written by Mike Rogers January 10, 2022
Some readers have objected to inmillennialism’s1 interpretation of Peter’s passage about the day of the Lord (2 Pet 3:10–13). I plan to address some of their concerns in future posts. Here, I will support John Formsma’s posts regarding this passage—they begin here—by presenting John Owen’s views on it. The two Johns agree.
Owen (1616–83) “was one of the most eminent of Protestant divines. He was a trenchant controversialist, and his learning was vast, varied, and profound; his mastery of Calvinism was complete.”2 His biographer said,
Every theological scholar, every lover of experimental piety, every reader of our civil and ecclesiastical history, as well as every dissenter, has heard of the name, and known something of the character of Owen:—a man, “admired when living, and adored when lost;” whose works yet praise him in the gates, and by which he will continue to instruct and comfort the church for ages to come.3
To make reading Owen’s remarks easier, I’ve altered some punctuation marks, sentence structures, spellings, reference formats, and Bible version. I’ve also added a few clarifying words [in brackets]. All this, I trust, without changing the author’s meaning. I will also add a summary outline of Owen’s reasoning at the end of this post.
The apostle makes a distribution of the world into heaven and earth, and says they “were destroyed with water, and perished.”5 We know that neither the fabric nor substance of the one or other was destroyed, but only men that lived on the earth. The apostle tells us (2 Pet 3:5) of the heaven and earth that were then, and were destroyed by water, distinct from the heavens and the earth that were now, and were to be consumed by fire. Yet, as to the visible fabric of heaven and earth, they were the same both before the flood and in the apostle’s time, and continue so to this day. But it is certain that the heavens and earth, whereof he spake, were to be destroyed and consumed by fire in that generation. We must, then … consider what the apostle intends by the heavens and the earth.…
First, it is certain that what the apostle intends by the “world”—with its heaven, and earth (2 Pet 3:5–6), which was destroyed by water—the same, or somewhat of that kind, he intends by “the heavens and the earth” that were to be consumed and destroyed by fire (2 Pet 3:7). Otherwise there would be no coherence in the apostle’s discourse, nor any kind of argument, but a mere fallacy of words.
Second, it is certain, that, by the flood, the world, or the fabric of heaven and earth, was not destroyed, but only the inhabitants of the world. Therefore, the destruction intimated to succeed by fire, is not of the substance of the heavens and the earth, which shall not be consumed until the last day, but of persons or men living in the world.
Third, we must consider in what sense men living in the world are said to be the “world,” and the “heavens and earth” of it. I shall only insist on one instance to this purpose, among many that may be produced, Isaiah 51:15–16. The time when the work here mentioned—of planting the heavens, and laying the foundation of the earth—was performed by God, was when he “divided the sea” (Isa 51:15), and gave the law (Isa 51:16), and said to Zion, “You are My people.” This is when He took the children of Israel out of Egypt, and formed them in the wilderness into a church and state. Then He planted the heavens, and laid the foundation of the earth:—made the new world; that is, brought forth order, and government, and beauty, from the confusion wherein before they were. This is the planting of the heavens, and laying the foundation of the earth in the world. And hence it is, that when mention is made of the destruction of a state and government, it is in that language which seems to set forth the end of the world. So Isaiah 34:4, which is yet but the destruction of the state of Edom. The like also is affirmed of the Roman Empire (Rev 6:14); which the Jews constantly affirm to be intended by Edom in the prophets. And in our Savior Christ’s prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem (Matt 24), He sets it out by expressions of the same importance. It is evident, then, that in the prophetical idiom and manner of speech, by “heavens” and “earth,” the civil and religious state and combination of men in the world, and the men of them, are often understood. So were the heavens and earth—that world which then was—destroyed by the flood.
