The only way to grasp the significance of Peter’s de-creation language in 2 Peter 3 is to study similar language found in the Old Testament since that’s Peter’s reference point. In Micah 1:1, a prophetic word was revealed: “to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.” Micah’s prophecy isn’t about a time in the distant future. Rather, it’s about “the rebellion of Jacob and for the sins of the house of Israel” because of “the high place of Judah” (1:5). The prophecy is about a time when idol worship dominated the nation (1:6–7). Notice how the imminent judgment is described in end-of-the-world type language:
Hear, O peoples, all of you; Listen, O earth and all it contains,
And let the Lord GOD be a witness against you,
The Lord from His holy temple.
For behold, the Lord is coming forth from His place.
He will come down and tread on the high places of the earth.
The mountains will melt under Him
And the valleys will be split,
Like wax before the fire,
Like water poured down a steep place.
God is described as coming down that has the effect of melting the mountains, splitting the valleys, and flooding the land with the melted debris. This language is used elsewhere to describe similar local judgment events (Judges 5:4; 2 Sam. 22; Ps. 18:7–10; 68:8; Isa. 64:1–2). It’s the language of de-creation. Did the mountains melt? No more than the “foundations of the world were laid bare” (Psalm 18:15) when David battled Saul and “all his enemies” (see the Prologue to the Psalm to learn the historical context) or when John the Baptizer mentioned mountains being flattened and valleys being lifted up (Isa. 40:4; Luke 3:5).
We find something similar in the book of Zephaniah. A local judgment that had national consequences for Judah and Jerusalem (1:4) is described in a way that depicts the end of the earth and every living thing on it:
“I will completely remove all things
From the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
“I will remove man and beast;
“I will remove the birds of the sky
“And the fish of the sea,
“And the ruins along with the wicked;
“And I will cut off man from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord (Zeph. 1:2–3).
This local judgment is a reversal of creation, a covenantal judgment. Later in the chapter, we read, “Near is the great day of the Lord, near and coming very quickly…. And all the earth [or land] will be devoured in the fire of His jealousy [sound familiar when you read 2 Peter 3?], for He will make a complete end, indeed a terrifying one, of all the inhabitants of the earth” (1:14, 18). Notice the use of “fire,” “a complete end,” including the end of the earth and yet it was a local judgment.
Peter uses the same type of language. He writes from the vantage point of his day “in these last times” (1 Peter 1:20) that “the end of all things is at hand” (4:7) and like in Zephaniah, this prophetic description can hardly be a declaration that the end of the physical universe is in view.
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With that burning, everything associated with the old economy would pass away and only what was of salvific value would remain (1 Cor. 3:10–16). What remained was a new temple of God (v. 17), new priest, new sacrifice, and new people (1 Pet. 2:4–10).
Peter Leithart puts 2 Peter 3 in context for us:
But wherever would the mockers have gotten the idea that Jesus was coming before the “fathers” died [Matt. 16:27–28; John 21:15–23]? Why, lo and behold, Jesus said exactly that. The whole debate presupposes that Jesus promised to come soon. Without that premise, neither the mockers’ mockery nor Peter’s letter makes any sense. Peter and his opponents differ on the crucial question of the promise’s reliability, but they agree on its content.
The “fathers” (2 Peter 3:4) are the true early church fathers, those who had died since Jesus promised that He would come before their generation passed away (Matt. 16:27–28; 24:34; see 24:9; John 16:2; Acts 7:54–60; 12:2). Consider how second-generation believers are described as “children” (1 Cor. 4:14; 2 Cor. 6:13; 1 Thess. 2:11; 1 Tim 1:1–2; 2 Tim 1:1; 2:1). “It would be natural, then, for someone of Timothy’s generation to look back to the apostles as ‘fathers’ in the faith.”
What is the meaning of the “present heavens and earth”?: “The language of 2 Pet. 3:10–12 is taken mainly from Isa. 34:4, and is limited to the parousia, like the language of Matt. 24:29. Then the Lord made ‘not only the land but also the heaven’ to tremble (Heb. 12:26), and removed the things that were shaken in order to establish a kingdom which cannot be moved.” Homer Hailey writes:
The application of the passage [from Haggai 2] by the writer of Hebrews (12:26) confirms this view. As God shook the heaven and earth at the giving of the law at Sinai [Ex. 19:18], so He shook the heathen nations, removing them; and now He has shaken and removed the Jewish economy that man could receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28). It was this removing of the old order and the founding of a new one that was before Isaiah’s mind when he wrote of old things being forgotten and the creation of new heavens and a new earth (65:16–17).
The 19th-century Bible expositor John Brown wrote:
A person at all familiar with the phraseology of the Old Testament scriptures knows that the dissolution of the Mosaic economy, and the establishment of the Christian, is often spoken of as the removing of the old earth and heavens, and the creation of a new earth and heavens…. The period of the close of the one dispensation, and the commencement of the other, is spoken of as “the last days” and “the end of the world”; and is described as such a shaking of the earth and heavens, as should lead to the removal of the things which were shaken (Hag. 2:6; Heb. 12:26–27).
Charles H. Spurgeon compared the “new heavens and the new earth” to a “new heart,” the “new birth,” and a “new creation” in his sermon “God Rejoicing in the New Creation” that was delivered July 5, 1891, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle and later published in the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit:
Brothers and Sisters, did any of you ever weep because you did not sit at the Passover? Did you ever regret the Paschal lamb? Oh, never, because you have fed on Christ! Was there ever a man that knows his Lord that ever did lament that he had not the sign of the old Abrahamic Covenant in his flesh? No, he gladly dispenses with the rites of the Old Covenant, since he has the fullness of their meaning in his Lord. The Believer is circumcised in Christ, buried in Christ, risen in Christ, and in Christ exalted to the heavenly places! Did you ever regret the absence of the burnt offering, or the red heifer, or any of the sacrifices and rites of the Jews? Did you ever pine for the feast of tabernacles, or the dedication? No, because, though those were like the old heavens and earth to the Jewish believers, they have passed away, and we now live under new heavens and a new earth, so far as the dispensation of Divine teaching is concerned. The Substance is come and the shadow has gone — and we do not remember it.
