A STUDY OF MATHEW 5:17-18 – PART 1
(All scripture verses in the NASB unless otherwise specified)
Personally, I’m convinced that the truths contained in these two verses have the power and authority to convincingly refute all futurist eschatological paradigms. Jesus leaves no room for “private interpretations”.
Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly 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.
Jesus teaches plainly that none of the law or prophets would pass away until:
- Heaven and earth passed away
- All the law and prophets were fulfilled.
If we break verse 18 into two parts we can see this very clearly.
- “…. until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law…”
- “… not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished”
Now, before we get into the text, we need ask ourselves a question. Why does Jesus insinuate that his disciples thought or would think that he had come to “abolish the Law or the prophets”? “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets…” In other words, what prompted Jesus to command his disciples not to think that he had come to abolish the law?
I suggest that the answer is found in his previous teaching known as the “beatitudes”. But what should not be overlooked is that Jesus’s beatitudes (kingdom blessings) are an allusion to the blessings found in Deuteronomy 28 (Read Deuteronomy 28:1-10).
In Deuteronomy, Yahweh had promised to “command the blessing” upon Israel in exchange for their perfect obedience to the law, if they would be “careful to do all his commandments”. However, in Mathew 5 Jesus begins to announce and to teach a “new standard” or what we might call a “new qualification” for Israel to receive the blessings of God. What Jesus is doing is “commanding the blessing” upon the new-Israel for their obedience to the “gospel of the kingdom” (Mathew 4:23), and for bearing the fruits thereof.
Because of Jesus’ application of Deuteronomy 28, it may have seemed logical for the disciples to assume that since the blessings promised to Israel for obedience to the law were now being received for obedience to the gospel of the kingdom, that the law would now become obsolete, and their new law giver (the new Moses) had come to “abolish it”. However, Jesus places the axe to the roots of any such thought.
“….I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.”
Jesus’ kingdom message did not mean that he was abolishing the law, rather, as his kingdom was being established and replacing the old, he was fulfilling it. The Greek word here for fulfil is “pleroo” which means “to make full, to complete, to fully supply, to consummate. Jesus came to establish his kingdom in order to complete and consummate the law and the prophets. He was bringing the shadow world into its full consummation, and by placing their faith in that process, Israel was being blessed.
As we said above, we will break verse 18 into two parts which will help us to better understand this amazing text. Let’s begin….
“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law…”
First of all, verse 18 is what is called an elliptical statement, which means in simple terms that a word or a portion of a sentence has been omitted due to the pattern or logic of the entire sentence. Therefore, the phrase “the law” in verse 18 (which omits “the prophets”) refers to the “law and the prophets” already mentioned in verse 17.
Secondly, the terms “law and prophets” and even “the law” in verses 17-18 of Mathew 5 refer to the entire body of the old testament scriptures. Jesus and the new testament writers referred to the Scriptures as ‘the law and the prophets” the “law the prophets and the psalms”, and simply “the law”
(Mathew 5:18, 7:12, 11:13, 22:40, Luke 16:16, 24:44, John 1:45, 10:34 (see Psalm 82:6), 12:34 (see Psalm 89:1-3, Isaiah 9:6-7), 15:25 (see Psalm 64:9), Acts 13:15, 28:23, Romans 3:11-19, 1 Corinthians 14:21 (see Isaiah 28:11). Therefore, the phrase “the law” or “the law and the prophets” both refer to the entirety of the old testament scriptures as a whole.
Consider what a few modern scholars have to say on the topic:
(These quotes are taken from Don K. Preston’s book “The End of the Law – Torah To Telos – The Passing of the Law of Moses” page 57-58. For an exhaustive discussion on this topic see Don K. Preston’s book referenced above)
“The old testament generally is often called “the law” by new testament writers” (J.W. McGarvey, Commentary on Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians and Romans, p.139)
“The whole of the old testament scriptures is called “the law” (David Lipscomb, A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles by McGarvey and Pendleton, p.210)
“Though Sabbatarians attempt to make a distinction between moral and ceremonial law… scripture makes no such distinction” (Wayne Cox, Mississippi Lectureship 1996, p.233f)
“A devilish device is sometimes resorted to by those who want to keep intact part of the Mosaic system with the remnant abrogated or abolished. The seek to make a distinction between the Law of God and the Law of Moses or between the moral law that God gave and the ceremonial law given by Moses. It all come wrapped up in the same package” (Robert Taylor, Mississippi Lectureship 1996, p.223)
According to Jesus, none of the old testament (including physical circumcision, mandatory animal sacrifices for sin, yearly pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the feasts etc.) could pass (perish, pass away) until heaven and earth passed away.
