The Passing of the Elements: 2 Peter 3:10

One of the key arguments offered against Covenant Eschatology is Peter’s statement in 2 Peter 3 that, "the elements will melt with fervent heat." We are told that the elements are the fundamental elements of material creation. Is this the only interpretation of this verse? Were there other "elements" of another "heaven and earth" that were predicted to pass in Peter’s near future?

Much could be said about this subject. For instance, it is certainly relevant to show from Josephus that the Jews referred to the Temple at Jerusalem as "heaven and earth." a However, I will reserve this study for another time.

This study will examine Peter’s declaration that Paul also wrote about the passing away of the elements of heaven and earth (2 Peter 3:15-16).

My argument is simple: Paul wrote the same thing about the passing of the "elements" of the world as did Peter (2 Peter 3:15-16). But Paul, in discussing the passing of the "elements" of the world, wrote exclusively of the passing away of the "elements" of Old Covenant Israel.

Therefore, Peter, in 2 Peter 3, wrote of the passing of the "elements" of Old Covenant Israel.

Paul and the Elements
Paul certainly did write about the passing of the "elements" (stoichea) of the world. But he never used the word to refer to physical creation.

Galatians is concerned with the superiority of the world of Christ over the Mosaic World. Addressing his Jewish Christian audience Paul reminds them of their condition under the Law, "Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world" (Galatians 4:3). It is important to note that Paul speaks here of the elements of the world. The word translated as world is from cosmos. It is unfortunate that when this word is used in scripture most people think it has to speak of the physical universe. It is clear however, from this text and all others where Paul speaks of the elements of the cosmos, that this is not what the apostle had in mind.

He could not be speaking of material creation because he was saying they had become free from the elements of the world. If the "elements" refers to the material world Paul was saying the Galatian brethren had become free from the physical world.

In verse 9 he continues: "But now, after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?" The "elements" were the Old Covenant mandates concerning feast days (4:10). Compare Paul’s statement about freedom and the exhortation not to be enslaved again with Galatians 5:1-3. The thought is identical; freedom was from the Old Covenant not the material creation.

The Galatian brethren had become free from those elements by coming into Christ and becoming the spiritual seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:26-29; 5:1-4). The system itself, however, that world (kosmos) with its elements (4:3), was to be cast out for persecuting the spiritual seed of Abraham (Galatians 4:22-32). Thus, in Galatians we find the exact elements — no pun intended — as in 2 Peter 3. We find Paul speaking of the elements of the world passing away. Yet his focus is on the passing of the Old Covenant World of Israel.b

Just as in Galatians, Paul addresses the Old Covenant System as the "world" and the doctrines of that system as the "elements" of the world. He urges his readers: "Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles (stoichea) of the world (cosmos) and not according to Christ."

Was Paul saying that man should not be deceived by earth, wind, fire, or water? Clearly, he was urging his audience not to be deceived by the doctrines of man.

These traditions of men — and what traditions of men receive more attention in scripture than the traditions of Old Covenant Israel (Matthew 15?) — were the doctrines concerning "meats, drinks, new moons, and Sabbaths" (Colossians 2:16). Thus, the elements of the world were the Old Covenant commandments. The world (cosmos) was the Old Covenant World.

In chapter 2:20 the apostle reminds them "if you died with Christ from the basic principles (stoichea) of the world (kosmos), why as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations — do not touch, do not taste, do not handle." There could not be a clearer definition of "the elements of the world." They were the Old Covenant laws concerning foods and clean and unclean things.

Notice the direct correlation between Galatians 4:10 and Colossians 2:14-16. In Galatians the apostle says the brethren were becoming entangled again in the "elements of the world" and the specific example was their observance of "days, months, seasons, and years" (v. 10). In Colossians he warns his Gentile audience not to be judged in respect to "festival, new moon or sabbaths." Bruce has effectively shown that both references can refer to nothing but the Old Covenant laws.c There can be little doubt that the "elements of the world" in these texts were the elements of the Old Covenant world of Israel.

That "world" still existed because those feast days and observances were still "a shadow of things that are about to (mellonton) come" (Colossians 2:17). But Paul then says the Old Covenant mandates — the elements — "all concern things which are to perish with the using" (Colossians 2:22). Here is an emphatic statement concerning the passing of the "elements" and thus the "world" — of the Old Covenant.

