WHEN DOES CHRIST RETURN? PART TEN
WHAT IS THE PASSING OF HEAVEN AND EARTH?
As already mentioned, the context of Peter’s two letters is the exhortation to live righteously in view of the nearness of the Lord’s appearing when He will bring salvation to those who are looking for Him. As explained elsewhere in these essays, the bringing of salvation translates into the receiving of eternal life, which is the final nail in the coffin for the Old Covenant system of death. We find that Christ, like Peter, also spoke of the passing of heaven and earth.
Matthew 5:17-18: Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, nor the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the law until everything is accomplished.
Christ said He came to fulfill the law. What law is He talking about? Christ then says that until heaven and earth disappear, not any part of the law will disappear until everything is accomplished. What is the “everything” that must be accomplished? Is Christ talking about the physical heaven and earth passing away? The physical heaven and earth are still here. Is the law or part of the still here? It must be if it is the physical heaven and earth that must pass away. If the law is still here, then Christ hasn’t yet accomplished everything. Let’s take a closer look at this matter by seeing what Luke records.
Luke 24:44-47: This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that was written about in the Law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms. Then He opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
Here we see the everything that must be fulfilled was what was written in the Law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms. Christ then goes on to show them some of what is written. Notice that one of the things He lists is the preaching of the gospel to the nations. Preaching the gospel to the nations is one of the things of the law that must be fulfilled/accomplished before heaven and earth pass away. Has this already been fulfilled or are we still waiting for this to happen. Remember, Christ said that not any part of the law would disappear until everything is accomplished. What did Jesus mean by this?
We see from Luke 24:44-47, that a part of the law to be accomplished was that Christ must suffer and rise from the dead. That happened. Preaching of the gospel to the nations was a part of the law that was to be accomplished. As explained earlier in these essays, that happened in the first century. Forgiveness of sin through the sacrifice of Christ was accomplished with the voiding of the sacrificial system at the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. All this was accomplished in the first century.
These fulfillment's didn’t all happen at the same time. When Jesus said, I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, nor the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the law until everything is accomplished, it is apparent he meant that until heaven and earth pass away, no part of the law will go unfulfilled until everything is accomplished. Has all the law been fullfilled?
The fulfillment of what was written in the law began with the virgin birth of Jesus as this birth was prophesied (Isaiah 7). There was OT prophecy about His ministry and His death and resurrection. After His ascension to the Father, fulfillment of the law proceeded with the preaching of the gospel to the nations. This fulfillment continued with the abolishment of the sacrificial system, priesthood, and legal requirements at the return of Christ in the destruction of the temple. Above all, the return of Christ abolished spiritual death by bringing salvation at His return to fulfill the hopes and expectations of the saints who were waiting for His return. In Luke’s account of the Olivet Discourse, Christ is quoted as saying:
Luke 21:20-22: When you shall see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written.
These events happened during the Roman-Jewish War as history clearly shows. If these events happened in fulfillment of all that has been written, isn’t it reasonable to conclude that this is the same “all that has been written,” that Christ spoke of in Luke 24:44-47? Furthermore, Christ said,
Luke 21:31-33: Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the Kingdom of God is near. I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
What heaven and earth will pass away? Christ said this in the context of the fall of Jerusalem. The fall of Jerusalem was also the fall of the temple, priesthood and sacrificial system. Let us consider what the writer of Hebrews says:
Hebrews 12:25-28: See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ The words ‘once more’ indicate the moving of what can be shaken-that is created things-so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.
Here we find the writer alluding to the giving of the law when the earth shook at Mount Sinai, as the first part of this chapter clearly shows. Now the writer speaks of God shaking the earth and the heavens so that things that cannot be shaken will remain. He then speaks of the Kingdom as that which cannot be shaken. We see the new order of things, which cannot be shaken, being compared with the old order of things, which can be shaken and will be moved out of the way.
The old order of things was the Old Covenant system. That covenant was in the process of disappearing between the death and resurrection of Christ and His return forty years later. That is why we read in Hebrews 8:13, “By calling this covenant ‘new,’ he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear.” The Old Covenant still existed when this was written. It took the fulfillment of all that has been written to completely abolish the Old Covenant and establish the new. The New Covenant is synonymous with the Kingdom that cannot be shaken because it is spiritual. This passing of the Old Covenant was the passing of heaven and earth. Now let’s return to 2 Peter.