Said another way, the entire old covenant-world system established through Moses would remain covenantally binding upon Israel until heaven and earth passed away.
The way I see it, we only have only two options:
- Since the literal and physical heaven and earth have not passed away – which is universally admitted – then the old covenant has likewise not passed away and remains covenantally binding upon Israel today.
Believe it or not, there are some who would agree with this – that the old covenant remains covenantally binding upon Israel today since heaven and earth have not ceased to exist. Consider the following statement:
“So long as the world lasted, it’s authority was to be permanent. Every single stroke of the law must be seen by the Christian to be applicable to this very age between the advents of Christ”. (Greg Bahnsen, Theonomy, 2002, p.81)
Those like Bahnsen who maintain that the old covenant as a whole remains covenantally binding today are under the assumption – as probably most are – that the “heaven and earth” referred to by Jesus must refer to the physical creation, the entire cosmos. If this is true, then Bahnsen is correct – the entire old covenant remains in effect and covenantally binding today, and the new covenant has not yet been fully established.
The question becomes, is it possible that Jesus had something other than the physical earth, and the sun, moon, and stars in mind? My guess is that if most Christians were pressured with this type of argument, they would admit that the old covenant has passed away and that therefore Jesus must have been using the phrase “heaven and earth” in a spiritual / symbolic” manner.
This brings us to option two:
- The “heaven and earth” spoken of by Jesus was not a reference to the physical cosmos, but rather, it was metaphoric and symbolic language which referred to the old covenant and the old covenantal “world” – both political and religious – of Israel. Therefore, since the old covenant “world” (heaven and earth) of Israel did pass away through God’s judgment and destruction of the nation at the hands of the Romans in AD 70, then the entire old covenant law – every jot and every tittle – has also passed away.
In reality, option two is the only option. Jesus’ words are clear and emphatic, the “law” (old covenant) would not pass away until heaven and earth passed away. But, if the law has passed away then heaven and earth has likewise passed away. They are same-time-events.
The question is, can we biblically support the claim that the phrase “heaven and earth” can be used in the scriptures symbolically / spiritually to refer to a nation’s kingdom and dominion – their “world” – and specifically to Israel’s? I sure hope so. Since if we cannot, then “heaven and earth” in Mathew 5:18 can only refer to the physical cosmos, and since the cosmos has not “passes away”, the old covenant remains valid and binding. But, as we will demonstrate below, we most assuredly can.
HEAVEN AND EARTH
The oracle concerning Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw…. Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, cruel, with fury and burning anger, to make the land a desolation; and He will exterminate its sinners from it. For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises and the moon will not shed its light. Thus, I will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their iniquity; I will also put an end to the arrogance of the proud and abase the haughtiness of the ruthless. I will make mortal man scarcer than pure gold and mankind than the gold of Ophir. Therefore, I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken from its place at the fury of the Lord of hosts in the day of His burning anger…. Behold, I am going to stir up the Medes against them, who will not value silver or take pleasure in gold. And their bows will mow down the young men, they will not even have compassion on the fruit of the womb, nor will their eye pity children. And Babylon, the beauty of kingdoms, the glory of the Chaldeans’ pride, will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.
Isaiah prophesied the judgment of God on Babylon that would come at the hands of the Medes in the “day of the Lord’s burning anger” – the day of the Lord. Notice that in this judgment the “stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises and the moon will not shed its light”. Also, the Lord would make the “heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken from its place”. This prophecy is not still awaiting fulfilment, it was historically fulfilled when the Medes conquered the kingdom of Babylon during the reign of Belshazzar (Daniel 5, also see Jeremiah 50-51). Therefore, in this context the “heavens and earth” do not refer to the literal cosmos but to the power and dominion of the “Babylonian world” at that time which would be replaced and superseded by the Median and eventually the Persian empires.
