The term "heavens and the earth," when spoken in poetic language by either psalmist, prophets, or Jesus Himself, refers to the Temple (or by extension, Jerusalem), and the system of rituals/sacrifices there. I'll demonstrate this thesis by illustrations from Scripture and from Jewish writers contemporary with the writers of the New Testament. First, though, I'd like to describe one of the most important skills to have while reading the Bible.
Let me talk about the way the Jewish writers of the Bible expressed their thoughts. The most important aspect of Hebrew thought pattern and expression is the parallelism. If you don't understand parallelism, you won't properly understand most of the Bible. We thinkers/writers of Western Civilization think sequentially. We categorize. We write lists. We tell things in a linear, logical order. The Hebrew writer/thinker does not do this. To be a great writer according to the Hebrew tradition represented in the Bible means to say one thing as many different ways as possible. The biblical writers construct parallelisms at virtually every level, in both poetry and often prose. This same cultural literary phenomenon shows up in the New Testament, as well. I usually begin an explanation of parallelism with the illustration of train tracks. Our parallel lines of tracks represent ideas in Hebrew-minded writing. The train moving over the tracks is the meaning carried by the ideas. Two or more ideas, one meaning. Let's look at a biblical example: Psalm 19:7-9. We take these six statements about Scripture and want to start making lists and charts: the different names, their nuanced meanings, and their quality. This is the point the writer is making! He's giving us a single, multi-faceted view of the glory of the Word of God, and we're deconstructing it so it will make a better "how to" manual! Psalm 119 is a giant example of parallelism, as the psalmist comes up with more "pet names" for his love (Scripture) than Shakespeare in all his sonnets! So when reading every part of the Bible, we must look for parallel statements that mean the same thing, and often shed complementary light on each other. I cannot over-emphasize this point. Adele Berlin wrote a fantastic and annoyingly horrible book about parallelism exquisitely and painfully detailing the pervasiveness of parallelism in Hebrew writing called The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism (published by Eerdmans). Every seminary student and Bible teacher should be beat half to death with this book until they agree to never again read their Bibles or pretend to teach without applying Berlin's magnificent torture device to themselves while exegeting. Again, without mastering parallelism as a literary concept, you will not understand the Bible. Let's get back to the thesis: the "heavens and earth" language of psalmists, prophets, and Jesus refers back to the Temple and its system of worship, not the universe or cosmos in which we find ourselves. Let's start looking at examples from the Bible.
- "And He built His sanctuary like the heights, like the earth which He has founded forever" (Psalm 78:69). There are at least two sets of parallelisms in this verse. Do you see them? First is the parallel between "sanctuary" and "the heights...the earth." The second is in the verbs "He built" and "He has founded." The Temple of Solomon is figuratively described as being like the heavens and the earth. In this example, it's easy to understand because of the repetition of the word "like" - God sometimes gives us obvious similes to introduce us by baby-step to more subtle parallelisms.
- "I have put My words in your mouth and have covered you with the shadow of My hand, to establish the heavens, to found the earth, and to say to Zion, 'You are My people'" (Isaiah 51:16). God's work of creating the heavens and the earth and His work of speaking His people/Zion into existence is the same. His people, gathered at Zion, are representative of the heavens and the earth. They are the reason for Creation, and are figuratively "the whole world" to Him.
- "For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things will not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing and her people for gladness" (Isaiah 65:17,18). The language of "new heavens and new earth" from Revelation 21 is an allusion to Isaiah 65 (very little of Revelation is totally original - understanding the O.T. is key to interpreting Revelation...throw the newspaper away!). What does Isaiah mean by it? Well, we handicapped Western Civilization thinkers/readers are given a little help by the repetition of the word "create." We are told what the "new heavens" and "new earth" are; they are "Jerusalem" and "her people."
- The prophet Jeremiah gives us a little background on why Isaiah 65 needs to speak of "new" in relation to "the heavens and the earth." You see, the original "heavens and earth" were undone for a time. This happened in 586 B.C. by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, when his army utterly destroyed Solomon's Temple, Jerusalem, and Judah (this was the hand of God for Judah's unwillingness to be faithful to God alone). Jeremiah, in writing of this event, says, "I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light" (4:23). Read the whole chapter and you see the prophet is describing the destruction of Judah as being the undoing of creation itself - which it was, to the Jewish mind. The language of "formless and void" and darkness come from the Genesis account of creation.
- Fast-forward to the New Testament. Jesus sits atop a hill teaching His followers, and He makes a statement about the Law of Moses that leads Christians into theological trouble to this day: "For I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished" (Matthew 5:18). "Pass away" is paralleled with "all is accomplished," and "heaven and earth" is paralleled by "the Law." Jesus is speaking of the destruction of Herod's Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70, the utter and complete end of Temple Judaism. It was a conclusive statement by God accomplished 40 years (a hugely significant number in the Bible) after the death of Christ for sins.
