The Sun, the moon and the stars
When the Scriptures mention the heavenly bodies, they are referring to either the luminaries themselves, various individuals, or signs of things to come. The context will generally tell us which one is intended. The purpose of this Study is to consider and discover what is meant when a prophet speaks of the sun, moon and stars being destroyed, or darkened, or rolled up. Are they speaking of luminaries which are to be destroyed, or of individuals which are to be dethroned, or of signs which are to cease?
Early on in scripture GOD tells us of HIS purpose for the sun, moon and stars.
- GENESIS 1:14-18 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs ['owth], and for seasons [mow'ed, appointed times], and for days, and for years: and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
- And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lessor light to rule the night: he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
Two purposes are given here for the heavenly bodies. First, we are told that they were to be as signs, for appointed times and for days and for years. The English word signs is translated from the Hebrew word 'owth. In his Old Testament Word Studies, Wilson defines the word as, "a sign, mark or token, which brings to mind, or confirms anything either past, present, or to come; which excites attention or consideration; which distinguishes one thing from another; or is an inducement to believe what is affirmed, professed, or promised."
One might think of a road sign as a marker warning the driver of something ahead, bringing to one's mind an action to be considered. Thus, these heavenly bodies were signs or markers placed so as to bring to mind something which induced the star gazer to believe what was promised. E. W. Bullinger suggested that this something was indeed the twelve signs of the Zodiac, which told the heavenly story of man's redemption. The Redeemer's first coming was promised in Virgo, Libra, Scorpio and Sagittarius. His work and its results were told in Capricornus, Aquarius, Pisces and Aries. Then His second coming was foretold in Taurus, Gemini, Cancer and Leo. For further reading on this enlightening topic the student may want to refer to Bullinger's Companion Bible, appendix 12, or to his book Witness of the Stars.
If Bullinger's assertion is correct, then we may have an important key for understanding to what the prophets were referring when they spoke of the heavenly bodies no longer giving their light. Their light, their enlightenment had to do with teaching or illuminating to the star gazer the Redeemer's work. If one possessed the key to unlocking the interpretation of the twelve constellations then perhaps he had an insight into the future of the ages. Howbeit, when the Redeemer's work was finished, after that He had come and gone and then returned, then that sign had accomplished its purpose. The sign had passed, or rather we had passed the sign by.
We are also told in the first chapter of GENESIS that the heavenly bodies were given as lights, to give light upon the earth. Howbeit, when the scriptures are speaking of the heavenly bodies as simply luminaries, we should always question whether the reference is speaking literally or figuratively. An example of a literal usage might be when Paul declared GOD's judgment upon Elymas the sorcerer, telling him, ". . . . behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season" (ACTS 13:11). He was to be blind and not able to see the actual literal sun.
Another example of a literal usage might be when the psalmist pondered,
- PSALM 8:3-4 When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, The moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?
Howbeit, these heavenly bodies are also referred to figuratively and not literally. The writer is not always speaking of a literal luminary but is often painting a vivid and graphic image for the reader to consider. Three such occurrences are by Isaiah which have been ably set forth by J. Stuart Russell in his book, The Parousia, pages 351-352.
- In Isaiah xiii. we have a very remarkable prediction of the destruction of ancient Babylon. It is conceived in the highest style of poetry. The Lord of hosts mustereth the host of the battle; the tumultuous rush of the nations is heard; the day of the Lord is proclaimed to be at hand; the stars of heaven and the constellations withhold their light; the sun is darkened in his going forth; the moon ceases to shine; the heavens are shaken, and the earth removed out of its place. All this imagery, it will be observed, which if literally fulfilled would involve the wreck of the whole material creation, is employed to set forth the destruction of Babylon by the Medes.
- Again, in Isaiah xxiv. we we have a prediction of judgments about to come upon the land of Israel; and among other representations of the woes which are impending we find the following: 'The windows from on high are open; the foundations of the earth do shake. The earth is utterly broken down; the earth is clean dissolved; the earth shall real to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage; it shall fall, and not rise again,' etc. All this is symbolical of the civil and social convulsion about to take place in the land of Israel.
