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Monday, March 23, 2015

The Eschatological Referent of 2nd Peter 3:1-13—Weighing Two Views


The second epistle of Peter includes an important passage regarding a promised “coming” of the Lord Jesus, which is interpreted as referring to different events not only across the board of major eschatological interpretive schools, but even within certain schools—perhaps most especially within orthodox or “partial” preterism. Some preterist interpreters believe the primary or sole referent is the glorious Second Advent and attendant events, whereas others see the passage as referring to first-century events leading up to and culminating in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman armies in 70 A.D.

This short study will give a brief exposition of the text in English, weigh and compare the main arguments given by one important representative of each of the two views, add a couple of arguments for one of the views (relying on some observations that are, to the author’s knowledge, independent, but surely not “original,” as well as one argument learned from a personal mentor), and finally, draw a tentative conclusion. The two representatives are Kenneth Gentry, Jr. and the 17th century Puritan, John Owen. Gentry, although a preterist, defends a futuristic interpretation of 2nd Peter 3 in his book on postmillennialism, He Shall Have Dominion. Owen, on the other hand, defends a first-century fulfillment interpretation of the passage in his sermon writings. The arguments critiqued here come from these sources alone.

In order to most efficiently present some brief analyses of the various arguments, it should be said from the outset that this study will henceforth tacitly rely on several major theological and exegetical presuppositions that deserve independent justification: 1) partial preterism (in some form) is the correct interpretation of Scripture—namely, that many (not all) of NT eschatological prophecies and teachings refer not to the Second Advent or the consummation of the kingdom on the Last Day, but rather to the climactic historical judgment on Jerusalem in the first century; specifically 2) the following passages refer to first-century events only: Matt. 24 at least vv.1-34 and parallel passages in Luke 21 and Mark 13; and 3) the following passages clearly refer to the Second Advent or the bodily resurrection on the Last Day: Rom. 8:11, 21; 1 Thess. 4:13-17; 1 Cor. 15:22-26, 51-55.

Context and Exposition

2nd Peter continues many of the themes of the apostle’s first epistle to the churches of the “dispersion,” almost certainly composed of both Jews and Gentiles. In Ch. 1, after the greeting, Peter writes to his audience by way of “reminder,” before his apparently imminent death, to confirm their calling and election by continually growing in godly characteristics, and he grounds the truth and authority of the apostolic witness on their eyewitness experience of Jesus’ life and ministry (the mount of Transfiguration is the example he gives here). In the second chapter, Peter warns his audience extensively of the danger of false teachers—past and future—but assures them that their end is a dark one indeed.

Finally, in the third chapter, Peter comes to the issue of last-days “scoffers.” He reminds his audience that according to the predictions and teachings of Jesus and the prophets, the “last days” would bring with them “scoffers” who follow their own sinful desires and make light of the promise of the Lord’s coming in judgment. They look at redemptive history all the way back to the patriarchs and think that “all things” have continued just “as they were from the beginning of creation,” and therefore—it is implied—they do not believe there is any rational basis for expecting the Lord to intervene in history.

Peter counters the errant thinking of the “scoffers” with two main arguments. First, they err in that they overlook both the dramatic event of creation itself, as well as the great flood judgment in Noah’s day. Both are clear instances of divine intervention in history, and together establish great precedent for the Lord to fulfill His promise by intervening once again in judgment. Peter draws an analogy between the pre-flood “world” which was then destroyed in the great deluge, and the “heavens and earth” that “now exist,” saying that the latter are being reserved for a great fire-judgment, after the pattern of the former’s water-judgment. He refers to this event as “the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (also later, the “day of God”).

Peter’s second argument against the “scoffers” is that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” He asserts that the Lord, in delaying to fulfill His promise of coming (from the human perspective) is exercising gracious patience, so that all of [Peter’s audience] would reach repentance and be saved. Nevertheless, Peter says that the “day of the Lord will come like a thief,” and then the heavens will “pass away” and “heavenly bodies” will “be burned up and dissolved.” The emphasis of the judgment depicted is clearly on divine, retributive justice, for Peter says that the “works” done on the “earth/land” will be “exposed” in it.

