Paul uses the phrase “heavenly realms” five times in Ephesians (a single word in Greek literally translated “heavenlies”). What are these heavenly realms, and what do they mean in the context of their five uses?
Ephesians 1:3 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”
In the first use, we see that God blesses in “in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” We don’t learn much about the nature of these heavenly realms, other than the fact that God blesses us in them. We’ll return to the meaning of this once we have a clearer understanding of the phrase.
Ephesians 1:19b-21 “That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”
The heavenly realms includes the throne of God. Christ reigns with authority in and from the heavenly realms. In this context “heaven” and “heavenly realms” are nearly synonymous.
Ephesians 2:6 “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus”
The risen Christ reigns in and from the heavenly realms, but since we are “in Christ”, identifying with him both in his death and resurrection, we also participate in the heavenly realms. There is at least some sense in which we are already present in the heavenly realms.
Ephesians 3:10-11 “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
God is not the only one who dwells in the heavenly realms. There are, apparently, rulers and authorities there as well. The question is, who are these rulers and authorities? If the “heavenly realms” are the throne of God then those rulers and authorities are angelic beings. That would mean that this verse means that God makes his wisdom known to spiritual/angelic beings through the church (see also 1 Peter 1:12). However, as we will see, this is only part of the story.
Ephesians 6:12 “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
This verse must broaden our perspective. The rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, at least some of them anyway, are spiritual forces of evil with which we do battle.
Ephesians 6:12 expands our understanding of the heavenly realms. I believe that the heavenly realms are really the plane of spiritual created reality (as opposed to the plane of physical created reality). They therefore include heaven (as the throne room of God and of Christ) but also the spiritual world of evil forces standing in opposition to God.
But this does not mean we should fear the heavenly realms. After all, though there is a battle to be had there, Christ reigns there, and we stand with him. He gives us the spiritual blessings and the armor of God we need to be successful in that fight.
Finally, returning Ephesians 1:3: Part of me is tempted to see the heavenly realms as something far away, both in time and in place, and, therefore, that the spiritual blessings are things which I will only experience sometime in the future. But, this is not the case. We have already been raised up with Christ to the heavenly realms. There is a sense in which we experience their reality right now and the blessings we receive in them are blessings we experience right now (in part) and in the future (in their fullness).