A basic principle of the Reformation was the priesthood of all believers. Not only could sinners receive the merits of Jesus Christ directly, but they also were given the high and holy privilege to study the Bible directly. Private interpretation does not mean interpretive autonomy. Scripture must be used to interpret Scripture. Nowhere is this principle more vividly illustrated than in a study of 2 Peter 3 and its language of a "new heaven and a new earth."
According to St. Peter’s second epistle, Christ and the apostles had warned that apostasy would accelerate toward the end of the "last days" (2 Pet. 3:2-4; cf. Jude 17-19) – the forty-year period between Christ’s as-cension and the destruction of the Old Covenant Temple in A.D. 70.  He makes it clear that these latter-day "mockers" were Covenant apostates: familiar with Old Testament history and prophecy, they were Jews who had abandoned the Abrahamic Covenant by rejecting Christ. As Jesus had repeatedly warned (cf. Matt. 12:38-45; 16:1-4;23:29-39), upon this evil and perverse generation would come the great "Day of Judgment" foretold in the prophets, a "destruction of ungodly men" like that suffered by the wicked of Noah’s day (2 Pet.3:5-7).
Throughout His ministry Jesus drew this analogy (see Matthew 24:37-39 and Luke17:26-27). Just as God destroyed the "world" of the antediluvian era by the Flood, so would the "world" of first-century Israel be destroyed by fire in the fall of Jerusalem.
St. Peter describes this judgment as the destruction of "the present heavens and earth" (v. 7), making way for "new heavens and a new earth" (v. 10). Because of what may be called the "collapsing-universe" terminology used in this passage, many have mistakenly assumed that St. Peter is speaking of the final end of the physical heaven and earth, rather than the dissolution of the Old Covenant world order. The great seventeenth-century Puritan theologian John Owen answered this view by referring to the Bible’s very characteristic metaphorical usage of the terms heavens and earth, as in Isaiah’s description of the Mosaic Covenant:
But I am the LORD thy God, that divided the sea, whose waves roared: The LORD of hosts is his name. And I have put my words in thy mouth, and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people (Isa. 51:15 -16).
John Owen writes:
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 (v. 16), and said to Zion, "Thou art my people" – that 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 that 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 is also affirmed of the Roman empire, Revelation 6:14; which the Jews constantly affirmed to be intended by Edom in the prophets. And in our Saviour Christ’s prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem, Matthew 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 was then destroyed by the flood. 
Another Old Testament text, among many that could be mentioned, is Jeremiah 4:23-31, which speaks of the imminent fall of Jerusalem (587 B.C.) in similar language of decreation:
I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light….For thus says the LORD, the whole land shall be a desolation [referring to the curse of Lev.26:31-33; see its fulfillment in Matt.24:15!], yet I will not execute a complete destruction. For this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above be dark….
New Creation Language From the very beginning, God’s covenant with Israel had been expressed in terms of a new creation: Moses described Israel’s salvation in the wilderness in terms of the Spirit of God hovering over a waste, just as in the original creation of heaven and earth (Deut. 32:10-11; cf. Gen. 1:2).  In the Exodus, as at the original creation, God divided light and darkness (Ex. 14:20), divided the waters from the waters to bring forth the dry land (Ex. 14:21-22), and planted His people in His holy mountain (Ex. 15:17). God’s miraculous formation of Israel was thus an image of Creation, a redemptive recapitulation of the making of heaven and earth. The Old Covenant order, in which the entire world was organized around the central sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple, could quite appropriately be described, before its final dissolution, as "the present heavens and earth."
The Mosaic Economy The 19th-century expositor John Brown wrote:
A person at all familiar with the phraseology of the Old Testament scriptures knows that the dissolution of the Mosaic economy, and the establishment of the Christian, is often spoken of as the removing of the old earth and heavens, and the creation of a new earth and heavens….The period of the close of the one dispensation, and the commencement of the other, is spoken of as ‘the last days’ and ‘the end of the world’; and is described as such a shaking of the earth and heavens, as should lead to the removal of the things which were shaken (Hag. 2:6; Heb. 12:26-27). 
Therefore, says Owen,
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 – i.e., the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. 
