The Day of the LORD Will Come: Understanding 2 Peter 3:3-13
For sheer power and majesty, 2 Peter 3:3-13 stands among the top two or three eschatological texts of the NT. Here the apostle fully unveils his conception of “the end of all things” (1 Peter 4:7). As ever, the Parousia lies at its heart (3:4). Now, however, the accent falls upon the one Judgment that Christ will effect at his return, and also upon the cosmic implications of that Judgment. The result is one of Scripture’s most comprehensive pictures of the Consummation, a picture whose character and unity completely rule out every premillennial scheme. For this reason, it serves as a true bulwark of the classic Reformation eschatology.
A few words of introduction are in order.
As we saw earlier, Peter now knows that the time of his departure from this world is drawing near (1:14). Accordingly, he desires to leave his fellow pilgrims with some final words of instruction, encouragement, and exhortation. He explains to them how they can make their calling and election sure (1:3-11). He directs them to the unfailing sources of spiritual light and strength: the Lord’s own commandment, the apostle’s testimony, and the inspired words of the Old Testament prophets (1:12-21, 3:1-2). Mindful that apostates and false teachers are now troubling the churches, he sharply warns the brethren against following them into error and sin. He also assures them that God is faithful to preserve all who walk in holiness from the Judgment that is soon to fall on those who have spurned Christ (2:1-22). Notably, chapter 2 is loaded with various OT types and shadows of the one Day of the LORD, a Day that he will proceed to expound in chapter 3 (2:4-9).
Peter opens that chapter with an exhortation: The saints must always remember the words of the OT prophets and the commandment of their Lord and Savior, formerly conveyed to them by the apostles who first taught them (3:1-2). In chapters 1 and 2, he has marvelously exemplified this very pattern, teaching them not only out of his own personal experience with Christ (1:12-18), but also out of the rich treasury of OT history (2:1-22).
At this point, Peter turns to eschatology. One crucial component of previous apostolic teaching had been warnings about the character of the end times. In verses 3-4 he returns to this theme: In the last days, mockers will come, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of his Parousia? For ever since the (OT) fathers fell asleep, all things continue just as they have from the beginning of creation.”
Here, Peter is addressing the growing problem of a perceived delay in the return of Christ. He himself knows that the Lord will indeed tarry (Mt. 25:5, 19). He knows that this will flush the hypocrites and apostates out into the open (Mt. 24:48f, Luke 19:11f). He also knows that when they do show themselves, they will try to stumble the true saints by mocking their faith in the Lord’s promise of a quick return. Being, therefore, a skilled apologist, he would prepare his brethren for the inevitable spiritual contest.
In passing, note carefully from verse 4 that throughout the discussion ahead the great bone of contention is “the promise of his Parousia.” Thus, in everything subsequent to verse 4, Peter is not only assuring his readers that Christ will indeed come again, but also reminding them of what Christ himself will do when he does. Like the other NT writers, Peter gives us a single Consummation centered around the Lord Jesus Christ at his Parousia (3:7, 10, 13).
In verses 5-7, he responds directly to the mockers. In saying that all things continue as they have from the beginning of the creation, these men (like modern philosophical naturalists) deliberately forget several important biblical truths.
First, if God created the heavens and the earth by his powerful Word, who is to say that this same omnipotent Being cannot destroy or renew all things by subsequent Words (3:5, 7, 13)?
Secondly, as a matter of historical fact, all things have not continued as they are from the beginning, since at the Flood God supernaturally intervened to destroy the earth (3:6).
And thirdly, both in OT prophecy and the teaching ministry of his Son, God has openly declared that he will indeed intervene again, though this time by fire, in the Day of the Judgment and Destruction of ungodly men (3:7; Deut. 32:22, Isaiah 66:15, Mal. 4:1; Mt. 3:12, 13:40-43, Mark 24:35, Luke 17:29). The mockers, seeing only what they want to see, fail to see that they too are among the ungodly, and that they are condemning themselves to this very Destruction.
Also, note from verse 7 that Peter speaks of the Day of Judgment: There is only one of them, and it occurs at the Coming of the Lord, just as the Lord himself promised (3:4; Mt. 13:37-43, 25:31f, Luke 17:22-36). Again, Peter assumes a single, unified Consummation.
