Harry Whittaker
The Time Of The End

24) “Where Is The Promise Of His Coming?”

2 Peter 3

There are more real difficulties in the exposition of this familiar prophecy than those who use it with such vigour are usually prepared to recognize. The first, and main problem is this: When Peter wrote these words, did he have his eye on A.D. 70 and “the Last Days of Judah’s Commonwealth,” or was his expectation ranging forward to the twentieth century?

Dr. Thomas gave the first of these two answers. Most Christadelphian expositors of the present day give the second. What are the pros and cons?

The case for a First Century application will be summarized first, with rather less detail than Dr. Thomas was in the habit of allowing himself:

  1. The words of the scoffers are: “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” (v. 4). Such expressions, with their allusion to Abraham and David and to Genesis 1-3, would readily be made by Jewish adversaries of the gospel in Peter’s own time, but read strangely as the cynical objection of modern sceptics.
  2. The allusion to “scoffers in the last days” is surely taken — and with what appropriateness! — from 2 Chronicles 36:16, which describes how in the last days of the Kingdom of Judah men mocked the messengers of God and scoffed at His prophets (the Septuagint Version has the same word as Peter uses), until at last there came wrath from God, the destruction of the temple, and the scattering of the people in captivity.
  3. Jude 17, 18 quotes Peter’s words about the “mockers in the last time” (the reference to 2 Peter 3 is unmistakable), and immediately continues: “These are they...,” as though seeing the fulfilment already taking shape.
  4. Verse 5a: “this (the story of Creation and of the Flood) they willingly are ignorant of.” The words imply an authoritative record, which the scoffers know, as well as Peter does, but the implications of which they deliberately fail to face up to.
  5. Verse 11: “Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved ...” Almost all the translations conspire to push this into the future, yet actually Peter used a present continuous tense, requiring the words to be read thus: “all these things (already) dissolving thus...” Certainly it is difficult to associate such a verb form with the distant future (from Peter’s point of view).
  6. Verses 11, 12: “What manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy living and godliness, looking for and hasting the coming of the day of God.” Three points require to be noted here: (a) the AV reading: “hasting unto” is permissible but in this context meaningless. How can a man hasten unto the coming of Christ? To make sense of it this way the word has to be slanted or paraphrased so drastically as to drag it clean away from its proper meaning; (b) “what manner of persons ought ye (first century believers) to be...” — the exhortation has little point if there were yet nearly two milleniums to roll by; (c) since so long a time has elapsed before the return of the Lord, their “holy living and godliness” either were not in evidence or else did not have much effect in “hastening the coming.”
  7. Verse 8: “with the Lord ...a thousand years is as one day.” The words are taken from Psalm 90: 4, a psalm of Moses about the forty years of hardship endured by God’s Israel in the wilderness. Then can it be that Peter saw that experience as a parallel to his own generation? As the forty years in the establishment of the Kingdom of God under Joshua-Jesus followed the wilderness, so the overturning of the church’s greatest adversary — Judaism, would follow the A.D. 30-70 period enthroned in Jerusalem.
  8. Verse 10, which seems to be the sheet-anchor of the “twentieth century” exposition, actually goes along with the A.D. 70 applications just as well. “The heavens shall pass away with a great noise” finds a parallel in Psalm 102: 26, words which are cited in Hebrews 1: 10, 11 with reference to the end of the Mosaic order: “the heavens are the works of thy hands: they shall perish, but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment...” Isaiah 51: 6 has the same idiom: “the heavens shall vanish away like smoke...but my salvation shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.” There can be little doubt that this is a prophecy of the passing of the Law and the bringing in of the imputed righteousness proclaimed in the gospel.
  9. “The elements shall be dissolved (unloosed) with fervent heat.” Justin Martyr and others understood this word “elements” to refer to heavenly bodies. In which case it is not inappropriate to mention that just before the fall of Jerusalem Halley’s Comet was visible for a protracted period, “hanging over the city like a drawn sword.” But the Biblical association of “elements” is with the ordinances of the Law of Moses: Galatians 4: 3, 9; Colossians 2: 8, 20. With the burning of the Temple, the exact keeping of the Law became an utter impossibility.
  10. “The earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” The Greek word here could equally well refer to the Land of Israel. It is so used in the New Testament in at least twenty places — and many more times in the Septuagint Version. So this passage speaks of judgement on the Land where all emphasis is on works and not on faith.
This catalogue of supporting evidence makes a fairly strong case. But another look, this time at the other side of the picture reveals certain features in this prophecy, which seem to require reference to the personal return of Christ.[32]

  1. “Where is the promise of his coming?” is a phrase difficult to refer to any manifestation of divine judgement except the personal revelation of Christ in glory.
  2. “The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night” (v. 10). This figure of speech always refers to the return of Christ in the Last Day: Matthew 24: 43; Luke 12: 39; 1 Thessalonians 5: 2; Revelation 16: 15. The fall of Jerusalem did not come “as a thief in the night,” for disciples of Christ in the city were able to read the signs of the times and make good their escape.
  3. “Looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (v. 12) cannot be applied to A.D. 70 at all, for it is not possible to believe that that holocaust was hastened by the faithfulness of Christ’s disciples.
  4. “New heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (v. 13) can only mean the bringing in of Christ’s Kingdom, as in Isaiah 65: 17; 66: 22; Revelation 22: 1,27.
  5. “Be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless” (v. 14) can likewise mean only one thing: the day when Christ returns with blessing for his faithful.
Thus the situation has come about that a vital chapter of Bible prophecy is expounded by two schools of thought in two radically different ways, neither group giving much attention to the evidence cited by the other — which is hardly a satisfactory attitude to adopt.