- In Isaiah xxxiv. the prophet denounces judgments on the enemies of Israel, particularly on Edom, or Idumea. The imagery which he employs is of the most sublime and awful description: 'The mountains shall be melted with the blood of the slain. All the host of heaven shall be dissolved; the heavens shall be rolled together as a scroll, and all their host shall fall down, as the leaf falleth off from the vine, and as a falling fig from the fig-tree.' 'The streams thereof shall be turned into pitch, and the dust thereof into brimstone, and the land thereof shall become burning pitch. It shall not be quenched night nor day; the smoke thereof shall go up forever; from generation to generation it shall be waste; none shall pass through it for ever and ever.'
- It is not necessary to ask, Have these predictions been fulfilled? We know they have been; and the accomplishment of them stands in history as a perpetual monument of the truth of Revelation. Babylon, Edom, Tyre, the oppressors or enemies of the people of God, have been made to drink the cup of the Lord's indignation. The Lord has let none of the words of His servants the prophets fall to the ground. But no one will pretend to say that the symbols and figures which depicted their overthrow were literally verified. These emblems are the drapery of the picture, and are used simply to heighten the effect and to give vividness and grandeur to the scene.
Thus the prophet was speaking of the heavenly bodies in a figurative manner and not literally. He wished to paint a more vivid picture for his readers than if he had spoken literally. The Bible is an eastern book, and thus speaks in the language of the Oriental. They, more than Westerners speak poetically, often using symbols and figures to set forth before their readers and listeners the truths which they wish to teach. The four Gospels are overflowing with Yeshua's (Jesus') parables which use this exact method and imagery.
Another important meaning of scripture when referring to these heavenly bodies, is that they sometimes refer to individuals. The first such reference is to Joseph and his family.
- GENESIS 37:9-10 And he [Joseph] dreamed yet another dream, and told it his brethren, and said, Behold, I have dreamed a dream more; and, behold, the sun and the moon and the eleven stars made obeisance to me. And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?
This was all figurative language, for no one imagines that the literal sun, moon and stars bowed down to him. We are later told in GENESIS how Joseph's dream was fulfilled when he was elevated by Pharaoh as the supreme ruler in all of Egypt. Another example of a star being an individual is in NUMBERS.
- NUMBERS 24:17 I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: There shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.
This was Balaam's prophecy, which probably concerned king David, who was represented as another star coming from the family of Jacob, destined to do mighty deeds for his country. Many suppose that the passage refers to the Messiah, but that suggestion did not originate from the scriptures but from the writings of Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew. The prophet Isaiah also used this imagery of a star representing some individual.
- ISAIAH 14:12-15 How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.
The prophet was referring to the king and kingdom of Babylon, which had thought and esteemed itself to become higher than all other stars. Thus, as a star himself this monarch was going to be cast down from his exalted position. We should note that this star being thrust down had nothing at all to do with an actual literal star falling to the earth. It was all imagery.
A similar scene is painted for us by the prophet Daniel where he prophesied concerning the downfall of many in his own nation.
- DANIEL 8:10 And it waxed great, even to the host of heaven; and it cast down some of the host and of the stars to the ground, and stamped upon them.
The prophet was referring to an enemy of Israel, probably Antiochus (2 MACCABEES 8:2 & 9:10), who was to ravage the host of Israel, killing their princes and rulers. Daniel described the unfortunate defeat of his nation as stars being cast down to the ground, and then stamped upon. Next Daniel sees the righteous ones, not cast down but this time exulted as the stars for ever and ever.
- DANIEL 12:3 And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.
Then in the Christian scriptures we note how Jude wrote concerning some individuals who had been troublemakers in their fellowships, people who even though they spoke boastfully, were actually only empty vessels. He called them wandering stars.
- JUDE 10-13 These are spots in your feasts of charity when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear: clouds they are without water, carried about of winds; trees whose fruit withereth, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever.
He described them as empty clouds, dead fruit, raging waves and wandering stars. Of course these were not actual wandering stars but Jude was speaking figuratively, painting a vivid picture for his readers. Then when Yeshua gave the magnificent revelation of His imminent return to His apostle John, He unveiled this mystery, that at times stars represented angels.
- RSV REVELATION 1:20 As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
We blind ourselves to the truth of prophecy if we neglect this important key, that stars often refer to individuals. Scripture has little interest in some distant star falling out of its orbit and being burned up. Rather, when scripture speaks of a star being cast down it most likely is referring to some evil person or fallen angel rather than to some actual star (see also REVELATION 9:1, 11). A couple of passages which no doubt illustrate angels being cast out of heaven are found in the epistles of Peter and Jude.