Just as in Galatians — and 2 Peter 3 — we find the discussion of the elements, the world, and the passing of the world. Yet it is abundantly clear that for Paul, the passing of the elements, and thus the destruction of the world, meant the passing of the Old Covenant World. And remember, Peter said that his discussion of the passing of the elements is the same thing as what Paul said.

Hebrews 5:12-6:1-5
Assuming the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, this text agrees perfectly with the idea that the elements of the passing world were the doctrines of the Old Covenant.

The word of the beginning belonged to the world that the Christians needed to leave behind (Hebrews 6:1), and go on to the perfection of "the world to come" (Hebrews 6:5).d We thus have the passing of one world and the anticipation of another. The Old World is the Old Covenant World of Israel that anticipated and predicted the coming of the Messiah — these predictions were part of the elements, the first principles of Christ. The New World, the World to come, was initiated by the passion of Jesus and his work of atonement. The perfection of that atoning work would be his parousia (Hebrews 9:28).

The first principles (elements) of Christ could not make one perfect (Hebrews 6:1). But it was the Old Covenant that could not make one perfect (Hebrews 7:11; 9:12-15; 10:1-4). Therefore the first principles of Christ — the elements — referred to the Old Covenant.

In Hebrews the Old Covenant "elements" were even then "ready to vanish away" (Hebrews 8:13). Christ came at "the end of age" (Hebrews 9:26). He came to do away with the first principles (elements) of that Old World and bring perfection, the New World. The Old "heaven and earth" was being shaken so that the unshakable kingdom might remain (Hebrews 12:25-28).

Hebrews then, agrees with Galatians and Colossians in its usage of th
e word elements. It referred to the basic doctrines of Old Covenant Israel. In Galatians, Colossians and Hebrews the elements of that Old World (kosmos) were in the process of, and were ready to vanish away.

Having observed all occurrences of the word "stoichea" (elements), outside 2 Peter 3 we have seen that these references have nothing to do with physical creation. They refer exclusively to the basic doctrines and commands of the Old Covenant World of Israel. In each of the texts above the inspired writers predicted the passing of that Old World.

Let me restate my argument: Paul wrote the same thing about the passing of the "elements" of the world as did Peter (2 Peter 3:15-16). But Paul, in discussing the passing of the "elements" of the world, wrote exclusively of the passing of the "elements" of Old Covenant Israel. Therefore, Peter, in 2 Peter 3, wrote of the passing of the "elements" of Old Covenant Israel.

To negate the power of this argument one must prove that Paul discussed the passing of two different kinds of "elements" and "worlds." Yet Paul, as shown above, when discussing the passing of the elements of the world speaks exclusively of the passing of the Old Covenant world.

The evidence presented in this brief article shows that the focus of Peter’s — and thus the Bible’s — is Covenantal and not Historical. Peter wrote just a few short years prior to the fall of Jerusalem, the center of the Old Covenant World. He and his readers were "looking for and hastening the coming of the Day of the Lord" (2 Peter 3:12). The Day was at hand!

Peter’s Day of the Lord, with the destruction of the elements, came. As a result, believers in God today should not fear the future. We should live lives of confidence and righteousness as we dwell in the New Heavens and Earth of our Savior.

a) Josephus, Antiquities (William Whiston trans., Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1987) BK. 3, chap. 6:4-7; chapt. 7:7, pp 86+

b) Paul’s statement that the bondwoman and her son, representative of the Old Covenant, was yet to be cast out — for persecuting Christians — is prima fascia proof that the Old Testament did not pass at the cross as is traditionally maintained by many. Paul emphatically says the Old Covenant people would be cast out for persecuting Christians, the children of promise (Galatians 4:28-30). This persecution patently did not occur prior to the cross. Thus, Israel could not have been cut off at the cross.

c) F. F. Bruce, New International Greek Testament Commentary, Galatians, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1982) 206+.

d) For an excellent study showing that the first principles of Hebrews 5:12; 6:1f were the Old Covenant elements see Max King’s series of articles in the Living Presence, beginning Vol. 6, No. 1, August, 1995. Many other scholars, not advocates of Covenant Eschatology, agree with this view. See, for instance, F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1964) 112+ says the impression we get is that existing Jewish beliefs and practices were used as a foundation on which to build Christian truth.