The Three Heavens
(And Things That Can Now Be Told)
by Jim Strahan
Most of what follows was taken from the tenth chapter of my book, The Brightness Around Him, and it will also include additional material that I have learned since its publishing. Before we start, I wish to say to my family and friends in Christ, that this article takes nothing away from the idea of three physical heavens and earths. This treatise should enhance our view of them by focusing on the totality of God’s victory, where no one is left behind, unlike the popular “Left Behind” books and movies.
Although rewards, ruling and reigning in the celestials, and the physical attributes of three spheres of glory are wonderful and promising, when we think of heaven, our first thoughts are typically about seeing Jesus and our lost loved ones again, and there’s nothing more comforting than knowing how everyone will be carried into the future in the arms of grace. To me, this is the very essence of heaven, and it is my sincere hope that what follows will be uplifting and provide new information that you’ll be able to use in your ministry as God leads. With that groundwork laid, let’s begin.
In Corinthians 15:20-22 we read: “But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.
Let’s look at two facts that have sailed over my head until recently and I believe these two pieces of information will completely change how we interpret the content of what follows in verses 23-28.
First, in verse 20 Paul stated that Christ is the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. This not only establishes that He was the first one to be resurrected, but this first-fruit reference provides the overall theme in what follows. It is an agricultural theme, comparing all men to crops to be harvested, and it is nothing new.
As author Julie Ferwerda asked when she opened the chapter, The Great Harvests, in her book, Raising Hell: “Have you ever noticed that the Bible is blooming full of agricultural terms? There’s a significant reason for this that goes beyond a nice little farming theme. Consider the frequency of these words as they occur in the original texts and as seen in your notes like:
Season – 334
Field – 332
Seed – 300
Crop/Produce – 124
Vineyard – 115
Harvest – 78
Planting – 66
Barley – 36
Farmer – 26
Grapes – 22
Winepress – 21
Julie’s comments about us missing out when we fail to understand these agricultural references, are spot-on. We’ll look a little deeper in a moment.
Secondly, the verb “raised” in I Corinthians 15:20 is in the perfect tense. With this tense, Paul made it abundantly clear that Jesus had already risen, but when Paul begins discussing how all other men would follow, he changed the verb tense in verse 22 to the future.
After having established Christ as the first one to be resurrected, Paul begins a discussion on how all others will be vivified – that is, being made alive. Verses 21 and 22 reminds us that as one man brought death into the world, one man will bring life to the same set of men, and no matter if you believe in universal salvation, or eternal conscious torment, or annihilation of the wicked - everyone agrees that all will be made alive. How could there be torture or annihilation if everyone did not come back from the dead?
Moving along to verses 23-28: But each one in his own order: Christ the first-fruits, afterwards, those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death . . . Now when all things are made subject to Him, the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.
Verse 23 establishes that each person will be raised in his own order. “Tagma” is the Greek word translated as order, and according to Strong’s Concordance, it means something arranged in a precise sequence. It is also a military word signifying a company, squadron, or a group of men.
With all men being in Christ, and since He is the first-fruit, tagma is used here metaphorically to denote an order of men in groups to be harvested, as spelled out in the remainder of verse 23 and into 24.
The first group in the list is normally translated as “Christ the first-fruits,” and most believe this strictly refers to Jesus. However, since “being made alive” is in the future tense here, and since Jesus had already risen at the time of this writing, this cannot refer to Him. Secondarily, the introductory noun in the sentence, “tagma”, refers to a company of men, not just one.
Thirdly, and most importantly, Revelation 20:4-6 proves that the first resurrection does involve a group (tagma) of men, who will join Christ. Consider the qualifiers for people in this first group: “And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshipped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and upon their hand: and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years.”
As a side note, the phrase, “a thousand years” is a figure of speech that means “a very long period of time.” It is likely that this first group will receive “aionion” life, which indicates age-lasting life in His Kingdom during this very long period of time.
Lastly, as a minor point, there is no article in front of the word christos, where it appears first in verse 23, therefore, we are not obligated to infer Christ from this word. Christos in the Greek simply means anointed. Put an article in front of it, and you have the anointed, or the Christ.
Both of those occurrences have the in front of christos. However, sandwiched in between them, christos is found without the article in front of it making it clearly distinct from the other two occurrences.
