2 Peter 3:10-13 “The Second Coming, Part 3: Live Like You Believe It”
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will noisily pass away, so the elements will be dissolved by burning and the earth and the works in it will be exposed. Since all these are to be dissolved, what sort of persons must you be regarding holy conduct and godliness as you look for and anticipate the coming day of God! Because of which, the heavens will dissolve by burning and the elements will melt by intense heat. But according to His promise, we are looking for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
Having drawn his readers’ attention to what they dare not miss, that is, the fact that God is God and is not a man (vv. 8-9), Peter now progresses his argument as he reminds his audience what the day of the Lord is. Peter does not teach a new lesson of eschatology here. He reminds his readers of facts that they already know. These facts complete his arguments against the mockers and complement the encouragement to the saints. The following facts encourage believers because they bridge the gap between theology and practice.
Theology for the sake of theology leads only to pride and never to holiness. What we know about God necessitates action on our part. Peter makes two necessary connections between the theology regarding the day of the Lord and the practice of that theology. That’s right, according to Peter, what we believe about the second coming of Jesus Christ determines the way we live our lives. A false eschatology can only lead to unholy living. Likewise, a biblical eschatology supports and drives godliness. While most of modern evangelicalism continues to deny the necessity for a biblical eschatology, Peter doggedly connects eschatology to ethics and faith to hope.
Linking Eschatology to Ethics (vv. 10-12)
The context is not far removed from the previous verses. Peter has just categorically denied the slowness of God concerning the fulfillment of His promise (v. 9). In contrast to this slowness (contrastive use of δὲ) the day of the Lord will come.
There is something of a chiasm within these three verses. In vv. 10&12b, Peter brings the burning heavens and earth from v. 7 back into view. It is this future destruction that surrounds his exhortations for holy living in vv. 11-12a. In other words, Peter emphatically connects eschatology with ethics.
Unexpected Destruction (v. 10)
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will noisily pass away, so the elements will be dissolved by burning and the earth and the works in it will be exposed.”
The future indicative ἥξει (it will come) is placed emphatically forward in the text to stress the certainty that the day of the Lord will most certainly come and is not slowed at all. The phrase ἡμέρα κυριίου (day of the Lord) is a well-used and nearly technical term from the Old Testament to indicate the end of this current age and the beginning of eternity. Events said to take place on this “day” include destruction from the Almighty (Joel 1:15; Is. 13:6; Jer. 25:33), global judgment and retribution (Obad. 15; Joel 3:14), and the burning of the wicked (Is. 13:9; Mal. 4:1). The prophets emphasize that this day is certainly coming (Joel 1:15; 2:1; Is. 13:6, 9; Zeph. 1:14; Ezek. 7:10; Mal. 4:1), that it is darkness rather than light (Amos 5:18), will be preceded by cosmic and personal signs (Joel 2:31; Mal. 4:5), and is designed to insight repentance in the faithful (Joel 2:12-13). All the promises to punish Israel, restore Israel, punish the nations, restore the nations, as well as the promises to establish Messiah and His kingdom can all be summarized in this massive event known as “the day of the Lord.” Beginning with the rapture of the church, running through the seven years of tribulation and thousand years of Christ’s earthly millennial reign, the term “the day of the Lord“ is a wide-angle lens that captures the totality of God’s intervention at the conclusion of this age.
What the Old Testament prophets proclaimed; the New Testament apostles affirmed. Paul uses this same language to describe the coming day of judgment and vindication (1 Thess. 5:2). Here Paul also compared this coming day of judgment as a “thief”, a comparison he undoubtedly borrowed from our Lord (Matt. 24:43). Peter makes the same point as both Jesus and Paul: the coming day will catch people unaware just like a thief in the night. One might ask why the coming day, if so prolific throughout the scriptures, should catch people unaware, but that is the very purpose of the mockers’ mocking (vv. 3-7). By denying or altering the biblical understanding of this coming day, people will not anticipate it or prepare for it and thus will be caught up by it to their own destruction.
The details that Peter adds versus the details that he excludes are interesting. He mentions nothing here of the physical return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, nor even of the burning of the wicked. His focus is fixed upon the heavens and the earth. Peter’s point is more in the line of emphasis rather than exclusion. He is still in refutation mode as he here contradicts (again) the mockers who state that nothing has changed in the world and thus nothing will change. Peter’s intention is not to provide a detailed account of this day but to focus on three primary events that encapsulate monumental change that will take place.