This interpretation is confirmed by St. Peter’s further information: In this imminent "Day of the Lord" which was about to come upon the first-century world "like a thief" (cf. Matt. 24:42-43; I Thess. 5:2; Rev.3:3), "the elements will be destroyed with intense heat" (v. 10; cf. v. 12).
Elementary Principles What are these elements? So-called "literalists" lightly and carelessly assume that the apostle is speaking about physics, using the term to mean atoms (or perhaps subatomic particles), the actual physical components of the universe. What these "literalists" fail to recognize is that although the word elements (stoicheia) is used several times in the New Testament, it is never used in connection with the physical universe! (In this respect, the very misleading comments of the New Geneva Study Bible on this passage [inserted below by JEGjr] violate its own interpretive dictum that "Scripture interprets Scripture." For possible meanings of this term, it cites pagan Greek philosophers and astrologers – but never the Bible’s own use of the term!) Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words observes that while in pagan literature the Greek word stoicheia is used in a number of different w
ays (referring to the "four elements" of the physical world, or to the "notes" on a musical scale, or to the "principles" of geometry or logic), the New Testament writers use the term "in a new way, describing the stoicheia as weak and beggarly. In a transferred sense, the stoicheia are the things on which pre-Christian existence rests, especially in pre-Christian religion. These things are impotent; they bring bondage instead of freedom." 
Study notes for II Peter 3:10 from the New Geneva Study Bible; and MacArthur Study Bible:
NGSB (p.1983) elements. Greek stoicheia, a term used for (a) the elements making up the world (according to the philosophers these were earth, air, fire, and water)…
MacArthur Study Bible (p.1959) the heavens will pass away with a great noise. The "heavens" refer to the physical universe. The "great noise" connotes whistling or a crackling sound as of objects being consumed by flames. God will incinerate the universe, probably in an atomic reaction that disintegrates all matter as we know it (vv.7, 11, 12, 13). the elements will melt with fervent heat. The "elements" are the atomic components into which matter is ultimately divisible, which make up the composition of all the created matter. Peter means that the atoms, neutrons, protons, and electrons are all going to disintegrate (v.11).
Throughout the New Testament, the word "elements" (stoicheia) is always used in connection with the Old Covenant order. St. Paul used the term in his stinging rebuke to the Galatian Christians who were tempted to forsake the freedom of the New Covenant for an Old Covenant-style legalism. Describing Old Covenant rituals and ceremonies, he says "we were in bondage under the elements (stoicheia) of this world….How is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements (stoicheia), to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years…" (Gal. 4:3, 9-10). He warns the Colossians: "Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the basic principles (stoicheia) of the world, and not according to Christ….Therefore, if you died with Christ to the basic principles (stoicheia) of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations – ‘Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle"’ (Col. 2:8,20-21).
The writer to the Hebrews chided them: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elements (stoicheia) of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food" (Heb. 5:12). In context, the writer to the Hebrews is clearly speaking of Old Covenant truths particularly since he connects it with the term oracles of God, an expression used elsewhere in the New Testament for the provisional, Old Covenant revelation (see Acts 7:38; Rom.3:2). These citations from Galatians, Colossians, and Hebrews comprise all the other occurrences in the New Testament of that word "elements" (stoichea). Not one refers to the "elements" of the physical world or universe; all are speaking of the "elements" of the Old Covenant system, which, as the apostles wrote just before the approaching destruction of the Old Covenant Temple in A.D. 70, was "becoming obsolete and growing old" and "ready to vanish away" (Heb.8:13).
St. Peter uses the same term in exactly the same way. Throughout the Greek New Testament, the word elements (stoicheia) always means ethics, not physics; the foundational "elements" of a religious system that was doomed to pass away in a fiery judgment.
The Time Factor In fact, St. Peter was quite specific about the fact that he was not referring to an event thousands of years in their future, but to something that was already taking place:
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements (stoicheia) will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things are being dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements (stoicheia) are being melted with fervent heat? (2 Pet. 3:10-12)
Contrary to the misleading renderings of translators blinded by their presuppositions, St. Peter insists that the dissolution of "the present heaven and earth" – the Old Covenant system with its obligatory rituals and bloody sacrifices – was already beginning to occur: the "universe" of the Old Covenant was coming apart, never to be revived:
When did prophet and vision cease from Israel? Was it not when Christ came, the Holy one of holies? It is, in fact, a sign and notable proof of the coming of the Word that Jerusalem no longer stands, neither is prophet raised up, nor vision revealed among them. And it is natural that it should be so, for when He that was signified had come, what need was there any longer of any to signify Him? And when the Truth had come, what further need was there of the shadow?…And the kingdom of Jerusalem ceased at the same time, kings were to be anointed among them only until the Holy of holies had been anointed. 
