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Matthew 5:17 and 18 from the NASB:

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.

I've heard a common interpretation of this verse is that Jesus was referring to the "moral law, not the "ceremonial law," and so Christians today are justified by disregarding things like Sabbath days. But I have a hard time believing that this distinction between the two is the intended message (I don't think that they even had a distinction to represent the two ideas). Though if I am wrong please show me.

I am wondering if "until heaven and earth pass away" is simply an idiomatic expression that would mean something like "[unless] heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished."

If this is correct, than we might understand that all was accomplished at Jesus' death and resurrection, and that now the letters and strokes of the written code are fading.

  • The same who made the law made the laws of physics, but gravity still continues. – Decrypted Jun 24 at 19:51
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There is a similar expression which appears a few times in the gospels, as pointed out by Ellicott's Commentary. That expression is, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." (Mt. 24:35, Mk. 13:31, Lk. 21:33). Jesus makes it clear, repeatedly, that heaven and earth will indeed pass away. I think this sheds some light on Matthew 5:18, as it corroborates the idea that he is speaking literally: until heaven and earth pass away, we must obey the law.

But the law is more than people thought it was. We must consider what comes next in the sermon. Jesus goes on to deliver the Six Antitheses. He shows his audience how people do not really understand what is meant by "Thou shall not murder". Because if you are so much as angry at your brother, then you have committed murder in your heart. The rest of the antitheses are in this vein; upending what was thought to be correct at the time.

There are differing views among Christians about which parts of the Old Covenant (the Law of Moses) still apply. Many (if not most) believe that the ceremonial law has been abolished, and only the moral law still applies. Mark 3:1-6 can be used to argue that keeping the Sabbath is no longer a divine requirement.

But getting back to your original question, the idea that heaven and earth will pass away occurs no less than four times in the gospels. Each time, the expression has nearly identical diction: ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ ("heaven and earth") combined with a form of παρέρχομαι ("to pass away"). Thus "until heaven and earth pass away" is not a proper idiom, as the intended meaning is the literal meaning. It is, however, a recurring idea.

  • Thank you for your response. Is it significant that there are two until statements in this passage, instead of just one? – bmende May 11 '17 at 5:49
  • @bmende That's an interesting question. Both "until" statements use the same word, ἕως. I think the second statement, "until all is accomplished", expresses the purpose of the law, whereas the first, "until heaven and earth pass away", indicates that there is no limit to how long it might take to accomplish this purpose. – ktm5124 May 12 '17 at 21:49
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In my opinion, the expression is not idiomatic.

Since Jesus obviously redefined the emphasis of religious life in many areas, being concerned particularly with the 'spirit' of religious life, I consider his reference to the 'Law', here, was certainly moral (rather than ceremonial).

John 4:24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.


Mark 7 The Pharisees... saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were... unwashed... the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”... He replied: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’

In other words, as long as the heavens & the earth exist, the essential & universal moral law will always be as it is; never changing. As Galatians 6.7 states: "Do not be deceived, you cannot make a fool out of God, each person reaps what he sows".

Therefore, when ask how to attain eternal life, Jesus replies:

‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ Matthew 19.8

The above are the fundamental essential moral laws found in every genuine religion; being reflective of the psychological creation or make up of a human.

Any aspect of the Jewish Torah which, when transgressed/not upheld, does not defile the human heart can be dispensed with because it is only the law of man rather than the Law of God.

About defiling the human heart, it was said:

Mark 7:20-22 What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.

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In a cursory perusal of a couple of commentaries I did not find any suggestion that "'til heaven and earth shall pass away" was used idiomatically to mean something other than what it literally says but "heaven and earth" is a common idiom referencing the biodome and everything in it created in Genesis 1:

Young's Literal Translation Gen 2:4 These are births of the heavens and of the earth in their being prepared, in the day of Jehovah God's making earth and heavens;

In other words, "heavens and the earth" is a synecdoche includes not only the skies and the land but also everything in it, so when Moses wants to speak of just the land and the skies he reverses the order to indicate he is not speaking idiomatically. We see the same order reversal in Hebrews to indicate literal blood and flesh as opposed to "humanity":

Westcott and Hort / [NA27 variants] ἐπεὶ οὖν τὰ παιδία κεκοινώνηκεν αἵματος καὶ σαρκός, καὶ αὐτὸς παραπλησίως μετέσχεν τῶν αὐτῶν, ἵνα διὰ τοῦ θανάτου καταργήσῃ τὸν τὸ κράτος ἔχοντα τοῦ θανάτου, τοῦτ' ἔστι / ἔστιν τὸν διάβολον,

http://biblehub.com/interlinear/hebrews/2-14.htm

Not understanding that most translations mistakenly (and to my mind, recklessly) render it "flesh and blood":

http://biblehub.com/hebrews/2-14.htm

But there is a usage in Jeremiah (which actually appears to be a later addition) that is quite a similar usage and in the sense which you are investigating:

