In order to understand 2 Peter 3:10–14, we have to remember that Peter has in view a false teaching which, according to verse 4, says, "Where is the promise of Christ's coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation." In other words, the false teachers (cf. 2:1) rejected the second coming of Christ because (among other reasons) the traditional teaching that his coming would include a world-wide upheaval in nature is simply not believable in view of how steady and constant nature has been for thousands of years. The fact that Peter is addressing this kind of false teaching goes a long way to explain his very one-sided description of the end of the age in verses 10–14.
Just What the False Teachers Need to Hear
What I mean by one-sided description of the end is this: The whole discussion of the end got started in verse 4 with the scoffers denying Christ's second coming. But then after that, Peter never even mentions it again. He only deals with one side of that coming—its effect on the world. His picture of the end is very simple: fire will destroy the sky, the earth and everything on it (v. 10), and new heavens and a new earth will stand in their place (v. 13). He doesn't show how this picture relates to the personal coming of Christ, the rapture, the tribulation, the millennium, the judgment according to works, or the way Christians find their way into the new heavens and new earth.
My point is that the reason Peter was willing to settle for this simplified but powerful picture of the end is that he had in view a false teaching that needed to hear just this emphasis, and he was trying to save new converts from being lured into this heresy. We have seen what these false teachers were devoted to: they were devoted to the world (1:4; 2:5, 20; 3:6). They exploited the doctrine of God's grace (Jude 1:4) and the doctrine of spiritual freedom (2:19) to justify their illicit sexual indulgence (2:2, 14), their love of money (2:14–16), and their love for human praise (2:10, 18). And they buttressed all this with a denial that Christ is coming back in any way that would interrupt their devotion to the world. And, therefore, it makes sense Peter should give a single, one-sided answer: The world you love is going to burn! Don't give yourself over to the pleasures of the world; don't devote yourself to accumulating money; don't spend your life building monuments for the praise of the world. It is all going to burn.
Peter would have blunted the rapier of his warning if he had given a long and detailed picture of how all the events of the end of the age fit together. And there is a lesson here for us. It is a legitimate theological enterprise to try to fit the various biblical pictures of the end-times into a coherent system, as long as we honor the true meaning of each picture. But we must not forget that, when it comes to applying the future to the present to kindle hope or encourage sobriety or motivate godliness, the biblical writers usually zeroed in on one or two parts of the picture and drove them home for all they were worth. That's what Peter does, and I suspect that in our usual witness and exhortation that's what we should do too.
The Coming Day of the Lord
Now let's turn to our text and give closer attention to Peter's admonitions. Verse 10: "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief." It was Jesus who put these two things together: the day of the Lord and the image of the thief. He said in Matthew 24:42–43: "Watch, therefore, for you do not know what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into." The apostle Paul took Jesus' teaching and passed it on to the church at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 5:2–4) like this: "The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When people say, 'There is peace and security,' then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape. But you are not in darkness, brethren, for that day to surprise you like a thief." So three things are implied in the day of the Lord coming like a thief: 1) the day of the Lord includes the coming of our Lord Jesus; 2) it will be sudden and unexpected and destructive for unbelievers—like the coming of a thief; but 3) it will bring deliverance and salvation for those who are awake, doing the work assigned to them by the master.
But Peter goes further and emphasizes the destruction of the present world order by fire: "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 the works that are on it will be burned up." In verse 12 he uses a different term, "the day of God," which means the same thing as "the day of the Lord," and he repeats that "the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire." Let's pause for a moment over this term, "the day of the Lord."
In the Old Testament the day of the Lord was the future time when God would vindicate his holy name, bring judgment on the unbelieving, and gather his people into a new kingdom of righteousness and peace. We can see where Peter got the paint for his picture if we look at a few of these Old Testament prophecies. At the top of the list, of course, should be the one Peter quoted in Acts 2:20 on the day of Pentecost (Joel 2:30, 31): the Lord says, "I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes." Then Zephaniah 1:14–18:
The great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the mighty man cries aloud there. A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring distress on men so that they walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the Lord; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung. Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the Lord. In the fire of his jealous wrath all the earth shall be consumed; for a full, yea, sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.
And Malachi, who also refers to "the day of the Lord" (4:5), describes it like this in 3:2; 4:1–2:
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire . . . For behold the day comes burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in his wings. You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall.
(See also Isaiah 2:11–17; 13:9–13; Amos 5:18–20; Joel 3:14–16; Psalm 102:25ff.; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; Hebrews 12:29.)
So Peter was not saying anything new or unexpected. The expectation had been around for eight centuries that God's wrath would one day boil over in a fiery destruction of the ungodly and the world which they idolized.
New Heavens and a New Earth
It might seem strange to us that God should destroy the world which he created and which he once called "very good" (Genesis 1:31). But you remember from Romans 8:20, 21 that not only mankind but also the natural world was subjected to futility when sin entered the world. Paul says, "The creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God." Paul does not tell us how this great transformation in creation will occur. But I'm inclined to say that Peter's description of a fiery destruction of creation in verses 10 and 12 doesn't refer to an annihilation of creation, but rather to a catastrophic purging and supernatural transformation of creation as God reverses the curse and makes all things new. This is suggested in verses 6 and 7 by the comparison of a destruction by water in Noah's day with a destruction by fire at the end. The water did not annihilate, it purged. So the fire does not annihilate; it purifies and transforms the creation.
