The Day of the Lord
Most Christians think that the Day of the Lord is about the end of the world. But a careful study of this term in the Bible does not support that conclusion. In my book, CHRISTIAN HOPE THROUGH FUFILLED PROPHECY, I examine each of the Old Testament passages about the Day of The Lord. I show that the term is used some seventeen times in the Old Testament, primarily about God’s judgments on specific groups of people. Some of these include Isaiah 34 (against Edom); Jeremiah 46:10 (against named nations surrounding Judah); Lamentations 2:22 (against Jerusalem); Ezekiel 13:5 (against Israel’s false prophets); Ezekiel 30:2-4 (against Egypt); Amos 5:18-20 (against Israel); Obadiah 15 (against Edom).
Most, if not all, of such passages in the Old Testament can be identified with specific past fulfillments. Since “the Day of the Lord” in the Old Testament typically refers to historical judgments that have already been fulfilled, it is reasonable to infer that the references in the New Testament may also refer to past fulfillment. The evidence points to the judgment on Israel in AD 70, when the temple was destroyed. This event marked the end of the Old Covenant world, as the ancient system of sacrifices for sin ended forever.
In support of this thesis, uses of the term “the last days” or its equivalent in the New Testament have strong time-reference statements that restrict their fulfillment to the first-century: Matthew 24:14 (ref. Matthew 24:24; Colossians 1:6, 23); Acts 2:14-21; (ref. Acts 3:24); 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 3:1; Hebrews 1:2; James 5:3-9; 1 Peter 1:5, 20; 4:7; 2 Peter 3:3; 1 John 2:17-18; Jude 18. The “Day of the Lord” in the New Testament points to God’s judgment of the apostate Jewish nation at the end of the “last days.”
This was the Great Judgment predicted by John the Baptist and Jesus upon the Jews of the first century. See Matthew 3:7-12; Matthew 10:15, 23; 16:27-28; 21:33-46; 23:34-36; 24:15-22; 26:64; Luke 21:20-24, 32; cf. Daniel 9:26-27; 12:1, 11; Malachi 3:1, 2, 5; 4:1-5. The reader would find it instructive to look up these passages and consider how they relate to each other and the events of AD 70.
The Day of the Lord is primarily about God’s judgments. We cannot find adequate biblical reasons why any of the Days of the Lord remain unfulfilled. Jesus does not allow for any unfulfilled prophecies past the first century (Luke 21:22, 32; Revelation 1:1-3; 22:6, 12, 20).
Undoubtedly, the use of the term Day of the Lord that is most confusing to Christians is from 2 Peter 3:10. The language Peter used might seem to imply the total destruction of the visible creation. He used a variety of phrases in his epistles, such as the “Day of the Lord,” the “destruction of the heavens by fire,” the “new heaven and earth,” the “elements shall melt,” etc.
It should be first noted that such cosmic language is commonplace among the Old Testament prophets, speaking in non-literal language about theological or covenantal events, and especially about actual judgments by God on guilty groups of people. See Isaiah 13:10-13; 24:23; 34:4; Jeremiah 4:23-31; Ezekiel 32:7-8; Joel 3:15-16; Amos 5:20; 8:9; Micah 1:2-16, and Zephaniah 1:14-15. Scholars are in general agreement that these Old Testament prophecies, similar to the Day of the Lord passages, have already been fulfilled. These previously fulfilled events in the Old Testament set the stage for understanding Peter’s words.
Let’s examine how Peter taught, in his epistles, that the so-called last days pointed to the first century, culminating with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. This marked the last days of the Old Covenant world, not the end of the physical universe. In his epistles, Peter used the phrase last times in a way that is consistent with his own comments in Acts 2:14-21; 3:24—
“but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you.” (1 Peter 1:19-20, NKJV)
This declaration obviously cannot refer to a far distant time. Peter’s statement indicates that the last days/last times included the time in which Christ was in the flesh; yet Peter was still in the last days as he spoke. Now consider these statements, which you may well have completely glossed over previously:
“But the end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers. . . . For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:7, 17, NKJV)
One can simply ignore such passages if he wishes, but one cannot ignore them and be faithful to God’s Word. The imminence in Peter’s mind is unmistakable. But Peter is not alone. The New Testament writers proclaimed with one voice that the “end” had drawn near.
