Written by Paul Bumgardner
Those who represent God to men are responsible to handle His message with great care. They will be held accountable to the creator of the universe for what they claim is his word.
(Jas 3:1) Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
The understanding of some phrases in the Bible are not as black and white as we would presume, though we presume to know God’s word. We ought to humbly approach the words of the one who spoke stars into existence.
In this paper I will endeavor to show that the phrase “heaven and earth” used in Matthew 5:17-18 is not the literal heaven and the literal earth.
My goal is to share some examples where we can see that “heaven and earth” represents a people or nation of people to or of whom God was speaking to in the Bible. It is not in the scope of this paper to discuss all of the ramifications of that view. My goal is truth, not making scripture work into existing doctrines or dogmas.
Literal Heaven and Earth Implications
If we have a literal interpretation of “heaven and earth” in the passage above, we would have to accept some other implications.
One of these implications is that the Law would still be applicable today. The verse actually states that not one stroke of a pen of the Law would be set aside. We are not talking about the ten commandments, but the entire Law. The language in the passage states: “ I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law…” This would mean that every bit of the Law applies.
When people pick and choose which parts apply and which don’t, then they are taking a risky position. If we keep the whole Law and yet fall at any one point, we break the whole law: “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (Jas. 2:10).
If we are trying to be justified (declared or made righteous in the sight of God) by obeying the Law then we are obligated to obey the entire Law. “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal 5:4) We are not capable of obeying this Law, and we are in the same position as the Jews before Christ.
It may be more appropriate to apply the “heaven and earth” figuratively in light of the overwhelming evidence of New Testament statements about the Law and Christ.
Appearances of “Heaven and Earth” in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament of the Bible we see reference to heaven and earth as the object of God’s creation. There is no denying that the context in these passages indeed support the argument for a literal heaven and earth. What I would like to focus on are the passages of scripture which place clear emphasis on heaven and earth not being a literal. The goal is to present the reader with the understanding that there are times when “heaven and earth” is not always literal.
Isaiah 13 speaks about a prophecy against Babylon. The prophecy here points to the destruction of heaven and earth. It is clear that the heaven and earth here are specifically pointing to Babylon and not the entire world even though you would have to read the entire passage to understand that.
Here are some examples of familiar phrases:
The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. (Isa 13:10)
Therefore I will make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the LORD Almighty, in the day of his burning anger. (Isa 13:13)
This passage parallels this passage here in the New Testament:
Immediately after the distress of those days ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ (Matt 24:29)
We can see that the stars are still in their places and the moon and sun are not dim. If the heaven was destroyed once before, then how can it be destroyed again?
The destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar is outlined for us in Isaiah 24-27.
Some highlights are here for your consideration. (Note the language used.
See, the LORD is going to lay waste the earth and devastate it; he will ruin its face and scatter its inhabitants– (Isa 24:1)
The earth will be completely laid waste and totally plundered. The LORD has spoken this word. (Isa 24:3)
The earth is broken up, the earth is split asunder, the earth is thoroughly shaken. 20 The earth reels like a drunkard, it sways like a hut in the wind; so heavy upon it is the guilt of its rebellion that it falls–never to rise again. (Isa 24:19)
What I want you to see in these verses is how God refers to Israel as the earth. He says the earth is “utterly broken down, the earth is clean dissolved, the earth is moved exceedingly…the earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage; and the transgression thereof shall be heavy upon it; and it shall fall, and not rise again” (Verses 1,3,4,19,20). Notice how many times God referred to Israel as the “earth.” The split asunder part points to the earth being torn in two.
This section is interesting as well:
(Isa 24:21) In that day the LORD will punish the powers in the heavens above and the kings on the earth below. 22 They will be herded together like prisoners bound in a dungeon; they will be shut up in prison and be punished after many days.
Notice still how God is still speaking of judgment against Jerusalem and calls those in charge “the powers in the heavens above.”
Another city to receive prophecy from God of an impending doom was Edom. The entire chapter is speaking to Edom, but specifically I would like to look at Isaiah 34:4-5.
All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine, like shriveled figs from the fig tree. 5 My sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; see, it descends in judgment on Edom, the people I have totally destroyed. (Isa 34:4)
We can clearly see how the stars of the heavens were dissolved and the sky was rolled up like a scroll. A familiar pass is here in Revelation.
