II Peter 3:10-13

and The Day of the Lord

Kurt Simmons


 II Peter 3:10-13, with its prediction of the heavens and earth dissolving in a conflagration, stands as one of the major texts relied upon by futurists as proof that Christ's second coming has not occurred.  In this article, we look at this passage and decide that it refers to the overthrow of world powers in the first century, as Christ assumed the government of the world and put all enemies beneath his feet. 

The Day of the Lord - Historical Examples

"But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.  Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of person ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness.  Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness."  II Pet. 3:10-13

One of the first issues that presents itself in interpreting this passage is the "day of the Lord."  For those unversed in the Old Testament prophets, the assumption typically is that this phrase is unique to New Testament eschatology, and describes a coming time when the earth will be destroyed. However, this is wrong.  There are numerous occurrences of this phrase in the Old Testament, where they describe times of divine judgment and wrath.  Concerning God's judgment by the Babylonians, Zephaniah thus says: 

"I will utterly consume all things from off the land, saith the Lord. I will consume man and beast; I will consume the fowls of the heaven, and the fishes of the sea, and the stumbling-blocks with the wicked; and I will cut off man from off the land, saith the Lord.  I will also stretch out mine had upon Judah, and upon all the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and I will cut off the remnant of Baal from this place, and the name of the Chemarims, with the priests; and them that worship the host of heaven upon the housetops; and them that worship and that swear by the Lord and that swear by Malcham; and them that are turned back from the Lord; and those that have not sought the Lord, nor inquired for him.  Hold thy peace at the presence of the Lord God: for the day of the Lord is at hand: for the Lord hath prepared a sacrifice, he hath bid his guests….The great day of the Lord is near, it is near, and hasteth greatly, even the voice of the day of the Lord: the mighty man shall cry there bitterly. That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of wasteness and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of the trumpet and alarm against the fenced cities, and against the high towers."  Zeph. 1:2-7, 14-16
We have quoted the prophet at length so the historical context may be established and it may be seen that this prophecy describes a time of judgment upon the ancient Jews.  Baal worship, Malcham, worship of celestial bodies, the levitical priesthood, fenced cities, defensive towers, the watchman's trumpet, all assign this "day of the Lord" to the far distant past. In following verses, the prophet widens the scope of divine wrath, adding the Philistines, Moab, Ethiopia, and Assyria (Zeph. 2:4-12).  Like Baal worship, fenced cities, and the watchman's trumpet, most of these nations no longer exist, and confirm our conclusion that this prophecy belongs to the ancient past.  As an aside, we note that Zephaniah represents this "day of the Lord" as universal:
"Therefore, wait ye upon me, saith the Lord, until the day that I rise up to the prey: for my determination is to gather the nations, that I may assemble the kingdoms, to pour upon them mine indignation, even all my fierce anger: for all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of my jealously."  Zeph. 3:8

Commentators are agreed that the time of judgment Zephaniah describes was the Assyrio-Babylonian invasions, when God swept the earth with a "besom (broom) of destruction," cleansing the world of iniquity and sin.  The prophet Isaiah, who wrote earlier than Zephaniah, gave identical warning of God's impending wrath upon the world.  The nations and cities Isaiah mentioned by name include Moab (Isa. 15, 16), Syria and Damascus (Isa. 17), Ethiopia (Isa. 18), Egypt (Isa. 19, 20), Seir and Dumah (Isa. 21), Arabia (Isa. 21), Judah and Jerusalem (Isa. 22), and Tyre (Isa. 23).  In language similar to Zephaniah, Isaiah describes the time of judgment as emptying the earth: 

"Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof." Isa. 24:1
Isaiah and Zephaniah describe the same time of judgment God was bringing upon the ancient world.  The Assyrio-Babylonia invasions were like a great flood that rose up and spread across the world, sweeping away all before it (cf. Isa. 8:7, 8).
Nebuchadnezzar burns Jerusalem