2 Peter 3:6-7: By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
The Greek word for world in this passage is kosmos. This word refers to the physical realm or the orderly arrangement of things. The physical world was not destroyed at the time of the flood. The disobedient people were destroyed. Their arrangement of things was destroyed. Peter then shows that the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire in relation to judgment and destruction of ungodly men. Peter is not saying that the physical earth and heavens will be destroyed but that the Old Covenant system of ungodly men would be destroyed. The word “world” is being used of a specific system in association with a specific generation of people no different from us when we use such phrases as “the wide world of sports” or “the world of communications” to signify a specific arrangement of things.
Peter is not referring to the physical world here any more than he was earlier in this letter when he spoke of the ancient world not being spared. In 2 Peter 2:5, Peter speaks of God not sparing the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others. The context of this verse clearly shows he is speaking of the world of ungodly people, not the physical world. While it is true that the orderly arrangement of the physical world was destroyed along with the ungodly people, the physical earth remained and continues to this very day. Peter writes:
2 Peter 3:10-12: But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.
Here we see Peter, within the context of this coming destruction, exhorting the readers of his letter to live holy and godly lives in anticipation of the day of God which was about to be revealed. The first-century Christians were all expecting God to send His Son to bring the judgement of God upon the enemies of the developing Christian community. We therefore must seek an explanation of Peter’s comments about the destruction of heaven and earth within that context.
Peter speaks of the elements melting in the heat. The Greek word stoikio, which is translated as elements in this passage, can refer to the elements that make up the physical earth and heavens, or it can refer to what elements make up the letters of the alphabet, or just about anything else you may want to break down in small pieces. Once again, context must determine the meaning. In the New Testament, this Greek word is translated as elements, rudiments and principles, depending on what translation you look at. The apostle Paul used this word relative to the law. In the NIV it’s translated as principles and in the KJV as elements. The context shows that it is referring to the Old Covenant law. Let’s take a look at the context of Paul’s letter to the Galatian brethren.
Galatians 3:1-5: You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing-if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?
Paul is dealing here with the problem of the Galatian Christians being deceived by the Jews into ordering their lives according to the Old Covenant. This is the context as clearly shown in chapters one and two. It is in this context that Paul refers to being under the slavery of basic principles of the world. By context, Paul is showing that he is speaking of the Old Covenant law system as basic principles of the world. Paul is not suddenly changing the subject and speaking of some other system.
Galatians 4:3-11: So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God-or rather are known by God-how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.
Paul deals with the same problem relative to the Colossian Christians and here, too, uses the phrase “basic principles of the world” to reference the law.
Colossians 2:8-17: See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
Verse 20: “Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules?
In 2 Peter 3: 7&12, the apostle speaks of the present heavens and earth reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men and the elements melting with fervent heat. These elements, elsewhere called principles, are referring to the law system. It is this system that was going to be brought down. In Luke 12:49 Christ said, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Let’s now look at what Paul writes to the Thessalonian brethren.
CHRIST IS REVEALED IN BLAZING FIRE:
2 Thessalonians 1:1-10: Paul, Silas and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace and peace to you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing. Therefore, among God's churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. All this is evidence that God's judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.
Paul, Silas and Timothy congratulate the Thessalonian Church for its perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials it was enduring. Keep in mind it is the Thessalonian Christians being addressed. Paul is not addressing Christians living in the 21st century. The Thessalonians were being promised relief from the trouble they were experiencing. By having their enemies destroyed, it would bring relief to Paul, Silas and Timothy as well. This promise of retribution upon their enemies would have been meaningless to the Thessalonian Church if it were meant to occur 2,000 years into the future after a long delayed coming of Christ. It is evident from the context that this retribution took place while they were still living and that this retribution involved the revealing of Christ.
Those who teach a future fulfillment of what is written in Thessalonians will point to chapter two and the narrative about the “man of lawlessness.” Let’s carefully consider this entire passage. Keep in mind that the physical temple was still standing in Jerusalem when this was written. There is no reason to believe that the writer means something other than that first-century temple which was the center of the Jewish religious system.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-7: Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come.” Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He opposes and exalts himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, and even sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.” Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way.