Ancient as well as modern commentators have acknowledged that biblical language that describes the dissolution of heaven and earth is commonly associated with temporal national judgment, or in the case of positive sanctions of blessing, the language of stellar light. For example, the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135–1168) explained:
When the [prophets] describe the ruin of a kingdom or the destruction of a great nation [they] use phrases like the following:— “The stars have fallen,” “The heavens are overthrown,” “The sun is darkened,” “The earth is waste, and trembles,” and similar metaphors. The Arabs likewise say of a person who has met with a serious accident “His heavens, together with his earth, have been covered”; and when they speak of the approach of a nation’s prosperity, they say, “The light of the sun and moon has increased,” “A new heaven and a new earth has been created,” or similar phrases.
To support his argument, Maimonides references several Old Testament passages (e.g., Isa. 13:10, 13; 24:17 [“The earth is utterly broken down, the earth is clean dissolved, the earth is moved exceedingly. The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard.”]; 24:23; 30:19, 26; 34:3–5; 51:3–6, 12–16; 66:22; Jer. 4:23; Ezek. 32:7–8; Joel 2:10; Amos 8:9–10). This is enough biblical evidence to show that Peter’s language is about covenantal judgment, the dissolution of a covenant of planned obsolescence (Heb. 8:13). F.F. Bruce writes, “The coming of Christ involved a complete reshaping of the structure of Israel’s religion. The old covenant was now to give way to the new, the shadow to the substance, the outward and earthly copy to the inward and heavenly reality.”
Peter states, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). The mockers contended that God was slow about His promise/threat to judge them, so much so that they considered it a false prophecy and Jesus as a false Christ. The generation was about to end. Jesus’ delay in His coming judgment — nearly 40 years — was because of His patience. He gave that generation a generation’s worth of warning and for specific signs to look for to avoid the approaching judgment (Matt. 24:15–19).
In what way could the Jews save themselves from their “perverse generation” (Acts 2:40)? What would that generation be saved from? Certainly eternal judgment but also a temporal judgment that was to take place before their generation passed away.
On the contrary, Peter was not redefining how time terms should lose their specificity in 2 Peter 3:8. Just the opposite. The mockers and maybe even some faithful Christians considered nearly 35 years to be slow on God’s part. Peter dismisses the argument. God is a promise-keeping God. If He said that judgment would come within a generation, then you can count on it because with God a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day. Thirty-five years might seem like a long time for someone who only lives to be around 50 years old, but with God, it’s less than a dropping grain of sand in an hourglass.
Some additional points. The day of approaching judgment will come like a thief, similar to the way it would have come on the church at Sardis if they had not repented (1 Thess. 5:2–4; Rev. 3:3–4).
If the heavens and earth here is a reference to Israel during its testing period, then we need to understand how the Bible uses the topic of fire for judgment (1 Pet. 1:7; 1 Cor. 3:12–16; 4:5). Burned up” is not the best translation. It’s better translated as “found.” “Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless” (2 Peter 3:14). Peter uses the same word in his first epistle: “In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:6–7).
In what way is a burning with an “intense heat” related to “being found” instead of being “burned up”? This more positive interpretation is suggested by Al Wolters in an important article on 2 Peter 3 that explores various lines of linguistic and intertextual evidence and proposes a metallurgical background for Peter’s use of “found” in 2 Peter 3:10. Whether or not heuriskō turns out to be a technical term in metallurgy, as Wolters proposes, he seems to be on the right track in suggesting that the image of judgment by fire in 2 Peter 3 is not purely destructive, but instead may be understood as a smelting process by which the dross of human sinfulness is burned off, so that “found” means something like “standing the test” or “showing one’s mettle” (where “mettle” in that phrase was originally “metal”). The fire of judgment might then be compared to a “foundry,” where metals are melted down and reshaped into useful products.
The judgment on Jerusalem would reveal Israel’s work. Paul uses a similar idea when he writes, “For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:11–15).
But who can endure the day of His coming, and who can stand when He appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord (Mal 3:2–4).
Many get tripped up on the meaning of the Greek word translated as “elements” (stoicheia) as if the word refers to elements of the Periodic Table. It does not as these passages demonstrate:
• “So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world” (Gal. 4:3).
• “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?” (Gal. 4:9).
• “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).
• “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!’ (which all refer to things destined to perish with use) — in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?" (Col. 2:20–22)
• “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food” (Heb. 5:12).
While the testing of Israel’s faithfulness is being tested, Peter asks this question: “Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God….” (2 Pet. 3:11–12). Why would the people in Peter’s day be looking for and hastening the coming on the Lord to burn up the cosmos? They were looking forward for the refining of God’s people and removing the “the weak and worthless elemental things” of the Old Covenant and the arrival and advance of everything that was new in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).
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Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 489.
Homer Hailey, A Commentary on the Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1972), 310–311.
John Brown, Discourses and Sayings of Our Lord, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust,  1990), 1:171f.
Charles H. Spurgeon, “God Rejoicing in the New Creation,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (London: Banner of Truth Trust 1969), 37:354. No. 2211.
F.F. Bruce, Hebrews (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 211.
J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 194.