The Day Of The Lord
“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 will melt with fervent heat. The earth also and the works that are therein will be burned up.”
The “day of the Lord” is a common Old Testament reference to the time of God’s judgment in time. In Old Testament contexts, reference was to judgments in time on the enemies of Israel (Is 2:12; 17:6-9; 19:18:23,24; Ez 30:1-4), and also Israel herself (Jr 4:13; Am 5:18-20). It is a day of judgment on the rebellious in order to deliver the righteous (See Jr 46:10; Ez 30:3; Jl 1:15; 2:1; 3:14; Ml 4:1,2).
Since the figure of the “day of the Lord” comes from in-time judgments in the Old Testament, then in writing to Jews, Peter assumed that his readers would correctly understand what he was saying. The “day of the Lord” would be an event of judgment that would occur in time, not something that would happen at the end of time.
Since the context of 2 Peter 3 is to God’s judgment on Jerusalem, then the “day of the Lord” would be the same as “that day” about which Jesus spoke in Matthew 24:36. It would be a great day of calamity for national Israel. In the Old Testament, the term “day” referred to God’s judgment upon nations (See Is 13:6-9; 28:5; Ez 30:3; Jl 1:15,21). In the historical context in which Peter wrote, reference was to the day of judgment upon Israel.
Those to whom Peter wrote were Jews who knew their Old Testament history. They knew, therefore, that when Peter brought up the subject of the “day of the Lord” that there was national calamity coming. The termination of national Israel in A.D. 70 was another “day” of God’s judgments on Israel for her rejection of His word (See Is 2,3; Am 3:2; Hs 4:3; Ml 3:1-5; Ep 3:12).
In reference to the times before the captivities, Hosea’s prophecy to Israel then was happening again. Their judgment was justified, not simply because the Jew’s had rejected the word of God, but because they had rejected His Word who became flesh in our world. So Hosea’s prophecy was appropriate for the times:
“My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge [of My Son], I will also reject you so that you will be no [nation of] priest to Me. Seeing you have forgotten the law of your God, I will also forget your children” (Hs 4:6).
Not only was Israel brought to a close because of their rejection of the Son of God, they were rejected because they became socially dysfunctional. The prophecy of Malachi, the last prophet of Israel, is significant. In Malachi 3:5, one of the reasons why the “day of the Lord” would come upon Israel would be to bring judgment on those “who exploit wage earners, the widow and the fatherless.” It was not a coincidence that James, in writing specifically to the rich Sadducean elite of Israel, that he would mention these social sins of the time that led up to the “day of the Lord.” James explained that at least “undefiled religion before God and the Father is this, to take care of orphans and widows” (Js 1:27). The social dysfunction of the rich preceding A.D. 70 revealed that they had lost the heart of God.
In reference to business practices, James also identified another group upon whom judgment was coming in their “day of the Lord.” These greedy businessmen were guilty of exploiting their laborers. “Behold, the wages of the laborers who have mowed down your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out against you” (Js 5:4).
The very sins that were prophesied to be the reason for God coming in judgment upon Israel were being committed in the middle 60s as the Roman army was making its way to Palestine to squash in insurrection movement.
Israel’s day of judgment would come as a thief to those who had no concern for the fulfillment of God’s promises of judgment (See 1 Th 5:1-3). It would come as a thief to those who allowed the possessions of this world to possess them. Jesus said that disobedient Jews would be “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” just as those who were destroyed by the flood of Noah’s day (Mt 24:38).
To unbelievers, God’s judgments always come as a thief in the night. They are not expecting His judgment simply because they have no respect for the word of God. They carry on with life as usual. When God’s judgment does come, then to them it is as a thief coming in the night to take away that which they posses.
God’s judgment on the unbelieving materialist, as in this passage and others, is also as a thief. The materialist’s mind is on things of this world. He is possessed by possessions, and controlled by the carnal. However, when the end comes, both in Jerusalem’s destruction and the world’s destruction, that which the materialist so coveted will be taken from him. As a thief takes away material possessions, so the Lord in judgment takes away that which diverts the minds of those who are not looking for His coming.
The last thing the materialist wants is for a thief to come and take away his possessions. The last theology he wants to believe is a teaching that the things for which he has given so much time and attention will ultimately be destroyed.