Son of man, take up a lamentation over Pharaoh king of Egypt and say to him, ‘You compared yourself to a young lion of the nations, yet you are like the monster in the seas; and you burst forth in your rivers and muddied the waters with your feet and fouled their rivers.… And when I extinguish you, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud and the moon will not give its light… All the shining lights in the heavens I will darken over you and will set darkness on your land,” declares the Lord God. I will also trouble the hearts of many peoples when I bring your destruction among the nations, into lands which you have not known. I will make many peoples appalled at you, and their kings will be horribly afraid of you when I brandish My sword before them; and they will tremble every moment, every man for his own life, on the day of your fall. For thus says the Lord God “The sword of the king of Babylon will come upon you”.
Ezekiel prophesied of the destruction of Egypt that would come at the hands of Babylon when the Lord would “extinguish” Egypt. This judgment historically took place at the battle of Charchemish in 605BC. (Also see Jeremiah 43). Notice that the Lord would “cover the heavens and darken their stars” and “set darkness on your land”. Again, in this context the “heavens and land (earth)” do not refer to the literal cosmos but to the “kingdom of Egypt” which Babylon conquer. Ezekiel was prophesying the end of Egypt’s “world”.
Draw near, O nations, to hear; and listen, O peoples! Let the earth and all it contains hear, and the world and all that springs from it. For the Lord’s indignation is against all the nations, and his wrath against all their armies; He has utterly destroyed them, He has given them over to slaughter. So their slain will be thrown out, and their corpses will give off their stench, and the mountains will be drenched with their blood. And all the host of heaven will wear away, and the sky will be rolled up like a scroll; all their hosts will also wither away as a leaf withers from the vine, or as one withers from the fig tree. For My sword is satiated in heaven, behold it shall descend for judgment upon Edom and upon the people whom I have devoted to destruction.
Isaiah’s prophecy of Edom’s destruction was fulfilled in 583 BC at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon only a few years after Babylon had sacked Jerusalem in 586 BC. The “host of heaven” would wear away and wither and the sky would be “rolled up like a scroll”, yet the physical cosmos were not affected by that judgment – Edom was. Their kingdom and its power were crushed and destroyed.
Let’s look at one more…
For thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Once more in a little while, I am going to shake the heavens and the earth, the sea also and the dry land. I will shake all the nations; and they will come with the wealth of all nations, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord of hosts. The silver is Mine and the gold is Mine,’ declares the Lord of hosts. The latter glory of this house will be greater than the former,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘and in this place I will give peace,’ declares the Lord of hosts”.… Then the word of the Lord came a second time to Haggai on the twenty-fourth day of the month, saying, speak to Zerubbabel governor of Judah, saying, ‘I am going to shake the heavens and the earth. I will overthrow the thrones of kingdoms and destroy the power of the kingdoms of the nations; and I will overthrow the chariots and their riders, and the horses and their riders will go down, everyone by the sword of another.’
The prophet Haggai clearly connects the “shaking of heaven and earth” with the “overthrow the thrones of kingdoms” and the destruction of the “power of the kingdoms of the nations”, so that the latter (last) house (temple) would be filled with the glory of the Lord.
Significantly, the writer of Hebrews leaves no room for any “private interpretation” of this Haggai text. He interprets the “once more shaking” of heaven and earth as the “final” shaking and removal of the old covenant kingdom of Judaism through the establishment of the glorified temple (house) in the new covenant kingdom.
As we have seen in each of the above texts, when God was judging these nations “heaven and earth” did not refer to the cosmic creation – to the globe we call earth and the expanse of space. Rather, the “heaven and earth” of these texts referred to the kingdom and the “world system” of the nations under the judgment of Yahweh.
Said another way, when the prophets used the symbolic and metaphorical language of the shaking, darkening, or wearing away of “heaven and earth”, they were communicating that the “world” – the society, culture, and kingdom – of that nation was going to be judged and destroyed by a foreign nation as the divine judgment of the God of Israel for oppressing his covenant people.
After all, what did all of these nations have in common regarding Israel? They opposed, persecuted, and enslaved them. Edom refused Israel a speedy passage through their land after the exodus from Egypt and became a constant persecutor on the holy nation. Egypt brutally enslaved and oppressed them for over 400 years. Babylon destroyed their city and temple and scattered the people among the nations. Armed with this biblical old testament perspective, let’s read again the words of Jesus in our key text.
