Who were the mockers Peter was describing in 2 Peter 3:3–4?

Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues as it was from the beginning of creation.”

Many prophecy writers conclude that these verses describe a distant eschatological event and not one that was on the horizon for those who first received Peter’s letter. For dispensationalists, the “last days” means events leading up to the “rapture of the church” and not the end of the old covenant that was taking place during the period of apostolic ministry in the first century.

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In 1 Peter 4:7, we read: “The end of all things is at hand.” Whatever “things” Peter had in mind, notice their end was “at hand,” that is, near for him and his readers (cf. James 5:8). The ticking of the clock of the last days of the old covenant began at Pentecost and ended with the judgment of Jerusalem in AD 70. Preterist author Jay Adams writes the following on 1 Peter 4:7:

In six or seven years from the time of writing, the overthrow of Jerusalem, with all its tragic stories, as foretold in the book of Revelation and in the Olivet Discourse upon which that part is based, would take place. Titus and Vespasian would wipe out the old order once and for all. All those forces that led to the persecution and exile of these Christians in Asia Minor—the temple ceremonies (outdated by Christ’s death), Pharisaism (with its distortion of the O.T. law into a system of works-righteousness) and the political stance of Palestinian Jewry toward Rome—would be erased. The Roman armies would wipe Jewish opposition from the face of the land. Those who survived the holocaust of A.D. 70 would themselves be dispersed around the Mediterranean world. “So,” says Peter, “hold on; the end is near.” The full end of the O.T. order (already made defunct by the cross and the empty tomb) was about to occur.[1]

Peter defines the time parameters of the last days after the people witnessed a series of manifestations of the Holy Spirit and their effect on the disciples: “For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day; but this” — the events you saw with your own eyes and heard with your ears — “is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: ‘And it shall be in the last days,’ God says, ‘That I will pour forth of My Spirit upon all flesh’”[2] (Acts 2:15–17a). The “last days” were a present reality for the New Testament church made up of Jews who embraced Jesus as the Messiah and believing Gentiles. The gifts of the Spirit were the hard evidence that the last days had arrived.

Dispensationalists are so befuddled by the obvious timing of when the last days occurred that they must add to, and in other cases, take away from Acts 2:16 to get it to mean what they need it to mean for their brand of futurism to hold up. Thomas Ice, an editor of the Tim LaHaye Prophecy Study Bible, reworks Acts 2:16 to read, “But this is [like] that which was spoken by the prophet Joel.” In a note on Acts 2:16, Ice adds the word “like” to the text and offers the following comment: “The Spirit’s activity in Joel is linked to the events that will transpire during the Tribulation; thus, it could not have been fulfilled in Acts 2. The unique statement of Peter (‘this is that’) is in the language of comparison and similarity, not fulfillment.”[3]

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Peter explains what the people had just seen by stating unequivocally “this is that.” It’s not like that; it is that. The simile “like” is found in 157 verses in the New Testament. If Peter meant to imply “comparison and similarity” in Acts 2:16, he would have done so by inserting the word “like” without any help from Mr. Ice.

Taking a different approach, fellow dispensationalist David E. Olander writes, Peter “did not say this is that, like that, similar to that, or was he making some comparison. Peter was not quoting these verses as a fulfillment in any manner. This was not possible,” Orlander argues, “for the Joel prophecy will only be fulfilled in the Day of the Lord (Joel 2:1–27).” Even though the passage says “this is that,” Orlander claims “Peter is not saying ‘this is that’. . . .”[4] If Peter is not identifying the events being witnessed as the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, he chose a strange way of saying it.

Orlander is begging the question with his claim that the events of Pentecost were not the “day of the Lord.” Orlander’s argument rests on a very narrow and limited understanding of how the Bible uses the phrase “day of the Lord.” John Walvoord, a futurist, makes a valuable comment about the multi-faceted character and application of the phrase: “The ‘Day of the Lord’ is an expression frequently used in both the Old and New Testaments to describe any period of time during which God exercises direct judgment on human sin. The Old Testament records a number of times when Israel endured a day of the Lord, lasting a few days or, in some cases, several years.”[5]

John R. Stott (1921–2011), in his commentary on Acts 2:16, states, “Peter introduces his sermon with the words ‘this is that’ (16, AV), i.e, ‘this’ which his hearers have witnessed is ‘that’ which Joel foretold.”[6] F. F. Bruce makes a similar point: “Joel, like other Old Testament prophets, had spoken of what was going to take place in the ‘last days.’ Peter’s quotation of this prophecy means that these days, the days of fulfillment of God’s purpose, have arrived.”[7]

The use of “last days” in the New Testament refers to the time of the first generation of Christians and the end of the old covenant era. The writer of Hebrews states:

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom He also made the world (1:1–2).

Later in Hebrews, we read, “but now once at the consummation of the ages He has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (9:26). Paul writes something similar to the Corinthians: “Now these things happened to [the Israelites in the wilderness] as an example, and they were written for our instruction [the Corinthians and other Christians at that time], upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11). The timing of the last days is important. In each of these cases, the “last days” was a present reality for those who first read these New Testament letters.

With this understanding of the last days in mind, let’s revisit 2 Peter 3:3–4 and also Jude 18 which reads, “‘In the last time there shall be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.’” In the next verse, we are told, “These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly, minded, devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 19). Not “will be” but — present tense — “are.”

Peter and Jude are not predicting what will happen in the distant future. These things were happening in their day. Just like “false prophets also arose among the people . . . , there will also be false teachers among you,” Peter writes (2 Pet. 2:1). “The way of the truth will be maligned” and “they will exploit you with false words” (2 Pet. 2:2–3). Notice the use of the second person plural (“you”). Peter is issuing a warning to those who would receive his letter. The entire New Testament issues warnings against these skeptics and moral trouble makers (Jude 10–16; Acts 20:28–30).