- 2 PETER 2:4 For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment. . . .
- JUDE 6 And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day.
As is most fitting, the last and final reference to a star symbolizing an individual was when Yeshua identified Himself as a star, even the bright morning star. What a beautiful imagery this is.
- REVELATION 22:16 I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.
But beyond the stars being representative of individuals, whether persons or angels, scripture also colors for us a dark and gloomy picture of the sun becoming black and the moon as blood, culminating in the entire heaven being rolled together as a scroll.
- REVELATION 6:12-14 And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind. And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places.
Many readers have assumed that John's vision here concerned the total destruction of the entire physical universe, but we should consider that this also is a figurative representation of the end of that age. Of course the passage could refer to a total eclipse of the sun, and the early rising of the moon appearing red on the horizon, and then to localized earthquakes, but it would appear that something more is meant. A similar scene was foretold by Yeshua during His earthly ministry.
- MATTHEW 24:29-31 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:
- And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth [ge, land] mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
- And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. [see also LUKE 21:25-26]
When we read thoughtfully, we find difficulty in assuming that this is entirely a prediction of a literal event. Notice that right after the sun and moon are dark, and the stars have fallen from heaven, that then the people are seeing Yeshua coming in the clouds. It just doesn't seem likely, or even possible that all this would be accomplished literally, with actual starts falling from the sky. Instead we should expect that much of what Yeshua foretold was figurative.
One might also wonder that if the Lord and His apostles had been expecting the complete destruction of the entire physical universe, then of what point was His instructions just moments earlier for them to flee into the mountains when they began to see these signs fulfilled (MATTHEW 24:16)? But if on the other hand He was warning of the coming destruction of their city and temple, then all makes perfect sense.
This prophecy had to do with three separate incidents. First, the shaking of the heavenly powers; then after that many unbelievers mourning as Yeshua approached with great power; and finally the gathering together of His chosen people. Surely the prophecy was describing the overthrow of the Adversary's kingdom and then the setting up of His own in its place, His own heavenly kingdom.
The sun, moon and stars here no doubt refer to individuals, both heavenly and earthly, who were ruling over the Land of Israel. These could be Satan and his host of fallen angels as well as those evil persons which he had inserted into power to rule over the Land, both Roman and Jewish. Who exactly they were is only secondary. What is most important for us to understand is what happened to them. They were removed from power and obliterated, shaken from their tree and cast out.
The book of REVELATION list them.
We should consider what is meant when we are told that "the powers of the heavens" shall be shaken. This same shaking is also referred to in HEBREWS.
- HEBREWS 12:25-26 See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven: Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven.
We have been told three times (REVELATION 6:13 MATTHEW 24:29 HEBREWS 12:26) that the heavens are to be shaken and the result of this shaking is that the stars are going to fall from the sky like figs from a tree. The imagery paints a perfect picture for us. We see the heavenly powers trying to cling to their high places as the Lord shakes them out of their trees. These are no doubt some of those of whom Paul wrote in his epistle to the Ephesians.
- EPHESIANS 6:12 Because the wrestling is not to us against blood and flesh, but against principalities, against authorities, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual [powers] of wickedness in the heavenlies. [from Berry's Greek New Testament]
Paul's real adversaries were not people of flesh and blood but evidently spiritual heavenly forces. These powers were to be shaken and removed from their dominion at Yeshua's return.
Next let us consider several passages in the Bible which speak of the world passing away, which we should examine to see how they bear upon our topic.
- 1 CORINTHIANS 7:31 And they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away [parago].
The Greek does not intimate here that the fashion of the world is going to pass away at some judgment day in the future, but rather it reads that it is now actually passing away. The language used is that of the shifting scene of a play on a stage. Paul is seeing even as he writes, the gradual and eventual upending of their entire religious and political structure, their civil and social society passing away. Not the destruction of the physical universe with its billions and billions of galaxies, but rather the great catastrophe of their age, the annihilation of their world order. John also exclaimed the same thing.