Therefore, although Jesus was the first to be resurrected, He was not the first group, nor even in the first group. The first group to be resurrected, or made alive, refers to men in Christ called anointed first-fruits. They are harvested first among all believers, with the rest of the believers coming in the second squadron, those who are Christ’s at His coming.
The NIV refers to this second group as those who belong to Him at the time of His appearance, as opposed to those who do not. Personally, I think a better translation identifies the second group with those who are Christ’s in His presence, as the Concordant Literal renders it.
So, who will be Christ’s in His presence? To me, these are those whom God has sovereignly brought to a place of understanding His love and mercy. Those whose hearts have been prepared to bow and worship Him during this lifetime - before their death and resurrection. They become His in His presence, or at His coming. As someone who has been in His presence since the age of seven, it is easy to see how His presence will instantly melt hearts.
I also believe the Feast of Trumpets points directly at these two groups. God told Moses to make two silver trumpets to be used to summon His people. When the first trumpet sounded, only the leaders of the people were to gather, but when the second was blown, it meant all were to respond.
Later, God said these trumpets should be blown on the day of your gladness and would serve as a reminder of you (standing) before your God. This festival was also called The Day of the Awakening Blast.
John 5: 28-29 tells us a little more about the second resurrection: Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life and those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment. This can’t pertain to the first resurrection, because that one was limited.
Revelation 20: 12-15 gives us a little more insight into the second resurrection. And I saw the dead, the great and small, standing before the throne, and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds…And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Many theologians close the book at this point and consider the matter settled, because verse 24 states, then the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father. However, others see it differently, for the main focus here is not the end of time, but it’s about groups of men to be harvested. Using this rationale, other scholars translate the phrase, then comes the end, to then, comes the remainder.
In either case, I see both phrases referring to the end of the squadrons, not the end of time. It refers to the last group to be vivified, the last harvest, the remainder of humanity, and what follows is why I believe this to be true.
In keeping with the agricultural theme in our Corinthian’s text, it is no coincidence that Israel celebrated three feasts each year after the harvest of three different crops. These infamous feasts were called: The Feast of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. Three times a year, men were to “appear before the Lord God” and “celebrate a festival unto me.” Each festival was associated with the harvest of a certain crop.
The first celebration was the Feast of Passover.
Barley was harvested at this time. As a crop, it matured first, and in Leviticus we find the first-fruit of the barley being mixed with oil, anointed if you will, and cooked in “an offering by fire to the Lord.” As an anointed first-fruit, it was consecrated to the Lord as an earnest or pledge for the full harvests yet to be gathered during the rest of the year. The barley squadron appears to represent those who mature first in Christ. And remember how Jesus fed the masses with twelve loaves of barley? Isn't that our calling as first-fruits, to be a living sacrifice in service to others?
The second celebration was the Feast of Pentecost.
Wheat was harvested at this time, and in Leviticus 23 we find two loaves of flour mixed with leaven and offered to God. Our efforts to serve Him are full of leaven – the imperfections of our own efforts. But God knows that, and even though we may not be called to rule and reign with Him during the thousand years, it does not mean that this group will not rule and reign at some other time in the celestials.
The last celebration was the Feast of Tabernacles.
In Nehemiah 8 we find all Israelites and all strangers in the land gathering to read the law during this feast. At that point, they stood together, read it, and said, “Amen” in unity, signifying that everyone was in agreement with God’s ways. Grapes were harvested at the last feast celebration. And what did they do with grapes after harvesting them? They put them in the wine press and stomped them under their feet.
Remember our Corinthians passage: For He must reign until He puts all things under His feet. The grapes appear to be the enemies of Christ in this present world. And Paul comes back to the “under the feet” theme several times, until he ends in verse 28 with, that God may be all in all. I believe this is the third and final group, the last harvest, the remainder to be vivified.
Paul also added in verse 26 that after all groups had been vivified, death would finally be destroyed. Please note that Christ could not be “all in all,” and “all” would not be “made alive,” and death would not “be destroyed,” if the last group remained in a state of death or un-resurrected.
How could this final group makes it out of the lake of fire? Although we don’t have time to discuss all of the reasons why I know the lake of fire is not a final destination, my intent today is to leave you with a view of what it is, and what it does . . . through the eyes and experience of Paul.
So, what is the Lake of Fire? I believe it is the presence of God, and what it does is nothing short of miraculous, for it not only destroys evil, but it also produces the opposite - the antithesis of whatever is tossed into it.
