What will the fire destroy? – 2 Peter 3 continued

Posted: May 18, 2012 by J in Bible, Theology

Now we need to consider Peter’s description of the destruction caused by fire.

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed (v.10).

Peter structures his description of the day  in classic Hebrew style: the heavens and the earth.

First the heavens: they will pass away, the stoicheia being dissolved with burning.

What are these stoicheia, ‘elements?

We’re not talking about the elements on the periodic table, folks. First, we should notice that in the heaven/earth dichotomy, the stoicheia belong in the heavens section.

The heavens will pass away…, the elements burning…
and the earth… will be found.’

Reading the grammar and the idiom, the break comes with the ‘kai ge‘ (‘and the earth). The stoicheia are discussed before the earth is in view.

For the apostle Paul, the stoicheia are the heavenly powers of this age that enslave men (Gal. 4:3; Col. 2:8 etc). Peter is familiar with Paul’s letters, and considers his teaching in this chapter to be in close agreement with Paul’s on the same topic (3:15, 2). So we must consider Paul’s meaning for stoicheia as a likely contender here. Elsewhere, in the Septuagint’s Book of Wisdom the stoicheia are cosmic energies or elements that structure creation, such as fire, water, air, earth.

Peter has explained how the flood destroyed the world order on earth (cosmos). Now he sees fire doing the same thing in the heavens. Most likely he is thinking at once of the heavenly bodies which rule over the earth (cf. Gen. 1) and of the heavenly powers which they metaphorically stand for, the demonic forces that rule over mankind. It’s not the destruction of the periodic table (welcome as that may be to some students!) It’s these cosmic powers that will be destroyed with fire.

What will be happening meanwhile on earth? “The earth and everything that is done on it will be found”. ‘Found’ in the sense of ‘discovered’. This is a neutral idea: things on earth, whether good or bad, will be seen for what they are on that day. The saints, for example, will be ‘found’ spotless and at peace (v.14).

He then repeats his distinctive description of fire in the heavens, once again including the stoicheia here:

at the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the stoicheia will be burned up with fire. (v.10)

Peter describes the judgement in the heavens quite differently from that on earth. The heavens and the stoicheia there will be burned and pass away. The earth however will be exposed by a discriminating judgement, where the evil is distinguished from the good, and destroyed.

Tomorrow: How new are the ‘new heavens and new earth’?

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