The "day of the Lord" by the Assyrio-Babylonia invasions was not a unique or isolated event.  The wrath, which started with the Assyrio-Babylonian invasions, continued off and on under the following of world empires, including Mede-Persia, Greece, and Rome. Isaiah thus describes a "day of the Lord" in which God would punish Babylon and the world through the instrument of the Mede-Persian Empire: 

"Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it. For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine. And I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogancy to the proud to cease and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible. I will make a man more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir. Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the Lord of Hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger." Isa. 13:9-13
This "day of the Lord" was almost 50 years later than that described by Zephaniah.  Nebuchadnezzar burned Jerusalem in 586 BC.  Cyrus the Great, commanding an army of Medes and Persians, took Babylon in 539 BC.  A last example and we will move along.  Obadiah prophesied a coming time of wrath upon Edom, which is widely understood to have been fulfilled in the days of the Babylonians: 

"The vision of Obadiah. Thus saith the Lord concerning Edom…thy mighty men, O Teman, shall be dismayed, to the end that every one of the mount o Esau may be cut off by slaughter. For they violence against thy brother Jacob shame shall cover thee, and thou shalt be cut off for ever…For the day of the Lord is near upon all the heathen: as thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee: thy reward shall return upon thine own head."  Obadiah1, 9, 10, 15 
Edom no longer exists.  The historical context of the passage describes Edom's violence to Judah during the Assyrio-Babylonian invasions.  God would requite Edom for it violence to Judah when the armies of Babylon and succeeding empire of the Medes and Persians overwhelmed the earth. Clearly, there is nothing in the passage that would allow us to apply it to our day or beyond.   

These few examples show that the "day of the Lord" is not unique to New Testament eschatology. The phrase has established historical usage in describing times of divine wrath, and in no sense implied an end to the world.   

Day of the Lord - World Wide Wrath?

A question worth pausing to consider is whether "day of the Lord" can describe a time of judgment upon a particular people or nation?  The examples we have looked at were world wide. The parallel examples in Isaiah and Zephaniah, which described the Assyrio-Babylonian invasions were both world-wide in scope.  Isa. 13:11, which describes the Mede-Persian conquests, states that God would punish the "world," showing that this time of wrath would expand beyond Babylon itself and take in the rest of the world.  Many commentators and critics note that the Hebrew ha-arets, rendered "the land" in verses 5 and 9 may be better rendered "the earth."  (See the Pulpit Commentary in loc.)  Anyone who has read Herodotus and his description of the Mede-Persian conquests knows that their empire subdued the whole Mediterranean world, including Elam in the east to Egypt in the West and Cyprus in the north. Thus, the prophet Daniel describes the Mede-Persia Empire as a bear, which is told to "devour much flesh" (Dan. 7:5). Based upon the examples viewed thus far, the phrase does not describe isolated incidents of wrath upon a single nation, but seems to be describe wrath world-wide in its sweep.

The Mede-Persian Empire was the largest the world had seen until that time

The Day of the Lord - Messianic

We have seen that the "day of the Lord" was used by the prophets to describe times of divine wrath and judgment fulfilled in ancient history. However, there was a "day" coming associated with the Messiah, which is the subject of New Testament prophecy.  Peter twice uses the phrase "day of the Lord," once in Acts and once in his second epistle. Both describe the same "day."  Peter's sermon in Acts, given at outpouring of the Holy Ghost on the first Pentecost after Christ's resurrection, quotes the prophet Joel: 

"But this is that which was spoke by the prophet Joel: And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath: blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke: The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come.  And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved." Acts 2:16-21.