Ex: Death is tossed into it and is destroyed! And how do you destroy death? Answer: By giving life.
Hades (the grave) is thrown into it. Hades is a place of darkness, the place of the buried, and the land of the unseen and the unknown. If these are destroyed, then, what is the opposite output? What destroys these things? Answers in order: Light, things that are uncovered (resurrected), things are seen, and things that are known.
Those who are lost, unbelievers, sinners, enemies of God, and those whose names are not in the book of life are also thrown into it. How are each of these destroyed? Answer: By the lost becoming found, unbelievers becoming believers, sinner becoming saints, enemies becoming friends of God, and those whose names are not in the book of life receiving new names, which are in the book of life.
Does this remind you of the story of a former enemy of God? Consider Saul of Tarsus.
After being tossed into the fire of His presence in his Damascus road experience, he became a believer, a saint and chief apostle, a friend of God, and one whose new name is in the book of life. This was the result of what he saw. An experience that his creator provided. An event that everyone will experience in God’s perfect timing.
By effect, Jesus destroyed the old Saul and created a new life in Paul. Remember too that Paul emphatically stated the he was the example of others that would follow! Yes, Paul’s three days in the fire wasn’t all pleasant, but on the other side of that swim in a very warm lake, was a new creature. Even though Saul sensed he had free will, God, from the beginning of time, foreordained a plan which would bring Saul to rethink his previously held erroneous positions as an enemy of Christ.
Saul was on the road to Damascus, a word which means, “silent is the sackcloth weaver.” The sackcloth weaver was a person who made clothes for penitence to be worn in humility for misdeeds and poor behavior.
Saul was traveling to a Gentile capital to arrest believers, but the silent sackcloth maker was waiting for him there, and would recommission him with a contrasting goal. From arresting and killing followers of Jesus, He became a minister to those followers.
That’s what the lake of fire does.
Saul, whose name meant, “one who asks or inquires of God,” would be asking in humility for the sackcloth, once he was exposed to the truth.
The lake of fire is a place of seeing God’s love and mercy bringing about genuine repentance and humility. Not a repentance that hopes to please God, but a repentance that is the result of His unconditional grace.
He was led meekly by the hand to a house on Straight Street in the city of the silent sackcloth weaver where his thinking would be straightened out and his eyes would be opened. Here we find another opposite, for one of the men he came to arrest, Ananias, would pray and ask God to restore his sight. Ananias means God has been gracious, and here in the “lake of fire”, Saul finds grace, not eternal damnation!
His new name Paul, means small. He has been made small, or humbled in his state of tribulation. It is beyond coincidence that the word, tribulation comes from the Greek word thlipsis, which means, to press, and is associated with the pressing of grapes in a winepress.
With this knowledge, Romans 2:9 reads: There will be tribulation (pressing) and anguish for every soul who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek. The Greek word for anguish means placed in a small space, implying there’s no room for mental maneuvering or irrational inventiveness anymore! It is over. It is finished. Isn’t that exactly what happened to Mr. Small - I mean Paul?
With this knowledge, Revelation 7:14: These are the ones who came out of the great tribulation (pressing, being made small), and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
And here’s one more nugget of truth before we leave the lake - the word “thrown” in the phrase, thrown into the lake of fire, is in the aorist tense (unqualified past tense) in the indicative mood.
This tense is just a snap-shot of an event.
The tense and mood signify an entry into a phase, without any reference to permanency, according to Dr. Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary. The lake of fire is not a permanent destination; it’s just a passing phase and Paul left it to become God’s chief apostle.
What does this say about God’s judgements?
They are good beyond what we have imagined! Therefore, don’t think for a second that God can’t or won’t use grapes in future endeavors! He has great plans for them, because He loves them with a relentless love that never gives up and will not fail.
Remember, the first part of God’s communion is to serve bread from the barley and wheat harvests, but His communion is not complete until the grapes, his enemies, have been harvested as well.
Julie Ferwerda made some interesting observations that each crop needed a different process when it came to removing the chaff, that which is not wanted. Barley was winnowed (a light blowing) while wheat was threshed (a much more vigorous process.) However, the grapes were sent to the wine press, the most vigorous process of all.
In summary, we have found three groups of men, three feast celebrations, three harvests, three crops, three vivifications at three different times, and consequently, we can now understand what Paul meant when he said he was caught up to the third heaven.
And just what makes these three heavens different?
