A New Heaven and a New Earth
If your experience in “hanging out” with other Christians has been anything like mine, you probably have been taught that everything we see in the material physical world is going to be totally destroyed when it is burned up in the grand finale of what is called the “end times.” After the destruction of the present heaven and earth (which is not biblically supported – see Learning Activity #26), a new heaven and a new earth will be put into place and Jesus will sit on a physical throne of government on earth for one thousand years thereafter.
1. Read 2 Peter 3:10–13.
The concept of heaven and earth being destroyed and a new heaven and earth replacing it has its roots in the above passage. The key to understanding what Peter is writing about may be determined by permitting the Bible to interpret itself. This key is found in a word that appears twice in the above passage and that word is “elements” or the Greek word “stoicheia,” and the meaning of the phrase “heaven and earth.”
2. Matthew 5:18
3. In the verse above, what does Jesus say is the relationship between heaven and earth, and the law?
What Jesus said about heaven and earth and the law will help us to understand what Peter has said in his passage. What Jesus has stated in this verse is most important! Coupled with the prior verse seventeen, Jesus stated that one of the things He came to earth to do as Jesus of Nazareth was to fulfill the law and that not one speck of the law would pass until He accomplished it. In addition, not one speck of the law would pass until heaven and earth passed away! If the Bible at some place tells us that the law has been fulfilled by Christ, then it is obvious that heaven and earth must have passed away! If the law is found to be fulfilled, then heaven and earth had to also have passed away or else Jesus is in error in making this statement!
4. Matthew 5:17
5. Ephesians 2:15
6. Colossians 2:14
7. Romans 6:14
8. Galatians 5:18
9. After studying the five verses above, what can you conclude about the law?
Since the law is fulfilled, heaven and earth had to have passed away! Since we have no historical records of the physical, material, heaven and earth did not pass away, we must conclude that the expression “heaven and earth” in the 2 Peter passage means something other than what we would normally think it to be.
The Koine Greek word for “elements” (stoicheia) used in the 2 Peter 3:10–13 passage is used seven times in the New Testament. The primary meaning of the word is given by Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, as “elements (of learning), fundamental principles or even letters of the alphabet, ABC’s, the very elements of the truth of God.” From this definition we can see that the primary use of the word means elements of religious training, or the ceremonial precepts that are common to the worship of the Jews or, in effect, their entire religious system!
There are Christians who believe the physical elements of the earth and in the atmosphere are going to melt away or be burned up as our passage under consideration seems to literally say. This belief results in a secondary meaning for the word “stoicheia” which supports their doctrine of the annihilation of the earth at some future time. Perhaps a search of the specific occurrences of “stoicheia” in the Bible may help us to make sense out of these two differing views.
10. Galatians 4:3
11. Galatians 4:9
12. What do you think Paul is talking about when he uses the word “elements” in the two verses above?
Paul has used the word “stoicheia” twice in these two verses. The context of both verses becomes clear when we read verses one through seven which indicates this to be an exposition on the relationship of the Jew to the law of Moses or the Old Covenant. Paul is exhorting the Christians not to return to the bondage of the law because the law was a tutor to bring them to Christ that they might be justified by faith (Galatians 3:23–24).
No Jew (or Christian for that matter) could keep the law perfectly (which was the requirement). Both Jew and Gentile had been in bondage to the “stoicheia” of the world. I think you can see that “stoicheia” is not here referring to atoms or physical matter in respect to the world or the universe. These Galatians had been idolators (verse eight), but they abandoned all of that for Christianity, and yet wanted to bring in the “stoicheia” or the rites and ceremonies of Judaism into the church. This is describing dragging the Old Covenant into the New Covenant and mixing the two together which Paul was strongly against!
13. Colossians 2:8
14. Colossians 2:20
In the two verses above, the KJV does a much better job of translating the word “stoicheia” by using the word “rudiments.” In these verses, Paul is pleading with those in Colosse not to allow anyone to deceive them with worldly philosophy, or with the traditions of men according to the rudiments (some translators use elements) of the world. Once again, the use of the word “stoicheia” has nothing to do with the material, physical world.
The writer of the book of Hebrews uses “stoicheia” in the following verse:
15. Hebrews 5:12
16. The word “principles” in the verse above is “stoicheia.” What is it that this verse is saying about the Jewish Christians?
Once again, we see from the above use of “stoicheia” that the word is not referring to the physical universe in any way!
The theme of fire being used to consume is also used by Jesus. “I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?” (Luke 12:49). This “fire” that Jesus was speaking of was not to be literal fire, but the fire of His wrath and justice and judgment to take place with the change of religious systems (the phasing out of the Old Covenant and the bringing in of the New Covenant- see Learning Activities #23, #24, #27 and #28). This use of “fire” to communicate judgment, wrath and justice is not foreign to the Bible, even appearing in the following scripture. “He hath cut off in his fierce anger all the horn of Israel: he hath drawn back his right hand from before his enemy; and burned against Jacob like a flaming fire, which devoureth round about” (Lamentations 2:3). The earliest use of fire being used to depict judgment in the Scriptures may be found in Deuteronomy 32:22 where the foolishness and vanity of the Israelites in the Exodus wilderness provoke God to say, “For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains.”
In the preceding passages we have seen five uses of “stoicheia” where this word has absolutely nothing to do with atoms, molecules or the physical universe. We must therefore ask: Why do the translators chose to use the word in an entirely different manner in 2 Peter 3:10–13? I can only conclude that what most translators do in their translation of “stoicheia” in 2 Peter 3:10–13 is to bring the scripture into harmony with their personal doctrine rather than letting the Bible determine their doctrine.
The Christian author Glenn L. Hill offers the following as his (and my) interpretation of the expression “heaven and earth.”
“Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matthew 24:35). Here in verse 35 Jesus meant that the entire world of the Jewish people, their “heaven and earth,” would pass away. Within forty years the magnificent temple was destroyed and Jerusalem was ravaged and burned. The residents died, fled, or were carried away to become slaves. The heaven and earth that had been previously the world of the Jews and Judaism did indeed pass away. But Jesus’ words, His prophecies about all of this, stood the test of time and were fulfilled! It was the passing away of the Old Covenant!
This topic will be continued in the next Learning Activity.
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