A basic principle
of the Reformation was the priesthood of all believers. Not only
could sinners receive the merits of Jesus Christ directly, but they
also were given the high and holy privilege to study the Bible
directly. Private interpretation does not mean interpretive
autonomy. Scripture must be used to interpret Scripture. Nowhere is
this principle more vividly illustrated than in a study of 2 Peter 3
and its language of a "new heaven and a new earth."
According to St. Peter's
second epistle, Christ and the apostles had warned that apostasy would
accelerate toward the end of the "last days" (2 Pet. 3:2-4; cf. Jude
17-19) - the forty-year period between Christ's as-cension and the
destruction of the Old Covenant Temple in A.D. 70.  He makes it
clear that these latter-day "mockers" were Covenant apostates: familiar
with Old Testament history and prophecy, they were Jews who had
abandoned the Abrahamic Covenant by rejecting Christ. As Jesus had
repeatedly warned (cf. Matt. 12:38-45; 16:1-4;23:29-39), upon this evil
and perverse generation would come the great "Day of Judgment" foretold
in the prophets, a "destruction of ungodly men" like that suffered by
the wicked of Noah's day (2 Pet.3:5-7).
Throughout His ministry
Jesus drew this analogy (see Matthew 24:37-39 and Luke17:26-27). Just
as God destroyed the "world" of the antediluvian era by the Flood, so
would the "world" of first-century Israel be destroyed by fire in the
fall of Jerusalem.
St. Peter describes this
judgment as the destruction of "the present heavens and earth" (v. 7),
making way for "new heavens and a new earth" (v. 10). Because of what
may be called the "collapsing-universe" terminology used in this
passage, many have mistakenly assumed that St. Peter is speaking of the
final end of the physical heaven and earth, rather than the dissolution
of the Old Covenant world order. The great seventeenth-century Puritan
theologian John Owen answered this view by referring to the Bible's very
characteristic metaphorical usage of the terms heavens and earth, as in
Isaiah's description of the Mosaic Covenant:
But I am the LORD thy
God, that divided the sea, whose waves roared: The LORD of hosts is his
name. And I have put my words in thy mouth, and I have covered thee in
the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens and lay the
foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people (Isa.
John Owen writes:
The time when the work
here mentioned, of planting the heavens, and laying the foundation of
the earth, was performed by God, was when he "divided the sea" (Isa.
51:15), and gave the law (v. 16), and said to Zion, "Thou art my people"
- that is, when he took the children of Israel out of Egypt, and formed
them in the wilderness into a church and state. Then he planted the
heavens, and laid the foundation of the earth - made the new world; that
is, brought forth order, and government, and beauty, from the confusion
wherein before they were. This is the planting of the heavens, and
laying the foundation of the earth in the world. And hence it is, that
when mention is made of the destruction of a state and government, it is
in that language that seems to set forth the end of the world. So
Isaiah 34:4; which is yet but the destruction of the state of Edom. The
like is also affirmed of the Roman empire, Revelation 6:14; which the
Jews constantly affirmed to be intended by Edom in the prophets. And in
our Saviour Christ's prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem, Matthew
24, he sets it out by expressions of the same importance. It is evident
then, that, in the prophetical idiom and manner of speech, by "heavens"
and "earth," the civil and religious state and combination of men in the
world, and the men of them, are often understood. So were the heavens
and earth that world which was then destroyed by the flood. 
Another Old Testament
text, among many that could be mentioned, is Jeremiah 4:23-31, which
speaks of the imminent fall of Jerusalem (587 B.C.) in similar language
I looked on the earth,
and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had
no light....For thus says the LORD, the whole land shall be a desolation
[referring to the curse of Lev.26:31-33; see its fulfillment in
Matt.24:15!], yet I will not execute a complete destruction. For this
the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above be dark....
New Creation Language
From the very beginning, God's covenant with Israel had been expressed
in terms of a new creation: Moses described Israel's salvation in the
wilderness in terms of the Spirit of God hovering over a waste, just as
in the original creation of heaven and earth (Deut. 32:10-11; cf. Gen.
