If we are going to discern our world correctly, we need to recover a supernatural worldview. Not a superstitious worldview; not a suspicious worldview; but a worldview recognizing that the invisible realms influence the visible one.
Think of it this way: We need a lens for prayer. We need a lens creating coherence out of what is seen and what is unseen, out of what is good and what is evil; for all four of these things — seen and unseen, good and evil — exist juxtaposed on one another. All of them, though distinct, cannot always be distinguished from each other without discernment; which is to say, without grace.
Try this lens and see if there is grace for it: the three heavens. This is not the only way to see things, but it is one way that helps me discern what is going on around me and what I should do.
- The First Heaven: the Realm of Weather
- The Second Heaven: the Realm of Warfare
- The Third Heaven: the Realm of Worship
We live in the first heaven. We are influenced by the second heaven. We are accountable to the third heaven.
May I say that to the degree we are heavenly minded we become earthly good, indeed, strategically good. Let us explore these three realms and see if it helps us discern our days better, or at least pray with more confidence.
But first the fine print: you have to understand the major assumptions I am making.
- Two-thirds of reality is invisible. I am not referring to that which can be made visible by telescope or microscope. I am referring to that which lies behind the physics of waves, particles, string theory, and light-year distances. It is beyond the merely natural.
- Self-giving love is the motive of the Creator. This love extends to giving His creation (both its visible and invisible elements) a measure of free will to be good or evil, to participate with Him voluntarily or take possession of His good gifts for themselves.
- History is one singular timeline toward the outworking of the collaborative love project the Lord began with us in Eden. The trajectory was set in motion at that moment, an arc of progress that began in a garden and will culminate in a global garden city. What started as God walking with one man will become God dwelling among every nation.
- We have fallen short of the arc. Far short. We desire to draw our own line, and what a scrawl that line has become. Nevertheless, the original trajectory is set. The Lord Himself has made sure of it. It is why the Word had to become flesh. It is why He died and rose. Athanasius explains this with simple, deep reflections in an ancient work called On the Incarnation.
First Heaven: The Realm of Weather
This is the natural world, the world our senses are designed to experience and respond to. Everything under the sun is here, sun included. Moon, stars, and the sandy beach you are standing on to gaze at them. Clouds in the sky and clouds online. Good coffee and bad colds. Hot tea and hot topics. This is the realm where explanations are possible and patterns are discernible. This is the realm we can tame, measure, and treasure. Conversely, it is the realm we can crush and control. Gottfried Leibniz (misinterpreting Francis Bacon) paraphrased it this way: “Let us place nature upon the torture rack and extract her secrets from her.”
Whether we treasure the natural realm or torture her depends on whether we see the creation as a gift to wisely steward or neutral stuff we can exploit. It is up to us. And our choice is revealed by how we treat one another, especially those who have no voice for themselves.
We would do well to understand that the first heaven is only one third of the cosmos. It is the stage, the superstructure whereby the other two thirds make their presence known. It is in this sense that creation is a form of communication and not neutral stuff. It conveys both the wonder of the Creator and the war that has marred the creation, down to the very DNA of the parasite and the magma-slathered fractures of the planet’s tectonic plates. Such things, both harrowing and sublime, point to the other two realms.
Second Heaven: The Realm of Warfare
Hidden in plain sight throughout Scripture are windows into a realm where invisible, intelligent species make choices to either collaborate with the Lord’s garden-to-garden-city project or disrupt and redirect it. There are two loyalties in that realm: those allied with the Creator and those opposed to Him. The battle ground is for the hearts of humanity to be loyal to the one or to the other. And it is war.
Job chapter 1 is one such window. Whereas all Job knows is senseless suffering, the reader understands that a contention in the invisible realm is what prompted the pain in the first place, a pain that reveals where Job’s loyalty lies. Daniel chapter 10 is another such window. The prophet prays to God for 21 days, seeking an answer. Gabriel the archangel is dispatched on day 1 of the prayer with an immediate reply, but the “Prince of Persia” blocks the way. Gabriel has to fight him. Only when the archangel Michael comes to his aid does he get through. And Daniel, unknowingly, has collaborated with the angels’ combat through humble prayer.
