This is Part 3 of a sermon I recently preached and discussed with folks at church regarding how the terms “heaven, earth and sea” are often used to describe convenantal – not material – realities in the Bible’s redemption story. Here is the rest of a list of examples within the major narratives of the Bible where the themes of heaven, earth and sea correspond to God, Jew and Gentile.
Jesus II. Then there’s this random act of wizardry where Jesus walks on the… sea. Jesus walks upon the sea and shows himself to be identified with the LAND. He IS the land, the promised land, our salvation rest. Jesus is Israel reduced to one. Heaven, earth
Peter. And Peter, a Jew of the land, can walk on the sea too, IF he has …faith in Jesus. When he lacks faith in Jesus, he sinks into the… sea. Heaven, earth, sea.
Jesus III. Or here’s another random miracle that had baffled me until seeing this pattern. Jesus heals a blind man by picking up…earth, spitting on it and putting it into the man’s eyes. And suddenly he can see! We could think long upon the rich symbolism there.
Jesus IV. In Jesus’ last big teaching before he was crucified, his Olivet Discourse, he and his disciples talked about the grandeur of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. And Jesus tells them the enormous Temple will be destroyed. The shocked disciples ask, “When will these things be? What will be the sign of your coming? And of the end of the age?” Notice that they equate the destruction of the Temple with a coming of Jesus and the end of their Old Covenant AGE (which is sometimes mistranslated world).
Jesus gives signs that will precede the Temple’s destruction, then he says a baffling thing, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until ALL these things are fulfilled. Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away.” (Mt 24:34-35).
Is Jesus talking about the world ending? Or is he talking about what was on his immediate audience’s horizon, namely, the ending of the ‘heaven and earth’ of Israel, the Temple and the Old Covenant world? It seems that in a conversation that is focused on the Temple, at the Temple, he is talking about the Temple and the world of Israel, the seat of her Covenant. It makes more sense that Jesus was telling his listeners that the old way of being God’s people mediated by law was about to pass away.
If you take a non-concordist, non-physical, covenantal view of “heaven and earth”, then this verse was, indeed, fulfilled in that generation. This was a very relevant message for his disciples because this unbelievable thing (the grand Temple, the center of their world, being destroyed) happened in their lifetime, just as Jesus said it would, establishing Jesus as an authoritative prophet.
The Old Covenant way of being the people of God through the law, gave way to the New Covenant way of being the people of God through Jesus. We put off the death of Adam and put on the new life in Christ. That it was the Last Generation of the Old way of being God’s people through the law was announced in Jesus’ ministry. The Last Days of this Old Law way were announced in the ministry of the disciples. Peter quotes Joel (in Acts) and says that Joel’s “Last Days” prophecy was fulfilled among them, back THEN. And the signs and “Last Hour” (of 1 John 2:18) came and went in August of AD70 when the second Temple was destroyed – on the exact same day of the exact same month as the first Temple was destroyed.
Jesus V. Have you ever wondered what he meant when Jesus said, “Till heaven and earth pass away, not a jot or a tittle of the law will by any means disappear from the law until everything is fulfilled” (Mt 5:18). Is Jesus saying that the entire Old Covenant law, complete with kosher rules and sacrifices and head coverings, and circumcision, will be in effect until the end of the physical world? Isn’t that in direct contrast to every New Testament writer who came after Jesus, like Paul, as we see in Galatians, who said the laws and circumcision have been “cast out” like Ishmael, and they are no longer necessary?
If you’ve followed with me so far, you probably guessed that I’m going to suggest that Jesus is talking about a covenantal shift, not a planetary one. That he had a relevant and trustworthy message for his disciples – that they were about to experience a covenantal change of order, or worlds, when the heaven and earth of the Old Covenant would give way to the heaven and earth of the New Covenant. And that, regarding this new covenantal world, Jesus would be the door, center, the light, the life – forever.
Where this ‘heaven and earth’ symbolism really get’s interesting is at the very end of Revelation. We see this imagery in a dramatic climax. Our main question at the start here was, in the beginning, God created what? And, so, ‘the end’ was to be ‘the end’ of what? The world or the Old Covenant world?5
Revelation was most likely a letter written in the mid to late 60’s AD, to seven real historical churches in Asia Minor, about things that it says MUST SOON HAPPEN to them. And it was likely a letter written in Hebrew apocalyptic language about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
John. Thus at the end of his letter to those churches, in his Revelation of Jesus, John says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no more sea…first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:1, 4).
WOW. What a beautiful conclusion to all that we have covered. Does looking at the aforementioned pattern of how ‘heaven and earth’ are used in the Bible help throw some much- needed light on this passage? I hope it does for you what it did for me. It gave me peace, a reason for thanking God and set me free from feelings of fear and inevitable doom in my and the world’s future (as if that’s the best God could think of to give his church over the last two thousand years – a worse-getting, world-ending worldview to live under! What all did Jesus accomplish if that’s the doomed outlook he left us with?).
IF this symbolism stands consistently here in Revelation, as it seems to work everywhere else in the Bible, then what is John saying? It seems he’s saying that there used to be the structure of old heaven, earth and sea, or God, God’s people and not-God’s people, or God, clean and unclean…And that NOW, since there is a New Heaven, and New Earth and no more sea…does that mean there is just God and God’s people now? God…and clean people?
What exactly did Jesus come to do? Did he unite and reconcile everything that was separated in the beginning …and make everyone in his Covenant world clean? Or did he do something even broader, more far-reaching and come and make everyone in the world…clean?
So you can see the interesting, even radical, kinds of questions this raises. Like,“What is the extent of Jesus’ atoning work?” and “Who are God’s people now – those in the covenant, or everyone?” I’m still working through these and other related questions. But, one thing is for sure, the more I learn, the more I’m humbled at how much more there is to learn.
So back to where we began. In 1 Kings we are studying the foundations of what is about to become a very interesting story, one that weaves together the rest of the Bible. There is a LOT more here to say about this topic and there are a lot more examples of this pattern of heaven, earth and sea in the Bible. As we read Kings, and every other book in the Bible, I think we will be more attuned to where these same ‘heaven, earth and sea’ themes emerge.