home > articles > Explaining The Heavens Shall Melt With Fire (2Peter 3:12)

The story goes, that an educational experiment was conducted to test the impact of preconceptions. Two classes of children were carefully selected to ensure that both groups of children were of near equal intellectual and academic abilities. Then two teachers of near equal ability and experience were selected to be the classroom teachers for these two classes of children. But both teachers were given wildly different information about their classes. One teacher was told that they had been selected to teach this particularly difficult class of children. This class, they were told, were disrespectful, unwilling to learn, hard to manage, and years behind the academic averages for their age group. The other class teacher was told they were selected because of their outstanding teaching abilities with gifted children. These children, this teacher was told, were the exceptionally gifted and needed to be stretched academically. The story goes that both teachers fulfilled their preconceived ideas about their respective classrooms of children. The alleged difficult learners proved to be very difficult learners and the gifted students seemed to indeed display all the traits of academically gifted children. The point of this story is that expectations deliver different results. Perhaps a similar point can be made about the way in which we approach Scripture…

I’ve been teaching the Art and Science of Biblical interpretation (Hermeneutics) for several years now for two Colleges. I’ve also been privileged to be a guest lecturer in this subject in several overseas colleges. The technical name for this field of study is Hermeneutics. One of the first objectives I give my students is to get them to appreciate the overall message of Scripture. By understanding the big picture of the Bible, it better helps the student to correctly understand the particular details of a Bible passage. The other objective I give them is to then try and dispense with their preconceived ideas about what the Bible says, or at least to become open to other points of view, and to then learn how to test these interpretations of the text.

The problem with approaching a particular text of the Bible with a preconceived notion of what it means is that it can hinder us from appreciating its actual meaning. I think this might be the case with the Second Peter 3:12 text.

There are some things in Scripture that are deduced by reasonable implication. That is, there is consistent and sufficient evidence within Scripture to be able to conclude certain acceptable doctrines, even though the particular doctrine may not be discussed exhaustibly in one Biblical passage. This is the case with the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine is deduced by appreciating the overall message of Scripture. But there are some ‘doctrines’ that have been formulated on the basis of preconceived ideas. This approach to Scripture is known as “eisogesis”. But then there is a more subtle form of eisegesis which takes a Biblically deduced doctrine and falsely reads it into texts which do not support it. This type of preconceived Biblical interpretation is far more difficult to discern because it attempts to endorse a legitimate doctrine but does so with inappropriate texts. I consider Second Peter 3:12 to be such a text.

Theologians name certain doctrines usually after a key Biblical term. For example, the doctrine of regeneration, is taught throughout the New Testament (note John 3:3, and Titus 3:5) even though the term ‘regeneration’ only occurs once in the New Testament. But there are a few doctrines which are known by a term not used in the Bible. For example, the doctrine of the ‘Trinity’ uses a term not specifically in the Bible but yet taught in Scripture. This doctrine can be easily deduced from the Bible. Another similar type of doctrine is the doctrine of the “Second Coming”. Jesus seemed to speak of His return to earth after His resurrection and ascension. This doctrine is known as the Doctrine of the Second Coming. But there is a peculiar difficulty with this doctrine. Firstly, Jesus actually didn’t speak of His ‘return’. But most Biblical readers assume He did when He spoke of His “coming”. In Matthew 24, the King James translators make this assumption when they render the Disciples’ question as associating Christ’s “coming with the “end of the world”-

And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?
Matthew 24:3

Rendering the text this set a tone for both Bible readers and translators for centuries. The assumption that the Translators made was-

(i) The Disciples were asking about the ‘return’ of Christ “at the end of the world”. But notice that the text itself does not have the disciples asking when Christ would “return”. Even if we conceded that this is what they meant in their question about Christ’s “coming” we then have to explain where they got this notion from since their Messianic expectations did not allow them to understand that Christ was ‘going’. Even though Jesus told them plainly that He was going to die and to return to His Father in the dimension of Heaven, they just didn’t get it! Therefore, if they didn’t appreciated that He was ‘going’ it is hardly likely that they would be asking when He would be returning!