NASB Jeremiah 31: 35Thus says the LORD, Who gives the sun for light by day And the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar; The LORD of hosts is His name: 36"If this fixed order departs From before Me," declares the LORD, "Then the offspring of Israel also will cease From being a nation before Me forever." 37Thus says the LORD, "If the heavens above can be measured And the foundations of the earth searched out below, Then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel For all that they have done," declares the LORD.…

The point (and again, this does not seem to originate with Jeremiah) seems to not be providing the timing or conditions but rather the impossibility that God will ultimately reject the Jews (and violate his covenant with Abraham).

So the point of Matthew 5:17-18 is that Jesus is not going to participate in "binding and loosing" as his rivals, the Jewish leaders were wont to do. That is, he was not going to "practicalize" the Torah by making its more difficult precepts non-binding ("loosed") or as we might say "loosened". Instead he says he came to restore the integrity of the law by resetting all the "binding and loosing" and make the full implications of the Torah solidly established.

The accommodations made by the Jewish leaders, including the very meticulous Pharisees made Torah observance more relative and fuzzy and negotiable and thus more comfortable. Jesus however brought out the many ways that the Torah was profoundly immediate and demanded that the Jews immediately change and repent, which I'll not go into here.

However, his intention was not promote a more meticulous observance of the Torah but rather to evoke a realization of and repentance for sin and a new heart for God and to create despair of being righteous with God without changing their behavior and appealing to God for the mercy and power available only through the "grace and truth" that "came through Jesus the messiah".

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Just to add on to what some of these people have said, since I can't comment yet, no I don't believe it was an idiomatic term. There were multiple times that the bible describes the end times. "The end of the age" and "... the heavens and earth have come to pass" as well as "the end of time" all come to mind -- David's visions, Jesus speaking to his disciples and Revelation as some examples.

This gives us a clear idea that the heavens and earth would cease to exist as we know it. For example, The book of Revelations gives a better idea for Christians of what would come to pass and how things would change. Without getting too far into the topic of end times and digging out dozens of specific quotes, suffice it to say that it was meant more literally.

Where I disagree is with many of the Christian interpretations of what the meaning of Matthew 5:18 is. First, remember that Yeshua (Jesus) was a rabbi and thus learned in the scripture. This becomes important because it means he also had a very good understanding of the scripture and the implications of different interpretations as well as being one with YHWH/God/G-d. Thus many Christians interpret "...the law" as being the commandments. This doesn't make sense as Yeshua would have said as much. Rather "The law" was understood to be much more than the 10 commandments, in fact if we look back we can see the 10 commandments were given to us in Genesis:

  • Don't worship other gods - Genesis 35:2

  • Do not make any idols - Genesis 31:30

  • Do not misuse the name of God - Genesis 24:3

  • Keep the Sabbath holy - Genesis 2:3

  • Honor your father and mother - Genesis 27:41

I could keep going but I think the point is made. I am assuming for this discussion that we will agree in the linear nature of most of the initial books of the Bible/Old Testament. All that to say that the ten commandments were the first of the law to be written down. These laws are seen in many other laws but what they lack is to love God above all and love your neighbor as yourself (the great commandments). Since Yeshua gives us these as great commandments that are found after the 10 commandments (Deut. 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 respectively) and the background of Yeshua it is safe to assume that "the law" was more than the initial 10 commandments and also what many refer to as "ceremonial law."

I do agree with Ruminator that it had to do with binding and loosening of the law. If you take a look into that you find that many of what was being taught was tradition and not actually part of the law. So while he clarified the meaning, which did make some things more difficult, it also made others easier -- such as helping others on the Sabbath as opposed to the understanding prior to that.

Without getting too much more unwieldy in my response I will summarize that Yeshua never meant for there to be a split between "Jews" and "Christians" rather that Yeshua came to fulfill the law and the prophets (old testament) and the Jewish belief. That Christians have been grafted into the family of Christ which is the chosen people of YHWH/God/G-d

The Real Yesua is a good reference for Christians who are interested in looking at an interpretation contrary to the commonly accepted theological perspective on Matthew 5:18.

Side notes:
While the "New Testament" is written in Greek it is almost certain that Yeshua and his disciples spoke Aramaic and/or Hebrew during the time Yeshua was alive. This is important when determining the meaning of what was said prior to the spreading of the word after Yeshua's death.

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Yes. It is determined from the context of the scriptures, and the source is from the Old Testament. Depending upon the subject matter, both "heaven" and "earth" could mean and did mean different things.

