Sometimes we forget that the apostle Paul had an incredible vision of heaven similar to John’s vision where John saw “a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it” (Revelation 4:2). Anyone who’s read John’s book of Revelation can understand why Paul considered what he himself saw and heard there “inexpressible” (2 Corinthians 12:4).
When Paul writes about his vision of being taken to heaven, he talks about it in the third person. He sort of mocks the Corinthians who were following false apostles that loved to boast about themselves. So as a response, Paul boasts about having this vision right at the start of his ministry but talks about it as if he is talking about another man.
He writes, “I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. 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 12:1-4).
Paul references it happening 14 years ago. I’m not sure whether this vision happened right after his conversion while he was still in Arabia (Galatians 2:17) or after he had gone back to his hometown of Tarsus (Acts 9:30). Either way, it was before his first missionary journey. And part of what fueled his ministry was not only his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-6) but also this vision of heaven.
Paul calls what he and John saw “the third heaven.” This begs the question, “What are the first and second heavens?” Many people believe that the first heaven is the physical universe that we can see in the sky…the sun, the moon, the stars, the other planets, etc. The third heaven is the throne room of God. The place where the fullness of His Presence resides, where His perfect will is always done, and where heavenly beings worship and serve God continuously. So what is the second heaven?
Many people believe the “second heaven” is the place where Satan and his fallen angels were sent after they were expelled from the third heaven (Revelation 12:9). It is the spirit realm around the earth where spiritual warfare happens. The second heaven is where the angel that was sent to Daniel was fought against and detained by the demonic principality over the Persian Kingdom in Daniel 10:13. It is why Satan is now called “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 2:2).