St. Peter’s message, John Owen argues, is that:
…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 obstinancy against the Lord Christ – shall be sensibly dissolved and destroyed. 
Notes For a defense of this position, see my Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion (Tyier,TX: Dominion Press, 1985), 112-22. The fact is that every time Scripture uses the term "last days" (and similar expressions) it means, not the end of the physical universe, but the period from AD 30 to AD 70 – the period during which the Apostles were preaching and writing, the "last days" of Old Covenant Israel before it was forever destroyed in the destruction of the Temple (and consequently the annihilation of the Old Covenant sacrificial system). See Acts 2:16-21; I Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 3:1-9; Hebrews 1:1-2; 8:13; 9:26; James 5:7-9; I Peter 1:20;4:7; I John 2:18; Jude 17-19. See also Gary DeMar,Last Days Madness: The Obsession of the Modern Church (Atlanta, GA: American Vision, 1993).  John Owen, "Providential Changes, An Argument for Universal Holiness," in William H. Goold, ed., The Works of John Owen, 16 vols. (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965-68),9:134.  See Chilton, Paradise Restored, 59.  John Brown, Discourses and Sayings of Our Lord (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust,  1990), 1:171-72.  Brown, Discourses and Sayings of Our Lord ,1:171-72.  Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds.,Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (abridged in one volume), Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 1088.  St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God (New York: Macmillan, 1946),  61-62.8. Owen, "Providential Changes, An Argumentfor Universal Holiness," 9: 135.  Owen, "Providential Changes, An Argument for Universal Holiness," 9: 135.
As we saw [above], Puritan theologian John Owen argued that the teaching of 2 Peter 3 about the coming "Day of the Lord" was not about the end of the physical universe, but of the Old Covenant and the nation of Israel. He points out that the term "heavens and earth" are often used in the Old Testament as a symbolic expression
for God’s covenantal creation, Israel (see Isa. 51:15-20; Jer. 4:23-31). Owen writes: "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 obstinacy against the Lord Christ shall be sensibly dissolved and destroyed." 
Owen offers two further reasons ("of many that might be insisted on from the text," he says) for adopting the A.D. 70 interpretation of 2 Peter 3. First, he observes,"whatever is here mentioned was to have its particular influence on the men of that generation."  That is a crucial point, which must be clearly recognized in any honest assessment of the apostle’s meaning. St. Peter is especially concerned that his first-century readers remember the apostolic warnings about "the last days" (vv. 2-3; cf. I Tim.4:1-6; 2 Tim. 3:1-9). During these times, the Jewish scoffers of his day, clearly familiar with the Biblical prophecies of judgment, were refusing to heed those warnings (vv. 3-5). He exhorts his readers to live holy lives in the light of this imminent judgment (vv. 11, 14); and it is these early Christians who are repeatedly mentioned as actively "looking for and hastening" the judgment (vv. 12, 13, 14). It is precisely the nearness of the approaching conflagration that St. Peter cites as a motive to diligence in godly living!
An obvious objection to such an exposition is to refer to what is probably the most well-known, most-misunderstood text in St. Peter’s brief epistle: "But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (2 Pet. 3:8). This means, it is said, that "God’s arithmetic is different from ours," so that when Scripture uses terms like "near" and "shortly" (e.g., Rev. 1:1-3) or "at hand" (e.g., James 5:5-7), it doesn’t intend to give the impression of soon-approaching events, but of events possibly thousands of years in the future! Milton Terry refuted this seemingly plausible but spurious theory:
The language is a poetical citation from Psalm 90:4, and is adduced to show that the lapse of time does not invalidate the promises of God….But this is very different from saying that when the everlasting God promises something shortly, and declares that it is close at hand, He may mean that it is a thousand years in the future. Whatever He has promised indefinitely He may take a thousand years or more to fulfill; but what He affirms to be at the door let no man declare to be far away. 