To the believer, however, the Lord’s coming in judgment is not as a thief. Believers are expecting His coming. They are “looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Pt 3:12). Both Jesus and Peter’s exhortation are parallel. They are saying that believers must not get caught up in the material things of life, and thus, forget that God has made a promise both to deliver the righteous from the world, as well as, to deliver them from the worries of possessions. The righteous, therefore, must set their “minds on things above, not on things on the earth” (Cl 3:2). This helps us to understand better the tremendous thought behind warnings as John’s in 1 John 2:15: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world the love of the Father is not in him.”
If we understand that the immediate context of 2 Peter 3 refers to the imminent consummation of national Israel in A.D. 70, then we would view this in-time judgment to in some way be a metaphorical illustration of the final coming in judgment at the end of time. We can use the destruction of Jerusalem metaphorically to illustrate that which is coming at the end of time, understanding that there is no in-time judgment that would literally and accurately portray what will happen when Jesus’ comes. The final coming of the Lord and destruction will be unique. It will be different than any coming of the Lord or destruction by the Lord in history.
We commonly use these “coming” and “destruction” passages in the Bible to refer to the end-of-time destruction of this present world when Jesus comes again. However, whether reference in this context is directly to Jerusalem’s destruction or the earth’s destruction, we must recognize that metaphorical figures are being used by Peter.
There are no words in human language that would adequately define that which has never happened in human experience. Since the final coming and termination of this present heavens and earth has not yet occurred in human history, then we suppose that Peter has no words in his dictionary to adequately explain things concerning an end-of-time event. We would, therefore, caution ourselves in placing literal meanings on the words that here used by the Holy Spirit to explain something for which there are no earthly experiences. Nothing has happened in history will fully illustrate that which is coming.
Though the words in this context refer to the destruction of Jerusalem, they could be used in a metaphorical sense in reference to all that now exists. The elements of Jerusalem did not melt. The physical stones of the city did not burn out of existence. We must remember that in a metaphor that is used in prophecy, God wants us to look beyond the metaphor to something that is greater, and often spiritual. In this case, the destruction at the end of time will be greater and more horrifying than either the flood of Noah’s day or the destruction of national Israel.
It is possible that as Jesus progressed from in-time judgment to end-of-time judgment in Matthew 24 and 25, Peter moves from talking about a specific in-time judgment on Israel to a general end-of-time judgment on all. Assuming that this is true, then notice carefully some of the following words and phrases the Spirit used to explain the day of the Lord:
1. Pass away: The traditional interpretation of what Peter here stated is usually in reference to the final coming and consummation of all things at the end of time. However, if we assume that Peter remembered what Jesus said on these matters, then the context would initially apply to the consummation of national Israel.
As Jesus in the discourse of Matthew 24, Peter used apocalyptic symbols here to reveal the consummation of national Israel that was coming within five or six years after he wrote these words. As a good Jewish writer, his apocalyptic metaphors were taken from the Old Testament where God used the fall of terrestrial bodies to symbolize the end of kingdoms in time (See Is 13:6-18; 24:23; 34:4; Jr 4:23,24; Ez 32:7,8; Dn 8:10; Jl 2:30-32). In particular in the historical context of Isaiah and Jeremiah, both prophets had in mind the imminent captivities that were coming upon the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. Their dwelling in the land was terminated in the captivities. God shook them to the point that they were shaken out of the land of promise.
After the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, the prophet Haggai took the thinking of the remnant of Israel that had returned from captivity to about five centuries into the future. He looked into the future of Israel and stated the words of the Lord,
“Once more (it is a little while) I will shake heaven and earth, and sea and dry land; and I will shake all nations” (Hg 2:6,7).
Not only Israel would be shaken again in the future, but many other nations. Reference was to God’s proxy of the Roman Empire that conquered nations throughout the Middle East, as well as nations into Europe and Africa. Those nations were shaken as they were brought under the dominance of the Roman Empire. However, the Empire itself would eventually be shaken. John, in Revelation, revealed the shaking of the Roman Empire.
While writing in the middle 60s, the Hebrew writer reminded his Jewish readers that God was going to fulfill the prophecy of Haggai.
“He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.” Now this “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things that cannot be shaken [the gospel] may remain“ (Hb 12:26,27).
In the historical context in which Peter wrote in order to encourage his fellow Jews throughout the Roman Empire, he did not want them to think that the consummation of national Israel was something unexpected. They needed to read their Old Testaments and understand that what was about to happen was always in the plan of God. Isaiah, Daniel and Haggai had revealed centuries before that there would be another shaking of nations that would consummate their existence. In reference to Israel, their national “shaking” was to happen in only a few years.