1:2).  In the Exodus, as at the original creation, God divided light
and darkness (Ex. 14:20), divided the waters from the waters to bring
forth the dry land (Ex. 14:21-22), and planted His people in His holy
mountain (Ex. 15:17). God's miraculous formation of Israel was thus an
image of Creation, a redemptive recapitulation of the making of heaven
and earth. The Old Covenant order, in which the entire world was
organized around the central sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple, could
quite appropriately be described, before its final dissolution, as "the
present heavens and earth."
The Mosaic Economy The
19th-century 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).
Therefore, says Owen,
On this foundation I
affirm that the heavens and earth here intended in this prophecy of
Peter, the coming of the Lord, the day of judgment and perdition of
ungodly men, mentioned in the destruction of that heaven and earth, do
all of them relate, not to the last and final judgment of the world, but
to that utter desolation and destruction that was to be made of the
Judaical church and state - i.e., the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. 
This interpretation is
confirmed by St. Peter's further information: In this imminent "Day of
the Lord" which was about to come upon the first-century world "like a
thief" (cf. Matt. 24:42-43; I Thess. 5:2; Rev.3:3), "the elements will
be destroyed with intense heat" (v. 10; cf. v. 12).
What are these elements? So-called "literalists" lightly and
carelessly assume that the apostle is speaking about physics, using the
term to mean atoms (or perhaps subatomic particles), the actual physical
components of the universe. What these "literalists" fail to recognize
is that although the word elements (stoicheia) is used several times in
the New Testament, it is never used in connection with the physical
universe! (In this respect, the very misleading comments of the New
Geneva Study Bible on this passage [inserted below by JEGjr] violate its
own interpretive dictum that "Scripture interprets Scripture." For
possible meanings of this term, it cites pagan Greek philosophers and
astrologers - but never the Bible's own use of the term!) Kittel's
Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words observes that while in
pagan literature the Greek word stoicheia is used in a number of
different ways (referring to the "four elements" of the physical world,
or to the "notes" on a musical scale, or to the "principles" of geometry
or logic), the New Testament writers use the term "in a new way,
describing the stoicheia as weak and beggarly. In a transferred sense,
the stoicheia are the things on which pre-Christian existence rests,
especially in pre-Christian religion. These things are impotent; they
bring bondage instead of freedom." 
Study notes for II Peter
3:10 from the New Geneva Study Bible; and MacArthur Study Bible:
NGSB (p.1983) elements.
Greek stoicheia, a term used for (a) the elements making up the world
(according to the philosophers these were earth, air, fire, and
MacArthur Study Bible
(p.1959) the heavens will pass away with a great noise. The "heavens"
refer to the physical universe. The "great noise" connotes whistling or
a crackling sound as of objects being consumed by flames. God will
incinerate the universe, probably in an atomic reaction that
disintegrates all matter as we know it (vv.7, 11, 12, 13). the elements
will melt with fervent heat. The "elements" are the atomic components
into which matter is ultimately divisible, which make up the composition
of all the created matter. Peter means that the atoms, neutrons,
protons, and electrons are all going to disintegrate (v.11).
Throughout the New
Testament, the word "elements" (stoicheia) is always used in connection
with the Old Covenant order. St. Paul used the term in his stinging
rebuke to the Galatian Christians who were tempted to forsake the
freedom of the New Covenant for an Old Covenant-style legalism.
Describing Old Covenant rituals and ceremonies, he says "we were in
bondage under the elements (stoicheia) of this world....How is it that
you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements (stoicheia), to which
you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and
seasons and years..." (Gal. 4:3, 9-10). He warns the Colossians:
"Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit,
according to the basic principles (stoicheia) of the world, and not
according to Christ....Therefore, if you died with Christ to the basic
principles (stoicheia) 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"' (Col. 2:8,20-21).