I believe this perspective informs us that the only difference between them is what has been harvested. This perspective was about timing, and it had nothing to do with space. As a matter of fact, the Greek word translated to in the phrase caught up to the third heaven, actually means unto or until, as in James 5:7 . . . be patient... until the coming of the Lord.
I am now convinced that Paul was caught up to a time after the third harvest of people, a time when everyone had finally been reconciled, and God had become all in all.
Listen to the words of Jesus as He refers to each of the three heavens in Luke 13:32: He replied, Go tell that fox, 'I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will accomplish my purpose/ I will reach my goal. What’s His purpose? John 3:17 tells us He came not to condemn the world, but to save it.
The casting out demons is the removal of evil, that which stands in opposition to God’s will in us. And to save means to rescue or heal. With this understanding, we find Jesus sending a prophetic message to Herod, a prince and power of this world standing (sovereignly) in opposition to His work. He said to tell that rascal that I’m going to cast evil out of men and save them today. I’m going to do it again tomorrow, but the third time around, I’ll reach my goal, by saving them all.
In doing so, His will, will be done/accomplished!
And in the study of bible numerics, the number 3 signifies divine completeness and perfection. Is there anything more perfect and complete than the harvest of all?
In this, perhaps Jesus is asking us: Who do you say I am?” The Savior of some? Or the Savior of all?
But what about those unutterable things Paul heard when he was caught up to the third heaven? What did he hear?
In 2 Corinthians 12:4 we read that a man was caught away to the paradise, and heard things that cannot be told, that it is not possible, permissible, or lawful for a man to speak. Personally, I believe this verse is highly misunderstood, and I think we need to take a little closer look at it.
Here, Paul used the third person to tell this story as “a man,” and he did so to reinforce what he had stated earlier – namely, he would boast only of things that showed his weakness. Why? Because he was attempting to prove his credentials, and the demonstration of heavenly wonders in his life, like deliverance, revelations, and visions, occurring during times of his weakness, would serve as proof of the power of God in his life.
He then relayed two stories. The first is where he had to run away as a fugitive in the night, he was let down a wall in a basket, something William Barclay described as “worse than a scourging” for a personality like Paul, who would rather not run away.
The second one starts with him boasting again, and then, he states there is nothing he will gain by it. Why? Because it displayed further weakness! But where is the weakness in this story? And why aren’t we looking for it?
And who told Paul what he heard was unlawful to speak? An angel? Jesus? God Almighty Himself ? From the text, we aren’t informed. Maybe, because it’s not who told him, but what told him. Maybe, no one told him. Unlawful means something not conforming to, or recognized by, or in harmony with the law.
I submit that it was grace that was not in harmony with the works of the law, making it unthinkable or unutterable in Paul’s mind during his early years of training. That was the weakness he was boasting about!
Paul was a Pharisee of Pharisees, and from their perspective, entry into God’s kingdom was based upon the decisions and actions of a man under the law. But justifying the ungodly by God’s gracious acts alone, was not in harmony with man’s work under the law, nor with man’s ego and desire to be self-sufficient and autonomous – to be his own god!
This was Paul’s weakness going into the vision – an incomplete knowledge of grace!
Here, Paul boasts about that weakness, and acknowledges how he miraculously, by the power of God in a stunning vision, came to a new understanding or revelation.
Romans 8:13 – but now we are delivered from the law.
Hebrews 8:13 – what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish.
This may have been a thought or possibility in the back of his mind previously, but now he would receive confirmation and confidence from on high in that vision! This marked a huge change in God’s message for the world, and Paul needed this confirmation to be able to carry out his mission.
Clyde Pilkington states, This special gospel committed specifically and singularly to Paul (thus, ‘my gospel’) stands in contrast to the law. It is this good news that God will one day gloriously use as the standard to judge the world (Romans 2:16). It’s the gospel of grace and peace manifested in what I believe Paul heard in that vision – God’s former enemies confessing that Jesus is Lord and giving God full credit for raising Him from the dead.
Just like Paul, men will also have to learn the power of His grace. And they may have to wait and hear it before they can believe it. For now, those that see only two harvests, adding the third is not permissible.
Romans 10:9 is a favorite verse of those you who think God can’t, or won’t save all: that if you confess with your mouth, Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. Yes, it says if because it is very important for all to recognize that Jesus is Lord and that we give God credit (glory) for raising Him. So, if everyone is to be saved, we must find some place(s) in scripture demonstrating both if conditions being met by everyone.