In order for the Bible to be consistent, we must harmonize Peter’s imminence statements with his prophetic statements set in cosmic language and disturbances of the created order. The end of the physical universe was not at hand when Peter penned his words. Either Peter does not mean “at hand” in the normal sense of something close in time, or the “end of all things” language is not to be understood in the literal sense to describe the end of the physical universe. I think that the latter understanding is the only one consistent with Peter’s words, as well as with the rest of the Bible.
The cosmic language does not describe the end of the physical universe, but some other cataclysm that was close in time to Peter and the other writers of the New Testament. What Peter was expressing was that the end of all old covenant things was at hand. He did not have to add the word “covenant” as this reference would have been understood by his readers at the time.
Remember that one of the precepts of biblical interpretation is that we interpret the less clear in light of the clear. At hand is clear; it means close in time—a meaning which is confirmed by over 100 other imminence passages (Appendix A in my book). The astronomical language (which is less clear or at least less obvious to us moderns) must be interpreted in light of (a) the clear imminence passages, as well as (b) the cosmic disturbances language of Old Testament prophecies. So the cosmic language used by Peter should not be understood literally.
Let’s look closely at 2 Peter 3:10 where Peter says, in some translations, that the “elements” (Greek stoicheion) will be “burned up” (Greek katakaio) at the Day of the Lord. This passage is one that futurists rely on heavily. They say, “Look here! Obviously, that has not happened yet.” They think that “elements” refers to physics or chemistry—the elements of the periodic table (hydrogen, lithium, etc.).
The frame of reference for us today is what we learned in science class. But that was not the frame of reference for the first-century Hebrews. They were steeped in theology and Old Testament imagery. The Bible is not a science book, but a religious book. The Scriptures throughout are about God’s covenants with his people.
Let’s consider how various versions of the Bible translate this critical verse, with particular attention to the Greek words stoicheion and katakaio:
“But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements [stoicheion] will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up [katakaio].” (2 Peter 3:10, New King James Version)
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies [stoicheion] will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed [katakaio].” (2 Peter 3:10, English Standard Version)
“But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements [stoicheion] themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment [katakaio].” (2 Peter 3:10, New Living Translation)
We note some distinct differences in how key words are translated. Let’s consider first, the word that is translated as “elements” in the first and third examples, and as “heavenly bodies” in the second example. This word in Greek is stoicheion. The online Blue Letter Bible lexicon gives various possible definitions of this word, including heavenly bodies. But the first definition given is “any first thing, from which the others belonging to some series or composite whole take their rise, an element, first principal.”
Using the hermeneutical principle of using Scripture to interpret Scripture, let’s examine every other use of stoicheion in the New Testament. We find that the apostle Paul also used this word (and never in reference to atomic elements)—first in Galatians 4:3 and 4:9. In Galatians, the word stoicheion is translated in the same above three versions of the Bible respectively as “elements,” “elementary principles,” and “spiritual principles.” For example, here are these two verses from the English Standard Version:
“In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles [stoicheion] of the world. . . . But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles [stoicheion] of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Galatians 4:3, 9, English Standard Version)
If you read Galatians 3, 4, and 5 you will find that the context is about how we are freed from the Law—the Old Covenant mandates! We are free from the Old Covenant, not from the material creation!