There is a way out of the impasse — by following the method of interpretation normally applied to many an Old Testament prophecy.

It is commonplace experience with Bible prophecy to find that such Scriptures often have more than one fulfilment. Psalm 72, “a psalm for Solomon,” will have its true fulfilment in the Kingdom of Christ. Psalm 2 doubtless sprang out of some critical experience in David’s own life, but is applied by the New Testament to the first rejection of Christ (Acts 4: 25-27) and also to his coming again in glory (Revelation 19: 15; 2:27). Nearly all of Isaiah’s prophecy had reference to the circumstances of his own time, but in a score of places the New Testament requires an application to Christ and his work. The early chapters of Zechariah are based on the return of the captives from Babylon but are also undoubtedly Messianic. The Olivet Prophecy is in two main sections—the first appropriate to A.D. 70 and the troubles immediately preceding it, and second concerning the coming of the Lord. But it has been shewn in chapter 14 that the first section should also be re-read with reference to the Last Days. There are many many more examples of this kind of thing.

Then why is it that the study of Prophecy in the New Testament makes so little allowance for the same principle? Strange, truly, that so many Old Testament prophecies should readily be expounded on the basis of a dual fulfilment but the same possibility for the greatest prophecy of all — the Apocalypse — not be even contemplated! But that is another subject. Here it is more germane to suggest that the key to the difficulties in 2 Peter 3 lies in its application, first and in a fragmentary way, to the Last Days of Judah’s Commonwealth, and then, fully and completely, to the Day of the Lord’s personal return.

The rest of this chapter will be devoted to a consideration of some of the outstanding details in it, from the second of these points of view.


A difficulty of some magnitude arises out of the five-fold reference to “heavens and earth” (vv. 5, 7,10,12,13). The first of these is undoubtedly literal—a straight allusion to the Creation (Genesis 1: 6, 9). The last is just as certainly symbolic, as the parallel passages plainly require. The problem is: how to read the other three? It is difficult to be certain about this, but probably they are to be taken literally, in a way that will be suggested by and by.

Peter’s first argument against the mockers is this: They choose to overlook the fact that that which God constituted and equipped in Genesis 1 He later destroyed in Genesis 7 — the implication being that what He has done once He may well do again. All things do not continue as they were from the beginning of the creation. Peter was obviously writing with a vivid memory of his Lord’s own words: “Even as it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of Man” (Luke 17: 26).

But though the main point of the Deluge allusion is clear enough, the details are obscure. What is the point of describing the earth as “standing out of the water and in the water”? And the word “whereby” (literally: by means of which things) appears to be redundant, unless perhaps it refers back to the heavens and earth being the source of the overwhelming flood. A retranslation is perhaps permissible here: “... that of old the heavens were, and the earth (emerging) out of the water, and by (or, in) the Word of God through water it endured (i.e. the earth itself was saved by being baptized!), through which things the civilization that then was, being overwhelmed by water, perished.


There is appropriateness in reading here an allusion to the fact that in Noah’s day destruction came from both earth and heaven (see Genesis 7:11), because Peter’s next argument is that in the time to come once again destruction will come from both earth and heaven: “But the heavens and the earth which are now, by (or, in) the same Word (of God) have been stored with fire against the day of judgement and perdition of ungodly men.”[33] Until August 1945 it was difficult to make any sense at all of these words. To give them a vague figurative meaning was almost the best that could be done with them, yet such an interpretation only created another problem — the contrast with the literal “heavens and earth” of verse 5. But since that epoch-making day of the first atomic bomb, the literal character of this prophecy has become increasingly obvious. Today the earth is literally “stored with fire.” America and Russia between them have a stock of nuclear-fission devices big enough to wipe out civilization two or three times over. And there is reason to believe that the heavens also are “stored with fire,” in view of the immense amount of controlled “hardware” which has been put into orbit round the earth, much of it capable of being brought back on any selected target. The phenomenal development of laser beams opens up another breathtaking possibility in the fulfilment of Peter’s words. Certainly there is far less difficulty today in a literal reading of them than there is in any figurative interpretation which might be suggested.