Consider Philippians 2:10, 11 - That at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of those in heaven, and those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father. The word translated as confess is exomologeo. In all other cases where this term is used, or a form of it is used, whatever is being confessed, is done willfully and gratefully. Here, it is confessed with thanksgiving, just as Jesus confessed, I thank thee Father in Luke 10:21.
Those who see only two harvests, have forgotten the promise God made in Isaiah 45: 22-26: Look to me and be saved, all ye ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other. I have sworn by Myself; the word has gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, that to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath. He shall say, “Surely in the Lord I have righteousness and strength.”
This present reality is stranger than fiction. For the thought of God’s former enemies taking the Isaiah oath and magnifying God’s name, because He gives them His righteousness, is unthinkable; it is unspeakable. It’s important for us to remember that Paul was an enemy.
Translators caught up in the mistaken idea of only two harvests omit the words willfully and/or thankfully from Philippians 2:10-11, therefore these terms, which point to happy souls who have been forgiven and justified, are unutterable, at least, for now. But God is not worried or frustrated by His kid’s ignorance. He knew in advance (actually planned) who would miss this good news, and He actually planned our dilemma when He told the church through Paul in Ephesians 2: 7-10 - in the ages to come (the future) He will show (because many don’t understand now) the exceeding (exceeds our expectations) riches of His grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace (unmerited favor) you have been saved (harvested) through Christ’s faithfulness, and that not of yourself, it is the gift (free gift) of God, not of works, least anyone should boast. For we (the barley, wheat, and grapes) are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand (previously arranged in the harvests) that we should walk in them.
Crops are crops by His design, it’s the natural order of things. It is in the plant’s DNA to be who they are, and no amount of effort by the plant can change their identity or their outcome. That’s why there will be no boasting! He loves all of us, whether barley, wheat, or grape, and for that reason He became the Savior of the world, the One who will harvest all the crops for His enjoyment and pleasure.
And just how brilliant is His plan? Let’s review.
God chooses Israel to be light in the world. However, even though they knew of God, they did not understand His heart, so they failed to understand His plan to use them to reconcile the rest of the world. And as a result, Israel fails in their calling. God then hardens their hearts further, and He uses their failure to do something unimaginable, unspeakable, and unutterable to those Israelites.
By crucifying the Messiah, Jesus pays for the sins of the entire world and brings salvation to all!
Moving now to the 21st century, we find that not much has changed. Despite knowing who Jesus is, many of the gentile Christians still don’t understand the Messiah’s heart, and therefore, they still don’t know His plan to use them to redeem all. For them, that thought is unutterable!
Stubborn hearts are hardened once again. But again, that results in something beautiful, namely, salvation being brought to the entire universe, including those who are supposedly destined for hell or annihilation. All of this will serve the purpose of revealing His grace, and His love for all. How? Many who are first (to know God) shall be the last to enter the kingdom. Think about it. When others, who become His at His coming, or in His presence, enter God’s kingdom before the self-righteous, those that think they made a “decision for Christ”, both groups will finally understand grace.
Self-righteousness implies making a right choice or decision. So those who teach “you must make a right decision for Christ to enter His Kingdom,” (decisional regeneration) are teaching a form of self-righteousness.
When these finally see that entry is based on His decision and His righteousness, self-righteousness will be destroyed in a very small space. These will-worshipers will finally be straightened out in a place where there is no room to maneuver.
All of mankind will finally be able to see their place in God’s plan. They will see their role as He used all of His groups to teach the difference between good and evil – between law and grace. When all is said and done, I believe the barley will understand how they could have been a grape, and grapes could have been barley, just as easily. In this, we will understand the extent of His love for all.
I hope that capturing this glimpse of the third heaven transforms hope and turns it into trust, with all the peace and comfort that goes along with it. This was the purpose of this discussion – relaying Paul’s gospel of grace and peace to you. May your hearts and minds rest in that peace.
I do see another side too – God’s sense of humor when we get to the other side and look in astonishment at others and say: “OMG, he made it too?” Especially the Hitlers and Stalins of this world.
My friend, Mike Owens, has named this moment PRA, or Post-Resurrection Amazement! In keeping with his tag line, I’m going to call our current dilemma – the belief in only two resurrections: PRD – Pre-Resurrection Denial. So, when you see PRD, don’t be surprised or frustrated; be of good cheer, for PRA is right on its heels!