- 1 JOHN 2:17 And the world passeth away [parago], and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
Neither Paul nor John were speaking of the end of the material universe, but rather they were writing about the organization, the rulership, the solidarity of their world order passing away. Indeed, they were speaking of the fashion and lust of the world passing on while a new kingdom was on the horizon, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
But there were those who had been teaching otherwise. Those false apostles and false teachers who had been infecting the fellowships with doubts about the fast approaching convulsion. Some were beginning to think that the Lord had delayed His return too long. Or else maybe He wasn't coming back at all, in which case they were free to live as they pleased.
- 2 PETER 3:3-4 Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation.
Nearly forty long years had now passed since Yeshua ascended into heaven while two attending angels assured His apostles of His return (ACTS 1:9-11). Howbeit, Peter wrote to confront their reasonings.
- 2 PETER 3:5 For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water:
Of course Peter refers here to the creation story from the first chapter of GENESIS. But then he went on to discuss how that world was overwhelmed by the flood in Noah's day.
- 2 PETER 3:6-7 Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: but the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.
Peter wrote that Noah's world perished! But we know that it didn't perish, at least not the entire planet. What happened, as we can be confident Peter well knew, was that many of the inhabitants, both men and beasts perished, but others, those on the ark with Noah, survived. Evidently what Peter meant then, when he wrote that Noah's world perished, was not that the whole planet was destroyed, but only that many of the inhabitants perished. We should expect then that when Peter makes his comparison between Noah's world perishing and their own world being reserved for fire, that it is not the entire planet which they expected to perish, but rather just many of the inhabitants.
Peter then continues along this same theme.
- 2 PETER 3:10-13 But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away [parerchomai] with a great noise, and the elements [stoicheion] shall melt [luo] with fervent heat, the earth [ge, land] also and the works that are therein shall be burned up [detected or exposed].
- Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved [luo], what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire [puroo] shall be dissolved [luo], and the elements [stoicheion] shall melt [teko] with fervent heat?
- Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
The correct interpretation of this passage is wholly dependent upon one's perspective. If the student believes that Yeshua has not yet returned to gather together His church into heaven, if he thinks that Yeshua and His apostles were wrong when they repeatedly alerted their audiences and readers concerning the fast approaching Day of the Lord, if the first Christians were misguided concerning the end of that age being the complete collapse of Israel's city and nation and temple, then he will think that this passage must refer to some still impending catastrophe yet to come.
But, if the student understands that Yeshua and His apostles said what they meant and meant what they said, that indeed the culmination of that age was indeed upon them, shortly to come to pass, at the very door, then the reader will realize that Peter could not possibly have intended to write that the heavens and the planet were about to be obliterated, wiped out and burned up. In that case we will have to look for another interpretation. We will have to consider how else could Peter's words have been intended? What else could he have been predicting? What is it in these passages that we have not been understanding?
When translators have a fixed and preconceived notion about how an event is to unfold, they tend to craft their version to represent that notion. We must be diligent to recognize and uncover those prejudices. Practically every Bible commentator has failed to consider the possibility of Christ's return and GOD's day of judgment during the first century, even though this is exactly what He and every writer of the Christian scriptures affirmed. As such, they have haphazardly translated and rendered passages such as this one in Peter's letter to reflect their erroneous view.
First they tell us that on the day of the Lord that the heavens shall pass away, suggesting that they will be destroyed. Howbeit, as touched on above with the word parago, the Greek word parerchomai, from which they get the phrase pass away really means simply to pass, as passing by or passing around or to go past. Let's take the time to consider a few of these occurrences to see how this bears out.
- MATTHEW 26:42 He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away [parerchomai] from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.
Of course the Lord was not intending that the cup was going to be destroyed, but rather that if the cup was not going to pass Him by, then He would drink from it. Consider a couple of other verses where Peter used the word.
- MATTHEW 14:15 And when it was evening, his disciples [see verse 28] came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past [parerchomai]; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals.
Thus, Peter and the other disciples were recognizing that the daytime was passing into nighttime when it would be difficult for the multitudes to find something to eat, so they encouraged Yeshua to send the multitude away. The day was not being destroyed or obliterated but rather it was just passing out of their sight.
- 1 PETER 4:3 For the time past [parerchomai] of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries:
Likewise, in this first epistle of Peter, he noted that the time of unchristian behavior from his readers had passed away; it was now behind them and they should instead live righteously. Neither occurrence was suggesting that something was being destroyed. Time was moving on, marching on as the saying goes. That former lifestyle was in their rearview mirror, so to speak.