Like the other examples we have seen, the "day of the Lord" spoken of Peter and Joel would be a time of divine judgment upon the world by war, famine, and pestilence, overthrowing thrones and kingdoms, not the end of the cosmos itself.  The two signs that a day of judgment was fast approaching were the gifts of the Holy Ghost, and outbreaks of war and civil disorder, bringing blood and fire and smoke, blackening the sun and turning the moon to blood.  Jesus said similar signs would precede the fall of Jerusalem: 

"And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men's hearts falling them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers heaven shall be shaken…Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled." Lk. 21:25-32

Note the poetic and figurative use of language, which puts the roaring sea for civil commotions among earth's nations, and the heavenly bodies for the ruling powers, which would be shaken from their places and fall from power. Notice, also, that the time for fulfillment of these things was fixed by the Lord to his own generation.  This prediction was made in Jesus' Olivet Discourse after retiring from Jerusalem with his disciples.  Immediately preceding his Olivet Discourse, Jesus made the identical predictions in his Great Denunciation against Jerusalem: 

"Verily I ay unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.  O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered they children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is let unto you desolate. For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till you shall say Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord."  Matt. 23:36-39

In saying the Jews would not see him until they should say "blessed his he that cometh in the name of the Lord," Jesus signifies his return to the Father, and his coming again in wrath upon the nation, in which the Jews would "see" him coming upon the clouds of heaven. Hence, when asked by the high priest if he was the Son of God, Jesus declared: 

"Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven."  Matt. 26:64

At this saying, the high priest rent his clothes and the Sanhedrin gave its voice for Jesus' death: They recognized his saying as an allusion to Daniel 7: 13, 14 and the heavenly coronation of the Messiah: 

"I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And thee was given him dominion and glory, and a kingdom,, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed."

Fulfillment of this prophecy was given by Peter in his sermon on Pentecost, where he said Jesus had sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven, henceforth waiting till his enemies be made a footstool for his feet (Acts 2:32, 33; Heb. 10:12, 13).  And that the time of judgment would overtake his own generation is expressly affirmed by Peter, tying the prophecy of Joel to the Lord's prediction of Jerusalem's fall. For Peter warned his fellow countrymen, saying, "Save yourselves from this untoward generation" (Acts 2:40).  Thus, Joel's "day of the Lord" must be understood in reference to the destruction of the nation in AD 70 by Rome. One needs only to read the prophet Joel to see that this is true: 

"Blow ye the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain: let all the inhabitants of the land tremble: for the day of the Lord cometh, for it is nigh at hand. A day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains: a great people and strong; there hath not been ever the like, neither shall be any more after it, even to the years of many generations....The earth shall quake before them; the heavens shall tremble: the sun and the moon shall be dark, and the stars shall withdraw their shining: and the Lord shall utter his voice before his army: for his camp is very great: for he is strong that executeth this word: for the day of the Lord is great and very terrible; and who can abide it?"  Joel 2:1-3, 10-11.

Joel's mention of the watchman's trumpet sets the historical context of the prophecy, placing its fulfillment in the ancient world.  He also mentions horses, horsemen, chariots, swords, walled cities, levitical priests, national fasting, and the temple and its offerings: all indicia that this prophecy belonged to another time, and not our own.  And that the time of judgment was wider than just the Jews is shown by Joel himself: 

"I will gather all nations, and will bring them down into the valley of Johoshaphat, and will plead with them there…Let the heathen be wakened, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat: for there will I sit to judge all the heathen round about" (Joel 3:2).

Day of the Lord - Fall of Jerusalem & Year of Four Emperors

Gathering the nations to the valley of Jehoshaphat refers to God's overthrow of the Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites, who had united forces against Jerusalem, but were overthrown by God.  All Jehoshaphat and Judah had to do was strip the slain and gather the spoils (II Chron. 20).  The reference in Joel is to the persecution under Nero and God's salvation by his judgment upon the Jews and Romans.  The imagery thus answers the battle of Gog and Magog, which also depicts the Neronean persecution and God's wrath upon the persecutors (Ezek. 38, 39; Rev. 20:7-11).  Historical fulfillment came in the fall of Jerusalem and the "year of four emperors."  The "year of four emperors" describes the series of civil wars that overtook the Roman Empire upon the death of Nero. In the space of one year and 22 days, five men were claimants to the imperial throne (beginning with Nero and ending with Vespasian), and the empire suffered devastation by the competing factions and armies.  At the same time Titus was besieging Jerusalem, the forces of his father, Vespasian, were besieging Rome and ravishing Italy.  The same year thus saw the destruction of the two greatest temples in the world: The temple in Jerusalem and the temple Jupiter Capitalinus in Rome. This is the "day of the Lord" prophesied by Joel and the prophets.  Zechariah, who preached during the return of the captivity and the building the second temple, thus foretold the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome: 

