The following study will examine:
- Matthew 5:17-18
- Matthew 24:35
- How Isaiah and Jeremiah spoke of the old and new heavens & earth
- II Peter 3:7-13 (compared with Galatians 4:9 and Colossians 2:20)
- Quotes from Eusebius (265 – 340 AD), Bishop John Lightfoot (1601-1675), John Owen (1721), Jonathan Edwards (1739), and Charles Spurgeon (1865) regarding “the heavens and the earth” as covenant language in Scripture.
“Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things are fulfilled. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away” (Matthew 24:34-35).
Jesus spoke these words to His 12 disciples around 30 AD. When He said “all these things,” He was of course speaking about everything He had just predicted in verses 1-33, from the temple being destroyed, to wars and rumors of wars, to famines and earthquakes, to false prophets and persecution, to the gospel being preached to all nations, to the abomination of desolation and people fleeing from Judea, to great tribulation, to the coming of the Son of Man, etc. Our Olivet Discourse series demonstrates how all these things were fulfilled by the time the temple fell in Jerusalem in 70 AD (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).
Was Jesus also saying that heaven and earth would pass away in His own generation? Indeed, He was. We repeatedly saw in our study of the Olivet Discourse that the prophetic language of the Old Testament provides a background to much of what Jesus says in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21. The same is true for the expression “heaven and earth.” This is covenant language, and this is perhaps most evident in the book of Isaiah.
Isaiah and Jeremiah: Zion/Israel Was the Old Heavens and Earth
Isaiah’s opening vision was concerned with Judah and Jerusalem, according to Isaiah 1:1. Notice the very first words of Isaiah: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 1:2). This is not unique to Isaiah, for heaven and earth were repeatedly called as witnesses against Israel (e.g. Deuteronomy 4:26, 30:18-19, 31:28, 32:1; Jeremiah 2:12, 6:19; Micah 6:2). In Isaiah 51, speaking to the people of Israel, God says:
I, I am He who comforts you; who are you that you…have forgotten the Lord, your Maker, who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth…? …And I have put My words in your mouth and covered you in the shadow of My hand, establishing the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, ‘You are My people’ (verses 12-16).
The establishment of the heavens and the earth is thus linked directly to the establishment of Israel as God’s people at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:5-6). Psalm 68:7-8 reiterates that the earth and the heavens were greatly affected when “God, the One of Sinai” marched through the wilderness before His people:
“O God, when You went out before Your people, when You marched through the wilderness, the earth shook; The heavens also dropped rain at the presence of God; Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel.”
This happened during the days of Moses. Judges 5:4-5 says the same thing. Jeremiah also spoke of Jerusalem’s pending destruction (in 586 BC) in a way that might seem as if he was talking about planet earth and the galaxies, if it weren’t for the context:
“My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent, for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war… I looked on the earth, and behold, it was without form and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light… For thus says the Lord, ‘The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. For this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above be dark…’” (Jeremiah 4:19, 23, 27).
Jeremiah was in anguish over the collapse of the heavens and the earth (Zion) when Babylon destroyed Judah and Jerusalem in 586 BC. David Curtis, the pastor of Berean Bible Church (Virginia Beach), has this to say about Isaiah 51 (quoted above) and the Old Testament’s use of “heaven and earth” language in the context of judgment:
Notice [in Isaiah 51] that God is speaking to Israel. He says He gave them His law, the Old Covenant… Clearly God is not saying He gave the Old Covenant to Israel to create literal heaven and earth! Material creation existed long before Israel was ever given the Old Covenant.
The meaning of this verse is that God gave His covenant with Israel to create their world–a covenant world with God! God created Israel’s “heaven and earth” by giving them His Covenant. Now if He destroyed that Old Covenant heaven and earth and gave a New Covenant, would He not thereby be creating a New heaven and earth? This is precisely the thought in the New Covenant Scriptures!
This idea is seen more clearly as we look at other passages where mention is made of the destruction of a state and government using language which seems to set forth the end of the world, as the collapse of heaven and earth. In Isaiah 13:1-13, this is not an oracle against the universe or world, but against the nation of Babylon. Notice verse 13, “Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth will move out of her place.”
Now remember, He is speaking about the destruction of Babylon, but it sounds like world wide destruction… If you were a Babylonian and Babylon was destroyed would it seem like the world was destroyed? Yes! Your world would be destroyed.
This is an historical event that took place in 539 BC. When the Medes destroyed Babylon (Isaiah 13:17), the Babylonian world came to an end… The physical heaven and earth were still in tact, but for Babylon they had collapsed. This is apocalyptic language. This is the way the scripture discusses the fall of a nation (Source).
Curtis also points out how this “heaven and earth” language is used in these ways concerning Israel (Isaiah 24-27), Edom (Isaiah 34), Nineveh (Nahum 1), and Israel again (Hebrews 12).
Isaiah didn’t only speak of the old heavens and earth. He also prophesied of “new heavens and a new earth,” and the creation of Jerusalem as a joy (Isaiah 65:17-19). This is covenant language, and this can be seen in the fact that the new heavens and new earth were to be marked by sin and death (verse 20), building and planting (verses 21-22), and the reproduction of children (verse 23).
When I was younger, I was taught that the new heavens and earth would be set up following a future Second Coming of Christ and a 1000 year “millennial reign” based in earthly Jerusalem, at which time sin and death would cease to exist. Isaiah’s description of the new heavens and earth, however, does not allow for this. Instead, his description speaks of present, earthly realities coinciding with new, glorious spiritual realities.