In his Critical Lexicon and Concordance, E. W. Bullinger defined parerchomai as, "to come beside or near any person, draw near; go or pass near, pass along by". Thus, in our passage in 2 PETER, we are told that in some fashion the heavens were going to pass along by, with a great noise. Howbeit, this noise isn't necessarily from something like a loud explosion, but more like from an arrow wizzing through the air. Such a noise might cause panic, like hearing an approaching mortar shell in battle.
As such, a strong argument continues to build here against just assuming that Peter intended to say that the universe was going to perish. We would do well to keep an open mind and consider other alternatives.
We are also told that certain elements were all going to melt, but the word from which they translated melt, luo, doesn't mean melt at all. It is elsewhere rendered loose 27 times, break 5 times, unloose 3 times, destroy twice, dissolve twice, put off once, melt once, break up once, and break down once. Its basic meaning is "to loose, to unbind, discharge from prison, or to overthrow" (see MATTHEW 21:2 MARK 1:7 ACTS 2:24 REVELATION 5:2; 20:3).
Twice in the passages we are considering (3:11 &12) it is rendered dissolved, which is probably how they excuse defining it as melt in verse 10. The same word is used in the LXX of DANIEL 5:12 where the prophet is said to be a loosener of knots because he could "understand to interpret dreams and explain riddles" (ESV). So what Peter may have been trying to tell us is that in some way, these elements were going to be unloosed, unraveled or unbound. Nothing is necessarily being intimated here about the universe being destroyed or melting away.
Notice should also be made about this word elements [stoicheion]. It has nothing to do with molecules or atoms or the such. Peter is not speaking of the basic building blocks of the universe being melted. The word stoicheion means the elementary principles of something, the ABCs of an idea or concept. In HEBREWS we are told of the first principles [stoicheion] of the oracles of GOD (5:12). In like fashion Peter is speaking of these elementary principles being loosed or unwound.
Next we are told that the earth was to be burned up, howbeit, the Greek word ge which they have translated earth usually means land, as the Land of Israel. It can mean planet earth, but not necessarily. Bullinger in his Companion Bible, appendix 129 defines it as such,
- 4. ge = land, as distinct from water; or earth as distinct from heaven; or region or territory, used of one special land, or country, as distinct from other countries, in which peoples dwell, each on its own soil.
By the time that the Romans had conquered Israel in 70 A.D. they had certainly burned up much of the nation, but not the entire planet. Even so, as noted below, it's very doubtful that Peter was even alluding to this.
In this very chapter this word ge is found four times (3:5, 7, 10, 13). Peter's first reference was to the original creation of GENESIS noting that that earth perished in the waters of Noah's flood. As noted above, the planet didn't perish but rather the ungodly on the planet perished. Next he spoke of this present heaven and earth being reserved for the day of judgment. But again, the celestial heavens and planet earth were not going to be judged, but rather the individuals in those heavens and on that planet were going to be judged (REVELATION 20:11-13).
Then comes this reference to the earth and its works being burned up, howbeit, the phrase "and the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up" is missing in many notable Vulgate MSS (Challoner-Rheims Version, from the Latin Vulgate). Even in the original Greek the phrase "shall be burned up" is doubtful. Instead of burned up, it might better read, "shall be disclosed" (Lexham English Bible), or "will be found out" (The New American Bible), or simply "shall be found" (The Concordant Literal New Testament), or "will be laid bare" (The New English Bible and the NIV). Few modern versions understand that the Greek supports the idea here that the earth is going to be burned up.
Then Peter speaks of righteousness dwelling in the new heavens and the new earth. Of course righteousness does not dwell in the celestial or terrestrial bodies, but rather in the individuals inhabiting those places. Thus, we see in Peter's language that even though he speaks of the heavens and the earth, he really is meaning the people, the individuals of the heavens and the earth. There is every reason to understand here that when Peter speaks of heaven and earth, he is referring to the individuals in heaven and earth and not the physical stars and planets.
In verse twelve we are told that the heavens being on fire [puroo] shall be dissolved [luo], and again that the elements [stoicheion] shall melt [teko] with fervent heat, seeming to suggest that the universe was indeed going to be utterly destroyed. To undo this knot which has been tightly bound and twisted by prejudiced translators, we will have to consider several more of these words in detail.