We find the word stoicheion used again by Paul in Colossians 2:8 and 2:20 in the same context—in reference to Christ freeing us from the Old Covenant mandates:
“Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles [stoicheion] of the world, and not according to Christ. . . . Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles [stoicheion] of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—“Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men?” (Colossians 2:8, 20-22, New King James Version)
The writer of Hebrews also used the word stoicheion. The context is similar to the usage in Galatians and Colossians—Jesus is the new order of things that brings salvation. Hebrews 5:12-14 is titled “Spiritual Immaturity” in the New King James Version:
“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles [stoicheion] of the oracles of God. For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe.” (Hebrews 5:12-13, New King James Version)
These passages are the only ones outside of 2 Peter containing the word “elements” (stoicheion). The interpretation of 2 Peter 3, therefore, becomes consistent and clear. The “elements” are not physical world concepts, but spiritual things! Here ishow Don K. Preston, a convert to preterism and writer of numerous prophecy books and articles, sums up the Bible’s use of the word stoicheion:
We thus have the passing of one world and the anticipation of another. The Old World is the Old Covenant World of Israel that anticipated and predicted the coming of the Messiah—these predictions were part of the elements, the first principles of Christ. The New World, the World to come, was initiated by the passion of Jesus and his work of atonement. . . . Hebrews then, agrees with Galatians and Colossians in its usage of the word “elements.” It referred to the basic doctrines of Old Covenant Israel. In Galatians, Colossians and Hebrews the elements of that Old World (kosmos) were in the process of, and were ready to vanish away. Having observed all occurrences of the word stoicheion (elements), outside 2 Peter 3 we have seen that these references have nothing to do with physical creation. They refer exclusively to the basic doctrines and commands of the Old Covenant World of Israel. In each of the texts above the inspired writers predicted the passing of that Old World. [i]
But what about the words “burned up” (Greek katakaio)? If we have correctly identified the time frame as AD 70 and the “elements” as being about spiritual/covenantal issues, “burned up” also applies to AD 70 in a covenant context. Interestingly, “burned up” is literally correct about the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem. But other translations that say “exposed” or “found to deserve judgment” (or “laid bare” in the New International Version)—instead of “burned up”—would also be consistent with an AD 70 understanding!
Some readers will stop and insist that the language of the heavens-earth-burning-melting just sounds too much like the end of the physical universe. I cover the concept of the new heaven(s) and new earth in more detail in Chapter 8 of my book, but let’s preview one of the appropriate passages for that study, found in Matthew 5. Jesus is speaking:
“For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.” (Matthew 5:18,NKJV)
If this is not clear, you might want to read it in other translations in addition to the New King James Version cited above. Jesus ties the passing of heaven and earth with the passing of the Law. Reading this passage carefully reveals that unless “heaven and earth” have already passed away, every detail of the Law of Moses is still in effect today. Since the law has been replaced by the gospel, “heaven and earth” must have already passed away. This is perfectly consistent with Peter’s statements of the heavens’ and earth’s imminent dissolution. It is confirmation from the lips of Jesus that “heaven and earth” are not references to the physical universe.
One verse that is always quoted in Peter’s epistles to prove that the events are a long way off is 1 Peter 3:8, in which Peter compares a thousand years to a day. This passage cannot have a literal meaning, otherwise it would be nonsense. Thus, it cannot mean that a short time really means a long time. If such an inference were possible, it would be equally possible to infer the opposite, leaving only a logical nullity.
Peter may have been quoting directly from the non-canonical Jewish book Jubilees, written about 200 years earlier. Jubilees, a book that was well-known to the early Christians, has this statement: “for one thousand years are as one day in the testimony of the heavens and therefore was it written concerning the tree of knowledge . . . .” This statement has a covenantal context. The thousand year period in Revelation, as we will see, also has a message concerning the completion of the Old Covenant order. These references are further evidences that Peter is describing the soon end of the Old Covenant Age.[ii]
A “thousand” in the Bible is often used as a symbolic term of completeness. Peter is saying that covenantal completeness was coming soon. It also seems that certain scoffers (2 Peter 3:3) were deriding Christians, claiming that Jesus had not come soon as He had promised. Peter retorted, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promises.” (2 Peter 3:9)
Peter was telling the scoffers that they should not make the mistake of believing Jesus had forgotten or overlooked his promise to return in their generation. He was warning the scoffers in no uncertain terms that “the Day of the Lord” would come and that it would come upon those very scoffers “as a thief in the night.” The perceived delay or “slackness” was simply God’s patience toward all who would come to repentance and be saved in the last days (2 Peter 3:3) of the Old Covenant Age (2 Peter 3:9-10).
