II Peter 3: Destruction of the Universe or Destruction of Jerusalem?
By Samuel G. Dawson
A verse-by-verse study of II Peter 3 shows how our ignorance of the Old Testament often causes us to jump to false conclusions about this important chapter. While many people believe this chapter deals with the destruction of the universe, the author proves that it prophesies about the destruction of Jerusalem.
This booklet offers a brief study of II Peter 3. Although for many years the author, along with most Bible students now, believed this chapter dealt with the final advent of Christ, he now believes it deals with the destruction of Jerusalem. This, however, does not make his position right, but he hopes you will at least examine this position to see if it doesnít deal with the text more accurately than his previously held, and the more popular, position.
II Peter is, of course, the second of two books written by the apostle Peter shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem. Scholars generally date the books about 66-67 A.D. The theme of I Peter is hope, i.e., it was written to instill hope in Christians who underwent severe persecution in those years. The theme of II Peter is knowledge, the knowledge to combat certain false teachers of the time. Chapter One deals with the importance of knowledge, Chapter Two with the character of the false teachers, and Chapter Three with the character of their false teaching. The false teachers were denying the coming of Christ, and it is about this coming we now concern ourselves. Was Jesus coming in the person of the Roman army to destroy Jerusalem in 70 A.D., or was he coming at the end of time?
II Peter 3 is a more detailed account of the judgment Peter had already touched upon in I Pet. 4.7-19. In the context of I Peter, Peter said that "the end of all things is at hand," (verse 7). He spoke of "the fiery trial among you, which cometh upon you to prove you," (verse 12). He spoke of the "revelation of his [Jesusí] glory," (verse 13). This corresponds to Mt. 24.30, where Jesus had described the destruction of Jerusalem as a coming in glory, which would occur in that generation (Mt. 24.34). Peter also said, "for the time is come for judgment to begin at the house of God," (verse 17). In verse 18 he asked, "And if the righteous is scarcely saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?" In verse 19 he said, "Wherefore let them also that suffer according to the will of God commit their souls in well-doing unto a faithful Creator." Thus, I Peter deals with an imminently upcoming judgment that would seriously affect the children of God. II Peter occurs in this same context of imminent judgment. Does it deal with the same judgment as I Peter, the destruction of Jerusalem, or does it deal with a totally new subject, an advent of Christ at the end of time? Does it describe the end of Judaism, as discussed in Matthew 24, or does it describe the end of the planet and astronomical heavens, as we so often hear it portrayed? To investigate the answers to these questions is the purpose of this booklet.
We now give a brief verse-by-verse commentary on this chapter.
This verse shows how we know this is the second letter. Peter stated the purpose: to stir up their minds, to keep their thinking on the right track. Then Peter proceeded to admonish Christians to study:
Here Peter commanded Christians to be serious students of the holy prophetsóthe Old Testament, as well as the teaching of the apostlesóthe New Testament. If someone now denied that Christians should study the teaching of the apostles, the commandment of the Lord and Saviour, we would surely take issue. Do we argue as vigorously if someone says Christians today donít need to study seriously the holy prophets who spoke before? Usually not, hence our problems with interpreting much of the New Testamentówe donít know nearly enough about the Old Testament! In verse 8, Peter quoted Ps. 90.4; in verse 13, he quoted from Isaiah concerning the new heavens and new earth. Without familiarity with these Old Testament prophets, weíre not the calibre of Christians to whom this letter was written originally. That makes us apt to fall for just any interpretation offered to us.
Peter made three great statements about a Christianís relation to the Old Testament. In I Pet. 1.12, he implied the Old Testament was written more for us than for the Old Testament people themselves. In II Pet. 1.19 he commanded Christians to study it, and here in II Pet. 3.2, he again commanded Christians to study the Old Testament. This lack of in-depth understanding of the holy prophets is probably one important way we donít imitate New Testament Christians. Thus, our ignorance makes it easy for us to jump to false conclusions that the Christians of Peterís day wouldnít have embraced.
We now ask the logical question: Where did the Old Testament prophets speak of a final advent of Christ at the end of time? Of course, premillennialists think many such passages exist, but we deny it. All the Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in Christís birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, rule over his kingdom, and the severance of the wicked Jews from that kingdom. We know of no specific Old Testament prophecy that reaches beyond the fall of the Roman empire. The scope of this booklet is not to refute premillenialism and its misuse of Old Testament prophecy, as we have already done in Denominational Doctrines: Explained, Examined, and Exposed. Rather, our purpose is to examine whether II Peter 3 reaches beyond the destruction of Jerusalem.