“For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law…”
Now, since we know that Jesus was also a prophet – an old testament prophet to Israel – why don’t we allow his words to carry the same meaning as the words of Isaiah and Ezekiel instead of imposing our modern concepts on an ancient Hebrew idiom and figure of speech? Taking a bit of poetic liberty, I suggest that Jesus was saying something like this:
“For truly I say to you, until God brings judgment and destruction on the wicked nation of Israel for their bloodshed and persecution of my people, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law…”
I believe that this is exactly what Jesus meant and exactly how his disciples would have understood His words. But to be sure, we must now go to the new testament scriptures.
THE WRATH ABOUT TO COME
As we have seen above, the destruction or agitations of “heaven and earth” in the context of God’s judgment on a nation for their persecution of his people is a common theme and metaphor among the old testament prophets for the removal/destruction of that nation’s culture and society – their “world”.
This being true, we have biblically support the claim that the phrase “heaven and earth” can be used in the scriptures to symbolically / spiritually refer to a nation’s “world” or “world-system”. We have also seen that Jesus’s use of the phrase “until heaven and earth” in Mathew 5:18 can’t refer to the literal cosmos but must instead carry a spiritual / symbolic meaning.
When both these truths are combined, we have the biblical authority to interpret Jesus’ use of “heaven and earth” as the political and cultural “world” of a nation that stood at that time ripe for destruction through the judgment of God.
I submit that the nation which Jesus had in mind could be none other than first century old covenant Israel. As a matter of fact, if we take seriously Jesus word’s that a particular nation’s “world system” (heaven and earth) had to pass in order for the “law” (the entire old covenant) to pass away, we are all but forced to see first century old covenant Israel as the nation of Jesus’ focus. (Luke 21:20-22)
As we will now demonstrate, what makes the application of the “passing away of heaven and earth” to the “passing away of Israel’s old covenant world” virtually irrefutable, is the fact that the new testament scriptures emphatically and consistently teach that the judgment of Yahweh was in fact coming upon first century Israel for their persecution and murder of Jesus and his covenant people through the agency of a foreign nation. To do this, we begin the message of Israel’s first last days prophet… the man sent from God whose name was John.
Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”…. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?…. “The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore, every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire…. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Until John came baptizing in the Jordan, Israel had not had a legitimate prophet in approximately 400 years. John is the nation’s first “last days prophet” and notice the core of his message… “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come”? I must point out that many English translations doesn’t do John’s message justice. The words “to come” is the Greek verb “mello”, which in the Greek means “about to, at the point of”. Therefore, John is referring to the wrath that is “about to come”. In other words, it was near.
This point is validated by John’s 2 analogies.
- The axe is already laid at the root of the trees
- His winnowing fork is in His hand
John uses the image of an axman placing the head of his axe on the root of a tree ready to swing, and of a winnowing fork (a harvesting tool) ready for harvest-separation. John’s entire message to Israel is one of impending national judgment and wrath. But John wasn’t the only one who prophesied of Israel’s imminent judgment, so did Jesus.
And He began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard and put a wall around it, and dug a vat under the winepress and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. At the harvest time he sent a slave to the vine-growers, in order to receive some of the produce of the vineyard from the vine-growers. They took him, and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again, he sent them another slave, and they wounded him in the head, and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and that one they killed; and did so with many others, beating some and killing others. He had one more to send a beloved son; he sent him last of all to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those vine-growers said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours!’ They took him, and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the vine-growers, and will give the vineyard to others…. And they were seeking to seize Him, and yet they feared the people, for they understood that He spoke the parable against them. And so they left Him and went away. (Also see Mathew 21:33f and Luke 20:9f)
Jesus prophesied that judgment would come upon the nation of Israel for killing the prophets – and specifically him. When the Jews heard this, they “understood that he spoke the parable against them”. In other words, they understood that Jesus meant that if they killed him, the judgment of God would come upon them, in their days.
Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them. So, you are witnesses and approve the deeds of your fathers; because it was they who killed them, and you build their tombs. For this reason also the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and some they will persecute, so that the blood of all the prophets, shed since the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation. (Also see Mathew 23:29-36)
Jesus told the Jews of his day that because they would persecute and kill his apostles and prophets, the blood of all the prophets all the way back to Abel would be “charged against his (this) generation”. And catch this, Jesus said that this judgment of God upon Israel was according to the “wisdom of God”. When we combine Luke and Mathew’s account of Jesus prophetic judgment of Israel, we have an amazing picture.
So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers…. Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.
In Mathew 23 Jesus reveals an amazing truth. There was a “measure of guilt” (measure of sin) that Israel was “filling up”, and when that cup of guilt was full, God would charge and repay the nation for all the shed blood of all the prophets sent to her. And, he would do so in that (this generation) when Jerusalem and the entire old covenant “world” (heaven and earth) was destroyed in AD70. It is no coincidence that the next scene in Mathew’s account is Jesus’ prophecy of Jerusalem’s total and final demise…. “And He said to them, “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.” (Mathew 24:2) (Also see Luke 19:41-44)
I’m sure that the reader can see that the evidence is mounting. Both John the Baptist and Jesus plainly taught that the divine judgment and wrath of God was coming upon first century old covenant Israel for their persecution and murder of the righteous. And as we shall see, both John and Jesus’ words are the prophetic well from which the new testament writers draw as they prophecy of the “wrath” that was coming upon Israel’s old covenant “world”. The heaven and earth of Mathew 5:18 would soon pass away.
FILLING THE MEASURE OF SIN
Apostle Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians contains some of the most powerful and definitive evidence that the first century Jews were about to suffer the wrath and judgment of God for their persecution of the righteous seed – the remnant of true Israel. The Thessalonians – like Paul and his companions – had “received the word in much tribulation” (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
1 Thessalonians 1:9-10
For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.
Let’s read this text in the YLT to catch the full force.
“….and to wait for His Son from the heavens, whom He did raise out of the dead — Jesus, who is rescuing us from the anger that is coming”.
Notice that the Greek verb for “rescues” is in the present tense. The Thessalonians were literally at that time being delivered / rescued from the “wrath” that was coming. Paul continues…..
1 Thessalonians 2:14-16
For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out. They are not pleasing to God, but hostile to all men, hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved; with the result that they always fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them to the utmost.
This text is absolutely amazing! Paul combines the messages / teachings of both John the Baptist and Jesus concerning the judgment of old covenant Israel.
Recall the words of Jesus….
(Luke 11:49-50 Mathew 23:32)
“‘I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and some they will persecute, so that the blood of all the prophets, shed since the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation…. “So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers”
Notice, Jesus tells the Jews of his day that because of their murder of his apostles and prophets, the “measure” of Israel’s sins would be filled up and judgment would come upon that generation.
Paul, close to two decades later tells the Thessalonians of his day that the Jews who had “both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out”, had become “displeasing to God and hostile to all men”. As a result, they were “filling up the measure of their sins” and the “wrath” of God had come upon them to the utmost.
Paul clearly alluded to both John’s “wrath about to come” (Mathew 3:7f), and Jesus’ “measure of your father’s guilt” (Luke 11:49f) when referring to the judgment that was coming on the Jews of his day who were at that time persecuting the Thessalonians (2 Thessalonians 1:4-8). Thus for Paul, old covenant Israel was destined for the judgment of God in the first century.
1 Thessalonians 5:2,8-9
For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night…. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
So, let’s look at what we have demonstrated thus far:
- Biblically, the destruction of “heaven and earth” can symbolically refer to the judgment of the “world system” (culture and social order) of a nation.
- Jesus referred to the destruction of heaven and earth in this sense when he said that none of the law could pass until “heaven and earth passed away”. Thus, Jesus was symbolically stating in the words of the old covenant prophets that until a specific nation and it’s “world system” was destroyed as the judgment of God, none of the old covenant would pass away.
- John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostle Paul all clearly taught that old covenant Israel would suffer the wrath and judgment of God for their murder and persecution of Jesus and his apostles and prophets in the first century.
Therefore, the “heaven and earth” that Jesus said had to pass away before the old covenant could pass and cease to exist, was the “world” of old covenant Israel – her social, political, and religious system – which belonged to the old covenant age.