J. Stuart Russell wrote with biting disdain:
Few passages have suffered more from misconstruction than this, which has been made to speak a language inconsistent with its obvious intention, and even incompatible with a strict regard to veracity. There is probably an allusion here to the words of the Psalmist, in which he contrasts the brevity of human life with the eternity of the divine existence….But surely it would be the height of absurdity to regard this sublime poetic image as a calculus for the divine measurement of time, or as giving us warrant for wholly disregarding definitions of time in the predictions and promises of God.
Yet it is not unusual to quote these words as an argument or excuse for the total disregard for the element of time in the prophetic writings. Even in cases where a certain time is specified in the prediction, or where such limitations as ‘shortly,’ or ‘speedily,’ or ‘at hand’ are expressed, the passage before us is appealed to in justification of an arbitrary treatment of such notes of time, so that soon may mean late, and near may mean distant, and short may mean long, and vice versa….
It is surely unnecessary to repudiate in the strongest manner such a non-natural method of interpreting the language of Scripture. It is worse than ungrammatical and unreasonable, it is immoral. It is to suggest that God has two weights and measures in His dealings with men, and that in His mode of reckoning there is ambiguity and variableness which will make it impossible to tell ‘What manner of time the Spirit of Christ in the prophets may signify’ [cf. I Pet. 1:11]…
The Scriptures themselves, however, give no countenance to such a method of interpretation. Faithfulness is one of the attributes most frequently ascribed to the ‘covenant-keeping God,’ and the divine faithfulness is that which the apostle in this very passage affirms….The apostle does not say that when the Lord promises a thing for today He may not fullfil His promise for a thousand years: that would be slackness; that would be a breach of promise. He does not say that because God is infinite and everlasting, therefore He reckons with a different arithmetic from ours, or speaks to us in double sense, or uses two different weights and measures in His dealings with mankind. The very reverse is the truth….
It is evident that the object of the apostle in this passage is to give his readers the strongest assurance that the impending catastrophe of the last days were on the very eve of fulfillment. The veracity and faithfulness of God were the guarantees of the punctual performance of the promise. To have intimated that time was a variable quantity in the promise of God would have been to stultify and neutralize his own teaching, which was that ‘the Lord is not slack concerning His promise.’ 
Continuing his analysis, John Owen cites verse 13: "But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells." Owen asks: "What is that promise? Where may we find it?" Good question. Do you know the answer? Where in the Old Testament does God promise a New Heaven and Earth? Incidentally, this raises a wider, fascinating issue: When the New Testament quotes or cites an Old Testament text, it’s often a good idea to hunt down the original context, see what it meant in its original context, and then see the "spin" the New Testament writer places on it. (For example, Isaiah’s prophecy of a gigantic highway-construction project [Isa. 40:3-5] is not interpreted literally in the New Testament, but metaphorically, of the preaching ministry of John the Baptist [Luke 3:4-6]. And Isaiah’s prophecy of a "golden age" when the wolf dwells peaceably with the lamb [Isa. 11:1-10] is condensed and cited by St. Paul as a present fulfillment, in the New Covenant age [Rom. 15:12]!) But John Owen, this Puritan scholar, knows his Bible better than most of the rest of us, and he tells us exactly where the Old Testament foretells a "new heaven and earth":
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 chapter 66:21-22, 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 forever. The same thing is so expressed in Hebrews 12:26-28. 