The context here clearly shows this to be a current events situation. This passage leaves no doubt that the subject is the return of Christ. The writer reflects on how when he was with the Thessalonians in person, he had discussed these events with them. He then relates to them how they presently know what is holding back the man of lawlessness, and that the power of lawlessness is already at work but will be held back until the one holding it back is removed. Here we have the writer showing that these events were already in progress and beginning to occur.
2 Thessalonians 2:8-12: And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of His mouth and destroy by the splendor of His coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refuse to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.
Who is this lawless one? Who or what prevents him from being removed? Remember that the original thrust of this letter to the Thessalonian Christians involved their being granted relief from persecution. Then the writer wants to assure them that, contrary to some reports, Christ has not returned. The very fact that some believed that Christ had returned, shows the first-century context of these events and their spiritual nature. It would have been obvious that Christ had not returned physically or that any type of physical resurrection had taken place.
Those who propose a future fulfillment of this passage have named about every person imaginable as the “man of lawlessness.” Those who believe this to be a first-century event have at times considered Nero as this person. Nero, however, was already dead at the time the temple was destroyed and never set himself up in the temple. The most practical approach to determining who this man may have been is to search the writings of the secular historians of the time and see if their writings identify such a person. John L Bray, a Baptist minister from Florida, has done just that and published his findings in a booklet entitled, The Man of Sin of 2 Thessalonians 2. Pastor Bray found in the writings of Josephus a description of a man that fits very well the description given by the writer to the Thessalonians.
Josephus writes that the Roman General Cestius Gallus and his army came against Jerusalem and were driven out by the Jewish forces at which time the Christian community fled the city. About this time there arose a man from the small town of Gischala in Galilee, by the name of John Levi. Josephus describes him as treacherous, cunning and conniving. After the defeat of Cestius Gallus, Nero sent Vespasian against Judea. Vespasian, with his son Titus, first took Galilee, and in coming to Gischala, Titus was tricked by John Levi into a delay, giving John Levi and his followers time to flee to Jerusalem. Josephus writes, “Now this was the work of God, who therefore preserved this John, that he might bring on the destruction of Jerusalem.” When Titus realized he had been deceived, he pursued after John and in the process many thousands were killed. John, however, along with some of his men, escaped to Jerusalem.
Once in Jerusalem, John Levi persuaded the people to go to war against the Romans and deceived them into thinking that they could win. He especially corrupted the young men into thinking that they could succeed in war. With John Levi working behind the scenes, a rebel army developed, intent on fighting the Romans. At one point John went into the temple and told an assembly of zealots that he was an ambassador sent to them by God. John had a hand in bringing the Idumaeans to Jerusalem to prevent the people from submitting to Rome. The Idumeans killed thousands of Jews. Many factions developed, all fighting each other in civil war. The high priest Ananus, the one restraining force, was killed. Josephus said, “I should not mistake if I said that the death of Ananus was the beginning of the destruction of the city, and from this day may be dated the overthrow of her wall, and the ruin of her affairs.”
John broke off his relationship with the zealots and joined himself to an even more rebellious group. He was responsible for burning the stores of corn and other provisions that could have supported a much longer resistance. He took possession of the temple and its adjoining parts and melted down the sacred implements used by the priests. He emptied the vessels of sacred wine and oil, which the priests used to pour on burnt offerings thus leading to the eventual discontinuance of the daily sacrifice. Josephus tells of how John began to tyrannize and set up a monarchical power and how he was a shrewd man, able to entice men to him, both by deluding them and putting cleats upon them. Josephus wrote that John was so great in activity that he required guards around him at all times to protect him from his enemies.
John L. Bray summarizes his reading of Josephus as follows:
John [John Levi] had complete control and authority in the Temple. He caused the death of Ananus the high priest; he committed sacrilege by melting down the vessels of the Temple; he was the cause of the daily sacrifices ceasing. In short, he was taking the place of God in the Temple.