Heaven could be the realm where God sits on His throne, as in Deu. 4:39,

Know therefore this day, and consider it in thine heart, that the Lord he is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath: there is none else. (KJV)

Or it could mean the rule and authority of kings/queens and their royal houses, as in Isa. 13:5,

“They come from a far country, from the end of heaven, even the Lord, and the weapons of his indignation, to destroy the whole land.” (KJV)

Isaiah was speaking to the king of Babylon and telling of the fall of Babylon in chaps 13 & 14. In 13:5, "the end of heaven" referred to the borders of the king's rule over his land. So, heaven here was Babylon's kingdom.

It was a type of heaven in that God allowed the king to rule above and over the people of the land of Babylon (or any nation), and that the kingdom /rule was higher than the common or ordinary people of the "earth" over which the king ruled.

Most often, in the Old Testament, "earth" was synonymous with Israel. But, it stood for the land or the people who occupied the land to whom God was speaking, as in Isa. 1:1-2,

The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.

2 Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me.

We identify that the prophet is speaking to Judah and Jerusalem, or the people of both. In verse 2 he calls both the "heavens" and the "earth" of Judah and Jerusalem to hear the words of God. The "heavens" were the kings and rulers of Judah, and the "earth" was the ordinary people dwelling in Judah, the tribe of Judah.

So, we have to identify the people who were being warned of judgment, who the prophet was sent to, and was speaking with to know which "heaven" or king and which "earth" or land was under judgment.

Micah 1:2,

Hear, all ye people; hearken, O earth, and all that therein is: and let the Lord God be witness against you, the Lord from his holy temple. (KJV)

The people of the first half of the couplet were synonymous with the "earth" in the second half of those who were called to hear. And verse 1 tells us that those were the people of Samaria and Jerusalem.

Then God used both "heaven and earth" together as the covenant, the promise between the two, as in Deu. 4:26,

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land whereunto ye go over Jordan to possess it; ye shall not prolong your days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed.” (KJV)

What was going to witness against the tribes of Israel but their covenant with God? Moses was reminding, exhorting them to keep the commandments of God, their covenant with God throughout all of chap. 4. Keeping the covenant was the subject of the entire chapter, so if they broke that covenant it would be used to charge them with their sins.

In discussing the return from the Babylonian captivity to rebuild Jerusalem, Isa. 65:17-18,

17 For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.

18 But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. (KJV)

The new heavens and new earth of Isa. 65 was the renewing of their agreement to live according to the commandments of God, the system He provided for their return to Jerusalem under the conditions of keeping His laws. He did not literally destroy the entire earth and recreate it again for their return to Jerusalem.

It looked forward to the new heavens and new earth of the new covenant of the gospel of Christ, under the everlasting kingdom of Christ. The old heaven and earth was the old covenant law with the tribes of Israel. So, when Christ said in Matt. 24:35,

"Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away." (KJV)

He was not referring to the literal heavens nor the literal earth. He was speaking of the change in the covenants from the old to the new. The old covenant was going to have to pass, and that is what all of Hebrews spoke of... the waxing and aging of, the passing away of the old covenant law. It was replaced with the new covenant of the gospel of Christ, which fulfills the old covenant.

  • But I fail to see how this string of texts from the OT which happen to mention "heaven" and/or "earth" makes the case that the phrase in Matt 5:17 is "idiomatic". – Dɑvïd May 15 '17 at 10:07
  • Support for the concept. The scriptures cited show that the words "heaven" and "earth" did not always have a literal meaning. God used them figuratively throughout the OT. While most people in the English speaking countries tend to take a very literal view of every word in the Bible, they do not take into account the Eastern metaphorical and poetical language of the Eastern mind, and which God used in prophesy. Citing these first, to allow the understanding for the metaphor or idiom of the "heaven and earth" contract between God and Israel. It was not a literal usage. – Gina May 15 '17 at 12:26
  • Thank you Gina, I've never heard anything like that before. Have you considered heaven in terms of the flat earth? (most people believe the earth is round, but there are also many who have researched the issue and through experiments and analysis of space images determined that it is flat). – bmende May 19 '17 at 4:31
  • It may seem like I'm joking but I am not. – bmende May 19 '17 at 4:39
  • I have investigated a great deal on that topic, as Genesis is quite clear if you take God at His word. I am convinced that NASA and the US gov't have lied to the people and the world, and that the moon program and space race was implemented, most probably with the help of Disney, to deceive the people. I believe it may very well be a level plane. Not sure though why you would view the level plane of the earth as a type of "heaven" in any of the passages above? God / YHWH use of them in prophesy was metaphorical for the country or land area which He was about to judge. – Gina May 20 '17 at 9:44

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