(ii) The English word: “coming” is the Greek word- parousia. This means appearing, presenting. It has the idea of a royal conquerer arriving on the scene, perhaps to lead a battle. Notice the use of this expression in the Old Testament when it describes God “coming” in this same sense- to inflict judgment.

¶An oracle concerning Egypt.
Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud
and comes to Egypt;
and the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence,
and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.
Isaiah 19:1 

Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the LORD, for He comes to judge the earth
First Chronicles 16:33

(See also Psalm 96:13; 98:9; Isaiah 26:21; 40:10; Micah 1:3)

(iii) Jesus has just pronounced destruction upon the Temple and the disciples ask when Him what will be the sign of the end of the-__________. The King James Version has them asking about the end of the “world” but this is not a fair rendering of the Greek work aion. This is more accurately translated “age” and it better fits the context of the passage. Thus, the disciples are actually asking Christ when will “the Temple Age” end? Their associated question about the Lord “coming” (to judge a people within time) is also in this context. That is, they asked Christ when He would exercise His right to judge and end the Temple Age.

The remainder of this passage in Matthew 24 is then Christ answering the Disciples’ questions regarding the destruction of the Temple. This was amazingly fulfilled in exactly the timeframe that Jesus gave in Matthew 24:34, that is, by 70AD. This may all sound like a digression from our key text, 2Peter 3:12, but it is imperative to understand this in order to understand what Peter has said. In the verse immediately proceeding Matthew 24:34, we read this-

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
Matthew 24:35

This statement is reminiscent of something Christ had said earlier-

For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
Matthew 5:18

Has the Law been accomplished? Presumably. Christ said earlier in Matthew 5:17 that this was one of the reasons why He came: to fulfil the Law. But has “heaven and earth” been done away with? How we understand this statement has a great bearing on how we understand the statement in Second Peter 3:12.

The agreement between God and Man is referred to as a “covenant”. A covenant is an unbreakable agreement between two parties that is established in the presence of witnesses.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today
Deuteronomy 4:26

Consider what Christ said in Matthew 5:16 in this light. In other words what Christ has said is that the Law of Moses will remain in place for as long as the Old Covenant is in place. This interpretation is entirely consistent with the overall message of the New Testament. But there is an important Biblical perspective that is required in order to understand when the Old Covenant ended.

Many people consider that the Old Covenant ended at the Cross. Certainly the Scriptures teach that the Cross established the New Covenant and rendered the Old Covenant obsolete.

¶ In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
Hebrews 8:13

Notice that Hebrews 8:13 (written about early 64AD) says that the Old Covenant was about to be done away with. Although made obsolete at the Cross, the Old Covenant was still in place. The writer to the Hebrews says though, that it was about to be done away with. This explains why the author to the Galatians, the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul of Tarsus, could go to the Temple on several ocassions and participate in Temple ceremonies (see Acts 21:26). Refer to the illustrative diagram below-

This is one of the illustrations excerpted from my book- The Most Embarrassing Verse In The Bible. Understanding that Peter also wrote around the same time as Hebrews may shed some light on what he was referring to in 2Peter 3:12.

waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!
Second Peter 3:12

Notice that this passage does not refer to the “end of the world” or even the “second coming” of Christ. But it does refer to the soon coming day of Christ’s judgment at which time the heavens will be set on fire. What Peter seems to be refering to is precisely what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 24- the complete dissolution of the Old Covenant at the coming of Christ’s judgment upon the stewards of that Covenant. This was fulfilled on 70AD. (Read more about the New Jerusalem.)

To explore this subject further and other related matters to the field of Bible prophecy, download my eBook – THE MOST EMBARRASSING BOOK IN THE BIBLE.

Dr. Andrew Corbett


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