the Church on the Hill
by D. Eric Williams
Pastor, Cottonwood Community Church
The NKJV translates the Greek term ge as earth. However, the word can refer to a specific country or territory “when it is plain from the context what land is meant, as that of the Jews" (The New Thayer’s Greek - English Lexicon Of The New Testament) Clearly this is what Peter had in mind. He was referring to the land of Israel, the old covenant works and the traditions of Judaism. This destruction literally happened when the temple was razed and burned with fire (Josephus, Wars, 6.4.1-8, 5.1, 7.1.1). The elements of the Jewish system did come to a fiery end. John Owen summed it up by saying, “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 understood ...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 the utter desolation and destruction that was to be made of the Judaical church and state" (Owen, Works, 9.134).
Moreover, the new heavens earth of 2 Peter represent the new covenant order. As we see in Isaiah 51, heaven and earth, in the language of the prophets, point to a covenant order or system. Jesus himself said the (ceremonial) law and ritual of the old covenant would stand until the old covenant order had passed away: “For assuredly I say to you till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matthew 5:18). Yet, many “jots” and “tittles” passed from the law as they were fulfilled in Jesus. As the book of Hebrews points out, “For the priesthood being changed of necessity there is also a change of the law” (Hebrews 7:12). The law will stand forever, but the old covenant ceremonial law and ritual are no longer in force under the high priesthood of Jesus. Thus “there is an annulling of the former commandment because of its weakness and unprofitableness” (Hebrews 7:18). The heavens and earth (old covenant order), were shaken (Hebrews 12:26, cf. Haggai 2:6) and in their place a kingdom was set up that could not be shaken - a new heaven and new earth - a new covenant order that would stand until the end of time (Hebrews 12:27-28).
Once again we see the language of decreation used to describe the end of the old covenant age and the language of creation employed to describe the genesis of the new. “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" (John Brown, Sayings and Discourses of Christ, Three Volumes, 1.171)
God foretold this great transition when he said through Isaiah: “For behold, I create, new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered or come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17). Certainly “heaven and earth are employed as figures to indicate a complete renovation or revolution in the existing course of affairs" (Young, Isaiah, 3.514). This is what Peter had in mind when he reminded his original audience they should expect to see the new heavens and new earth in its fullness. In other words, Peter and his contemporaries knew they were living in the last days of the old covenant age and they would see the new covenant age in its fullness once Jesus returned in judgment against apostate Israel.
The promises of the old covenant order find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The writers of the new testament believed they were living in the last days - the last days of the old covenant age. We have also seen that metaphorical language was used to describe the dissolution of an existing order or system of religion and government. We also recognize that if these things are difficult to accept, it is because we have failed to allow our thinking to be directed by the Bible and have instead brought our modern experiences and preferences to bear on the Scripture.