Back to Chemistry Class
Do you remember studying the periodic table of the chemical elements in your high school chemistry class? The periodic table is a tabular arrangement of the chemical elements, organized on the basis of their atomic number (number of protons in the nucleus), electron configurations, and recurring chemical properties. Elements are presented in order of increasing atomic number, which is typically listed with the chemical symbol in each box.
Now let’s look at a scripture that mentions the heavens passing “away with a great noise” and the “elements” melting with fervent heat.
2 Peter 3:10 (KVJ) – “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”
Now this scripture is a challenge to understand due to the use of the word “elements”. What does that word “elements” really mean? Is the word “elements” in 2nd Peter 3:10 referring to the “elements” listed in the periodic table of chemicals? Is Peter predicting atomic warfare on a massive scale?
Most people are naturally prone to accept, without question the teaching of a person or organization they hold in high regard. They never consider they could be teaching something based on an assumption or a preconceived notion. It may be that many of us have come to understand these verses based on prior traditional assumptions.
It’s Greek to Me
We need to examine the meaning of this word “elements”, which is the same word used several other times in the New Testament. The Greek word for “elements” is “stoicheion” and means “something orderly in arrangement – element, principle, rudiment.” Some believe, and I was among them, that the word “elements” in 2 Peter 3:10 refer to the fundamental elements of material creation. Is this the only interpretation of this verse? Does this word “elements” refer to the scientific idea of the elements of matter, all the “atoms” of the universe? Or the periodic table of elements? Were there other “elements” of another “heaven and earth” that were predicted to pass in Peter’s near future? We will first look at seven passages with the word “elements” or in Greek “stoicheia” or “stoikion”.
Galatians 4:3 (KJV) – “Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements [stoikion]of the world:”
Galatians 4:9 (KJV) – “But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, [stoikion]whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?”
Colossians 2:8 (KJV) – “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments [stoikion]of the world, and not after Christ.”
Colossians 2:20-22 (KJV) – “Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments [stoikion]of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; 22 Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?”
Hebrews 5:12 (KJV) – “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles [stoikion]of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.”
2 Peter 3:10 (KJV) – “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements [stoikion] shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.”
2 Peter 3:12-13 (KJV) – “Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements [stoikion] shall melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.”
In context stoikion never refers to the physical world or the elements on the periodic table, but always denotes the elementary principles of the Old Covenant. The Greek Word for “Elements” in 2 Peter 3:7-13 refers to the elements, principles or customs of the Law of Moses in every other instance in which it is used in the New Testament. The Bible is a covenantal book from Genesis to Revelation and 2 Peter 3 is also covenantal. It is using symbolic apocalyptic language to describe the transition from the Old to the New Covenant in 70 A.D.
The scriptures were written in an apocalyptic style when describing the destruction of the heavens and earth. Apocalyptic literature is poetry. It is not a strictly literal description of events as one might find in a newspaper. Therefore, it is not surprising that the sky and earth did not pass away after the Jewish War. In the same manner, the stars in the sky were not “dissolved and the heavens rolled up” at the fall of Edom in the sixth century B.C. as prophesied in Isaiah 34:4-5.
World Without End
The Bible does not contradict itself. My understanding of these scriptures is in line with other Bible verses that declare that the heavens and earth will NOT be destroyed. Here are some examples:
Ephesians 3:21 (KJV) – “Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”
Ecclesiastes 1:4 (KJV) – “One-generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.”
Now we will look at the Bible passages that, on the surface, appear to indicate that the world will end:
Matthew 13:39 (KJV) – The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.
Matthew 13:49 (KJV) – So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just,
Matthew 24:3 (KJV) – And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?
“Aion” – Greek Word for World or Age
Please, notice in the three (3) verses of Matthew above, the Greek word for “world” is “aion.” Strong’s Concordance gives the definition of “aion” as “an age” or “cycle of time”. Often when we see the word “world” we tend to think of the entire earth or creation instead of a period of time. If I took you into my home and said “Welcome to my world” you wouldn’t think I was referring to the entire world or universe. It’s important to note that this Greek word “aion” is properly translated as “age”. It’s interesting to note that many Bible translations use the English word “age” instead of “world”:
Montgomery New Testament – “the end of the age.”
English Standard Version – “the end of the age.”
Holman Standard Christian Bible – “end of the age.”
Darby Bible – “completion of the age.”
Weymouth New Testament – “the close of the age.”
Young’s Literal Translation – “the full end of the age.”
What we see in all of the above examples in scripture is not a dispute over God’s ability to cause the sun and moon to go dark or the stars to fall from the heavens. Rather, we see the consistent use of symbolic language to describe events that befell nations and peoples. However, it is not necessary to be fully conversant in Hebrew or Greek to become aware of some of the features, or keys, of the language. Once we recognize these keys, we are on the way to a greater appreciation of the Hebraic imagery and, for this reason, a better understanding of the scriptures.
The writers of the Hebrew Old Testament employed all the arts of their language. Hebrew prophets prophesied in a special symbolic manner, sometimes employing apocalyptic language to describe earth shaking events. The prophets often used picturesque idioms that were clearly understood by the people of that day. Idioms are, literally ideas as expressions. They develop from older usage, where the words mean something other than their literal meaning. In some cases, the meaning of the original expression has been lost or is an archaism. Here’s an example of an Idiom: “He really went to town on that issue.” In the Idiomatic usage “He not only went, he apparently hasn’t come back yet.” Everyone who knows and loves the twenty-third Psalm knows that the Lord is not an actual shepherd, and we are not sheep. But we recognize what the Psalmist meant by the green pastures, the still waters, the rod and staff, and the overflowing cup.
In the final analysis, we must let “scripture interpret scripture”. Remember all of the New Testament writers were intimately familiar with the Old Testament and the use of symbolic language to describe places, peoples, and events. Taking a scripture out of context and making a doctrine out of it is simply not “rightly dividing” the Word. Symbolic language, when used in the Old Testament, does not suddenly change its meaning when we see it in the New Testament.