The phrase being on fire suggests to our minds that the heavens were going to catch fire and somehow burn up, yet this word puroo doesn't really carry that meaning at all. As much as anything it means to be purged of all dross. In other words, it is the process whereby a metal is heated, not necessarily to destroy it but rather to remove the impurities. The word is used just six times in the Christian scriptures, 1 CORINTHIANS 7:9; 2 CORINTHIANS 11:29; EPHESIANS 6:16; REVELATION 1:15 & 3:18 and our verse in 2 PETER. Not once does the word mean to literally consume or destroy something with fire. The two passages in REVELATION explicitly show that there it's usage has to do with purifying something such as metals. As such, in 2 PETER the heavens were in some fashion to be purified, but not necessarily consumed or burned up.
We are beginning to see that each of the english words which the translators have used to push the idea that the physical heavens and earth were all going to be destroyed or burned up, when scrutinized closely, really don't suggest that at all. But when one has the idea of the whole Universe being disintegrated by some out of control cosmic fire, then that is what one reads into passages such as these.
Then we have the other word which they have rendered melt (teko) which is a totally different word than that which they had previously rendered melt (luo) in verse 10. As we have seen, luo means to unloose while this word, teko is said to mean liquify. Unfortunately, this usage in 2 PETER is the only place the word is found in the Christian writings (the New Testament), so it is not possible to do a word comparison.
As is usually the case, the key to understanding difficult passages is the context. How did the original writer or speaker set his word or phrase in his sentence or paragraph, what is the immediate and remoter context of his words. Once we determine that, the interpretation usually settles out. Let us then take the time to go back and re-read just what was Peter's intention for his readers to understand, which for the modern reader has become a difficult passage.
The letter is a wakeup call, that Peter's readers might recognize the extreme consequences of their life choices. Choosing the right way, they will be partakers of the divine nature and thus escape corruption (1:4). But becoming sidetracked, going astray and failing to develop these Christian virtues (1:5-7) in their lives, would result in them being ineffective and unfruitful (1:8), for he that does not devote himself to Christian virtues is blind and has forgotten the total and complete change which the gospel made to his life (1:9). But if they would be diligent to practice these Christian virtues, then they would never fall, but were guaranteed a rich welcome into Yeshua's everlasting kingdom (1:10-11).
In this epistle Peter repeatedly encouraged his readers to continue in the faith, to remember his teachings and thus be established (1:12); he also encouraged them to recall the words spoken by the holy prophets and the commandments of the apostles (3:1). His aim was to stimulate them to wholesome thinking (NIV 3:1), to have them live holy and godly lives (3:11), to be spotless and blameless (3:14), for GOD will rescue the godly but HE will reserve the unrighteous unto judgment (2:9).
Thus he warned them not to fall, as evidently many were going to, for the lies of the false teachers (2:1); he warned them not to be beguiled (2:14) or heed the scoffers who scoff at the promise of Christ's return (3:3). He reminded them that even the angels which sinned GOD cast down to hell, and delivered into chains of darkness awaiting their judgment day (2:4). He also reminded them how the ungodly of the ancient world were not spared, except Noah and his family (2:5). He spoke of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah being turned into ashes because of the ungodly lifestyle of its inhabitants (2:6), all except Lot's family again because he was righteous. And then Peter reminded them of Balaam, who had forsaken the right way and instead went astray (2:15).
All of this had to do with individuals who had made the choice to live either righteously or unrighteously. Peter was concerned with his readers following the right way and not being led astray. He warned them to be on their guard so as not to be carried away with the error of the wicked and thus fall from their secure position (NIV 3:17). Instead, Peter's aim was to encourage them to devote themselves to living righteously so as to find entrance into the new heavens and the new earth, wherein dwells righteousness (3:13).
Thus we see that Peter was not at all concerned with warning them about the physical universe being destroyed or burned up. Rather he was concerned with the righteous and the unrighteous, with the godly and the ungodly, with the followers of the right way and those led astray. He warned them of "cunningly devised fables" and "false teachers" and that the true word of prophecy came from holy men of GOD, carried along by the Holy Spirit (NIV 1:21).