The first of these changes is stated as the noisy passing away of the heavens (ἐν ᾗ οἱ οὐροναοὶ ῥοιζηδὸν παρελεύσονται). The future indicative from παρέρχομαι can simply indicate physical movement past a fixed point (pass by) or it can refer to something that is over, done with, and is no longer available. Jesus referred to these very same heavens with this same verb on several occasions (Matt. 5:18; 24:35). Peter points back to the heavens already mentioned in vv. 5&7, the heavens that were formed out of water and the heavens that are now reserved for fire. These heavens will noisily pass away (ῥοιζηδὸν) or pass away with a roar. There is much discussion as to what Peter could mean by this adverb (noisily/roaring). Most think that Peter alludes to the roaring sound of a great fire. Given the context, that is a well-founded guess. The most we can say is that the passing away of the heavens will not slip by unnoticed, but that a great tumultuous noise will accompany it.
Next, Peter states that the elements will dissolve with intense heat. The object of “the elements” (στοιχεῖα) refers to the basic building blocks of matter. Within other contexts, the term is used to reference the basic principles under discussion. The letters of the alphabet are the elements of language. The concept of Christ’s priesthood being superior to the Aaronic system is a elementary (στοιχεῖα) doctrine in the sense that it is basic to the Christian faith and must be understood before venturing forward (Heb. 5:12). Here Peter refers to the basic building blocks of matter. The molecular makeup of the earth will dissolve by means of intense heat.
The third and final event emphasized by Peter is questioned due to a textual discrepancy. The NA27 and UBS4 editions of the Greek New Testament carry the long accepted and ancient reading of καὶ γῆ καὶ τὰ ἐν αὐτῇ ἔργα εὑρεθήσεται (and the earth and the works in it will be found). The Textus Receptus (upon which the KJV and NKJV are based) uses an altogether different verb: καὶ γῆ καὶ τὰ ἐν αὐτῇ ἔργα κατακαήσεται (and the earth and the works in it will be consumed). The newest editions of the Greek New Testament of the NA28 and UBS5 add to this confusion by keeping the original verb from εὑρίσκω (to find) but adds a negative: καὶ γῆ καὶ τὰ ἐν αὐτῇ ἔργα οὐχ εὑρεθήσεται (and the earth and the works in it will not be found). The evidence in favor of the earlier critical texts (the earth and its works will be found) is convincingly decisive. What remains allusive is Peter’s meaning. By stating that the works in the earth will be found immediately after stating that the basic building blocks of the earth will be dissolved, Peter is pointing to the fact that nothing will be hidden, and all will be laid bare before God. All the works of mankind that remain upon the earth will be exposed and found out.
It is the fact that the current world will expire and that all of man’s works will be exposed Peter wishes to emphasize. It is in this sense that eschatology drives ethics.
Unreserved Devotion (vv. 11-12a)
“Since all these are to be dissolved, what sort of persons must you be regarding holy conduct and godliness as you look for and anticipate the coming day of God!”
In light of the coming destruction of the globe, what kind of persons should the readers be? The knowledge that the physical world will burn and dissolve brings with it present application. The interrogative ποταποὺς presents more of an exclamation than a genuine question. Peter does not intend for the readers to provide an answer because (1) the answer should be obvious and (2) Peter answers the question for them. The certain future destruction of the world drives both the conduct and the attitude of the believer.
Peter addresses the believers’ conduct by stating that his readers must be (δεῖ) holy and godly (ἁγίαις ἀναστροφαῖς καὶ εὐσεβείαις). This is very similar to his introduction where he claimed that believers have already been provided with everything necessary for life and godliness (1:3). To live and conduct oneself in holiness is to become separate from all that is common, unclean, and mundane. Believers are called to be holy as the Father is holy (Lev. 11:44; 1 Pet. 1:16). To this Peter adds the conduct of godliness, a theme of great importance to Peter (2 Pet. 1:3, 6, 7; 2:9; 3:11). A “godly” (εὐσέβεια) person is one who devotes themselves to pleasing their deity. In the context of Christianity, this term describes one whose drive to please Christ by conforming to His word and will is obvious to all. Peter desires the knowledge of the world’s demise to drive his readers toward genuine righteous living now. But what’s the connection?
The most basic idea of holiness involves the concept of separation. To be separate from the unclean is to be set apart for special and particular use. The knowledge that the world is going to burn should motivate believers to separate themselves from it. What use is it to become like the world, accepted by the world, and pursue the world if this world is going to burn up and dissolve? Why would we want to strive after vain works only to have those works exposed and laid bare before the Lord of glory? If we believe that the day of the Lord is real, is coming, and will destroy this world, then there should be obvious implications lived out in our lives; the most obvious of which is a separation from that which will burn.
