The Jews considered three different “heavens” (Deut. 10:14; 1 Kgs. 8:27; 2 Cor. 12:2). The first heaven is the atmosphere, where the birds fly and the rain falls (Gen. 1:20; Psa. 147:8). The second heaven refers to outer space, where the sun, moon and stars are located (Psa. 8:3; Ezek. 32:7). The third heaven is the spiritual realm, the habitation of God and His angels (Eccl. 5:2; Mark 13:32; Eph. 6:9). The word “earth” is also used in different senses: the planet on which we live (Gen. 6:1; Ezek. 38:20); the ground, dirt or soil (Ex. 20:24; Neh. 9:1; Psa. 146:4); a metonymy for the inhabitants of the earth (Jer. 6:19; 22:29); and a descriptive term for physical/worldly mindedness (John 3:31; Phil. 3:19; Jas. 3:15). When the words “heaven(s) and earth” are used together, this phrase refers to the physical place of man’s inhabitance, the only portions of God’s creation where man dwells (Isa. 51:6; Jer. 51:48; Joel 3:16; Matt. 24:31,35; Heb. 1:10-11). Man does not merely live on the earth, but he also relies on the air, the rain, etc. contained in [the first] heaven.
What will eventually happen to the present heavens and earth? “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look on the earth beneath. For the heavens will vanish away like smoke, the earth will grow old like a garment, and those who dwell in it will die in like manner …” (Isa. 51:6). The physical heavens and earth will pass away as they are burnt up (Matt. 24:35; 2 Pet. 3:7-12). They will perish and be discarded like an old garment (Psa. 102:25-26), and will be replaced by something new. The “new heavens and new earth” cannot be the same as the present ones, since the new is not the same as the old, and the present heavens and earth will be destroyed (Rev. 20:11; 21:1). The current dwelling place of God’s people serves as a figure of the future dwelling place. Since God’s faithful ones are to live with him eternally in [the third] heaven (Matt. 5:12; Phil. 3:20; Col. 1:5; 1 Pet. 1:4; et al.), the “new heavens and new earth” figuratively represent the spiritual (not physical) dwelling place of the righteous (cf. 1 Cor. 15:48-54). This is one of the many examples in the Bible where physical symbols are used to illustrate spiritual concepts (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22,45; 2 Cor. 6:16; Heb. 12:22-23; 1 Pet. 2:5-9; 3:20-21; et al.).
--Kevin L. Moore