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Bibliano and Amigo: Discussions on Eschatology (Lesson #4, 2 Peter 3 Burning of the Elements)

“The torrent of popular books and claims about biblical prophecy in recent decades, aside from taking up lots of shelf space in Christian book stores, seems to have a peculiar appeal to lay believers who, curiously enough, find hope in an expected destruction of the planet and its replacement with a utopia in which even carnivorous animals will take up vegetarianism. It is simply taken for granted that the Bible predicts and explains an end of time, and that there is no number of elapsed centuries spent waiting for it that cannot be called the ‘end times.’” (Bruce Thevenot)

AMIGO: In our last study you convinced me that the New Heaven and New Earth as described in Isaiah 65-66 is not about the end of the planet. But doesn’t 2 Peter 3 clearly describe the “heavenly bodies/elements being burned up and destroyed?”

BIBLIANO: This is an excellent example of the laziness of Christians in interpreting the Bible—as well as the biases of some translators. First of all, we note that the context for Peter’s letters includes several passages that define the imminent expectation of the coming events: In 1 Peter 1:19-20 and 2 Peter 3:3, Peter taught that he was living in the “last times.” In 1 Peter 4:7 he exclaimed that “the end of all things is at hand.” In 1 Peter 4:17 he said that “it is time for Judgment to begin at the household of God.”

AMIGO: Hmmm. I guess my mind has hit a mental cul-de-sac when I have read those passages before. I didn’t make the connection.

BIBLIANO: There are two key words in the text about the “elements being burned up.” The first word, which is variously translated as “heavenly bodies” or “elements” is the Greek word STOICHEION. The only other times that this word is used in the New Testament are Galatians 4:3; 9; Colossians 2:8, 20-22; and Hebrews 5:12. In these
passages, STOICHEION is translated as “basic principles” or similar wording. If you read these passages in context you will see that they are about how we are freed from the Law—the Old Covenant mandates—not from the material creation! Christians today think of “elements” as what we learned in science class—the elements of the periodic table. That was not the frame of reference for the 1st -century Hebrews.

AMIGO: Why was I never taught this?

BIBLIANO: I’ll let you figure that out. But, the second word is the Greek word KATAKAIO, which is variously translated at “burned up” (in the NKJV) or “exposed” (in the ESV) or “found to deserve judgment” (in the NLT).

AMIGO: This makes perfect sense based on what we have studied so far. It all points to AD 70 when the old covenant order was abolished as the temple was destroyed. In fact, the temple and the city were literally burned as the NKJV renders it. But here’s one thing I don’t get. In 2 Peter 3:4-6 Peter is clearly starts the discussion about the Day of the Lord with literal creation.

BIBLIANO: The “Day of the Lord” in the Bible is anytime God effects judgment on a group of people—either on the Jews or their enemies. Prophetic judgments in the Bible are often set in the context of de-creation or disturbances of the created order. For example, in Isaiah 13 we find that the “heavens tremble,” “the earth would move out of her place,” and the “stars won’t give light.” This concerns the judgment upon Babylon, which scholars agree was fulfilled in 539 BC. But also notice that Peter includes in this section the example of God’s judgment in the time of Noah, executed by a physical flood. Peter was repeating Jesus’ warning in Matthew 24:7, 34—saying that Noah’s flood was typological for the coming judgment on Jerusalem.

AMIGO: Ok, this is eye-opening.

BIBLIANO: I recommend that you look up some other passages that show similarly how God’s judgments are expressed in cosmic language or destruction of the created order: Psalm 18:6-16; Isaiah 19:1-5; 24:21-23; 34:1-17; Jeremiah 4:23-31; 51:24-25; Ezekiel 32:3-16; Joel 2:10-11; 3:15-16; Amos 5:16-24; 8:9; Micah 1:2-16; Nahum 1:2-6; Zephaniah 1:14-18. These are not end-of-the-planet judgments, but rather expressions of God’s wrath upon wayward groups of people.

AMIGO: Does this imply that the Bible does not teach us about the end of the physical world?

BIBLIANO: It doesn’t, as surprising as this may be to you. This is ALL about the coming judgment upon the Jewish nation in AD 70. Remember that Jesus told the Jews that “all the righteous blood [ever] shed on earth” would befall the first century Jews—IN THEIR GENERATION (Matthew 23:35-36). The only place in the Bible where we find “the end of the world” is in the KJV of Matthew. But this is a mistranslation. The word “world” is the Greek word AION. This word is correctly translated as “age.” The KJV has mislead English speaking Christians for 400 years. So, over and over in the Bible, we find the coming end of the AGE—that is, the Old Covenant Age as what was being predicted. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 7:31, the FORM of the world was passing away—THEIR WORLD ORDER, not the literal planet. Notice what the writer of Hebrews said: “In speaking of the new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.” (Hebrews 8:13)

AMIGO: Just one more question about 2 Peter 3. What about the statement where Peter compares a thousand years to a day (2 Peter 3:8).

BIBLIANO: Obviously, that statement is not literal, otherwise it would be nonsense. Thus, it cannot mean that a short time means a long time. Was Jesus in the grave 1,000 years? The number 1,000 is used symbolically in Scripture in different ways, including to mean “completeness.” The context of Peter’s statement is found in the next verse: “the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promises” (2 Peter 3:9). This was a warning to the scoffers of his day that THEY would soon witness God’s judgment if they did not repent.

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