We should not find it unusual, therefore, that Peter would mention scoffers who would point out to the faithful that the generation that Jesus said would not pass away before His coming to destroy Jerusalem was about to come to an end and everything remains as it was. These are Jewish scoffers. Paul refers to “the fathers” that have “fallen asleep” (2 Peter 3:4). The use of “fathers” would have made no sense to a gentile audience (e.g, Matt. 23:30, 32; Luke 6:26; 11:47; John 4:20; 6:31; 7:22; Heb. 1:1). You can hear these first-century Jewish scoffers arguing:

The temple is still standing, the priesthood is intact, and animal sacrifices are going on as usual. The old covenant has not passed away; it’s a permanent fixture, even under Roman oppression. People are marrying and giving in marriage, eating and drinking, buying and selling, and planting and building (Luke 17:22–35).[8] Everything is as it was since creation (2 Pet. 3:4). This Jesus, who claimed He would come in judgment before “this generation” passed away (Matt. 24:34), was a false prophet and you Christians are foolish to follow him. Return to the true faith of your fathers.

Similar warnings were given when Noah’s world was destroyed by a flood and Sodom was destroyed by fire. The people reacted in the same way as the scoffers in Peter’s day. Things looked like they had always looked. The coming judgments were near for those who first read Peter’s letter. The scoffers were alive and well in the first century. People have a right to mock and scoff when they read that Jesus was to come within a generation and nearly 2000 years have passed. Liberals mock Christians who don’t believe what Jesus actually said and then try to make Jesus’ words mean something else.

Preterists don’t doubt God’s Word. We are not end-time scoffers because we understand what the New Testament means by the end times. We take God at His Word when He tells us when certain prophetic events will be fulfilled. We believe Jesus when He said He would return in judgment before the generation to whom He was speaking passed away (Matt. 24:34).

Preterists marvel when we are accused of “allegorizing” and not interpreting the Bible “literally” and then are charged “with such rigid literalism”[9] on the meaning of “this generation.”

We believe the Bible when it says that Jesus would come before the last disciple died (16:27–28; John 21:18–23). We believe John when he wrote that “many antichrists” had arisen in his day which served as ample evidence to his readers that it was “the last hour” (1 John 2:18). We agree with the writer to the Hebrews that the day was “drawing near” for first-century Christians (Heb. 10:25). We affirm along with James when he told his readers that “the coming of the Lord is at hand” for them (James 5:8) and that “the Judge is standing right at the door” (5:9; cf. Matt. 24:33).

Preterists don’t agree with Charles L. Feinberg’s interpretation in the Liberty Bible Commentary, edited by Dr. Ed Hindson, that the time text “must shortly come to pass” (Rev. 1:1) “gives no basis for the historical interpretation of the book.”[10] At the same time, we marvel when in the same commentary on Revelation, Dr. Feinberg can claim that while “far off” means “far off” in Daniel 12:4, “near” does not mean “near” in Revelation 1:3 and 22:10 even though he writes that Jesus’ coming “is near.”[11]

Preterists don’t understand that when the word “near” is used today by futurists it means Jesus’ coming is “near,” but when “near” was used by John nearly two millennia ago it does not indicate “the possible length [of time] involved.”[12] Preterists do not understand that when the New Testament uses words like “near” and “soon,” Dr. Hindson can change their meaning to read “imminent,” that is, “any moment.”[13] The New Testament does not say that Jesus will come at “any moment”; it states emphatically that His coming was “near” for those who first read the time words written in God’s breathed Word (2 Tim. 3:16–17).

If 2000 years ago the Bible taught that Jesus was coming “at any moment,” what do you think His first-century audience would have understood this to mean? What does “any moment” mean in ordinary speech? If a plumber said he will be arriving at your house “at any moment” to fix a leaky pipe, and he didn’t show up for 12 days, I doubt that you would accept his explanation that the phrase does not indicate the possible length of time involved.

The real last days scoffers are those who scoff at the clear words of Scripture related to the timing of specific prophetic events. These scoffers are those who attempt to make the Bible mean its opposite.

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[1]Jay E. Adams, Trust and Obey: A Practical Commentary on First Peter (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1978), 130.

[2]“‘All mankind’ seems to be defined by what follows: old and young, women as well as men. This makes it reasonably certain that the whole company of 120, which included women, received the Spirit at Pentecost.” Everett F. Harrison, Acts: The Expanding Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), 58.

[3]Thomas Ice, “Acts,” Tim LaHaye Prophecy Study Bible, gen. ed. Tim LaHaye (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000), 1167, note on Acts 2:16.

[4]David E. Olander, “The Importance of the Biblical Languages,” Dispensationalism Tomorrow and Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie, ed. Christopher Cone (Ft. Worth: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2008), 87.

[5]John F. Walvoord, Prophecy: 14 Essential Keys to Understanding the Final Drama (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 114–115.

[6]John R. W. Stott, The Spirit, the Church, and the World: The Message of Acts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 73.

[7]F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 60–61.

[8]These are not descriptions of immoral behavior but of normal behavior, what people do every day.

[9]John F. MaArthur, The Second Coming: Signs of Christ’s Return and the End of the Age (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1999), 133.

[10]Charles L. Feinberg, “Revelation,” Liberty Bible Commentary: New Testament, eds. Edward E. Hindson and Woodrow Michael Kroll (Lynchburg, VA: The Old-Time Gospel Hour, 1982), 790.

[11]Feinberg, “Revelation,” 853.

[12]Feinberg, “Revelation,” 790.

[13]Ed Hindson, Approaching Armageddon: The World Prepares for War with God (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1997), 36; Hindson, “The New Last Days Scoffers,” National Liberty Journal (May 2005), 9.