"Behold, the day of the Lord cometh, and thy spoil shall be divided in the midst of thee. For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue shall not be cut off from the city.'  Zech. 14:1, 2 

Josephus reports that over 97,000 survivors of the siege were sold into slavery into the Egyptian mines; those that were not cut off from the city perished by famine during the siege, to the number 1.1 million (Wars VI, ix, 3).  The prophecy of Zechariah is mirrored by Malachi, who foretold that "Elijah" the prophet would come before the day of the Lord: 

"Remember ye the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse." Mal. 4:4-6
Joel wrote about the "great and terrible day of the Lord" (Joel 2:31). Malachi wrote about the "great and dreadful day of the Lord" (Mal. 4:5).  But where Joel said the gifts of the Holy Ghost were a sign proceeding that day (Joel 2:28-30), Malachi said that "Elijah" (John the Baptist) would proceed it (Mal. 4:5; cf. Matt. 11:14).  Peter warned that the day would overtake his own generation (Acts 2:40).  John the Baptist said "now also the axe is laid to the root of the trees," (Matt. 3:10).  Malachi said the "day of the Lord" would burn those that did wickedly up "root and branch" (Mal. 4:1); John the Baptist said the "trees" (men) falling under God's judgment would be cast into fire and the chaff burned up with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:10, 12).  Peter said the heavens and earth being on fire would dissolve, and the elements melt with fervent heat (II Pet. 3:10, 11).  Clearly, the "day of the Lord" in Zechariah, Malachi, Joel, Peter, John the Baptist, and Christ are the same and speak to the events which witnessed the fall of Jerusalem and God's terrible wrath upon the Roman Empire for murder of Christ and persecution of his church.

Symbolism of the Language

No explanation of II Peter 3:10-13 would be complete without addressing the language.  All the examples we have consulted of "days of the Lord" evoked imagery of a "collapsing universe" in which the heavens and earth are shaken, stars fall from the courses, and the sun and moon are darkened or turned to blood.  In the case of II Peter 3:10-13, the apostles says "the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up."  Probably the most similar example to Peter's language is in the book of Isaiah, where the prophet describes God's wrath upon Edom and Idumea: 

"Come near, ye nations, to hear; and hearken, ye people: let the earth hear, and all that is therein; the world, and all things that come forth of it. For the indignation of the Lord is upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies: he hath utterly destroyed them, he hath delivered them to the slaughter. Their slain also shall be cast out, and their stink shall come up out of their carcases, and the mountains shall be melted with their blood. And all the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll: and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig tree…And the streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch.  It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up for ever." Isa. 34:1-4; 9-10 

This passage describes a time of world wrath and judgment upon the nations, and Edom in particular.  Most commentators are agreed that this was fulfilled in the time of the Babylonians, and thus treats of the same "day of the Lord" upon the heathen as the books of Joel and Obadiah.  Indeed, since Edom no longer exists, we must acknowledge that this prophecy belongs to the distant past.  Hence, we are forced to concede that the language is purely hyperbolic.  Its similarity to II Peter 3:10-13 counsels us to acknowledge that Peter's language is hyperbolic too.   

