In 2 Corinthians 12:2, the Apostle Paul talks about how he was caught up to the third heaven. So what exactly is the third heaven?

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago– whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows– such a man was caught up to the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2, NASB)

Let’s start by going back to the six literal days of creation, when on Day 2 God places a firmament or an expanse in the midst of the waters to separate water from water.

Then God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” God made the expanse, and separated the waters which were below the expanse from the waters which were above the expanse; and it was so. God called the expanse heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day. Then God said, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so. (Genesis 1:6-9, NASB)

The firmament or expanse mentioned here includes two parts. The first heaven is called the open firmament or expanse of heaven which is the earth’s atmosphere where birds fly. The second heaven is what we would consider outer space which includes the sun, moon, and stars.

Then God said, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth in the open expanse of the heavens.” (Genesis 1:20, NASB)

and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. (Genesis 1:15, NASB)

Based on the Apostle Paul’s revelation of the third heaven, the third heaven refers to the place where Christ sits at the right hand of the throne of God. It is a place that is beyond the first and second heavens, and beyond the waters that are above. In Ephesians 4:10 it says that Christ descended and then ascended far above all heavens which implies going beyond the first and second heaven to the third heaven.

He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.) (Ephesians 4:10, NASB)

An interesting thought I have is that eternity must exist beyond the space-time continuum because God is independent of space and time. Therefore, I believe that the third heaven is in the realm of eternity, while the present heavens and earth are not exactly in this realm. In Revelation 21:1 it mentions the first or present heaven and earth pass will pass away being replaced by a new heaven and a new earth, and that there will be no more sea.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. (Revelation 21:1, NASB)

I believe this sea refers to the waters above the firmament or expanse, and separates us from eternity. The veil that separated the Most Holy Place and the Holy Place in the temple was torn from top to bottom when Jesus died on the Cross, but the sea of separation will be removed in the future when God ushers eternity into a new heaven and a new earth.

And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Mark 15:38, NASB)

The tabernacle of the Old Testament which is full of meaning, corresponds to the structure of the three heavens as well as the eternal habitations. I’ve listed a few of the many verses that make it clear that the Old Testament tabernacle was a copy and a shadow of a heavenly reality which is the true tabernacle of God. 

a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man. (Hebrews 8:2, NASB)

who serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, just as Moses was warned by God when he was about to erect the tabernacle; for, “See,” He says, “that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain.” (Hebrews 8:5, NASB)

For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; (Hebrews 9:24, NASB)

And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, (Revelation 21:3, NASB)

I believe the most holy place of the Old Testament tabernacle represents the third heaven, the holy place represents the second heaven, and the outer court represents the first heaven. Currently, the second heaven is located in outer space with a spiritual realm, and the first heaven is located in the earth’s atmosphere with a spiritual realm. The idea of equating physical spaces with spiritual realms may seem crazy, but Jesus clearly did this when He talked about descending into the lower parts of the earth as I showed in the ‘What about hell?’ article.TTJust like the temporary places of punishment are emptied into the Lake of Fire, the first heaven and second heaven are temporary holding places for those who will respectively go to the New Earth and the New Heaven once the present heavens and earth are destroyed by fire. The third heaven corresponds to New Jerusalem, and includes Zion which the highest place in New Jerusalem. The third heaven is a place where some people go to, but it is already in eternity and is therefore not temporary in a sense. If the connection between the most holy place and the New Jerusalem is not clear, it helps to understand that the dimensions of the most holy place in the Old Testament tabernacle was a perfect cube and that the dimensions of the New Jerusalem is a perfect cube.

In John 3:3-5, Jesus has a conversation with Nicodemus about the kingdom of God. Jesus was stressing the importance of being born again or being born of above. When Nicodemus thought Jesus was talking about natural birth, Jesus restated what He said before in a peculiar way. Saying that one must be born of the water and of the spirit to enter the kingdom of God is a restatement of what it means to be born again. Titus 3:5 parallels these verses to indicate that we are saved by the washing of regeneration (this refers to salvation or new birth because the Greek word used is palingenesia - palin is the word for again, genesia is the word for birth or generation) and renewing of the Holy Spirit. However, in a deeper sense, I feel like there is a difference between seeing the kingdom of God and entering the kingdom of God. We possibly learn that one must be born again in order to see the Kingdom of God, and that if they want to enter the Kingdom of God they must be born of water and the Spirit. Being born again is the experience of Salvation, being born of water could refer to the experience of Water Baptism, and being born of the Spirit could refer to the experience of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. Personally, however, I do not believe that one needs to experience the Baptism of the Holy Spirit to have had the Holy Spirit work in and through them. Such ones may find themselves as part of the Bride of Christ.

Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. (John 3:3-5, NASB)

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, (Titus 3:5, NASB)

This is not to say that those who have not experienced Water Baptism and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit cannot go to heaven, because Jesus said that the thief on the Cross was going to be with Him in Paradise upon the thief's acceptance of Jesus as we see in Luke 23:43.

And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43, NASB)

But there is something profound about the kingdom of God, because even Old Testament saints will not reside in the kingdom of God as we see in Luke 7:28.

WRONG - John the Baptist will be in the kingdom of God. But at the moment recorded in Matthew 11:11/Luke 7:28, the kingdom of God has not come. The kingdom of God would only come in power, after a glimpse at the Transfiguration, with the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. Those in the kingdom would benefit from looking back at the Cross rather than looking forward to the Cross. The benefits associated with the coming kingdom, such as the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, were unique privileges. John the Baptist was the greatest born of women up to this point due to his temporal proximity to the kingdom of God (Matthew 3:2), and the work he did preparing the way for the kingdom of God (Matthew 3:3).