Owen is right on target, asking the question that so many expositors fail to ask: Where had God promised to bring "new heavens and a new earth"? The answer, as Owen correctly states, is only in Isaiah 65 and 66 – passages which clearly prophesy the period of the Gospel, brought in by the work of Christ. According to Isaiah himself, this "New Creation" cannot possibly be the eternal s
tate, since it contains birth and death, building and planting (65:20-23). The "new heavens and earth" promised to the Church comprise the age of the New Covenant – the Gospel’s triumph, when all mankind will come to bow down before the Lord (66: 22-23). John Bray writes: "This passage is a grand description of the gospel age after Christ came in judgment in 70 A.D. and took away the old heavens and the old earth. We now have the new heavens and the new earth of the gospel age."  St. Peter’s encouragement to the Church of his day was to be patient, to wait for God’s judgment to destroy those who were persecuting the faith and impeding its progress. "The end of all things is at hand," he had written earlier (I Pet. 4:7). John Brown commented:
"The end of all things" here is the entire end of the Jewish economy in the destruction of the temple and city of Jerusalem, and the dispersal of the holy people. That was at hand; for this epistle seems to have been written a very short while before these events took place….It is quite plain that in our Lord’s predictions, the expressions "the end" and probably "the end of the world" [KJV wrongly translates Mtt.24:3 as "world." Should be "age" – "…and the end of the age" NOT "…end of the world." JEGjr] are used in reference to the entire dissolution of the Jewish economy (cf. Matt.24:3, 6, 14, 34; Rom. 13:11-12; James 5:8-9). 
Once the Lord came to destroy the scaffolding of the Old Covenant structure, the New Covenant Temple would be left in its place, and the victorious march of the Church would be unstoppable. According to God’s predestined design, the world will be converted; the earth’s treasures will be brought into the City of God, as the Paradise Mandate (Gen. 1:27-28; Matt. 28:18-20) is consummated (Rev. 21:1-27).
This is why the apostles constantly affirmed that the age of consummation had already been implemented by the resurrection and ascension of Christ, who poured out the Holy Spirit. St. Paul, writing of the redeemed individual, says that "if any man is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new" (2 Cor. 5:17). St. John, recording his vision says the same thing: "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth….The first things have passed away….Behold, I am making all things new" (Rev. 21:1-5). The writer to the Hebrews comforts his first-century readers with the assurance that they have already arrived at "the City of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (Heb. 12:22; cf. Gal. 26-28; Rev. 21). Even as the old "heaven and earth" were being shaken to rubble, the early Christians were "receiving a Kingdom which cannot be shaken," the eternal Kingdom of God brought in by His Son (Heb. 12:26-28). Milton Terry wrote:
The language of 2 Pet. 3:10-12 is taken mainly from Isa. 34:4, and is limited to the parousia, like the language of Matt. 24:29. Then the Lord made "not only the land but also the heaven" to tremble (Heb. 12:26), and removed the things that were shaken in order to establish a kingdom which cannot be moved. 
It is crucial to note that the apostle continually points his readers’ attention, not to events that were to take place thousands of years in the future, but to events that were already beginning to take place. Otherwise,his closing words make no sense at all: "Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless….You, therefore, beloved, since you know these things beforehand, beware lest you fal lfrom your own steadfastness…" (2 Pet.3:14-17). If these things refer to a late-20th-century thermonuclear holocaust, why would the inspired apostle direct such a serious exhortation against "falling from steadfastness" to thousands of readers who would never live to see the things he foretold? A cardinal rule of Biblical interpretation is that Scripture must interpret Scripture; and, particularly, that the New Testament is God’s own inspired commentary on the meaning of the Old Testament.
Once the old had been swept away, St. Peter declared, the Age of Christ would be fully established, an era "in which righteousness dwells" (2 Pet. 3:13). The distinguishing characteristic of the new era, in stark contrast to what preceded it, would be righteousness – increasing righteousness, as the Gospel would be set free in its mission to the nations. There have been many battles throughout Church history, of course, and many battles lie ahead. But these must not blind us to the very real progress that the Gospel has made and continues to make in the world. The New World Order of the Lord Jesus Christ has arrived; and, according to God’s own promise, the saving knowledge of Him will fill the earth, as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 11:9).
Notes John Owen, "Providential Changes, an Argument for Universal Holiness," in The Works of John Owen, 16 vols. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust), 9:135.  "Providential Changes, an Argument for Universal Holiness," 134.  Milton Terry, Biblical Hermeneutices: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1974), 406.  J. Stuart Russell, The Parousia (Bradford,PA: Kingdom Publications, n.d.), 321-23.  "Providential Changes, an Argument for Universal Holiness," 134-35.  John L. Bray, Heaven and Earth Shall Pass Away (Lakeland, FL: John L. Bray Ministries,1995), 26.  Quoted in Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1954), 107.  Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 489.