Jefferson Vann shows how many modern translations of the Gospels continue to use misleading terms to translate two important biblical words: sky and land.
In five previous articles,1 I conducted a review of the entire Old Testament and found that our English translations are somewhat guilty of hiding a sentiment found there. It involved the choice of translating the Hebrew terms ארץ (erets) and שמים (shamayim). That sentiment is that God wants to reign in the whole land ארץ (erets) around us, as well as the sky שמים (shamayim) above us. But when we use the common translation “heaven and earth” we are sidetracked from that sentiment. The term heaven is too readily identified with the place of God’s celestial throne. The term earth is too readily identified with this planet. The simple terms sky and land are better translations.
The Gospels also reflect the same sentiment.
The New Testament Greek words that correspond to the Hebrew terms ארץ (erets) and שמים (shamayim) are γῆ (Gē) for land and οὐρανός (ouranos) for sky.
John 3:31 compares the one who comes from the land (John the Baptist) with the one who comes from the sky (Jesus). While it is true that Jesus came from God’s abode in heaven, the contrast in this text is more that John the Baptist was one of us dwellers in the land, while Jesus was God’s gift from the sky.
In Matthew 5:18, and Matthew 24:35, Jesus speaks of ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ γῆ passing away (at least theoretically).2 Since so many English versions translate οὐρανός as heaven, many have concluded that God’s home in heaven will some day be done away with. John MacArthur says “The opening phrase of this verse is not mere hyperbole; heaven and earth will indeed pass away. After Christ’s thousand-year earthly kingdom comes to an end, God will destroy the present heaven and earth and create a new heaven and earth.”3
But this is just the kind of theological trouble people get into when they follow inaccurate translations. That doctrine is not necessary, and actually contradicts the Bible’s teaching elsewhere. God’s throne in heaven will last forever.4 There is even a biblical case for planet earth lasting forever,5 albeit in a renewed, restored form.6 No, what Jesus is talking about is the present sky and land, which will pass away when our planet earth is restored.
Jesus commands us to pray that our Father’s will is done ἐπὶ γῆς as well as ἐν οὐρανῷ. Certainly God’s will is done in his throne room in heaven, but could not Jesus simply be referring to the direction we look when thinking of God, instead of referring to the particular place of God’s residence?
In Matthew 11:25, Jesus is praying to the Father, and calls him Lord of οὐρανοῦ καὶ τῆς γῆς. 7 While it is certainly true that God presides over his abode in heaven, could not Jesus simply be referring to the sky above here?
For Jesus, we should “not call anyone on the land ‘father’” because God is our “one Father, who is in the sky” (Matthew 23:9). Yes, heaven would be appropriate to translate οὐρανός in that verse, but it is not necessary. My point in these studies is that the word heaven is extremely overused to translate שמים and οὐρανός. Nothing is lost in the translation if the word sky is used instead.
In Matthew 16:19, Jesus promises to give his disciples “the keys of the kingdom from the sky (τῶν οὐρανῶν), and whatever (they) lock on the land (ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς) will be locked in the sky (ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς), and whatever you set free on the land (ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς) will be set free in the sky(ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς).” Since the kingdom is coming from the sky, Jesus is offering his disciples an opportunity to make changes in the land now, which will effect the future sky kingdom.
A similar promise is found in Matthew 18:18, where Jesus promises his disciples that “whatever (they) lock on land will be locked in the sky, and whatever (they) unlock on land will be unlocked in the sky.”
In Matthew 28:18 Jesus claims all authority in sky and land. Heaven is appropriate to translate οὐρανός in that verse, but again, it is not necessary. The concept that Jesus has been granted all authority from God is just as clear since to say that authority comes from the sky is to infer that it comes from God.
There are two other passages in the Gospels (besides Matthew 5:18) where the traditional translations of these two words, although common, can be misleading:
Mt 24:30 records Jesus predicting a coming sign in the sky, not heaven. My translation of that verse is as follows:
At that time will appear in the sky the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the land will express grief, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.
The word οὐρανός occurs twice in the verse. Here is how a number of English translations render it:
ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ
in the sky
in the sky
of the sky
in the sky
in the sky
of the sky
in the heavens
Only the NASB captures the use of this word accurately, since it is obvious that for any sign to be seen from earth, it will have to appear not in heaven, but in the sky, and that is the simple meaning of οὐρανός . Likewise, there are no clouds in heaven (in spite of the traditional picture of clouds, harps and such). Jesus will be appearing in the clouds of the sky.
It is comforting that some translations are beginning to draw attention to the simple meaning of οὐρανός in their marginal notes (see LEB and NLT notes above). Unfortunately, however, too many translations continue to follow the traditions of the past in translating verses like this.
Finally, Matthew 24:31 and Mark 13:27 mention angels gathering the chosen ones from the ends of the sky and the land (not heaven and earth). The fact that Jesus is talking about angels does not necessitate translating οὐρανός as heaven in this verse. What is clearly in view are the limits of this planet. Does heaven have ends? Are there people in heaven? Many people teach that there are people in heaven now, But the Bible contradicts that notion. It says that no one has ascended to heaven except Christ.8 So, who are these people being gathered from the ends of heaven? The answer is obvious. The people are being gathered from the extreme limits of this planet – from sky to sky.
2See also Mark 13:31; Luke 16:17; 21:33.
3MacArthur, John. Luke 18-24. 2014.
5Ecclesiastes 1:4; Psalm 78:69.
6Randy C. Alcorn, Heaven. 2011., chapter 5: “Will the Old Earth be Destroyed, or Renewed.”
7See also Luke 10:21.