THE PASSING AWAY OF HEAVEN AND EARTH IN THE DESTRUCTION OF OLD COVENANT JERUSALEM
In order to establish beyond doubt the claim that the “heaven and earth” of Mathew 5:18 did in fact refer to the nation of old covenant Israel, and the “passing away” of that heaven and earth did in fact refer to the destruction of the entire Hebrew / Mosaic “world system”, we must go again to the words of the Master.
And while some were talking about the temple, that it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive gifts, He said, As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down.”
Please don’t miss the context of this chapter. It is the destruction and judgment of Jerusalem for their murder and persecution of Jesus and the prophets (Luke 20:9-19). The disciples are floored, so they ask Jesus….
Teacher, when therefore will these things happen? And what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?”
In response to their question of what would be the “sign” (a marker or indication) of Jerusalem’s judgment and destruction, Jesus says….
But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, so that all things which are written will be fulfilled. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people.
Please take note of the “audience relevance” in this verse. When the disciples would see Jerusalem surrounded by the Roman armies in AD66, they were to “recognize” (perceive and understand) that Jerusalem’s “desolation” was near. Judgment had arrived.
Now please follow me here.
Up to this point, the context of Jesus’ discourse in Luke 21 is the judgment and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans for their rejection, persecution, and murder of the righteous, period. (Luke 19:11-27 and Luke 20:9-19)
Now, notice the language of Jesus in the next few verses….
There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
Now read the parallel text in Mathew’s account….
But immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
Jesus purposely uses the same “judgment metaphor” that the prophets of Israel had used for centuries so that his disciples would not and could not miss the point.
Here is what I mean.
Recall that in the above texts, both Isaiah and Ezekiel used the metaphor of the destruction of the heavens and earth / the sun moon and stars to symbolically describe to the judgment and overthrow of nations as the judgment of God for their wickedness.
But, Jesus used the exact same language in the context of the judgment and overthrow of the nation of Israel as the judgment of God for their wickedness.
Therefore, Jesus used metaphor of the “shaking of the powers of the heavens” to symbolically describe to the judgment and overthrow of old covenant Israel as the judgment of God for their wickedness of rejecting the gospel and murdering the gospel messengers.
What follows next from the lips of our Lord confirms this conclusion.
Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.
This is absolutely amazing! In this context of the judgment and destruction of Jerusalem in Luke 21, and Jesus’ use of the common prophetic metaphor of “heavenly shaking” – which symbolically refers to national judgment – there can be no doubt that when Jesus says, “heaven and earth will pass away”, he is referring to the destruction and dissolution of the old covenant “world” of Judaism. The passing away of the old covenant world and the old covenant age.
THE LAST HOUR – THE END OF THE OLD COVENANT WORLD OF ISRAEL
In light of what we have seen, the “heaven and earth” of Mathew 5:18 (which had to pass away in order for the old covenant (the law) to pass), must refer to the “world” of old covenant Israel which passed away in AD70 thus allowing the entire old covenant – every jot and tittle – to vanish away forever.
When we accept this biblical interpretation of Mathew 5:18, we are better able to understand why the new testament writers taught emphatically that the “end of the world” was upon them. It’s because it was. It was the end of the “old world”, the end of the old heaven and the old earth, the end of the old covenant creation.
As we read the following words of the apostles, understand that the “end” of which they spoke of and anticipated was in fact future to them at that time – prior to AD70 – but is now in the far distant past for us today.
1 Corinthians 7:26,29-31
I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is…. But this I say, brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on those who have wives should be as though they had none; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.
1 John 2:16-18
For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever. Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.
1 Peter 1:20
For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you
1 Peter 4:7
The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer.
God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.
Otherwise, He would have needed to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
1 Corinthians 10:11
Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.
Peter, Paul, John, and the writer of Hebrews are unified in their message and their anticipation of the “end of the world” in the first century. The terms “last days”, “last times”, and the “last hour” represent the closing of an age (the fulfilling and passing away of old covenant “world”) in the final years prior to the destruction and judgment of God on Israel in AD70.
As the apostle Peter puts it, it was the “end of all things” for Israel, covenantally speaking. Their entire “world” – their political, social, and theological system – was fulfilled and passed away through the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70.
This was biblically speaking, the passing away of heaven and earth.
Continued on Part 2….