A careful reading of Josephus will show that it was the high priest Ananus who stood in the way of John Levi and others as they attempted to mobilize the Jews in their rebellion against the Romans. Josephus writes at length of the efforts of Ananus to stop the rebellion and cooperate with Rome. Once Ananus was killed, all “hell” broke loose.
While we can’t be positive that John Levi was the man of lawlessness that Paul speaks of in his letter to the Thessalonians, this man and his actions certainly fit the description. To argue that the appearance of the man of lawlessness is a yet future event is unnecessary and actually contrary to the context of this letter to the Thessalonians and the historical events of the first century.
It should be clear from the context of Paul’s letter, that the apostle is addressing a current situation. He is writing to the Thessalonian Christians about events currently happening to them and of events that are about to happen to them. He writes of the current persecution he and they are experiencing and how he and they will be given relief from that persecution at the time their persecutors are punished. He goes on to show how that punishment will take place at the coming of “our Lord Jesus Christ.” He shows how that coming hasn’t happened yet but will happen when the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness appears. He speaks of this man of lawlessness being held back and that they know what is, at the time of the writing of this letter, holding him back. He speaks of the power of lawlessness already at work but being presently, at that time, held back by someone. He speaks of how once this restraint is removed, the lawless one will be revealed and will be overthrown. As shown above, after the high priest Ananus was killed, the rebellion became all encompassing and led to the great slaughter and destruction of the common people.
Whether John Levi and Ananus were the principals involved in this drama is speculative. What should not be speculative is the time frame surrounding the events that Paul is addressing. Paul is addressing current events in the first century. This places the return of Christ in the first century along with all associated events such as the establishment of the Kingdom and the occurrence of the resurrection. These events are tied to the return of Christ.
It should therefore be apparent that when Paul speaks to the Thessalonians about Christ coming in blazing fire, he is reflecting on what Christ said about having come to set fire on the earth. This also associates well with what Peter says about destruction by fire. These men were not talking about a fire thousands of years future from them. They were speaking of a fire that was shortly to come to pass as judgment against Israel. This fire had to do with the abolishment of the Old Covenant system of death and the establishment of the New Covenant of life.
When we look at 2 Peter 3 within the context of the removal of the Old Covenant system, which is the context of much of the New Testament, we see how the various Scriptural references to “the day of the Lord” apply. We see how the last days are tied to covenantal change. We see that destruction by fire and elements burning with fervent heat are symbolic language for the final removal of the Old Covenant system and judgment upon its adherents. Much of the New Testament is a history of the battle for the New Covenant. Much of what is written in the New Testament is about the struggle that took place between advocates of the old system and advocates of the new system. This battle came to an end with the destruction and judgment of the Jewish temple system. Peter, as Christ did in the Olivet Discourse, is simply using symbolic/apocalyptic language to describe these events. Let’s again look at what Peter says.
2 Peter 3:10-13: But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bre. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.
Peter speaks of living holy lives in anticipation of a soon to occur coming of Christ. That coming will bring destruction of the heavens by fire. It is the heaven and earth of the Old Covenant system of death that was destroyed. It was replaced by the new heaven and earth of the New Covenant system of life. The promise of a new heaven and a new earth is found in Isaiah.
Isaiah 65:17-18: Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.
Isaiah 66:22: As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure.
As shown earlier, the apostle John speaks of a new heaven and a new earth wherein dwells righteousness. John shows the unrighteous to still exist on the outside of the new heavens and earth. If the physical heaven and earth are what is being removed, why do we still find the unrighteous hanging around? This is all symbolic language for being in the Kingdom as opposed to being outside the Kingdom. Christ has established the pathway to eternal life. He has invited all who are willing, to enter through the gates into the New Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem is synonymous with the Kingdom of God. Those who refuse to accept the new order of things are those outside the gates.
The Revelation was written prior to A.D. 70. This message was written to the seven churches existing in Asia at the time of this writing. This message gave, in much symbolism, an account of what was to take place relative to the transition from the Old to the New Covenant system. This message concludes with a description of the new heavens and new earth and the New Jerusalem being the bride of Christ, which is the New Covenant Church. The wicked remain outside of this system. This shows that the physical earth remains. The nearness of these events is repeated over and over again. The context is the first century and that is when these events described by Peter and John took place and the new system was established.