Consumed By Fire
© 07.17.2016 By D. Eric Williams
This article appeared in the July 21 edition of the Cottonwood Chronicle
In 2 Peter 3:7-12 we see the most extended or concentrated use of cosmic metaphor in the new testament outside the book of Revelation. And, as with any epistle, it is clear the apostle wrote of things that had relevance to his contemporaries (it is important to recognize the epistles were "occasional letters," letters "arising out of and intended for a specific occasion"(see Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for all It's Worth) and were not written with the intention of addressing situations that had no immediate relevance to the original readers). Peter said that during the last days - the days in which they were then living (1 Peter 1:20, 4:7), judgment would fall on those who scoffed at the claims of Jesus (2 Peter 3:3). Peter then goes on to drive home his point concerning the coming end of the age by drawing upon the language of the prophets (whom he refers to in verse 2), language the first century Christians would have been familiar with and recognized as metaphorical.
Peter said, "the heavens and the earth which are now ...are being reserved for fire." He also said, "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 will melt with fervent heat" (vss. 7 and 10).
To begin with, the heavens and the earth Peter wrote about were the "heavens and earth" of the existing covenant order. Although the old covenant order was in the process of passing away (Hebrews 8:13), it was to remain until the last of elect old Israel had been brought into new Israel (the Church, Romans 11:1-7, 25). When that number was complete, the old covenant order - the old heaven and earth - would pass away.
In referring to the covenant system in this fashion, Peter is simply drawing from the language of the older testament (as we might expect). In Isaiah 51:15-16 we read, "...I am the Lord Your God, who divided the sea whose waves roared - the Lord of hosts is his name. And I have put My words in your mouth; I have covered you with the shadow of My hand, that I may plant the heavens, lay the foundations of the earth, and say to Zion, 'You are My people.'"
In other words, God gave words of comfort to the remnant in Israel by reminding them he had previously brought the children of Israel across the Red Sea. He said he gave them the law and took care of them. Why? So that he could establish them as a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, a special treasure to himself above all people (Exodus 19:5-6). In short, God created a new people, a new order and he used the spectacular language of creation ("plant the heavens and lay the foundations of the earth") to say he formed them as a nation. He "made the new world, that is brought forth order, and government, and beauty, from the confusion wherein they were. This is the planting of the heavens, and the laying of the foundations of the earth" (see The Works of John Owen. Also, J. A. Alexander's Commentary On Isaiah)
This same device is used in reverse in Isaiah chapter 13. God said he was going to bring judgment upon Babylon through the armies of the Medes and Persians (Isaiah 13:1, 17). In describing the overthrow of the Babylonian "order" (socio-political and religious system), God said he "will shake the heavens, and the earth will move out of her place" (vs. 13). This language of decreation meant God was about to strip the king of Babylon of authority and destroy the system of government - a destruction of the existing order.
More on this topic next week.