The writer to the
Hebrews chided them: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers,
you have need again for someone to teach you the elements (stoicheia) of
the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food"
(Heb. 5:12). In context, the writer to the Hebrews is clearly speaking
of Old Covenant truths particularly since he connects it with the term
oracles of God, an expression used elsewhere in the New Testament for
the provisional, Old Covenant revelation (see Acts 7:38; Rom.3:2).
These citations from Galatians, Colossians, and Hebrews comprise all
the other occurrences in the New Testament of that word "elements" (stoichea).
Not one refers to the "elements" of the physical world or universe; all
are speaking of the "elements" of the Old Covenant system, which, as the
apostles wrote just before the approaching destruction of the Old
Covenant Temple in A.D. 70, was "becoming obsolete and growing old" and
"ready to vanish away" (Heb.8:13).
St. Peter uses the same
term in exactly the same way. Throughout the Greek New Testament, the
word elements (stoicheia) always means ethics, not physics; the
foundational "elements" of a religious system that was doomed to pass
away in a fiery judgment.
The Time Factor In
fact, St. Peter was quite specific about the fact that he was not
referring to an event thousands of years in their future, but to
something that was already taking place:
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 (stoicheia) will melt with fervent
heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.
Therefore, since all these things are being dissolved, what manner of
persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, because of which
the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements (stoicheia)
are being melted with fervent heat? (2 Pet. 3:10-12)
Contrary to the
misleading renderings of translators blinded by their presuppositions,
St. Peter insists that the dissolution of "the present heaven and earth"
- the Old Covenant system with its obligatory rituals and bloody
sacrifices - was already beginning to occur: the "universe" of the Old
Covenant was coming apart, never to be revived:
When did prophet and
vision cease from Israel? Was it not when Christ came, the Holy one of
holies? It is, in fact, a sign and notable proof of the coming of the
Word that Jerusalem no longer stands, neither is prophet raised up, nor
vision revealed among them. And it is natural that it should be so, for
when He that was signified had come, what need was there any longer of
any to signify Him? And when the Truth had come, what further need was
there of the shadow?...And the kingdom of Jerusalem ceased at the same
time, kings were to be anointed among them only until the Holy of holies
had been anointed. 
St. Peter's message,
John Owen argues, is that:
...the heavens and earth
that God himself planted - the sun, moon, and stars of the judaical
polity and church - the whole old world of worship and worshippers, that
stand out in their obstinancy against the Lord Christ - shall be
sensibly dissolved and destroyed. 
For a defense of this
position, see my Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion (Tyier,
TX: Dominion Press, 1985), 112-22. The fact is that every time
Scripture uses the term "last days" (and similar expressions) it
means, not the end of the physical universe, but the period from AD 30
to AD 70 - the period during which the Apostles were preaching and
writing, the "last days" of Old Covenant Israel before it was forever
destroyed in the destruction of the Temple (and consequently the
annihilation of the Old Covenant sacrificial system). See Acts
2:16-21; I Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 3:1-9; Hebrews 1:1-2; 8:13; 9:26; James
5:7-9; I Peter 1:20;4:7; I John 2:18; Jude 17-19. See also Gary DeMar,
Last Days Madness: The Obsession of the Modern Church (Atlanta, GA:
American Vision, 1993).
"Providential Changes, An Argument for Universal Holiness," in William
H. Goold, ed., The Works of John Owen, 16 vols. (London: The Banner of
Truth Trust, 1965-68),9:134.
See Chilton, Paradise
John Brown, Discourses
and Sayings of Our Lord (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 
Brown, Discourses and
Sayings of Our Lord ,1:171-72.
- Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich,
eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (abridged in one
volume), Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985),
- St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of
the Word of God (New York: Macmillan, 1946),  61-62.8. Owen,
"Providential Changes, An Argument for Universal Holiness," 9: 135.
- Owen, "Providential Changes, An
Argument for Universal Holiness," 9: 135.
This article was
originally published in the September, 1996 issue of American Vision's
Biblical Worldview Magazine (800-628-9460). Permission was granted to
The Preterist ABC's for online publication.
Part Two - October, 1996