To this righteous conduct Peter adds holy motivation. What should be the internal attitude of the believer as this day draws near? He states that his readers should be watching (προσδοκῶντας) and anticipating (σπεύδοντας) this coming day. Both of these participles explain the manner in which believers are to pursue holy conduct and godliness. Peter will use the verbal form προσδοκάω (to look for, wait for, expect) three times in three verses (vv. 12, 13, 14). Peter encourages his readers to expect the coming day rather than sit back with the mockers and live as if it is far off or simply imaginary. To this he adds that they should anticipate (σπεύδοντας) the coming day. The basic sense of σπεύδω is to hurry or hasten.
While it makes no sense to suggest that Peter’s readers are to hurry the coming day as if they are capable of such a thing, the term can also describe an anticipation of an expected event. Taken together, Peter exhorts his readers to be both expecting and anticipating this coming day. For the believer, the coming day of the Lord is a good thing. The end of the world and the burning of the heavens and the melting of the earth to expose all hidden works is a good thing. We are not like the world who cringe at the thought and fight against it with tooth and nail. We look forward to the day of His coming to rule and subdue the rebellious creation.
Unavoidable Destruction (v. 12b)
“Because of which, the heavens will dissolve by burning and the elements will melt by intense heat.”
Peter returns to the burning heavens and melting elements. The destruction of the present earth, a destruction that this current world is preserved for (v 7), provides the backdrop for Peter’s exhortation for godly living and holy conduct. The implications of holiness are couched in between these mirrored descriptions of the world’s fiery demise. In this concluding reminder of coming fire, Peter provides one more reason to consider the world’s destruction as a good thing. It is because of the Lord’s return, because of the day of God, that the world will burn. In other words, if the world remains unburned, then the Lord is not here. But if the Lord returns, then by necessity the world will burn. Do we not long for the presence of the Lord to be in our midst? If He is to return, then the destruction of the world is unavoidable. Yet this unavoidable destruction is not the end, far from it. Peter concludes his eschatological lesson on holiness, not on the destruction of the old, but with the coming of the new.
Linking Faith to Hope (v. 13)
“But according to His promise, we are looking for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
Peter’s use of “promise” (ἐπάγγελμα) continues the thread of Christ’s excellent promises (1:4), the mockers’ doubting of the promise of Christ’s return (3:4), and the denial of the Lord’s slowness to fulfill His promise (3:9). Peter uses a phrase “new heavens and a new earth” from Isiah 65:17 and 66:22. Once again, Peter pulls from the Old Testament prophets and presents their words as a foundational part of God’s promise. Over 700 years before Peter wrote this letter, God already promised that a new heaven and a new earth would replace the current editions. Peter uses the term καινός (new – fresh, not worn, as opposed to old and worn out) as opposed to νέος (new – young, freshly made, inexperienced) to describe these heavens and earth as made clean and fresh rather than indicating that they were only just brought into existence. The current world is old and wearing out, yet Christians look for (προσδοκῶμεν) the coming of a fresh heavens and yet unused earth.
The Greek construction (καινοὺς δὲ οὐρανοῦς καὶ γῆς καινὴν) forms a sort of chiasm placing “heavens” and “earth” next to each other in the middle. Peter does not indicate an ethereal spiritual reality devoid of physical realization. This coming (not present) new heavens and new earth is real, physical, fresh, and the abode of righteousness.
At no time since the fall can this world be said to be the dwelling place of righteousness. Perhaps there have been and continue to be fleeting moments where righteousness is a guest or a sojourner, but righteousness does not dwell in this world, nor is it welcome. But the Christian longs for and looks for the day of Christ’s coming when the world will be made fresh and righteousness dwells here.
How should this knowledge change the lives of believers in the 21st century? The exact same way it was supposed to in the 1st century. This world and all that it is in will burn. Separate yourself from it and be ye holy. The old world will be burned and restored so that righteousness might dwell with the King of Righteousness. Look for and anticipate Him. Live as if this is not the kingdom, but that the king will bring it. Live as if we cannot bring the kingdom but are commanded to long for it. Live each day as if the Lord is coming, the world will perish, and all our vain deeds will be exposed. What we believe is not only articulated in our confessions but is proven in our deeds. What do you believe about the day of the Lord?
Soli Deo Gloria!
 Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), p. 388.  D. Edmond Hiebert, Second Peter and Jude: An Expositional Commentary (Greensville, South Carolina: BJU Press, 1989), p. 157-9.  Ibid, p. 159.  This is at least the fourth time in the Petrine epistles (1 Pet. 4:16; 5:1; 2 Pet. 1:3; 3:10) where the new critical texts of the NA28 and UBS5 reverse their clear precedent decision of earlier editions based on zero new evidence.  Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies, 1971), p. 705-6, §3.10 εὑρεθήσεται.  R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of The Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966), p. 348.  Schreiner, p. 391.