I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (Luke 7:28, NASB)

From this it is clear that the Kingdom of God is reserved for the Bride of Christ in the New Testament who will inhabit New Jerusalem. In Revelation 21:2 we see that the inhabitants of the New Jerusalem are considered the Bride of Christ. Although Abraham saw Canaan or the Promised Land from far off, he could not receive the promise. Interestingly, God showed Moses the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 34 but Moses was told that he will not cross over there. Literally, Moses’ sin of smiting the rock instead of the speaking to the rock the second time around prevented him from entering the Promised Land. However, a spiritual and a prophetical significance is there. In Hebrews 11:13-16, 39-40 we see that the Promised Land represents New Jerusalem, and that God has prepared another city for the Old Testament saints.

WRONG - Earlier Old Testament saints like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, and more did not get to enjoy the literal Promised Land, but they long for a heavenly city. God has prepared a city for them. That city is none other than the heavenly New Jerusalem. When Hebrews 11:40 says 'that they without us should not be made perfect' it means 'that they would be made perfect together with us' (as the NET, NIV, etc. translates it). It is only through the new covenant that the Old Testament saints have become partakers of the heavenly city.

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:2, NASB)

Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” (Deuteronomy 34:4, NASB)

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16, NASB)

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:39-40, NASB)

This may seem unfair to the people who lived during the Old Testament. However, as we see in John 3:29, Old Testament saints like John the Baptist are called to be the friend of the Bridegroom who is Jesus, and are joyous about their calling.

WRONG - John the Baptist is part of the bride. Yet, John the Baptist was a go-between to bring the bride and the bridegroom together. If we use John 3:29 to say that John the Baptist is not part of the Bride of Christ, then we should also say the Apostle Paul is not part of the Bride of Christ. In 2 Corinthians 11:2, the Apostle Paul says he has betrothed the Corinthians to one husband. He wanted to present them as a pure virgin to Christ. He phrased it as if he was external to the betrothed bride, just as John the Baptist, because he was also a go-between to bring the bride and the bridegroom together. Luke 5:34 even considers the Apostles to be 'friends of the bridegroom' despite their obvious inclusion in the Bride of Christ.

He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. (John 3:29, NASB)

New Heaven is the place where Old Testament saints will reside, along with general martyrs and the tribulation martyrs. I was taught that in Revelation 7:9-15, the four beasts before the throne represent saints from the Dispensation of Law, and the twenty-four elders before the throne represent saints from the Dispensation of Conscience. Backing this idea up would be the notion that the Law of Moses enabled people to attain one of the four Christ-like characteristics being depicted, but could not attain all four characteristics as they were not perfect according to Hebrews 11:39-40. The reasoning to consider the twenty-four elders as saints from the Dispensation of Conscience was because they were further away from the throne and were humans. 

Going back to the four living creatures, many early Christians saw Matthew as presenting Christ as the King corresponding to the face of a lion, Mark as presenting Christ as a humble servant corresponding to the face of an ox, Luke as presenting Christ as a loving man corresponding to the face of a man, and John as presenting Christ as the holy Lord corresponding to the face of an eagle. These four depictions of the Branch were prophesied of in Jeremiah 23:5-6, Zechariah 3:8, Zechariah 6:12, and Isaiah 4:2 respectively. Furthermore, according to tradition and some biblical basis, the camp of Judah (East), Ephraim (West), Reuben (South), Dan (North), used the symbols of a lion, an ox or a calf, a man, and an eagle on their flag respectively.

Another interpretation could be that the four beasts are literally cherubim relating to Ezekiel 1 and 10, and that the twenty-four elders represent Old Testament saints just as 1 Chronicles 24:1-19 numbers twenty-four divisions among the priests. The only thing about this interpretation is that Revelation 9:11 says that all the angels were around the elders and the four living creatures. Since there are different classes of angels mentioned in the Bible, the cherubim could possibly be external to all the angels in one sense. If they are to be considered cherubim, one point of confusion is that the four living creatures are said to have six wings like the seraphim in Isaiah 6:2. Perhaps this could mean that there are variations among the cherubim with some having two wings, four wings, or six wings. Another point of confusion is that the cherubim in Ezekiel 1 have each of the four faces, and not just one face per beast. Perhaps the passage in Ezekiel is talking about another group of cherubim who symbolically represent the Church which is perfected in all four faces.

At present, I believe that the four living creatures are cherubim while having symbolic representations, and that the twenty-four elders are Old Testament saints. However, I respect both interpretations and both result in me believing that saints from the Old Testament are in the literal temple of God in heaven.

In Revelation 11:18-19 we see there is a literal temple of God in heaven, but in the Revelation 21:22 we see that in New Jerusalem there is no visible temple. Thus, this validates the difference between New Heaven and New Jerusalem.

And the nations were enraged, and Your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward Your bond-servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth.” And the temple of God which is in heaven was opened; and the ark of His covenant appeared in His temple, and there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder and an earthquake and a great hailstorm. (Revelation 11:18-19, NASB)

I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. (Revelation 21:22, NASB)

As to why I believe general martyrs and tribulation martyrs join Old Testament saints in New Heaven, Revelation 6:9 says that the martyrs were found under the altar which alludes to the altar of incense found in the holy place of the Old Testament tabernacle. 

When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; (Revelation 6:9, NASB)

Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4, NASB)

Besides New Jerusalem and New Heaven, in eternity there will be a New Earth. New Earth is where the saved of all dispensations will live as we see in Revelation 21:24. It is important to mention here that saints are saved people who have walked closer to God. If one walked closer to God in the Old Testament, they will be in the New Heaven instead. If in the New Testament they lived according to the standard of New Jerusalem, they will be found there instead. Even in New Earth, some will be kings because they walked closer to God.

The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. (Revelation 21:24, NASB)