The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (Rev 6:14)
Notice how the sword of the Lord has drunk its fill not on earth but of the heavens.
Prophecy comes against Nineveh in the same global and grand language. We can see a familiar pattern developing here.
The LORD is slow to anger and great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and dries it up; he makes all the rivers run dry. Bashan and Carmel wither and the blossoms of Lebanon fade. The mountains quake before him and the hills melt away. The earth trembles at his presence, the world and all who live in it. (Nahum 1:3-5)
“Heaven and Earth” in the New Testament
The first section we should look at is in Hebrews. Hebrews deals a lot with the Law and the coming Kingdom.
See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken– that is, created things–so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:25-29)
One cannot escape the equating the “shaking” of the earth with the bringing of the Law on Mount Sinai. The heaven and earth language is associated with the Law and the establishment of the new Kingdom. This Kingdom comes with the removal (shaking) of heaven and earth. We see three points here. The first is that the earth was already shaken (removed) once before when the Law was given. The second is that this Kingdom rules not only on earth, but also in heaven. The last is that the shaking (removal) is not the physical earth and therefore presumably not the physical heaven.
The writer also points out that this Kingdom is unshakable. It is never to be removed. Daniel confirms this as well:
In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. (Dan 2:44)
He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Dan 7:14)
We can see that the same strong language of destruction and melting heat of heaven and earth is not avoided in the New Testament text.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. (2Pet 3:10)
Why is it that when we look at a passage like the one above we want to switch over to a literal rendering of the “heaven and earth”? If we are honest, we have to admit that in the past God used such language to speak to a people or nation. So might there be a nation about which God is speaking in these passages of the New Testament as well?
Jerusalem was a constant focus of Jesus and of a promise of wrath in the New Testament and Old.
All of chapter 23 and 24 deal with the destruction of the City of Jerusalem.
In fact, one of the central themes of the Bible is the destruction of Jerusalem and the judgment against its leaders.
And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation. (Matt 23:35)
Jesus points out that this specific generation of teachers of the Law and Pharisees would be guilty of all of the righteous blood that has been shed upon the earth. These specific Jews were to be judged and destroyed. Jesus goes into great detail in Chapter 24 of Matthew of the signs and events surrounding this Judgment against the Jews of Jerusalem. This Generation was to be punished. Again Jesus points out this to them. “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Matt 24:34)
Again we see the “heaven and earth” imagery showing up. This time we see that Jerusalem is called “heaven” as the messengers are sent through the city to call out the elect (Christians). If you believe that this particular passage is literal, you would have to think that the elect of God are called by an angel’s trumpet from heaven as well. You have to notice that these are called and gathered from one end of “heaven” to the other. (Matt 24:31)
God’s Promise to the Literal Heaven and Earth
God has already made promises regarding heaven and Earth. Of course I am speaking of the literal ones not a specific nation or people. The Psalmist records for us this:
Praise the LORD. Praise the LORD from the heavens, praise him in the heights above. 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 he commanded and they were created. He set them in place for ever and ever; he gave a decree that will never pass away. (Ps 148:1-6)
God has decreed that heaven will never pass away, yet we see how often in the past it has been destroyed. We must conclude then that when we see a prophecy that heaven will pass away, it must be referring to the destruction of a nation or people, usually the rulers of a people.
Again we can turn to the Psalms regarding promises of the physical earth.
He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. (Ps 104:5)
He built his sanctuary like the heights, like the earth that he established forever. (Ps 78:69)
It seems that the earth is here to stay. It looks like as well that we must assume that if we see the earth is going to be destroyed, then God must be speaking of a figurative earth (one that represents a land or people of a nation).
It seems then, that there are plenty of passages illustrating that “heaven” doesn’t always mean a literal heaven, and that “earth” doesn’t always mean literal earth. While it is clear that sometimes the intent is actually physical, when we see a passage that speaks about the destruction of heaven and earth, we must conclude that this is not speaking of a physical heaven or earth but rather the destruction of a nation or people.
My sincere hope is that when we see ‘heaven and earth’ we will pause to examine and question if it is referring to a physical or figurative heaven and earth.