It also mirrors what we see in the New Testament. Paul told the Ephesians that God’s people are called to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). He likewise told the Corinthians, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (II Corinthians 5:17). In Christ, a new temple/tabernacle had come (e.g. I Corinthians 3:16-17, I Cor. 6:19, II Cor. 6:16, Ephesians 2:21, Revelation 3:12), and the old temple/tabernacle had to go. During the one generation following the cross, all of the rituals attached to the temple in Jerusalem were worthless. By the end of that generation, that temple and those worthless rituals were gone.
SOURCE: Cindye Coates
We would also do well to remember that Jesus had already made a very significant statement about the disappearance of (the old) heaven and earth in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will be any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).
Is the Law 100% intact even now in the year 2014, and are we thus still under the old heavens and earth? Or did Jesus accomplish everything and fulfill the Law, so that we are now under the covenantal framework of the new heavens and earth? Matthew 5:17-18 is an all-or-nothing statement. If “heaven and earth” have not yet disappeared, neither then has even one trace of the Law of Moses.
The “heaven and earth” spoken of by Jesus here are connected to the temple worship and law keeping of the Jewish world. We know that Jerusalem, the temple, and the old covenant system passed away in a fiery blaze in 70 AD. Jesus, of course, predicted this (in Matthew 22:7; Revelation 17:16-17; Rev. 18:8-9, 17-18).
II Peter 3:7-13 also speaks of the heavens and earth of that time being “stored up for fire” (verse 7) and ready to “pass away with a roar” and be “burned up and dissolved” (verse 10), giving way to “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (verse 13). That fire occurred in 70 AD when Jerusalem was burned by the Roman armies, as Jesus said would happen to the city of those who rejected His Father’s wedding invitation and murdered His servants: “And the king sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city” (Matthew 22:7).
Bishop John Lightfoot (1601-1675) made a key point in his Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Vol. 3, p. 452),
“Compare this with Deut. 32:22, Heb. 12:26, Gal. 4:9, Coloss. 2:20: and observe that by elements are understood the Mosaic elements: and you will not doubt that St. Peter speaks only of the conflagration of Jerusalem, the destruction of the nation, and the abolishing of the dispensation of Moses.”
Indeed, Galatians 4:9 and Colossians 2:20 make use of the same word translated as “elements” in II Peter 3:10. It’s clear that Paul spoke there, not of the cosmos, but of what was contained in the Law:
 “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years!” (Galatians 4:9-10).
 “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings?” (Colossians 2:20-22).
In a 1721 sermon, the Puritan preacher John Owen said,
I affirm that the heavens and earth here intended in this prophecy of Peter, the coming of the Lord, the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men, mentioned in the destruction of that heaven and earth, do all of them relate, not to the last and final judgment of the world, but to that utter desolation and destruction that was to be made of the Judaical church and state… [A]nd then the heavens and earth that God Himself planted, -the sun, moon, and stars of the Judaical polity and church, – the whole old world of worship and worshippers, that stand out in their obstinancy against the Lord Christ, shall be sensibly dissolved and destroyed: this we know shall be the end of these things, and that shortly.”
Jonathan Edwards (in 1739) said this in his work, “The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath, Vol. 2”:
The Scriptures further teach us to call the gospel-restoration and redemption, a creation of a new heaven and a new earth… The gospel state is everywhere spoken of as a renewed state of things, wherein old things are passed away, and all things become new… And the dissolution of the Jewish state was often spoken of in the Old Testament as the end of the world. But we who belong to the gospel-church, belong to the new creation; and therefore there seems to be at least as much reason, that we should commemorate the work of this creation, as that the members of the ancient Jewish church should commemorate the work of the old creation.
C.H. (Charles) Spurgeon also had the same understanding. In a sermon delivered in 1865 (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vo. XXXVII, p. 354), he said:
Did you ever regret the absence of the burnt-offering, or the red heifer, of any one of the sacrifices and rites of the Jews? Did you ever pine for the feast of tabernacle, or the dedication? No, because, though these were like the old heavens and earth to the Jewish believers, they have passed away and we now live under a new heavens and a new earth, so far as the dispensation of divine teaching is concerned. The substance is come, and the shadow has gone: and we do not remember it.
We will conclude with a much older quote, a very intriguing statement made by the church father, Eusebius (265-340 AD), in one of his writings known as “the Theophania”:
All authorities concur in the declaration that “when all these things should have been done”, ‘The End’ should come: that “the mystery of God should be finished as he had declared to His servants the prophets“: it should be completed: time should now be no more: the End of all things (so foretold) should be at hand, and be fully brought to pass: in these days should be fulfilled all that had been spoken of Christ (and of His church) by the prophets: or, in other words, when the gospel should have been preached in all the world for a testimony to all nations, and the power of the Holy People be scattered (abroad), then should the End come, then should all these things be finished. I need now only say, all these things have been done: the old and elementary system passed away with a great noise; all these predicted empires have actually fallen, and the new kingdom, the new heaven and earth, the new Jerusalem–all of which were to descend from God, to be formed by His power, have been realised on earth; all these things have been done in the sight of all the nations; God’s holy arm has been made bare in their sight: His judgments have prevailed, and they remain for an everlasting testimony to the whole world. His kingdom has come, as it was foretold it should, and His will has, so far, been done; His purposes have been finished.
The information in this post also appeared in our study of Matthew 24:35.
Also see Steve’s 3-part series on “The Biblical Heavens and Earth” (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) which he posted here in June 2014.