Before the letter’s final paragraph, Peter exhorts his readers, in light of the judgment he has described in vivid language, to live lives of godliness and holiness, patiently awaiting for the reception of their inheritance of the new heavens and new earth, wherein righteousness dwells, according to divine promise.

Owen's View

As mentioned above, Owen takes the view that 2 Peter 3 refers to first-century events, not Last-Day-consummative events. In his sermons he advances five main arguments for this view:

1) In the example of the flood that Peter gives, it is not that the world or whole earth was itself literally destroyed, but rather, the inhabitants of the whole [known?] earth were the ones who were destroyed. Therefore, the fire-destruction to come upon the whole heavens and earth need not refer to cosmic geo-hydrological upheaval, but rather only need refer to a massive judgment of people.

2) Lest the idea that the language of “heavens and earth” refers to people or a certain universal world order, and not necessarily to the surrounding environment itself, sound strange, Owen cites Isaiah 51:16 as a precedent, which speaks prophetically of the [New Covenant] establishment of Zion in terms of “establishing the heavens” and “laying the foundation of the earth.”

3) Moreover, Owen cites the apocalyptic use of “heaven-rolling-up-like-a-scroll” imagery found in Isaiah 34:4 (also compare the “soon-to-take-place” events of Rev. 6) in order to demonstrate that such language was not only permissibly—but indeed commonly—used to refer to such political upheaval in Isaiah and similar prophetic literature.

4) The principle of audience relevance makes it much more likely that Peter is warning his readers of relatively imminent events, not events to take place thousands of years in the future like the Second Advent and general resurrection—events which simply all Christians generically need to be aware of.

5) The language of “new heavens and earth” need not apply only to a consummated kingdom, but may rightly be applied to “gospel times,” the interadvental period of the Church in her growing experience of Messianic blessings. Isaiah 65 and 66 are examples of places in Scripture that use such language for the time of Messianic blessing inaugurated by the First Advent. Hebrews 12 speaks of New Covenant believers (even pre-AD 70!) having already arrived at a “heavenly Jerusalem.” Similar language appears in Revelation 21-22, which is to be viewed as inaugurated if the time indicators book-ending the Apocalypse in Chapters 1 and 22 are to be taken seriously.

Possible responses to the above five arguments, and then further counterarguments, could be as follows:

1) In the flood, the old “world” was destroyed in the sense that the inhabitants were destroyed, but the destruction of “heavens and earth” does seem like much greater in cosmic scope. It may be hard to see how A.D. 70 could qualify as more catastrophic than the ancient flood.

a. However, covenantally speaking, it was much more catastrophic. God’s Old Covenant people (as a whole, save for a believing remnant) committed final apostasy by rejecting the Messiah and were judged as spiritual harlots, receiving a decree of divorce from God (Rev. 5:1; cf. Ez. 2:9-10) and then, as it were, capital punishment (Rev. 16:21).

b. Moreover, the point remains that it is consistently the inhabitants of a land who are judged according to this kind of cosmic de-creation language. Therefore, “heaven and earth” need not be understood as referring to land or space greater in literal surface area or volume than that over which the flood was released, in order to be understood as a much greater judgment.

2) Sure, “heaven and earth” language can refer to Israel, because Israel—as is obvious from the temple design—is to be understood as a sort of “microcosm” of the whole world. But it also refers to literal heavens and earth in places in the Psalms and in Genesis 1-2. Why assume that it necessarily refers to Israel here?

a. It is not an assumption, but rather a likelihood based on the apocalyptic tone in which the language is set, whereas “heaven and earth” in Genesis is described, with the other categories of creation, in relatively plain language (even if one takes the view that the material there is organized in a relatively stylized way).

3) The language of 2 Peter 3 differs from Isaiah in that it focuses on fiery judgment (common description of final judgment in Scripture), and on judgment coming upon all individuals. Scripture’s warning of cosmic conflagration will surely include at least a fiery purging of the literal heavens and earth.

a. The language is different in some respects, but is still has a heavy tone of apocalyptic symbol and utilizes mixed metaphor (the elements/heavenly bodies variously burn, melt, dissolve, or simply “pass away”).