A last example and we will conclude, this time from the prophet Micah: 

"The Word of the Lord that came to Micah the Morasthite in the days of Jothan, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem.  Hear, all ye people; hearken, O earth, and all that therein is: and let the Lord God be witness against you, the Lord from his holy temple. For, behold, the Lord cometh forth out of his place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth. And the mountains shall be molten under him, and the valleys shall be cleft, as wax before the fire, and as the waters that are poured down a steep place. For the transgression of Jacob is all this, and for the sins of the house of Israel."  Micah. 1:1-5 

This particular prophecy is very insightful, as it specifically names its objects as Jerusalem and Samaria, capitals of the two divided kingdoms.  Although in this case the phrase "day of the Lord" does not appear, yet all the other elements are present: God descends from heaven, bringing judgment and wrath; the earth melts and the mountains become molten before him. Is not his language identical with II Pet. 3:10-13 in every material part? The best explanation of this symbolism we have encountered is by Sir Isaac Newton: 

"The figurative language of the prophets is taken from the analogy between the world natural and an empire or kingdom considered as a world politic. Accordingly, the world natural, consisting of heaven and earth, signifies the whole world politic, consisting of thrones and people, or so much of it as is considered in prophecy; and the things in that world signify the analogous things in this. For the heavens and the things therein signify thrones and dignities, and those who enjoy them: and the earth, with the things thereon, the inferior people; and the lowest parts of the earth, called Hades or Hell, the lowest or most miserable part of them. Great earthquakes, and the shaking of heaven and earth, are put for the shaking of kingdoms, so as to distract and overthrow them; the creating of a new heaven and earth, and the passing of an old one; or the beginning and end of a world, for the rise and ruin of a body politic signified thereby. The sun, for the whole species and race of kings, in the kingdoms of the world politic; the moon, for the body of common people considered as the king's wife; the stars, for subordinate princes and great men; or for bishops and rulers of the people of God, when the sun is Christ. Setting of the sun, moon, and stars; darkening the sun, turning the moon into blood, and falling of the stars, for the ceasing of a kingdom." (Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel, Part i. chap. i

New Heavens and New Earth

Whatever else may be said about II Pet. 3:10-13, this much is sure: our interpretation must be governed by the promised new heavens and earth.  Does Peter intend us to understand a literal conflagration is to destroy the physical earth and cosmos, only to be replaced by a material, new creation?  Of course he doesn't.  It is one of the most fundamental teachings of the New Testament that the Christian's eternal habitation is in heaven above, not upon a new earth. Putting off our bodies in death and being caught away to heaven is the very hope that sustains us. Since heaven is the Christian's hope, the notion of a material new creation must strike us as incongruous indeed.  What then is the prophet's intent?  Given the symbolic nature of the "heavens and earth" and their reference to kingdoms and governments of earth, it is easy to see that Peter has in view a reordering of earth's government beneath the reigning Christ.  This is the over-arching theme of Revelation and all eschatological prophecy: The world, which had been under dominion to enemy powers from the time of the fall, would come under the dominion of Christ and his saints, making a new heavens and earth ruled in righteousness. 

The promised new heavens and earth take their source in the prophet Isaiah, who uses them to describe the blessed estate of God's faithful remnant over against the destruction of their persecutors.   

"For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered nor come to mind. But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy….For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the Lord, so shall your seed and your name remain. And it shall come to pass, that form one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord. And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh."  Isa. 65:17; 66:22-24 

"The men that have transgressed against me" has specific reference to the Jews who failed to listen to the words of Prophet, whom Moses said the Lord would rise up from among them.  For as Peter warned, "every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people" (Acts 3:23).  "All flesh" worshipping before the Lord is equal to "every creature" and "all nations" of the Great Commission, and signifies the Gentiles' conversion to Christ who worship the Lord in the new Jerusalem, the church.  These would witness the awesome judgment of God upon the Jews and Romans, whose carcases strewed the landscape where they were devoured by fire and worms. 


II Peter 3:10-13 describes God's wrath upon the Jews and Romans in symbolic terms identical with Old Testament usage portraying times of divine judgment upon the world.  The world, long under the dominion of Gentile powers, would come under dominion of the risen Christ, who now rules the nations with a rod of iron, in righteous and truth.

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