- In Matthew 24:4-25:46, Jesus gives an extended teaching about the destruction of the Temple that was to occur 40 years later. Wait...someone told you this was about the end of the world? Read it again. What prompts Jesus to give this teaching? The disciples, in Jerusalem with Jesus, admiringly point out the great buildings of the Temple complex to Jesus. The Lord responds, "Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down" (Matthew 24:2). This is too much for them. Later, in a private moment on the Mount of Olives, they ask, "Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" The teaching from 24:4-25:46 answers this question. It is totally inexcusability and shameful self-centeredness on the part of the modern reader to believe that Jesus ignores the questions of the disciples and proceeds to warn them about events not to happen for millennia! Back again to our thesis...Jesus, in this discourse, says, "Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away" (Matthew 24:34,35). The future tries to redefine "generation" to fit their charts and cut-and-paste approach to the Bible. Read it for what it says and the O.T.-saturated language the Lord uses.
- What about the apostle Peter's language? "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with an intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:10-13). The apostle, in writing this last letter to the Church, continues the language of the psalmists, prophets, and his Lord. Without a holistic understanding of biblical language, this dramatic-sounding end of the world was useful fuel to the Bible-teachers of the 20th century as they shepherded flocks under threat of global nuclear war. Do you see now what Peter is pointing to, what was less than a decade away as he penned these words? There is a slight variation to the language we've seen so far. What is it? The word "the elements." To understand Peter's variation from the other biblical language we've seen, we're going to look at similar uses of this exact word written decades earlier by another apostle. Paul doesn't write with the same Hebrew stylings, but his use of the word "element" will be very helpful to us. Writing about the Law, Paul says that we "were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world" (Galatians 4:3). He then asks, "now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years" (4:9,10). To another Church Paul says, "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ" (Colossians 2:8). He then asks, "If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 'Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!' (which all refer to things destined to perish with use) - in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?" (2:20-22). While the apostle Peter speaks of the "elements" of the old heavens and earth being undone in fire, and a new heavens and earth built on righteousness, Paul describes the Law followed by the Temple and its worshipers and being "elements," obsolete under Christ. Peter and Paul are speaking the same ideas with different cultural language.
I told you I'd give you some examples from Jewish writers contemporary to the writers of the New Testament:
- "As for the inside [of the Tabernacle], Moses parted its length into three partitions...this proporation 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..." (Flavius Josephus, A.D. 37-100, The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 3, Chapter 3.4).
- "...if anyone does 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 they were every one made in way of imitation and representation of the universe. When Moses distinguished the tabernacle into three parts, 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 imitated 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 the sea shellfish; 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. As for the ephod, its 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. 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 them by the months, or whether we understand the like number of the signs of the circle which the Greeks call the Zodiac, we shall not be mistaken in their meaning. And for the miter, 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" (Flavius Josephus, A.D. 37-100, The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 3, Chapter 7.7).
- Moses "chose the materials of this embroidery [of the veil], selecting with great care what was most excellent out of an infinite quantity, choosing materials equal in number to the elements of which the world was made, and having a direct relation to them; the elements being the earth and the water, and the air and the fire. For the fine flax is produced from the earth, and the purple from the water, and the hyacinth color is compared to the air (for, by nature, it is black), and the scarlet is likened to fire, because each is of a red color; for it followed of necessity that those who were preparing a temple made by hands for the Father and Ruler of the universe must take essences similar to those of which he made the universe itself" (Philo Judaeus, 20 B.C.-A.D. 50, On the Life of Moses II, XVIII).
- "...the dress of the high priest...is a copy and representation of the separate parts of the world...and our argument will be able to bring forth twenty probable reasons that the mantle over the shoulders is an emblem of heaven" (Philo Judaeus, 20 B.C.-A.D. 50, On the Life of Moses II, XXIV).
- "The high priest, then, being equipped in this way, is properly prepared for the performance of all sacred ceremonies, that, whenever he enters the temple to offer up the prayers and sacrifices in use among his nation, all the world may likewise enter in with him, by means of the imitations of it which he bears about him..." (Philo Judaeus, 20 B.C.-A.D. 50, On the Life of Moses II, XXVI).
Fred Asaire, in the 1951 film "Royal Wedding," dances around his hotel room singing "You're All the World to Me." He compares His love to Paris, New York, the Swiss Alps, Cape Cod, Lake Como, Sun Valley, a museum, a Persian palace, Christmas, and a tropical sea. The Jews of Jesus' day could sing that song, too, about the Temple, the Law, and the priesthood.
We don't get to read the Bible with our definitions and understanding in mind. The Bible tells us how to read it. The results may not conform to our self-centered worldview, which says, "there's never been a time like this" and "this is what the Bible means to me," but the results will be accurate to the message God desires for His people to receive. The destruction of the heavens and earth language of the Bible refers to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, first in 586 B.C. and second in A.D. 70. In both instances, the people bearing God's name and Word in the world had rejected Him, and re-created was required. The Church, free from centralized worship, human-efforted sacrifices, and ethnic homogeny, is the new heavens and earth (see the first essay again for elaboration on the grandness and all-encompassing nature of the Church).
Time to read our Bibles again!
P.S. "No longer any sea..." Don't worry, you beach bums. I'm sure heaven will be acceptable to you; but this speaks of the Church. Revelation has already defined the symbol "sea" for us: "The waters which you saw where the harlot sits, are peoples and multitudes and nations and tongues" (17:15). I don't think it's necessary to look much further. In the Church, there is no "us and them" from an ethnic standpoint, as in the Old Covenant, where the people of God were marked out first by ethnicity. In Christ that barrier is broken down (Ephesians 2:11-22), so in the "new heavens and the new earth" (a term symbolizing the New Covenant), there is "no longer any sea."