Here’s a question to challenge your thinking: If we are to take Peter’s “one thousand years as a day” as literal, should we also take John’s thousand years of Revelation 20 (the so-called “millennium”) as a literal 24-hour day?
Peter told his readers in verses 11-13 that they were to be looking for the coming Day of the Lord. If we are to receive a message as to the timing of the events in the statement about a thousand years being as a day, we submit that it means the opposite of what futurists think. Peter means that the expected events were a short time into the future, especially given the other imminence passages in his epistles.
In Peter’s writings, we have both a clear time-reference and a confirming exegesis from other parts of the New Testament that what is in view by Peter is the imminent end of the Old Covenant Age, not the end of the universe. This understanding is consistent with what we have considered in previous chapters about the end of the age and the last days. Remember, the Bible must be consistent if it is indeed God’s Word. Go back and read 2 Peter 3 again and see if it doesn’t make perfect sense now from a preterist perspective.
But wait. Doesn’t 2 Peter 3 clearly begin with a discussion of the physical universe (2 Peter 3:4-5), implying that it would indeed be the physical universe that is destroyed later in the chapter (2 Peter 3:10)? Answer: Peter does indeed begin with the physical universe, but moves on to Noah’s flood (1 Peter 3:6), which CHANGED THE WORLD by JUDGING THE UNGODLY with annihilation. He then compares that time of God’s judgment to the coming judgment in AD 70.
In addition to Peter’s use of the term, Day of the Lord, we can consider the use elsewhere in the New Testament. The writer of Hebrews saw “the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25). We will look at Paul’s use of the term in 1 and 2 Thessalonians in Chapter 11 of this book. But suffice it to say now that the Thessalonians clearly did not see the Day of the Lord as many moderns do (as the end of the physical universe), because they were under the impression that the Day had already come—which necessitated Paul correcting them (2 Thessalonians 2:2-4). Another instance is in 1 Corinthians 5 (“the day of the Lord Jesus”), which is in the context of the soon coming judgment.
The primary objection to the conclusion that Peter’s Day of the Lord being in AD 70 is the notion that we can expect a double fulfillment—one past and one future. But where is the Scriptural support for such a view? Is it enough to simply assume that since there are Old Testament types that were fulfilled in New Testament antitypes, we must therefore regard the New Testament prophecies as typical of some future antitypes?
Where in the Bible does it teach that we should expect more than one fulfillment of New Testament prophecy? It seems to me that the people who insist on a double fulfillment of the same passage are reading something into the text that is not there. Such a view is pure conjecture based on a futurist assumption, without satisfying an evidentiary burden. But we will consider this objection in more detail later.
In summary, “the Day of the Lord” is a term that refers to any of God’s judgments. The evidence supports the preterist view that all such uses of the term have been fulfilled, culminating with the Great Judgment in AD 70.
For an analysis of the Biblical Last Days, see my two-part series at my Faith Facts website. We cover all of the passages about the last days, including the important passage 2 Peter 3:
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[i] Don K. Preston, from an article “The Passing of the Elements: 2 Peter 3:10”: http://www.preteristarchive.com/Hyper/0000_preston_elements.html.
[ii] See Joseph M. Vincent II, The Millennium: Past, Present, or Future? A Biblical Defense for the 40 Year Transition Period (Ardmore, OK: JaDon Publishing, 2012), pages 63-80. Jubilees is considered canonical by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, as well as Jews in Ethiopia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_Of_Jubilees).