In verse 8, he turns his attention to his beloved flock. He wants them to understand that with the Lord a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a single day (Psalm 90:4). Commenting on this thought-provoking verse, Michael Green well observes:
God sees time with a perspective we lack: even the delay of a thousand years may well seem like a day against the backdrop of eternity. Furthermore, God sees with an intensity we lack: one day with the Lord is like a thousand years. (TBC, p. 134).
Peter seeks to reframe the believer’s perspective on time. To the extent they can adopt God’s eternal perspective, they can see that Christ has not really delayed his Coming at all; that 2000 years is as two days in the Lord’s sight; that he is indeed coming “quickly,” just as he said (Rev. 22:7, 12, 20). But to the extent they can adopt God’s probing intensity, they can also see that he carefully scrutinizes every deed of every person—both good and evil—through the twin prisms of his redemptive purpose and the Day of Judgment soon to come. Both outlooks will help the saints to remain faithful to their Lord, no matter how long he tarries.
In verse 9, Peter continues to address the Lord’s tarrying. What appears to us as “slowness” (i.e., unpunctuality) is actually longsuffering. Christ long endures the world’s sin because he desires that none of his elect should perish, and so waits patiently until all his children are safely gathered in. Only then will he return for the Judgment. The saints are to regard the patience of the Lord as salvation (3:15).
In verse 10, Peter now boldly affirms that the Day of the Lord will come. For four reasons, this verse is a mighty pillar of Reformed eschatology, and the end of all premillennialism.
First, it speaks of “the” Day of the Lord. Again, there is only one of them. Contrary to John MacArthur, the apostle does not give not give us the least hint that the one Day is divided into two “phases” separated by a 1000 years.
Secondly, this Day will come like a thief. It is, then, the very same Day that Christ and the apostles have been speaking of right along; the Day that will close the present evil age, and not some future millennium (Mt. 24:43, Luke 12:39, 1 Thess. 5:2-4). Furthermore, how can a Day strictly scheduled to come at the end of 1000 years come as “a thief in the night?”
Thirdly, this will be a Day of complete cosmic destruction; a day in which “the heavens will pass away with a roar, the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burn up” (3:7; Mt. 24:35, Rev. 20:11). Now according to premillennialism, Christ will only modify or transform the world when he comes. But according to Peter, he will cause it to pass away!
Finally, according to verse 13 the Day of the LORD—which is none other than the Day of Christ’s Parousia—will bring in the New Heavens and the New earth, the eternal home of the redeemed. Where, then, is there room for a future millennium?
In verses 11-14, Peter concludes his argument by drawing out the practical applications of his eschatology. This also is quite relevant to our study. Here, the apostle speaks explicitly of what the saints are looking for, and implicitly of what they ought to be looking for. In other words, Peter is giving us his conception of the Blessed Hope of the universal Church.
And what exactly is that hope? The answer is clear. On the one hand, the saints are looking for the coming of the Day of God, on account of which the heavens (i.e., the heavenly bodies, the luminaries) will be destroyed by burning; and on account of which the elements (i.e., the building-blocks of the material world) will melt with intense heat (3:12). On the other hand, they are also looking for New Heavens and a New Earth, in which righteousness dwells (3:13).
Since, then, they look ahead in holy fear to the final Judgment at Christ’s Parousia, they must be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, manifesting all holy conduct and godliness (3:11, 14; 1:7, Phil. 3:9). But since they also look ahead in holy eagerness for New Heavens and a New Earth, they must also be diligent to hasten the Coming of the Lord—and his completed Kingdom—through faithful prayer, service, and evangelistic outreach (1:13, 3:9, 12).
Summing up, in the last two posts we have surveyed Peter’s overall eschatology, and closely examined his two most important eschatological texts. Nowhere does he specifically mention or even allude to a pre-tribulation Rapture or a future Millennium. Moreover, his explicit teaching about the End cannot possibly accommodate either of these unbiblical doctrines. As we have seen, Peter anticipates a brief, latter-day season of intense persecution, followed by a single Parousia of Christ, at which time he will judge the world in righteousness, destroy the present heavens and earth by fire, and create new heavens and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
In short, Peter looks for a single, Christ-centered Consummation at the end of the age. So too did our Protestant forefathers. So too should we.