The Old Testament prophets taught many times about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. Malachi did in chapters 3 and 4. John the Baptist did in Mt. 3.10-11. Isaiah did as well. Thus, the coming of the Lord of which Peter spoke may easily be seen to be the Lordís coming spoken of by Jesus in his generation (Mt. 24.34), i.e., the destruction of Jerusalem discussed by the Old Testament prophets.
Peter then warned of false teachers coming in the last days:
What does "last days" mean? Many times, we hear it applied to the entire period of time beginning at the first Pentecost after the resurrection of Christ until now. In Ac. 2.17, Peter said that what happened on Pentecost was what Joel wrote about when he wrote about the last days. Have we now had about two thousand years of last days, i.e., the time of the Messiahís rule, or were these the last days of Judaism? Unless II Pet. 3.3 is the exception, the last days spoken of in the New Testament are the last days of Judaism, i.e., the time from the coming of John the Baptist to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. For example, see I Pet. 1.20 where Godís son was manifested in the flesh in the last days. He wasnít manifested after his rule began, but in the last days of Judaism. In Heb. 1.2, Jesus fully and finally spoke in the last days. Again, this is not after Pentecost, but in the last days of Judaism. In Isa. 2.2 and Dan. 2.28-45, prophets said the kingdom of the Messiah would begin in the last days and during the Roman Empire. This is easily seen to be the last days of Judaism, not the two thousand years since Pentecost. In Heb. 9.16, 26, Christís blood was to ratify the new covenant in the last days. This is the last days of Judaism, not the time following Pentecost. In Joel 2.28 and Ac. 2.17, the Spirit was to be poured out in the last days, i.e., during the last days of Judaism, not throughout the Messiahís rule since Pentecost. Peter warned of the false teachers of his day, whose character he had just described in II Peter 2. In Dan. 9.24-27, 12.4, 13, Mt. 24.3, 13f, and Ac. 2.19-21, we see that the last days were when Jerusalem was to fall totally. Thus, most probably the last days are the last days of Judaism, not the age of the Messiahís reign since Pentecost.
Peter said that in the last days of Judaism, the time when he was writing this very letter, that mockers would come. A mocker plays like children, or trifles with something, as opposed to engaging in serious argument or debate. Peter continued with an example of the mockery:
These men were Jewish scoffers, their fathers were the Jewish fathers. Christ had promised an imminent return in Mt. 10.23, 16.28, 26.64, and Lk. 21.27-33 in which he would destroy Jerusalem. He said this coming would come to pass in that generation, Mt. 24.34. Stephen confirmed this coming, Ac. 6.4 ("we heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place"), and so did the author of Hebrews in 10.37 ("For yet a very little while, He that cometh shall come, and shall not tarry"). Even James in Jas. 5.7-11 taught it ("coming," verse 7, "at hand," verse 8, "the judge standeth before the doors," verse 9, so "be patient and wait for the lordís coming," verse 7). These Jewish scoffers now said, "Itís been thirty-five years since Jesus made the promise. Jesus preached it; the apostles did; weíve been preaching this; weíve been waiting; and things keep going right on. Since he hasnít come in thirty-five years, he wonít come!" These men were not looking for something far off, the way we many times use the passage, but for something in their generation. Peter next showed the fallacy of their position:
This verse illustrates the free will of man. These men exercised free will by working and striving to forget. They were willing to forget the heavens and earth from of old which were to pass away. Notice: this is the heavens and earth that existed before the flood of Noahís day.
The old world perished by the same means by which God created itóby God. Notice that the world that then perished, the old heavens and earth was not the globe and sky. They were still there as Peter wrote, but he spoke of the old world order. Likewise, the planet and stars Peter lived on and under were the same planet and stars Noah lived on and under. Accordingly, the earth and heavens that passed away were not the planet and stars, but the corrupt pre-flood order. The planet and stars Peter lived on and under are the same planet and stars we live on and under. Consequently, the earth and heavens that are about to pass away in II Peter 3 are not the planet and stars, but the religious order Peter was living under, i.e., Judaism.
Old Testament writers used the passing of an old heavens and earth and the coming in of a new heavens and earth to speak of the passing away of one social order and the bringing in of another. For example, in Isa. 34.1-4, Isaiah said it of Edom. For Edom, the old heavens and earth passed away, and a new set came in when Edom was destroyed. In Isa. 51.4-7, Isaiah said the same of Israel. God took away the order with which they were familiar, and brought in a new one, restored, purified Israel. In Isa. 65.16-17, physical Israel would pass away, and a new order beyond the first coming of Christ, the Messiahís rule over Christians, would come. Haggai 2.6f contains the same language, which Heb. 12.27 quotes as fulfilled in the late 60s when Hebrews was writtenóthe same time II Peter was written! II Peter 3.1-14 depicts the same change of order. Revelation 21 depicts the passing of the old order of Christians persecuted to the new order of Christians enthroned in the new order described in Revelation 21-22, the heavenly reward of the martyrs.
The judgment in Noahís day was typical of the judgment on Jerusalem in the first century. Both were escapable judgments. Jesus even paralleled the two judgments, Mt. 24.37ff. Both judgments took the wicked away, and not the righteous. Both were world-wide events, for Jews from all over the world were in Jerusalem when it fell. This was because the city was besieged at the time of the Passover (Josephus, Wars, 6, 9, 3.)
Peter continued by saying:
When Peter spoke of the heavens and earth that "are" to him in 66-67 A.D., he lived on the same globe and under the same sky as Noah, and that we do. He spoke of the old order of Judaism. The three "heaven and earth" systems of which Peter spoke are illustrated in the chart on the next page.
Malachi foretold that Jerusalem was stored up for fire (chapters 3-4), as did John the Baptist (Mt. 3.10-11), and Jesus (Mt. 16.27-28, Mt. 24). God would not use a flood to destroy the order of Peterís day. It would be burned out.
That the old order of Judaism was stored up for fire meant its national overthrow. In Isa. 33.14, speaking of the destruction of Assyria by Babylon, God used terms like "consuming fire, everlasting burning." In Jer. 4.4, God spoke of the destruction of Israel when he said she would "burn with none to quench it," i.e., unquenchable fire. Amos 5.6 describes the destruction of Israel by Assyria in the same terms. See also Isa. 66.24, where Isaiah described the church victorious over its enemies in the same terms.
Thus, fire was to be the Jewsí fate, as Peter described it. It was so preached in the first gospel sermon in Ac. 2.17ff, when Peter quoted from Joel: "blood, fire, and columns of smoke." John the Baptist spoke of it (Mt. 3.10-11). Jesus himself said, "I came to bring fire on the earth (land)," Lk. 12.49. James 5.3 and I Thes. 2.16 say the same thing. Last, the fiery fate of Sodom was also a type of Jerusalemís fate, Lk. 17.29f. History confirms that Jerusalem was burned to the ground.
This was the day of judgment for Judaism. Peter had so spoken of it in his first epistle, I Pet. 4.12-17. In Mt. 16.27-28, Jesus said this judgment would take place while some of his apostles were still alive. Jesus spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem as a day of judgment, Mt. 25.32. (Read a detailed discussion of Matthew 25 in the authorís Denominational Doctrines: Explained, Examined, Exposed, chapter entitled "Matthew 24.")
When Peter said that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, he didnít say you can substitute one thousand years for one day wherever you want to. One might say one day equals one thousand years. Consequently, two days equal two thousand years. So 365 days equal 365,000 years. Therefore, one year equals 365,000 years.and one year equals 365,000 years, which also equals one day! You canít have it both ways, literally. Peter spoke as the Psalmist in Ps. 90.4, when he said:
A watch in the night was generally three hours. The psalmist said one thousand years to God is like three hours, i.e., time doesnít mean that much to God. If I borrow twenty dollars from you, and I havenít paid you back in 35 years, you would write the debt off. Peter said these false teachers had better not do that with God. Peter told why in the next verse:
Peter explained that the reason Christ hadnít come and destroyed Jerusalem was not because God was slack, i.e., he was not loitering around, or "goofing off." He hadnít forgotten his promise. The reason Christ hadnít come was because of his longsuffering.
Paul, in Rom. 2.4, said that the longsuffering of God works repentance. If God destroyed us immediately when we sinned, none of us would be alive. If He waited five minutes after we sinned to destroy us, we still wouldnít be alive. We want longer, unless of course, someone sins against us, then perhaps we donít want so long! Why does God wait at all? He wants people to change their minds, not because He forgot.
Peter said that God didnít want any to perish. This is the same perishing of which Jesus spoke in Lk. 13.3, "Except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish." There, he warned the Jews of his day: "He will avenge them speedily." Then Peter gave three reasons for Godís delay. Verse 8 speaks of Godís timeless existence, verse 9 refers to his longsuffering, and verse 10 states that the Jewsí cup of iniquity had to be full, just like the Canaanites in Gen. 15.16 before they were destroyed, and Jonah 3.2ff, when God gave a forty-day delay that Nineveh might repent.
Peter said the day of the Lord would come. The false teachers were wrong, it would come. The Old Testament, with the exception of the sabbath day, uses the term "day of the Lord" nearly exclusively of national judgment. In Isa. 13.6-9, Babylon received "destruction from the Almighty" on such a day. In Ezk. 30.3, 10 Egypt did. In Joel 1.15, Israel was to see just such a day, just twenty years off. In Joel 2.1, Israel was to see a day of the Lord, the very one of which John the Baptist, Jesus, and Peter spoke. In Obadiah 1.5, Edom was to see such a day. In Zeph. 1.14f, Judah would see "the great day of the Lord," when Babylon destroyed her in 586 B.C. So was the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem a "day of the Lord," as Peter said in Ac. 2.17ff (cf. Joel 2.31f, 3.14-17), and our Lord himself in Mt. 24.27, 30.
Saying that the day of the Lord would "come as a thief," Peter recognized thieves donít send cards saying, "I plan to be in your neighborhood at 10:00 p.m. Tuesday night. Please have everything ready." Though we donít know when the next thief is coming, that doesnít mean we canít have everything ready! The thiefís coming will not be by invitation or announcement. Peter said the Lordís coming would not be by invitation or announcement, either. Jesus gave the same warning about the destruction of Jerusalem in Mt. 24.43 and Lk. 21.34-36.
When Peter said the heavens would pass away, he used language common in the Old Testament to speak of the overthrow of political powers. In Isa. 14.12f, the fall of the ruler of Babylon was spoken of as a falling star. In Isa. 13.10, 13, 19, Isaiah used such language to describe the fall of Babylon; in Isa. 34.4, the fall of Edom. In Isa. 51.6, the nation of Israel would so fall. In Joel 3.16, the fall of Jerusalem after the Messiah was foretold in such words. Peter said it would be so with the destruction of Jerusalem. Peter had said the same thing in Ac. 2.19ff, when he quoted Joel. 2.28-32 in the first gospel sermon. Haggai used the same language in Hag. 2.6, quoted in Heb. 12.26-28 to speak of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus used the same language in Mt. 24.39-42 and Lk. 21.26, 11.
When Peter said "the elements shall melt with fervent heat," we quickly think of elements which consist of atoms, and that Peter spoke of the conflagration of our whole universe. The word elements is given for the Greek word stoicheion, which occurs seven times in the New Testament. In Heb. 5.12 it stands for the rudiments of Judaism, as seen in Heb. 6.4-6. In Gal. 4.3, it depicts the rudiments of the world, for those under the law of Moses, the rudiments of Judaism. In Gal. 4.9, it represents the weak and beggarly rudiments, identified as the days, months, seasons, and years of Judaism. In Col. 2.20, it denotes the rudiments of the world, probably Gnostic borrowing from Judaism. In none of these passages does anyone think of atomic elements. Then Peter used it in II Pet. 3.10, 12, where the idea comes nearly automatically to mind. No, itís the rudimentary principles of Judaism again, the priesthood, the temple, itís sacrifices, the city of Jerusalem, and the genealogies. All were swept away in the destruction which was imminently to occur.
Peter said they would be dissolved. Dissolved here comes from luo, used in Eph. 2.14, "broken down the middle wall" between Jews and Gentiles, again speaking of the destruction of Judaismís constraints between Jews and Gentiles. Itís also the word used in I Jn. 3.8, where John said that Christ was "manifested to destroy the works of the devil."
When Peter said the earth (that then was) and the works (that were therein) were to be burned up, he spoke of the same refining of Israel that John the Baptist had announced in Mt. 3.10-12, the burning up of the chaff. Malachi foretold this refining process in Mal. 3.2-5, 4.1-6. "Earth" here may also be "land." See, for example, Lk. 21.26, 23 where the same term means the land of Israel.
Next Peter turned his attention to the lessons that could be learned from the heavens and earth passing away:
Peter here spoke of the dissolving (literally, tearing up, breaking down) of these things, i.e, the earth and the works that then were. Whether he spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem or a final advent of Christ, the message was the same: Get prepared! He asked, "What manner of persons ought you to be?" He used a word which literally means "of what country should you be?" We might ask this same question in this way, "If the United States is about to wipe out Cuba, of what country should you be?" Not Cuba! Likewise, the Jews to whom Peter wrote had better not be of physical Israel, of Judaism, for God would destroy it.
Likewise, the author of Hebrews mentioned the faithful father of the Jews, who were "strangers and pilgrims on the earth." Paul also reminded Christians in Phil. 3.20 that "our citizenship is in heaven; whence also we wait for a saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ." This is the manner of person Peter said they ought to be in all holy living and godliness. In other words, both their actions and their attitudes should be prepared. Peter continued his admonition:
This "looking for and earnestly desiring the day of God" is the same as Jesusí exhortations to watchfulness in Mt. 24.44ff. The day of God has to be the destruction of Jerusalem rather than a final advent for two reasons: First, they couldnít look for a final advent of Christ, for there are no signs given of a final advent at the end of time. Second, the final advent wasnít near in Peterís day! However, Peterís audience could look for the destruction of Jerusalem, for Jesus had given signs, Mt. 24.3-15, 32-45 and Lk. 12.56, 21.28. In Heb. 10.25, the author of Hebrews also said his Jewish readers could see the day drawing nigh!
Peter then mentioned that the heavens being on fire would be dissolved. These were the old heavens of Peterís day, the old heavens and earth, the old order. Peter said it would be on fire, and be dissolved. These were expressions similar to those already used to describe the change from the old order to the new, like Edom and physical Israel in the Old Testament.
Peter then described the new order which would replace the old which was about to pass away:
This new heavens and new earth were not a new planet and skies, any more than the new heavens and earth after Noah were a new planet and skies. Peter spoke of the new order of things after the destruction of Jerusalem, the victorious church having weathered Jewish persecution, victorious Chrsitians withstanding potential eradication by Jews. In Isa. 65.17 we have the new heavens and new earth identified as Jerusalem. Hebrews 12.22 tells us this was new Jerusalem, the New Testament church victorious. Isaiah 66.22 also spoke of new Jerusalem, telling of the days of the work of the apostles, Ac. 3.18-24. Peter told Christians of his day to look for this new order, not implying that Christ did not yet rule, but that his rule had not been completely vindicated by the destruction of the old order. Thus, in Dan. 7.18, 22, under persecution in the Roman empire, Christians were in the kingdom before the enemy was destroyed, but when the enemy was finally destroyed, then they possessed the kingdom. It was not only prophesied that the kingdom was unshakable, but also that it would be proven.
Peter then made the application to the lives of his readers:
Again, these instructions could not refer to a final advent of Christ, for there was nothing pertaining to that event that first-century Christians could "look for." However, in Matthew 24-25, with its parallel passages, as well as in I Peter, many instructions to watchfulness had been given concerning the destruction of Jerusalem.
Peter continued the application to the lives of his readers:
The imminent judgment Peter spoke of was indeed written of by Paul. For example, in Rom. 2.6 Paul warned of a "day of wrath" coming on the Jews of his day. In Rom. 13.11-12, he said, "The day is at hand," when speaking of their imminent judgment. In I Corinthians, Paul warned of a coming judgment on Jews in 1.7, 3.15, 4.5, 5.5, 7.29-31, and 10.11. In Phil. 4.5, Paul warned, "The Lord is at hand." Modernists oftentimes think Paul (and even Jesus) were mistaken about how imminent Jesusí coming in judgment was. No, the modernists are mistaken. John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, and Peter all warned of a coming conflagration which would wipe out the Jewish religion for its apostasy. Peter affirmed that he wasnít teaching anything that Paul hadnít taught already.
Peter then commented on the quality of Paulís teaching:
We can take heart from this comment. If the apostle Peter thought Paulís writing contained some difficulties, we ought not to be surprised if some of them seem difficult to us.
Peter concluded with exhortations to faithfulness in view of the coming imminent judgment on the Jewish nation:
As weíve seen, the purpose of Peterís words in this chapter was to warn faithful people of his time concerning the approaching physical judgment so they could escape it. Eusebius, a third-century historian, wrote of the early Jerusalem church:
So, in a siege of Jerusalem where 1.1 million Jews perished and another 2.5 million were taken into slavery, not one faithful individual who heeded the warnings of John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul and Peter perished.
Thus, both the harmony of Old Testament passages with the New Testament and history, indicate that II Peter 3 refers to the destruction of Jerusalem. To use these passages to teach about the destruction of the universe at the end of time is to rip them out of their context, not only in Jesusí and Paulís teaching, but also the whole Bible.
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Date: 10 Oct 2010
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