Peter told his readers in 2Peter 3:1 that he was reminding them of what he had already told them in his first epistle. It seems the scoffers (2Peter 3:3) had arisen and were mocking Peter’s claims that the end was near. That is, Jesus was manifest in the last days (1Peter 1:20) and was then at the time of Peter’s writing ready to be revealed from heaven in what he termed “a little while” (1Peter 1:5-7). Moreover, Peter claimed that it was revealed to the prophets of old that they didn’t minister to their own day but, rather, to the days of those who lived in the first century AD (1Peter 1:10-12). In other words the end of all things was at hand (1Peter 4:7), and Christ was, at the time of Peter’s writing, ready to judge the living and the dead (1Peter 4:5, 17). So the end of the world was at that time coming upon the folks who lived in the first century AD.
Due to Peter’s plain words, scoffers had risen up to discredit Peter, saying all things have continued as they were from the time the Law was first given to Moses to their own time. Yet, for over thirty years Peter and the other disciples had been preaching that Christ would return to judge Jerusalem and destroy the Temple and change the customs and Laws introduced by Moses (cf. Acts 6:11-14), so “where is the promise of his coming” (2Peter 3:3-4)?
This is the scenario for how we should take Peter’s remarks in 2Peter 3:5-6, which represent his reply to what the scoffers were saying:
For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished:(2 Peter 3:5-6)
Many modern teachers of the word of God have sought to make Peter’s words into a prophecy for the end of time, but this is impossible, if we stick with the context above. Notice that Peter accused the scoffers of being willfully ignorant of the fact that the earth of old stood out of water and in water. How would it be possible, if Peter was predicting the end of the universe, that the scoffers would intentionally disregard the fact that the heavens existed from long ago? Logic demands that, if the scoffers wanted to be successful in their task, they would have to argue or mock according to the context of Peter’s remarks in his first epistle. Had Peter argued for an end to the space/time continuum, the scoffers could not have intentionally disregarded the fact that the universe had existed for a very long time. Therefore, the modern argument that 2Peter 3 foretells the end of time and the end of the physical universe is hereby debunked.
Of course the beginning and the creation, of which the scoffers spoke (2Peter 3:4) had to refer to the beginning and creation of the Jewish nation under Moses, and the fathers who slept were none other than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In other words, Peter argued for an end to the Old Covenant system of things (first creation), whose beginning was Moses, and in its place the New Covenant (new creation) would be established, whose Beginning was Christ (cf. Revelation 3:14).
Notice the context of Peter’s remarks in the excerpt above (2Peter 3:5-6). The world that then was perished or was destroyed by water. Did the water destroy the earth? Of course not, and Peter isn’t contrasting the destruction of one physical world long ago with the destruction of another physical world in Peter’s day. Rather he is speaking of the system of things perishing in both catastrophic events. How do we know this? Well, Peter had just finished mentioning it in 2Peter 2:4-5. The world that ended in Noah’s day was the world of the ungodly (cf. Genesis 6:5). The flood waters destroyed that world, not the physical earth.
So, Peter’s point was that just as God judged and destroyed that evil world in Noah’s day, so he will bring to a catastrophic end the evil world of the Jewish nation in the first century AD. It was the end of the creation under Moses and the establishment of the creation in Christ.