Nevertheless, and in reference to the end of time, there will be another shaking. The present heavens and earth as we now know them will pass away. We do not know what is next after the final coming of Jesus, but we do know that all the heavens, moon and stars of earthly governments will be shaken in order to pass away. In the “shaking” that is to come, something that is suitable for the dwelling of the bride of Christ will come into existence (See Rv 21:1,2).
2. Great noise: Consider this statement in reference to the end of the world. Noise occurs with the presence of atmosphere. Atmosphere is something of this world. At the end, there will be noise of a sudden explosion or implosion Certainly, Peter’s meaning is that as great noises both startle and make aware, the termination of that which now is will not be a hidden or secret event. The words Peter used to alert his readers were certainly meant to encourage the believers, but at the same time terrify the unbelievers.
3. Elements will melt and burn up: We can continue to use the destruction of Jerusalem as a metaphor of the end of time. However, we would do so with great caution. Peter’s reference is to those things that now exist. What is perceived through the senses by the physical eyes of man and experienced in daily life will be “melted.” At least melted is a metaphor to change. That which already exists is transformed (melted) into something different.
But if we use a literal understanding on the metaphor “burned up,” then we will have some problems. In our dictionary, “melted” does not mean annihilation. “Burned up” does not mean annihilation. “Burned up” simply means that what is physical has changed to another state of existence. “Melted” symbolizes that something remains, but is transformed (changed) into something different.
4. Fervent heat: No known fire is able to destroy the elements of the present material world. Intense heat, according to the second law of thermodynamics, can destroy the usefulness of matter. A match can be “burned up,” but there still remains the charcoal. The heat of the match has escaped into space where it cannot be recovered. The charcoal cannot be burned again. In a sense, therefore, it has “burned up,” but something still exists. Therefore, that which initially existed (the match) has only been transformed into something different.
So what is the “fervent heat” about which Peter illustrated the end-of-time destruction? It is easy to understand what he would be saying if reference is to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The nationalism of the Jews was “burned up.” The Jews did not go out of existence. Only their aspirations to establish an independent state of Israel within Palestine was “burned up.”
We must suppose that the words Peter used were metaphorical, as they are used in the historical context of national Israel. We could apply them to the end of the world if we would take his statements out of their historical context. In this case, the metaphor illustrates what is greater than the metaphor itself. Therefore, the “fervent heat” would be greater than the definition of the words themselves as we understand them. Peter was simply trying to explain to his readers that God has a method of destruction that will get the job done. We must not worry ourselves about the details.
5. Burned up: As literal fire consumes the usefulness of that which exists, then we assume that in the future the aspirations of a national Israel were burned in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70. That which was “burned up” was the physical temple and the aspirations of nationalistic Jews. That which will be “burned up” in the future will be the physical world and the ungodly (See 2 Th 1:6-9).
Peter identified the earth as that which will eventually be consumed. That which will consume will be “fire,” whatever is meant by this metaphor. At least in our understanding, “fire” has a very powerful consuming affect on that which exists. We would assume that this metaphor represents something greater than the literal fire we experience. The meaning is certainly that things will be changed or terminated. Regardless of our lack of understanding of the meaning of the metaphor, we all can agree that fire consumes, and thus both in the destruction of Jerusalem and the earth at the end of time, something will be consumed.
We use earthly efforts and social maneuvers to generate works that manifest our accomplishments. However, Peter says these works will also be terminated. All those precious accomplishments over which we have boasted with pride will be consumed in the great fire to come. All the time we spent on such great works will profit nothing toward that which will exist in eternity. Peter wanted his immediate readers to understand that all the efforts that the Jewish leadership placed in preserving their own religion (Judaism) and nationalistic pride would be consumed in the fires that would burn Jerusalem and the temple to the ground. The burning of the capital (Jerusalem) symbolized the consumption of the state of Israel. The burning of the temple symbolized God’s consumption of the Jews’ religion.
We can conclude that at least some of Peter’s real message here is to the religious materialist who put so much time and concern in the material things and accomplishments of his religion. This was the judgment that James identified among the rich Sadducean Jews prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. After all, it was the religious materialists in the context who were scoffing at Christians with the words, “Where is the promise of His coming?”
We can easily connect Peter’s message to the same group of materialistic Sadducean Jews about whom James wrote in the following words,
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days…. You have lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter” (Js 5:1-3,5).
[Next in series: Sept. 1]