Paul lived with a secret he had kept to himself for fourteen years. It concerned an experience with God that was so intense that to most folks it might have seemed unreal. So he had held it inside until the time came to tell about it.
It concerned heaven, invisible to mortals, and to many people a fantastic dream, to others a desperate hope, or to skeptics, an impossibility. But to Paul, it had become a reality, a very real certainty. If Paul is to be believed (and I believe him!), we are told that he actually went there. He saw and heard the sights and sounds of heaven. And he wrote to tell us about it.
He chose the most autobiographical of his letters to reveal his secret. Paul wrote 2 Corinthians to explain himself to his critics and to bare his heart to his friends. He shared intimate details about his sufferings. He wrote about opposition and criticism he faced. He wrote about discouragement. He wrote about his uncertain future.
But he also revealed his source of greatest encouragement, the most sacred privilege he had ever known. It was a special experience of heaven about which he had kept silent for fourteen years. The Lord permitted him to write about this for our benefit, so that we, too, might be encouraged by the certainty of heaven.
“I know a man in Christ,” he wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:2. This is an oblique reference to Paul himself, early in his Christian ministry, fourteen years before. This “man in Christ . . . 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 12:2-4).
Paul is talking about himself and an experience he had had with God. We know this because of what he said next. Such an experience might have made him conceited and boastful, if the Lord had not humbled him with a “thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest upon me” ( 2 Corinthians 2:7-9).
From this we learn the profound lesson that heaven is a real place. Paul called it “Paradise.” The word comes from the ancient theology of the Hebrews. They thought of it as a place where the righteous go when they die. It’s basic meaning is of a garden, reminding us of the Garden of Eden. When Jesus offered eternal life to the repentant thief on the cross dying next to him he said, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Paul also referred to it as “the third heaven.” Where is that? According to Paul, it is “up,” probably a reference to its location beyond the first heaven (atmosphere of earth), and the second heaven (outer space). A literal Greek reading of Hebrews 4:14 says that in his ascension, Jesus “has gone through the heavens.”
Another implication is that Paul’s experience of Paradise was indescribable. It was a revelation “from the Lord” (v. 1) It had happened at a specific time which Paul remembered. What he did not know was whether or not this was an out of the body experience. He had held this secret for fourteen years (v.2), without speculating on the things he couldn’t explain. There are some things the Lord does not want us to understand as yet. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Paul said that in this vision of heaven he heard “inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell” (v.4). Did he see Jesus? Did the Lord speak to him directly? Warren Wiersbe wrote that Paul “overheard divine secrets that are shared only in heaven.” This much is certain. He was given a revelation of heaven for our sakes, for his first century and his twenty-first century readers.
One more thing we can learn from Paul is that this place called Paradise is a desirable place. Paul had been there and he knew. These were “surpassingly great revelations” (v. 7) A Sunday School boy was asked, “Do you want to go to heaven?” He answered, “I don’t think so. Grandpa will be there and he will just say, ‘run along boys and be quiet!'”
In heaven there will be no grumpy, bitter, unhappy, or boring people. I know heaven will not be boring because Jesus said, “Let the children come to me. The kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14-15). If children could be happy there it will not be boring. It will be a desirable place. There will be no sin, no suffering, no disappointment or futility. Christ will make all things new. Those who are there will have been made new in Christ.
Paul was ready to go back there when his earthy assignment was completed. In 2 Corinthians 5:8 he said he “would prefer to be absent from the body and at home with the Lord.” Little wonder. His experience of heaven had etched in his heart the conviction that “to go and be with Christ is better by far” (Philippians 1:21-23).
I am glad Paul let us in on his secret.
Pastor Randy Faulkner