Fourth, on this foundation I affirm, that the heavens and earth here intended in this prophecy of Peter—the coming of the Lord, the day of judgment, and perdition of ungodly men, mentioned in the destruction of that heaven and earth—do all of them relate, not to the last and final judgment of the world, but to that utter desolation and destruction that was to be made of the Judaical church and state. For which, I shall offer these two reasons, of many that might be insisted on from the text:
(1.) Because whatever is here mentioned was to have its peculiar influence on the men of that generation. Peter speaks of that wherein both the profane scoffers and those scoffed at were concerned, and that as Jews—some of them believing, others opposing the faith. Now, there was no particular concernment of that generation—nor in that sin, nor in that scoffing—as to the day of judgment in general. But there was a peculiar relief for the one and a peculiar dread for the other at hand, in the destruction of the Jewish nation. And, besides, [this destruction was] an ample testimony, both to the one and the other, of the power and dominion of the Lord Jesus Christ;—which was the thing in question between them.
(2.) Peter tells them, that, after the destruction and judgment that he speaks of, 2 Peter 3:13, “We, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth,” etc. They had this expectation. But what is that promise? Where may we find it? Why, we have it in the very words and letter, Isaiah 65:17. Now, when shall this be that God will create these new heavens and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness?” Saith Peter, “ It shall be after the coming of the Lord, after that judgment and destruction of ungodly men, who obey not the gospel, that I foretell.” But now it is evident from this place of Isaiah, with Isaiah 65:21–22, that this is a prophecy of Gospel times only; and that the planting of these new heavens is nothing but the creation of gospel ordinances to endure for ever. The same thing is so expressed in Hebrews 12:26–28.
This being, then, the design of the place, I shall not insist longer on the context, but briefly open the words proposed, and fix upon the truth contained in them:—
First, there is the foundation of the apostle’s inference and exhortation, … “Seeing that I have evinced that all these things, however precious they seem, or what value soever any put upon them, shall be dissolved,—that is, destroyed; and that, in that dreadful and fearful manner before mentioned,—in a way of judgment, wrath, and vengeance, by fire and sword;—let others mock at the threats of Christ’s coming,—He will come, He will not tarry; and then the heavens and earth that God Himself planted,—the sun, moon, and stars of the Judaical polity and church,—the whole old world of worship and worshippers, that stand out in their [stubbornness6] against the Lord Christ, —shall be sensibly dissolved and destroyed. This, we know, shall be the end of these things, and that shortly.”[Owen then makes other applications of this passage.]
Outline of Owen’s Logic
- Problem: What did Peter mean by “the heavens and earth” that fire was about to destroy? How could he compare the fire judgment to the flood?
- The fire would judge the same heavens and earth as the flood.
- The flood destroyed wicked men, not the physical heavens and earth. The fire would do so, too.
- The fire would consume “the heavens and earth” God created in the exodus (Isa 51:15–16)—the Jewish cosmos with the temple at its center. Jesus foretold the same judgment (Matt 24:1–3) and used similar imagery to describe it (Matt 24:29). This imagery describes civil and religious states and the men who live in them.
- Two observations confirm this view of the fiery judgment of which Peter speaks:
- It makes Peter’s message relevant to his readers. They and the scoffers had a vital and immediate concern with this “heavens and earth.” The conflict at hand was between Christians and apostate Israel. Jesus had promised to return in His generation (Matt 24:34), but that generation was almost over. Still, He would prove the scoffers wrong!
- God had promised a “new heavens and a new earth” in Isaiah 65:21–22. This figurative language represents the messianic age in which we now live. Paul spoke of this age in Hebrews 12:26–28. Jesus would return to end the Jewish “heavens and earth” and its temple. He would fully establish the Christian “heavens and earth” with Himself as its center.
- Exhortations to the people of Peter’s generation:
Owen’s view of 2 Peter 3 fits well in the inmillennial prophetic model. Lord willing, my next post will show why Peter’s reference to the universal flood does not require a universal judgment by fire.
- For a full-length account of this prophetic model, see Michael A. Rogers, Inmillennialism: Redefining the Last Days(Tullahoma, TN: McGahan Publishing House, 2020). It is available here. For a summary, see the free PDF here.
- Samuel Macauley Jackson, ed., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1908–14), 8:293.
- William Orme, Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Religious Connections, of John Owen (London: Printed for T. Hamilton, 1820), 3.
- See John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 16 vols. (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1965), 9:133–35. This passage is from a sermon, “Providential Changes, an Argument for Universal Holiness.”
- The image in this post is Noah’s Ark by Edward Hicks (1780–1849). This file (here) is in the public domain (PD-US).
- Owen’s word was obstinacy.