Among all the statements of Jesus, one stands out as particularly difficult to understand.
- Mt 5:18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. (see also Luke 16:17)
Thankfully, there is a “key,” within this verse, that unlocks its meaning. The “key” is the use of the combination of the words, “heaven and earth.”
Without the understanding of the “key,” one would conclude that the “law” (The old covenant law of Moses) must still be in effect today. Because, we see that “heaven and earth” are still here!
But the word combination, “heaven and earth,” had a very unique meaning to Christ’s audience that day.
- Isa 51:15 But I am the LORD your God, Who divided the sea whose waves roared– The LORD of hosts is His name. 16 And I have put My words in your mouth; I have covered you with the shadow of My hand, That I may plant the heavens, Lay the foundations of the earth, And say to Zion, ‘You are My people.’ “
What is he speaking about?
- He “divided the sea” when he brought them (His people) out of Egyptian bondage.
- He “put My words in your mouth” when He gave them the law at Mt. Sinai
- He “covered you with the shadow of my hand” giving them food and protection.
When did these things happen?
- He is not speaking of the original creation of the planet, done long before.
- He is speaking of the “creating” of His people, His nation.
- He is creating their “heavens and earth.”
- It happened when he brought “His people” out of Egypt. Ex 3:10,12
Look how God warns His people to remain faithful to this arrangement/system.
- Lev 26:14 ‘But if you do not obey Me, and do not observe all these commandments,
- Lev 26:19 I will break the pride of your power; I will make your heavens like iron and your earth like bronze.
This is known as the “covenant of blessing and cursing.” This “arrangement,” this “system,” was only for the Israelites. The Israelites considered this relationship very serious. The first century historian, Josephus, records this:
Book 3, Chapter 6, sec. 4.
Now the room within those pillars was the most holy place; but the rest of the room was the tabernacle, which was open for the priests. However, this proportion of the measures of the tabernacle proved to be an imitation of the system of the world; for that third part thereof which was within the four pillars, to which the priests were not admitted, is, as it were, a heaven peculiar to God. But the space of the twenty cubits, is, as it were, sea and land, on which men live, and so this part is peculiar to the priests only. But at the front, where the entrance was made, they placed pillars of gold, that stood on bases of brass, in number seven; but then they spread over the tabernacle veils of fine linen and purple, and blue, and scarlet colors, embroidered. The first veil was ten cubits every way, and this they spread over the pillars which parted the temple, and kept the most holy place concealed within; and this veil was that which made this part not visible to any. Now the whole temple was called The Holy Place: but that part which was within the four pillars, and to which none were admitted, was called The Holy of Holies.
Book 3, Chapter 7, sec. 7
7. Now here one may wonder at the ill-will which men bear to us, and which they profess to bear on account of our despising that Deity which they pretend to honor; for if any one do but consider the fabric of the tabernacle, and take a view of the garments of the high priest, and of those vessels which we make use of in our sacred ministration, he will find that our legislator was a divine man, and that we are unjustly reproached by others; for if any one do without prejudice, and with judgment, look upon these things, he will find they were every one made in way of imitation and representation of the universe. When Moses distinguished the tabernacle into three parts, (15) and allowed two of them to the priests, as a place accessible and common, he denoted the land and the sea, these being of general access to all; but he set apart the third division for God, because heaven is inaccessible to men. And when he ordered twelve loaves to be set on the table, he denoted the year, as distinguished into so many months. By branching out the candlestick into seventy parts, he secretly intimated the Decani, or seventy divisions of the planets; and as to the seven lamps upon the candlesticks, they referred to the course of the planets, of which that is the number. The veils, too, which were composed of four things, they declared the four elements; for the fine linen was proper to signify the earth, because the flax grows out of the earth; the purple signified the sea, because that color is dyed by the blood of a sea shell-fish; the blue is fit to signify the air; and the scarlet will naturally be an indication of fire. Now the vestment of the high priest being made of linen, signified the earth; the blue denoted the sky, being like lightning in its pomegranates, and in the noise of the bells resembling thunder. And for the ephod, it showed that God had made the universe of four elements; and as for the gold interwoven, I suppose it related to the splendor by which all things are enlightened. He also appointed the breastplate to be placed in the middle of the ephod, to resemble the earth, for that has the very middle place of the world. And the girdle which encompassed the high priest round, signified the ocean, for that goes round about and includes the universe. Each of the sardonyxes declares to us the sun and the moon; those, I mean, that were in the nature of buttons on the high priest’s shoulders. And for the twelve stones, whether we understand by them the months, or whether we understand the like number of the signs of that circle which the Greeks call the Zodiac, we shall not be mistaken in their meaning. And for the mitre, which was of a blue color, it seems to me to mean heaven; for how otherwise could the name of God be inscribed upon it? That it was also illustrated with a crown, and that of gold also, is because of that splendor with which God is pleased.
To the Hebrew, “Heaven and Earth” was God’s way of explaining his covenant relationship with them.
More conformation of this, uniquely Hebrew understanding, is found when God speaks of changing His arrangement, He speaks of “shaking” it.
- Joel 3:16 The LORD also will roar from Zion, And utter His voice from Jerusalem; The heavens and earth will shake; But the LORD will be a shelter for His people, And the strength of the children of Israel.
Looking at the word “shake” we can find more on the subject of “heaven” and “earth.”
- Heb 12:26 whose voice then shook the earth; but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.” 27 Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain.
The author of Hebrews was living near the end of the old system/arrangement, the old covenant. “Heaven and Earth” were “being shaken” at that very time… in the first century.
This is how Jesus could speak in terms of the old system/arrangement passing away.
- Mt 24:35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away. (see also Mark 13:31 Luke 21:33)
With his ministry, the “old” was winding down, and the “new” was in the process of being built. The prophet Isaiah foretold of the “old” being replaced:
- Isa 66:22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth Which I will make shall remain before Me,” says the LORD, “So shall your descendants and your name remain.
God is saying that he will replace the “old” arrangement/system with the “new.” Yet He promises that in the “new” system, the “name” would remain (spiritual Israel).
The critical “key” is understanding that the Bible usage of “Heaven and Earth” refers to the arrangement, the system, the covenant, that God had with his people. This “key” can lead us to a far greater understanding of many other verses.
In a later article, I’ll discuss John foreseeing the coming of the “new heaven and a new earth.” Rev 21:1
Brent E. Hughes