High, Higher, Highest
Updated: Jan 15
NOAA Photo Library
Ancients in the East, men like the magi, were students of the stars, scanning the heavens for signs of earthly events. In Greek and Roman culture, heavenly bodies were seen as divine—the public face of the gods and goddesses working behind the scenes. But those who knew the one true God knew these extraordinary showmen in the sky were created things, made by Him and for Him.
They also believed there was a place where heavenly beings not so easily seen moved about doing their Creator’s will, and that place, too, they called “the heavens.” Moses talked about them (Deuteronomy 10:14); the psalmist sang about them (Psalm 148:1-4); Solomon was amazed by them (1 Kings 8:27); and in each case, they spoke of not only the heavens but also the “highest heavens,” seeming to indicate there were heavens that were not as high—that there are “levels” of heaven.
It would be easy to write these Old Testament references off as mere poetry, but there is an odd little passage in the New Testament, written by Paul, who was not known for his poetry, but for his theology: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2).
Third heaven, huh? It would stand to reason then that there is a first and a second.
The first heaven, I guess, would be that place that contains the stars, moons, planets, black holes, red giants, novae, nebulae, and the like. It’s also that place closer to home where clouds gather to produce rain, and electrical discharges and hot air create magnificent displays of lightning and thunder. It’s the realm God created when He said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky” (Genesis 1:14-18).
The third heaven, that place Paul called paradise (2 Corinthians 12:4), is, according to Luke 23:43, the place where Jesus hangs out. That, of course, would be the highest of heavens, the heaven of heavens, the place of God’s throne.
So. Scholars study the stars in the first heaven and seekers pray to God in the highest heaven, but no one talks much about the second heaven. That could be good because the conversation can get really weird really fast. But as students of scripture, we can’t deny what’s there, and the scriptures talk a lot about that heavenly place in between.
So what’s there?
Here’s what one psalmist said:
Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights above.
And He’s not just speaking to astronauts.
Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his heavenly hosts. Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars.
Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies.
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for at his command they were created,
and he established them for ever and ever— he issued a decree that will never pass away. (Psalm 148:1-6)
So along with the physical bodies in the skies—the sun, moon, and stars—there are these other often invisible beings that declare the glory of God. In fact, there’s quite a multitude.
As the familiar story says:
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)
Note the first thing this angel said was, “Don’t be afraid.” Can you imagine a little baby with wings and a harp making such an impact? I don’t think so. Our image may need to be updated a bit. When speaking of angels, the Bible never mentions wings, and though the Bible doesn’t directly address this, I seriously doubt they were chubby.
Angels are messengers. An angel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus. An angel told Joseph to name him Jesus. An angel warned them to flee to Egypt and an angel told them when it was safe to return. Angels appeared to Abraham, Hagar, Lot, and Zechariah, and on and on and always with a message. And they usually prefaced it with, “Don’t be afraid.” Yet just to keep things interesting, there are times that angels appear quite ordinary (Hebrews 13:2).
Gabriel is the most famous of messenger angels. He was the one sent to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, to tell him the wild child was on his way. “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news (Luke 1:19).“
He was first mentioned by name in Daniel 8. Daniel tells us he looked like a man, but when he came near, Daniel was terrified, and when he left, Daniel was exhausted. Gabriel said he was there to explain one of Daniel’s strange visions, and although his explanation was quite detailed, it was still beyond Daniel’s understanding. Men are still arguing about its meaning today. Daniel, however, seemed OK with the angel’s instruction: “seal up the vision, for it concerns the distant future.“
Gabriel appeared to Daniel at least once more. Daniel was praying for the restoration of Israel when in came Gabriel with more “insight and understanding” (Daniel 9:22). His message pointed ahead to the time of the “Anointed One,” the Messiah, the one who would be Jesus, but it also included enough numbers and symbols to keep Christian authors busy for centuries.
The other angel whose name is revealed is the archangel Michael, described as “the great prince” (Daniel 12:1). He also appeared to Daniel, and his awesomeness is described in the book of Daniel, in chapters 10 and 12. One of his missions was to help deliver an answer to Daniel’s prayers because, as his companion angel said, there was a war in the heavenlies and dark princes were attempting to keep God’s word away. Needless to say, God’s angels won.
Then there are the cherubim. Cherubim, by the way, do have wings, but that may be the only thing we get right when we picture them. They are odd-looking creatures, appearing often as animals with wings. (See Ezekiel 43 for more on that.) But more importantly, cherubim appear at places of access to God’s holy presence. For example, when Adam and Eve were sent from the garden because they had become corrupt, cherubim guarded the entrance so they couldn’t get back in, not for their punishment, but for their protection (Genesis 3:24). Had they been able to return to the garden, they may have eaten from the tree of life and remained in a corrupted state forever. The presence of the cherubim, then, preserved them for redemption.
When God spoke to Moses in the tabernacle, His voice came from between two cherubim (Numbers 7:89). Remember, back when they first met, God had told Moses, “Don’t come any closer. This place is too holy for you (Exodus 3:5)” The presence of the cherubim there in the tabernacle testified that some things hadn’t changed.
Winged seraphim are mentioned only once (Isaiah 6). While worshiping God in His throne room, they took on the task of cleansing Isaiah’s lips so he could stay and talk with God.
But let’s come back to earth, to that field near Bethlehem, where the angel had just delivered the best of news to a group of shepherds.
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:13-14)
The Bible doesn’t tell us a lot about the heavenly host, only that there is a great number of them and whenever and wherever they appear, God is praised.
So, these often invisible beings are often sent from the second heaven to message men, to do God’s bidding, and to bring Him glory (Psalm 103:20-21). An amazing company indeed.
But the most amazing thing to consider while pondering the heavenly host? According to the psalmist, they aren’t as amazing as we are!
Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory in the heavens. Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8)
An archangel had no authority to silence the enemy (Jude 1:9), but through their praise, God’s children can. Angels may appear on earth to assist, but only man can steward God’s creation. And although cherubim and seraphim are clothed in heavenly splendor, only men wear crowns.
More on that later.