‘Heaven’, ‘heavens’ and ‘heavenly’ are words that crop up in the Bible hundreds of times, and according to my New King James Exhaustive Concordance, the actual word ‘heaven’ is altogether mentioned in 49 of 66 books of the Bible.
Ask anybody, even those who do not believe in the existence of a god or gods, and they will have in their minds a picture of what heaven represents to them. Heaven is a nomenclature of the English language, as too, is hell. Without some common understanding with regard to their meanings we cannot communicate effectively when discussing them in their contexts.
All sorts of phenomena will have shaped our perceptions of both heaven and hell. Therefore we could have vastly different understandings of them.
From a biblical viewpoint, is not heaven the place where Jesus dwells and where the souls of His saints who have passed from this life reside (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)? Should we visualise heaven as a real, tangible place where Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father (1 Peter 3:22), a place where the resurrected Jesus is enthroned (2 Chronicles 18:18; Psalm 11:4; 103:19; Isaiah 66:1) ruling over His kingdom? To what extent is His Kingdom? Is it both physical and spiritual? Or is it one or the other? And what part does the Holy Spirit play in it?
Perhaps of pressing importance are the answers to the following questions: Who has access to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21), and who is excluded? Who is already there, and who will be going there? And what about the new heaven and new earth, where ‘there shall be no more death, sorrow, crying and pain’? (Revelation 21:4)
The more questions we ask, the more questions arise. However, we can answer questions of which the Bible provides answers.
Firstly which heaven is being considered? In this instance, it is the one Paul the Apostle refers to in 2 Corinthians 12:2 and 4 where he stated: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago – whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows – such a one was caught up to the third heaven …….. how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which is not lawful for a man to utter.
Paul said this place was, ‘the third heaven’, and it was, ‘Paradise’. He couldn’t be sure if he went there in his body, or whether God revealed it to him through a vision (v 3).
In Jewish circles when Paul was living, this ‘third heaven’ was considered to be the abode of the LORD (2 Chronicles 6:30), along with His heavenly Host (2 Chronicle 18:18). This same heaven was also called the ‘heaven of heavens’ , as in Psalm 148:4 – ‘Praise Him, you heaven of heavens, and you waters above the heavens!’ and in Psalm 115:16 – ‘The heaven, even the heavens, are the LORD’s; but the earth He has given to the children of men.’
What more do we know from the Scriptures about this heaven? The LORD, God Most High owns it (Genesis 14:22; Deuteronomy 10:14). It is there that God hears the prayers and supplications of His people (1 Kings 8:44, 45). The LORD made the heaven of heavens, along with His [angelic] host (Matthew 18:10) who worship Him (Nehemiah 9:6). Paul tells the Philippian believers they are already citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20), and that the Lord will transform their earthly bodies to be like His glorious, spiritual body (v 21).
Much is written in the Book of Revelation about heaven, and the new heaven and earth that are yet to be created (Revelation 21). These writings are highly figurative and symbolic, so how much to interpret them in a literal sense or a spiritual sense is open to question.
In Revelation 4:1-11 the apostle John paints a picture of One sat on a throne, around which there are twenty-four elders dressed in white robes and wearing golden crowns; they too are seated on thrones. There is an emerald rainbow around the main throne which has before it a sea of glass like crystal.
‘In’ the throne there are four living creatures full of eyes, front and back: the first is like a lion; the second like a calf; the third has a face like a man; and the fourth is like an eagle. They all have six wings which are full of eyes. These creatures never rest day and night and they cry, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is to come!” The elders cast their crowns before Him, saying the Lord is worthy ‘to receive glory, honour and power’ for He created all things, and by His will they exist and were created.
Are we now getting a clearer picture of what the third heaven is like? I doubt it, but don’t worry, if we are not! God has revealed to us who believe, all that is necessary for our salvation (Romans 1:16, 17). The Holy Spirit is the One who enlivens us (John 3:3-8) and helps us with our understanding (John 14:26; 15:26). Until we are fully like Jesus (1 John 3:2) with Him in the new heaven and earth, we shall only see and experience what has been revealed to us (1 Corinthians 13:9, 12). We have yet to ‘know’ the full glory* and majesty of the Lord. Meanwhile, we live by faith (Romans 1:17) in His kingdom (Philippians 3:20) in His Spirit (Romans 14:17) for obedience (Romans 1:5) to Him and to His glory.
*The Glory of God