4) Christians from the beginning of the spread of the movement would know of both Jesus’ prediction of the downfall of the temple within a generation, as well as His promised bodily return, even if they didn’t yet understand the precise relationship between the two events (which we are still working toward understanding better today)! Therefore, within the early Christian community, it is entirely possible that Peter’s audience could have had to deal with scoffers raising doubts with regard to the Second Advent, as much as those regarding Jerusalem’s doom.

a. True enough, but given the “imminent” time statements surrounding the eschatological events focused on by 1 Peter (like 1 Pet. 4:7), and given that 2 Peter claims to be speaking of the same thing as the first letter (cf. 2 Peter 3:1-4), and given that the overwhelming eschatological emphasis of the gospel accounts and of the occasional epistles of the NT is (arguably) on the imminent events of AD 70, such is most likely the event doubted by 2 Peter 3’s “scoffers.”

5) While Isaiah 65 may refer to interadvental realities, some of the descriptions of long-term prosperity near the end of the chapter seem to fit better as depicting a consummated kingdom rather than our current New Covenant age. Therefore “new heavens and earth” should not be lightly taken as probable references to our current experience.

a. However, eschatological prophecy is often idealized and schematized (see Rev. 21-22) such that pictures of full consummation can be used as general images of an inaugurated and progressing kingdom. Moreover, Hebrews 12 definitely, in context, describes present New Covenant experience as an arrival at the “heavenly Jerusalem” and almost certainly refers to the imminent historical changes of 70 AD in vv. 26-28. Therefore, “new heaven and earth” rightly describes the inauguration of New Covenant blessing.

Gentry's View

Over against Owen, Gentry views the eschatological referent of 2nd Peter 3 as the Second Advent and attendant events. Following are five of his arguments:

1) The thrust of the book of 2nd Peter is encouragement to spiritual perseverance until the fullness of New Creation.

2) Peter’s “scoffers” are scoffing due to the very long wait associated with the coming of the Lord in view. Peter’s words seem to indicate that it could even take thousands of years, which would be strange if, written around A.D. 66, the book were prophesying about events of A.D. 70.

3) The Lord’s patience in delaying His coming must be viewed as fully “interadvental” in order to call “all” to repentance (3:9).

4) The great “conflagration” Peter describes seems expressly tied to the whole of material creation, and therefore must be referring to the consummative judgment, not A.D. 70.

5) The detailed language of decreation seems to go beyond apocalyptic imagery.

And now for some possible responses to Gentry’s arguments, without any further counter-argument for now, perhaps tipping my hand a little early as to which view I find more plausible:

1) Although the necessity for spiritual perseverance certainly extends to the Church and indeed to all Christians beyond 70 A. D., 70 was historically a very important “goal date” or marker for believers living through those events. Surely even Gentry would agree with this.

2) Actually it would make more sense for scoffers to be scoffing if the event in view had been promised to happen within a short time like a generation (not a long time), and it had not yet happened. Moreover, while Peter says that a thousand years are as a day to the Lord, this does not demand that the Lord tarry over a thousand years to fulfill the promise in view; it only highlights that the Lord’s patience (for the sake of saving the elect of Peter’s audience, v. 9) is greater than we realize and therefore distorts our perception of time as it relates to His fulfilling His promises.

3) If “all” here is limited to the elect among Peter’s audience of the diaspora (and with the second-person pronouns used from the beginning of the letter, this is surely the best way to interpret it), then it is not necessary that the period of patience in view is the whole interadvental age. The pre-70 age is sufficient to account for Peter’s words regarding the purpose of God’s patience here.

4) The very same could be said of the intense de-creation language in the Olivet Discourse, like stars falling, no? The language in both passages is very heavy with tones of apocalyptic symbolism, even if the symbolism itself is based on denotatively physical, literal realities.

