it does fit with all three of these things, and all of them are called “heaven” in Scripture. Yet since to the Hebrews this word just was indicating things that are over and above, though this fits well with all of them, it makes no sense to number them or put them in any kind of order. Why, then, this sequence? What point or purpose is there in it? And if this is all it means, what does it tell us in II Corinthians 12:2 any more than just the word “heaven” would have conveyed? What possible teaching could there be in the fact that the heaven that is God’s home is “third”? Wouldn’t it be more fitting to call it “first,” as being first in importance?
Also, there are other things called “heaven,” such as God, heavenly beings, or even earthly rulers. Why are only the sky, the heavenly bodies, and the place called heaven included in this sequence?
I believe it makes much more sense to relate the difference in heavens to time, not to position, distance from the earth, or order of importance. The “third” heaven is the third in time, and I believe corresponds to the new heavens and the new earth.
The first two are a little harder to define. Sellers suggested that the dividing line between first and second heaven is the flood, quoting II Peter 3:6-7. “6. by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water. 7. But the heavens and the earth which are now preserved by the same word, are reserved for fire until the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.” Although this could be, I find this view a little hard to swallow, since I see little reason to believe that an earthly flood would affect the place called heaven in the slightest. This might be the case, but I would think a much more likely scenario would be that the second heaven exists during the kingdom of God/millennium, when God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. This would make the first heaven to be the one existing now.
At any rate, whatever view one takes on the first versus the second heaven, I believe that the third heaven is that of the new heavens and new earth, and the “paradise” Paul mentions in that section is the new earth of that same time.
As for the “first heaven” of Revelation 21:1, the word there protos means the “former,” just as in Revelation 20 when it speaks of the “former resurrection” which nevertheless is not the first resurrection that will take place. This does not mean the new heaven is only the second heaven (which would put the third heaven even further in the future!) but that it is the former heaven, whereas the new heaven is the later heaven (in Revelation.)
Thanks for the great question. May the Lord bless you in your studies of His Word.