It was the righteous who were secure and assured a grand entrance into the new heavens and the new earth, but the ungodly, the unrighteous, those deceived and beguiled, these were destined to be destroyed as were the ungodly of Noah's old world, or the ungodly residents of Sodom and Gomorrah, or as the angels which had sinned, or as Balaam who loved the wages of unrighteousness. All had to do with his readers hastening to be found spotless and blameless at the judgment day (3:14), but not of the actual planets and stars falling from the sky and perishing.
This is the essence of what he meant with the heavens being purified. GOD was going to rid them of all ungodly and unholy influence. This is brought to pass in John's vision as recorded in REVELATION.
- REVELATION 20:1-3 And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, and cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season.
The pivotal statement upon which our passage turns reads,
- 2 PETER 3:11 Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness.
Because all these things were to be dissolved, what was their decision to be? What manner of persons were they going to become? Were they going to fashion themselves into godly vessels for righteousness thereby finding eternal life, or were they going to believe the lies of the scoffers and thereby find corruption? Were they to be among those about to be put to the fiery test, or were they to be among those gladly welcomed into His eternal kingdom.
It all had to do with what was to happen to individuals, not what was going to happen to the planets, or the distant stars.
The idea that the material universe is evil was from Greek philosophy not from the Bible.
2 Timothy 2:26 And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.
ACT 2:19-20 And I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke: The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come: And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
12:1-9 And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: and she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days. And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.
21:1 And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away [departed]; and there was no more sea.
We must next consider from Peter's epistle how the elements were going to melt. The Greek word stoicheion from which they translated elements is used seven times in the Christian scriptures; GALATIANS 4:3 & 9; COLOSSIANS 2:8 & 20; HEBREWS 5:12; and 2 PETER 3:10 & 12. A. C. Bouquet in his Everyday Life in New Testament Times, page 130, has this interesting and revealing comment on this word stoicheia.
- When St. Paul in some of his letters speaks of people being enslaved under the stoicheia, for a long time it was uncertain what he meant, because stoicheia can mean "the alphabet" or "the rudiments of knowledge", and to translate the word in this way does not seem to make any good sense of the passages in Galatians 4:4 and Colossians 2:8. . . Stoicheia is, however, also used for "the elements", in the sense of "the signs of the Zodiac" or "the planets", and if we use this translation we get very good sense.
Attempting to predict or forecast the future by reading the signs of the Zodiac is not a recent invention. It was very prevalent throughout the Orient, and was most likely behind the original intention of the Tower of Babel. The tower was not so much built as a skyscraper attempting to reach the heavens, but rather was probably built as a temple to house and display the signs of the Zodiac.
Ancient man early recognized the relationship between the sun's trek across the sky with the changing seasons. The further north it traveled the colder it got, but then as it moved south in its course the earth warmed, the rivers thawed and the plants blossomed. It was not such a stretch for them to next seek some correlation between the moon and stars with their daily lives and routines. Some of them perceived that the changing movements of the heavenly bodies foretold ill and well omens for their lives. Thus was born the art-craft of astrology, which was extremely prevalent in Babylon, the exact location of the Tower of Babel.
In Samuel Sandmel's book Judaism and Christians Beginnings, he has this interesting comment on page 442 concerning the two aspects of astrology which was prevalent in Biblical times.
- 2. There were two aspects of astrology. It held that the stars and planets controlled the future; this view was totally obnoxious, for it ascribed to created heavenly luminaries the power of God the Creator. The second aspect was that the future could be read in the stars and planets; this was less obnoxious. Philo, who rejected the first, accepted the second.
- Many in the East followed closely the changing patterns of the heavenly bodies, looking for and then predicting what might lie ahead in their future. The predictions were then packaged and sold to all and any who were enslaved to their craft. Isaiah made comment on this futile Science.
- ISAIAH 47:13 Thou [Babylon] art wearied in the multitude of thy counsels. Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee.
In GALATIANS and COLOSSIANS Bouquet's rendering of stoicheia offers a sensible meaning for what Paul was intending to say, that they had previously been enslaved to patterning their lives according to what the signs of the Zodiac were thought to predict. If we carry this explanation over to our passage in Peter's second epistle, we might be able to finally make sense of it also. But first we must look at a few other words which have been poorly rendered there.
- MATTHEW 2.2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.