So in verse 13 Peter lays hold of the promise of "a new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells." The promise comes from Isaiah 65:17 where God says, "Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create." When Peter emphasizes that this new world will be one in which righteousness dwells, he implies that the cause for destroying the old world was man's unrighteousness, and that those who swerved from the righteousness of faith will not be included in the new world.
What Will and Will Not Remain
But Peter does not stress in these verses that unbelievers will be judged. He did that repeatedly in Chapter 2, and it is implied here. But the stress here falls not on the destruction of people but, as verse 10 says, on the destruction of "the earth and the works that are upon it." And according to verse 11, it's the passing away of the earth and its works that should motivate us to holiness and godliness. Verse 11 says, "Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness?" How is this a motivation?
Most people try to find meaning in life by building something that's not just here today and gone tomorrow. We strive to overcome our sense of finiteness by producing something. Some people build equity and get a great sense of power and success by looking at their house and thinking through their portfolio. Some build professional reputations through skill and hard work and get a sense of power and success from their heavy responsibilities and the numbers of people that look to them for leadership. Some people build artistic expressions and exalt in what they have created. Some, more simply, build hobbies and collections (of coins or beetles or buttons) and gain a sense of superiority from the size of their collection or the richness of their garden or the shine of their car or the wonders of their new Apple computer. The false teachers in 2 Peter lined their pockets with money (2:14–16); elevated themselves above authority (2:10), built a reputation as astute interpreters of Paul's hard letters (3:16; 2:18), and gave themselves to sexual licentiousness. Peter's response to us and them is this: it's going to be burned up.
The implication of verse 11 is this: the only things that are going to survive the fires of judgment on this earth are the expressions of holiness and godliness. I saw that old, black plaque with the silver chain and white writing almost every day while I was growing up. It hung in our stairway in Greenville. Now it hangs in our kitchen for our sons to see. It says, "Only one life, 'twill soon be past. Only what's done for Christ will last." That's the point of verse 11: everything is going to be burned up but the fruits of holiness. A life lived for the world will go naked into judgment; a life lived for Christ will be laden with eternal riches.
When the main doors are opened at the Metrodome, you get blown out with a tremendous gust of wind because of the air pressure inside. Picture a person at the first Metrodome tropical bird show who spends all day collecting bird feathers in the dome. And then with the biggest and best collection of bird feathers in his arms (of which he is very proud), he comes to the door of the dome. The door opens, and his feathers are blown all over 5th Street and Chicago Avenue. Ridiculous? Yes. But it is a flattering picture of the person who tries to build meaning for his life with money or professional reputation or art or hobbies. It's all going to be blown away, and he will stand before Christ utterly shamed. The lesson is this: put your life under the spotlight of eternity; assess it from God's vantage point. And devote yourself to what will last (cf. Matthew 6:19–21; 1 Corinthians 7:31; 1 John 2:17).
Verse 12 says that as you look for the coming of the day of God in this way, you will hasten it. Verse 9 said that God is holding back the final day that you may repent. It follows that repenting and living a life of holiness helps remove the cause for delay. We don't hasten the day in an absolute sense, because Acts 1:7 teaches that the Father has fixed the times and seasons by his own authority, and Jesus said in Mark 13:22 that the Father knows the hour of the Son's return. But from our vantage point we can hasten the day by fulfilling the pre-conditions of Christ's return, namely, the preaching of the gospel to all the nations (Mark 13:10), and the repentance of the full number of the Gentiles who must come in before the end (Romans 11:25). Evidently Peter believes that lives of holiness and godliness will indeed fulfill these conditions and hasten the Day of God.
Without Spot or Blemish
Now finally, I want us to look at the motivation for righteous living in verses 13 and 14. This time it is not, "Think what you might lose in the age to come," but, "Look what you gain." Verse 13 says that "according to God's promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells." Then verse 14 draws the inference for daily life of this hope: "Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these things, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish and at peace." How can we sinners hope to be found without spot or blemish (unlike the false teachers who are spots and blemishes, 2:13; cf. 1 Peter 1:19)? There is an amazing parallel to this verse in 1 John 1:7 that I think gives the answer. It says, "If we walk in the light as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another (that parallels living at peace), and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin (that parallels being without spot or blemish)." But notice that both peace and spotlessness, or fellowship and cleansing, depend on our walking in the light as God is in the light. When Peter says, "Be zealous to be found by God without spot or blemish and at peace," he means the same thing John does when he says, "Walk in the light," and the same thing Jude means when he says in verse 21, "Keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life."
And where shall we find power to walk in the light, to stand in the love of God when godless pleasures entice us, and zealously to pursue purity and peace? Answer:
As we look to the promise of a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells and in which the glory and excellence of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea—as we relish that promise and hope in that promise, a divine power fires us with a zeal for purity and peace.
His divine power has granted us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his very precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.
These two motivations God gives us for our sanctification: 1) that the earth and all the vain accomplishments of man are going to be burned up, and only the fruits of holiness will remain; and 2) that the promise of new heavens and a new earth shines so bright with God's righteousness and glory, how can we not walk in the light!