5) By what standard? The 2nd Peter passage just seems to repeat the idea of conflagration and dissolution a few times, in different ways—language which is wholly appropriate to a first-century referent given what actually happened to the temple.

Before concluding, there are a few more observations to be made:

First, let us consider a couple of related intertextuality issues between Synoptic gospels, and between the gospels and 2nd Peter. Preterists are divided among themselves with regard to whether (and where), in Matthew’s account of the Olivet Discourse in particular, Jesus transitions from prophesying of imminent events to happen within a generation of His own contemporaries to prophesying of the Second Advent. Usually the question is whether there is such a transition after vv. 34-35 in Matthew 24.

There are many good things to be said about the strengths of the “transition” view. One of its major weaknesses, however, is that in Luke 17, it seems clearly that some shared material from the first half of Matthew 24 is conjoined with material from the second half, with no remote possibility of topical transition in the text. For this reason, among others, many preterists (such as Gary DeMar) reject the “transition” view and believe that the whole of the Olivet Discourse is referring, at least primarily, to the imminent covenant judgment of 70 A. D. (although they might say it is a type or shadow of final judgment).

The relevance of this to the question of 2nd Peter 3, though, is this: Luke 17, the latter portion of Matthew 24, and 2nd peter 3 all make reference to the days of Noah before the great flood judgment, as an analogy to what believers can expect the days to be like just prior to the great Day of the Lord in view. This lends support to the idea that 2nd Peter 3 is referring to the same judgment as the whole of the Olivet Discourse refers to in the Synoptic gospels, namely, A. D. 70.

Second, let us consider the “clear” passages I mentioned at the beginning of this study. I believe there is a very detectable pattern when comparing texts which clearly speak of the Second Advent and bodily resurrection of all the dead with texts which are surely about the first century judgment on Jerusalem and the temple.

What I have noticed is that the texts which, in my opinion, are fairly certainly referring to first century judgment events, tend to be filled with symbol and apocalyptic overtones, whereas texts that are certainly about the resurrection and Second Advent are generally relatively straight-forward and in plain language, although describing an extraordinary event. Given what has been noted above about the heavily apocalyptic language of 2nd Peter 3, this pattern lends further support to the preteristic interpretation of the passage.

Finally, and this may be one of the most important arguments in deciding between these two views, if one looks at 2nd Peter and the book of Jude together, noting what they both say about the activity and imminent fate of false teachers and “scoffers,” it becomes clear that the prophesied “last-times” scoffers and false teachers, predicted by Jesus and the holy prophets, had already arisen among God’s church in the first century.

Most notably, the very wording of “scoffers will come in the last days/time” is used in both books. In 2nd Peter, it is repeated as a prophecy, and followed by Peter’s great eschatological predictions of a “heaven-and-earth” conflagration. In Jude 18, the same thing is quoted, “They said to you, ‘In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.’” Then immediately, Jude continues, “It is these who cause [present-tense] divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 19). Then he urges his audience to persevere in faith, prayer, and love, waiting for the mercy of Christ that will surely give them relief from such ungodly persons and their influence in the Church.

In sum, it would seem that 2nd Peter’s “last-times scoffers” were alive and well in the first century Church, and therefore the “last days” in the sense intended by the NT authors were present at that time, as well. So the terrible judgment prophesied and awaited at the end of those “last days” (the “last days” of the historical Old Covenant order, as it turns out), in the leveling of the temple and the “great city” at the hands of the Romans in 70 A. D. —God’s first-century “Assyria”—is likely the referent of Peter’s famous eschatological passage, rather than the consummation of all things, as most interpreters (even some preterists, like Gentry) believe.

Unlike the “meaning” sections of each article of the Apostle’s Creed in Luther’s Small Catechism, I cannot end this study with the words, “This is most certainly true.” 2nd Peter 3 is too difficult a passage for anyone to handle too dogmatically, and the details of biblical eschatology are multitudinous and very difficult for us finite, sinful thinkers to put together perfectly. But given all the exegetical, theological, and historical evidence examined here, I believe Owen’s to be the most likely view at this time.

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