The Hebrew language and hence the Hebrew mind is not quite like our English language. Hebrew has a somewhat limited diction, which makes for a less precise language. In order to extract a diversity of meaning from fewer words means that context and relation play a bigger role. For example the hebrew ‘yahm’ which we would translate ‘sea’. Can mean any body of water from a cup to the golden basin in front of the temple to the Red Sea. We might bristle at the lack of specificity, but they gloried in the connections. The basin in front of the temple is related to the red sea, context would easily make clear what you were talking about. And the related meaning carries a sense of poetry embeded in the language which our modern English can lack. So their words were more like what and English professor might call ‘themes’. It is a loaded or pregnant term.
One such theme is the idea of water as a baptizing, cleansing force which leads to new birth. The creation account begins in Genesis 1:2 to introduce the idea of water in this way. The image is almost a birth of all creation from God hovering over the face of the waters. The theme is repeated in the flood account in Genesis 6-8. The earth is cleansed of its wicked flesh by the flood. But this is not only a destruction, it is a remaking of the world, it is a rebirth of the earth by water, a baptism even. These are the connections Peter is making in II Peter 3:4-6. People think the earth has always been this way, but they are wrong, there was a different earth before the flood. Now after the flood God put his bow in the sky as a covenant with Noah and all his offspring that he would never again destroy, cleanse, the world by water. We have the term rainbow indicating the rain which produces it. It did not always rain. Creation scientist have fun attempting to determine just what the world was like before the flood. At any rate we know it was different.
So, here we are, the world is still messed up. Look around, evil is rampant. Is this supposed to be the kingdom of God? God can’t use water to fix things this time. Peter makes it clear next time it will be fire. The theme of fire is meant to make connections just as the theme of water did. We like to think of the fire as a series of explosions at the end of an action movie that destroy all the bad guys and their fancy cars, while the good guy escapes to the beach somewhere. We think of this destruction as the end of earth, and we will happily float away to a cloud in heaven to play harps for eternity. This is not the idea at all. This has more to do with Platonic philosophy than anything we might find in scripture. In scripture fire is an insturment of cleansing just like water. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with “brimstone and fire from the Lord” Genesis 19:24. But I think a more common theme connected with fire is that of refining or testing. Proverbs 17:3 says “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the Lord tests the hearts.” It is a theme repeated in the prophets. Zechariah 13:9 says “And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’” ”. The idea in these passages is not an outright destruction, but a testing to reveal what is enduring and precious and what is garbage. In fact the valley of Gehenna outside the City of David became the greek word translated ‘hell’ in our New Testament. Hell is where the garbage is burned.
Paul expounds on this idea of testing, and what is tested? Our works. I Corinthians 3:9-15 details this theme. Paul tells us he was given the task of building the foundations, and we are to build on top of it with our work. We might build with gold, silver or precious stones or wood, hay and straw. Only the fire at the end will make it clear what we built with. If we build with wood, hay and straw our work will be consumed. We might be saved like the action movie but our work will not. If we build with gold, silver and precious stones our work will endure. Endure, this means that it will make it past the fire at the end. It will make it past this earth and continue into the new heaven and new earth. Remember the fire is a remaking of the earth a cleansing like the waters of the flood. We modern evangelicals almost run wholeheartedly to build with hay and straw or play with dirt as C. S. Lewis remarks. We think this world is going to burn up so, who cares. But this is not it at all. Paul here and Peter in II Peter 3:10 is about works. It is telling us to do the work that is real because we don’t want it all to burn up. And he is not just talking about some narrow idea of evangelism. II Peter 3:11 tells us in light of the coming fire to live lives of holiness and godliness. These works will endure. Romans 8:22 tells us that all of creation groans with labor pains. The earth desires to be remade, not wiped out. Jesus tells us a parable in Matthew 25:14-30 about a master who gives his servants some money while he is away. The servants who make use of the money and produce an increase are blessed. Their work is gold, they will be given a position in the kingdom. The one who does not is thrown into the fire. This earth is a testing ground for our place in the new earth.
We get a further idea about the new earth by Christ’s death and resurrection. He refers to his death and by association our deaths as a seed being planted in the ground. We can see it with his body, which was planted in the ground for 3 days, it brought forth a new body which was like the old but glorified. I think this is the idea of what will happened to the whole earth as it is refined by fire at the end. C. S. Lewis taps into this idea with his creation account of Narnia. Pieces from the old world are thrown into the ground and they sprout up to their full potential in Narnia. This is the climax of II Peter 3, verse 13 ends with the picture of a sinless new heaven and new earth. I think we will be surprised at how similar the new earth is to this one. All the hours we wasted browsing the internt will not be there. All the time we spent entertaining ourselves will not be there. All our fame and fortune will not be there. But, the character we developed here will be there. The skills we learned will be there. The justice we brought will be there. The loving acts of kindness will be there. The pieces of earth we redeemd for his glory will be there. For we not only pray “for his will on earth as it is in heaven,” we are called to do it, right now.