The “prince” epithet is indicative of many other identities revealed in that realm, some of which describe a functional role or level of authority, such as an angel in charge of rivers (“angel” = “messenger”); or rulers or magistrates or six-winged seraphim; or beasts both noble and savage whose features test the limits of human language to describe. There is a zoology, taxonomy, and hierarchy to it all.
We know just enough about this realm to be aware of it, but not enough to be arrogant. Let us keep it that way. Let it suffice to say that when good is making progress on earth, there may very well be a “cosmocrat” (transliteration of κοσμοκράτωρ in Eph 6:12) attempting to slow it down with red tape and goose chases. But when we pray, we keep the cosmocrats at bay.
Think of second heaven this way. If you have ever snorkeled or scuba dived a coral reef, you recall the amazement and wonder of what you saw. There is beauty. There is mystery. There is wisdom revealed in the ways of the creatures there. But alongside beauty, mystery, and wisdom there is life-threatening danger. A sting ray we follow just for fun could inexplicably turn on us. An electric eel may live in the hole we reach a curious hand toward. Let us therefore acknowledge that we need a shield, a rescuer, a Savior from a realm we cannot see or predict.
Third Heaven: The Realm of Worship
It is clear from Scripture that there is more in the invisible world than a realm crowded with intelligent communication and intentional combat. This is not the realm the apostles command us to fix our eyes on. We might be aware of second heaven, but it can never be worth more than a passing glance compared to the perfection of the realm of worship, where the Messiah sits enthroned “with angels, authorities, and powers in submission to Him” (I Peter 3:22) It is clear that the realm of warfare exists underneath the feet of the One to whom the Lord says, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” (Psalm 110:1)
The thing that should overwhelm us about third heaven is not only the glorious majesty of the One who “ever lives to make intercession for us” (Heb 7:25) and who “works all things together for good” (Rom 8:28). We get that. We expect that we should fall on our faces before the One who makes all things new.
But think about the thief nailed to the cross next to Christ for a moment. He could not do that. He could not bow down or do anything other than believe in his heart and confess with his mouth, “Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom.” And what was the answer? Something unique. Something irreproducible. Something only the undeserving thief himself would enjoy: Christ saying through battered, parched lips, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 24:42-43)
This is what will penetrate us most deeply about the third heaven: the intimate, individualized way in which each of us participates in it. Too unique to share everything about it with others. Too personal to be fully explainable. Too beautiful to boast about. It is the pearl of great price for which there is only one key: your own faith in Jesus. Here is how Paul attempts to describe his own experience in the third heaven. He cannot even bear to use the first-person pronoun. He can only bring himself to describe it in third-person form.
I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.2 Corinthians 12:1-4
In contrast to Apostle Paul, Apostle John is permitted to tell us a few things. What does he see at the heart of the invisible cosmos when he goes there? What does he see when the layers of weather and warfare are pulled back and the throne of God is revealed?
I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.Revelation 5:6
John sees self-giving love. Not abstract, but incarnate. Not a notion, but a person. The Lamb of God.
It is this self-giving love that causes our prayers to reach the third heaven, prayers that fill the halls of the heavenly council like great and fragrant clouds of incense until they are infused into the decisions made there; until every page of every plan is saturated with the aroma of what we have groaned to God for. (Rev 5:8; 8:3-4. Rom 8:26)
And so we discover that the realm of worship turns out also to be the realm of listening, where the Lord intermingles our prayers with the progress of heaven coming to earth. We discover that we have been preparing the way for that great garden city all along. On the day we discover this, there will be more than enough comfort for all that bruised us from the realms of first and second heaven. More than enough comfort. More than enough joy. More than enough compensation — we will judge angels, after all, evaluating their motives and their deeds. (I Cor 6:3)
Worship will be the only reasonable thing to do. We will think of nothing else when we arrive there. And, at some point when we look up from where we have bowed down, we will catch the wink of the healed thief on the cross, now crowned as a glorious prince, whispering, “I told you so, friend. I told you so.”
© Kurt Mahler
Featured art: Song of the Angels by William Adolphe Bouguereau (1881)
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV)