Understanding the Voice of the Prophets - II Peter 3

Understanding the Voice of the Prophets

Kurt Simmons

 

II Peter 3

In this article we discuss the elements of II Peter 3, and decide they are not reference to the Mosaic law or temple ritual. 

Obstacles to Understanding

There are only two or three truly difficult passages that serve as obstacles to full preterism.  These are the “eschatological change” of I Cor. 15:51-55, the “rapture” of I Thess. 4:16, 17, and the language of “cosmic conflagration” in II Pet. 3:7-12.  The chief difficulty of the first two passages is the tendency to assume that the catching away of living saints to heaven is or was to be substantially simultaneous with the resurrection of the dead.  However, once that assumption is dispelled, it becomes clear that Paul is in fact describing the process by which the living are translated one-by-one at the time of death.

The chief difficulty with II Peter 3 is the tendency to take the language literally. This can be overcome by comparing Peter’s language with established usage in the Old Testament and providing a suitable explanation for the symbolism.  

Comparing II Peter 3 with Old Testament Usage 

The Old Testament passage that bears the greatest overall similarity to II Peter 3:10-12 is probably Isaiah 341-10. This is a prophecy of God’s judgment and wrath upon the nations of the ancient world, first by the Babylonians, then the Medes and Persians.  The time of wrath is world-wide (“all nations”).  However, while it the prophecy opens by announcing wrath upon all nations, it narrows as it progresses, bringing its focus to bear upon Edom (Bozrah, Idumea) for that nation’s part in helping destroy Jerusalem (see Obadiah 10-16).

 

II Peter 3:10-12

 

Isaiah 34:1-10 

But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of person ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat?

 

 

 

Come near, ye nations, to hear; and hearken, ye people: let the earth hear, and all that is therein; the world, and all things that come froth of it. For the indignation of the Lord is upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies: he hath utterly destroyed them, he hath delivered them to the slaughter. Their slain also shall be cast out, and their stink shall come up out of their carcases, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood. And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heaven shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree...for the Lord hat a sacrifice in Bozrah, and  great slaughter in the land of Idumea...For it is the day of the Lord’s vengeance, and the year of recompences for the controversy of Zion.  And the streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch.  It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever.

 

A list will reveal the following points of contact between these two prophecies:

 

II Peter 3:10-12

 

Isaiah 34:1-10 

  • Day of the Lord

  • Heavens & Earth

  • Heavens pass away

  • Earth burned

  • Heavens dissolved

 

  • Day of Vengeance

  • Heavens & Earth

  • Constellations dissolved

  • Mountains melt

  • Land turned to brimstone

  • Streams turned to pitch

  • Heavens dissolved

 

The merest consideration will show that the language of Isaiah is figurative and describes a time of world-wrath through the agency of men and nations, whose armies exact the vengeance of God.  The points of contact between Isaiah and Peter should suffice to show that the latter is also figurative, and that Peter in no way intends us to understand that the physical cosmos would be consumed at Christ’s coming.  Indeed, Peter all but says this very thing when he states that judgment he wrote about was for the “perdition of ungodly men” (v. 7).  In other words, it is men who oppose the gospel that would be destroyed; appeal to the heavens and earth is merely the stuff of poetic apparatus.  Here are two more passages for comparison. This time, let’s use a passage from Matthew:

 

Matthew 24:29, 30

 

Isaiah 13:9-13 

Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken.  And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

 

 

Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it. For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine. And I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity...Therefore I will shake the heaven, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the Lord of hosts and in the day of his fierce anger.

 

 

The Lord’s statements recorded by Matthew are almost exact quotes from Isaiah’s prophecy about the judgment God would visit upon Babylon and the world through the Mede-Persian Empire, which swept like a great storm from the Elam and the Black Sea in the north-east, to Egypt and Red Sea in the south-west, encompassing the whole civilized world.  The points of contact between the two passages include the following: 

 

Matthew 24:29, 30

 

Isaiah 13:9-13 

  • Day of the Lord

  • Heavens & Earth

  • Sun & moon darkened

  • World punished

  • Heavens shaken, constellations fall

  • Christ comes in clouds

 

  • Day of the Lord

  • Heavens & Earth

  • Sun & moon darkened

  • World punished

  • Heavens shaken, earth moved

  • Lord comes in wrath

 

 

Let’s make one more comparison and then conclude.  This time we will look at language from Ezekiel regarding God’s judgment upon Egypt by Babylon:

 

Luke 21:25-27

 

Ezekiel 30:3-19 

And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.

 

The day is near, even the day of the Lord is near, a cloudy day; it shall be the time of the heathen.  And the sword shall come upon Egypt, and great pain shall be in Ethiopia...And I will make the rivers dry, and sell the land into the hand of the wicked: and I will make the land waste, and all that is therein...I will set fire in Egypt: Sin shall have great pain, and No shall be rent asunder...At Tehphnehes also the day shall be darkened, when I shall break there the yoke of Egypt: and the pomp of her strength shall cease in her: as for her, a cloud shall cover her, and her daughters shall go into captivity.

 

 Luke here repeats the prophecy recorded in Matthew’s account of the Olivet Discourse, but so expands the language as to make clear that much more than the fall of Jerusalem was involved in the wrath that would overtake the first-century world.  In each of the passages compared, we find a day of the Lord, clouds, heavens and earth, stars moved out of their courses, fire, darkness and dread of doom. Yet, in each case the wrath was confined to men and nations, not the physical cosmos or its elements.  Reading these together should make clear that II Pet. 3:10-12 is simply one more in the long line of hyperbolic speech used by the prophets to describe heaven’s rod upon a rebellious world.

 What are the Heavens & Earth?

 Having compared Peter with the prophets and seen that he continues a long established tradition of figurative speech in describing world events, let us next interpret his symbology. 

Preterists have long held that the “heavens and earth” of II Pet. 3:10-12 are allusions to Judea and the Mosaic law.  This is due to a tendency to interpret the eschaton solely in terms of the fall of Jerusalem (“locally and covenantally”).  So many passages emphasize God’s wrath upon the Jews for the murder of Christ and persecution of the gospel that we tend to narrow our focus and overlook events in the rest of the Roman Empire.  This is unfortunate.  If there is anything that is clear it is that the second coming was a time of world-wrath, in no way confined to Palestine or the Jews.  Daniel two and seven are second coming passages and do not mention the Jews at all.  Many New Testament epistles speak of Christ’s coming and the saints’ need to be in readiness, which could have no meaning to churches in Europe and Asia if the second coming was limited to the fall of Jerusalem.  Thessalonica was in the province of Macedonia, yet Paul told the church there that they would find relief from their persecutors at Christ’s coming (II Thess. 1:4-10).  Paul told the Athenians, also in Europe, that God was “about to judge the world” through Jesus Christ (Acts 17:31). John wrote to the seven churches of Asia, exhorting them to abide faithful against Christ’s soon coming.  These churches are a thousand miles from Jerusalem. Yet, Jesus told them that his coming would directly impact them.  Finally, Peter’s epistle is written to churches in the vicinity of the Black Sea where Christians were suffering, or soon would suffer, persecution.  How would the fall of Jerusalem help them?  Wasn’t it rather the changes and alterations in the Roman government that would bring relief from their persecutions and not the fall of Jerusalem?  These and other considerations argue forcibly against the notion that the second coming was somehow confined to Palestine.

What then do the “heavens and earth” symbolize?  If we can think of the world like the canopy of heaven in which governments provide order to the world of men in the way that constellations are hung in the sky and regulate the cycles of nature and the revolution of seasons, we can see how the heavens and earth describe things social and political.  The best explanation we have encountered for the symbolism of the heavens and earth is Sir Isaac Newton’s:

"The figurative language of the prophets is taken from the analogy between the world natural and an empire or kingdom considered as a world politic. Accordingly, the world natural, consisting of heaven and earth, signifies the whole world politic, consisting of thrones and people, or so much of it as is considered in prophecy; and the things in that world signify the analogous things in this. For the heavens and the things therein signify thrones and dignities, and those who enjoy them: and the earth, with the things thereon, the inferior people; and the lowest parts of the earth, called Hades or Hell, the lowest or most miserable part of them. Great earthquakes, and the shaking of heaven and earth, are put for the shaking of kingdoms, so as to distract and overthrow them; the creating of a new heaven and earth, and the passing of an old one; or the beginning and end of a world, for the rise and ruin of a body politic signified thereby. The sun, for the whole species and race of kings, in the kingdoms of the world politic; the moon, for the body of common people considered as the king's wife; the stars, for subordinate princes and great men; or for bishops and rulers of the people of God, when the sun is Christ. Setting of the sun, moon, and stars; darkening the sun, turning the moon into blood, and falling of the stars, for the ceasing of a kingdom." (Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel, Part i. chap. ii)

 

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