It is interesting to enquire where these things are foretold “in the same Word of God.” In what part of the Old Testament? So far, the best answer available has been Isaiah 24:21, which speaks of judgement on those who make war in two elements—on the earth and in the sky: “And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall punish the host of the high ones that are on high, and the kings of the earth upon the earth.” But there is probably some other prophecy, which is more pointed than this.

So far Peter’s answer to the mockers’ criticism about “delay” is: Noah’s Flood may have seemed long overdue, but it came; and since the Word of God also foretells judgement by fire, that too is inevitable.


This point is immediately supplemented with the appropriate reminder that “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years,” that is, when He chooses God can act with such breath-taking swiftness as to bring about in one day developments for which men would estimate a thousand years. It is a point which needs to be well taken by those who are in the habit of assuring themselves, and others, that the coming of the Lord is still an appreciable length of time away because such and such events have to happen first. Peter’s words mean that, even if these confident interpretations of prophecy are correct, God may bring about their fulfilment with such startling suddenness that the call concerning “the Bridegroom” will come to virgins who are asleep.

Also, this powerful statement is another nail in the coffin of the theorists who believe that the year of the Lord’s return can be calculated in advance. The logic of Peter’s words means a possible error of as much as a thousand years in one’s calculations, so the exercise is one of somewhat limited value.

“And a thousand years as one day.” This rather bewildering paradox must surely mean that it is idle to talk of “delay” where God is concerned. To Him delay means nothing, so great is His time-scale. A “delay” of a thousand years would be comparable to being one day off reckoning in the life of a human being.


Next comes the great positive statement of this chapter: “The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” In other words, any apparent delay is due to the loving kindness of a God reluctant to snatch away from His creatures their unused opportunity of salvation. It is a principle much neglected by the present generation, yet taught over and over again in Scripture. Twice more Peter comes back to it in this chapter: “be diligent, that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless. And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is (your opportunity for) salvation” (vv. 14, 15). More positively: “What manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy living and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (vv. 11, 12). That is to say, lack of true repentance in God’s people may have the effect of holding back the fulfilment of His purpose, and conversely, repentance and godliness will bring the great Day so much more speedily.

The same idea is implicit (some would think explicit) in the words of Peter in Acts 3: 19, 20 RV: “Repent ye therefore, and be converted,” that three blessed consequences may ensue: (a) “that your sins may be blotted out;” (b) “that there may come seasons of refreshing from the presence of the Lord;” (c) “and that he may send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you.” When the structure of this statement is properly appreciated, the third item in it makes the coming of the Lord dependent on the repentance and conversion of the Israel of God (both national and spiritual).

This is an awe-inspiring doctrine, for it puts on the believer of the present day a terrible responsibility. By his holy life and godliness he has it in his power to bring the day of Christ’s kingdom nearer. It is also true that a life of selfish indifference and faithlessness may put the brake on God’s purpose for the re-habilitation of a sick world.


Peter’s argument in answer to the unreasonable is now done. There remains only for him to renew his exhortation to those who are willing to take his words seriously. A solemn and powerful reminder of the inevitable judgement does this. It will come “as a thief in the night” to those who are not “looking for the coming of the day of God.” It will involve terrible happenings in which “the elements shall melt with fervent heat.” The most obvious application of these words is to nuclear fission, especially since the next words are “the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.” In the detonation of any nuclear device, the elements do literally melt with fervent heat. Even in this connection, Justin Martyr’s reference to heavenly bodies may not be altogether out of place, when it is considered what a wide variety of contraptions have been flung into orbit round the earth in the past few years. Yet another suggestion, decidedly ad hoc, is that Peter’s words may be fulfilled through the earth’s gravitational acquisition of an uncomfortably large lump of anti-matter from outer space — something like the so-called Siberian meteorite of 1908. But speculations of this sort, whilst within the bounds of possibility, are clean outside the scope of Biblical study and therefore of this investigation.

It has to be said in all honesty that as yet the present writer has been unable to assign any sort of clear-cut idea to the words: “the heavens shall pass away with a great noise.” The word “noise” may encourage a nuclear interpretation (compare Isaiah 24: 18), but what is meant by “the heavens shall pass away”? There is confidence only in a rejection of the idea that this is a symbolic way of saying: “all human government will be abolished.”

Whatever horrors are yet to be experienced, there is little to be feared by the Lord’s faithful. They “look for the coming of the day of God.” They “look for new heavens and earth wherein dwelleth righteousness.” And since they “look for such things,” they “give diligence to be found of him in peace.” The two characteristics go hand in hand. According to the intensity of a man’s expectation and confidence, so is his diligence.

[32] The point needs to be made that not in any sense was A.D. 70 a second coming of Christ. All the prophecies of the fall of Jerusalem represent it as the wrath of God because of the rejection of His Son, e.g. Luke 20:15, 16. Let the parable in Luke 13: 6-9 be studied carefully and the characters identified. Then let the pronoun “thou” be given its due force. Similarly, the “he” in Mark 12: 9 needs to be carefully identified.
[33] Mark the lovely contrast in 1 Peter 1:4.

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