The Greek word for “elements” is “stoicheion,” and it is only used “7” times in the New Testament, so let us do a short study and attempt to allow Bible verses to interpret Bible verses.
The word “element” in Greek is “stoicheion.” It means “something orderly in arrangement – a rudimentary principle, an elementary rule, base ordinances and practices”.
- Strong’s 4747 stoixeíon – properly, fundamentals, like with the basic components of a philosophy, structure, etc.; (figuratively) “first principles,” like the basic fundamentals of Christianity.
- Strong’s 4747 (stoixeíon) refers to “the rudiments with which mankind . . . were indoctrinated (before the time of Christ), i.e. the elements of religious training or the ceremonial precepts common alike to the worship of Jews…” (J. Thayer).
Verses and context:
Galatians 4:3, “So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world.”
- Paul, since Galatians 1:6, had just gone through an entire diatribe against the Judaizers, and all those who were claiming that they held some special right to being heirs to the promise and true sons of God because they were born Jewish and followers of the Mosaic Old Covenant.
- Now, in verse 4:3 Paul was telling the Galatian believers that the Jewish people prior to Christ and the Cross were living under the bondage of ceremonies and ordinances of the Old Covenant. In this context, the “elements” of the Old Testament laws and sacrifices were no longer needed. Christ fulfilled the requirements of the law and made the OC obsolete on the Cross, but it was not until the events of AD 66-70 where this obsolete OC system and is elements of worship and practice would in finality vanish away and be burned up (Heb. 8:13).
Galatians 4:9-11, “9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years. 11I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.” (NASB)
Put yourself in that 1st century Galatian church’s audience – what had Paul just spend the entire book leading up to this trying to teach us à the “weak and beggarly elements” of the Old Testament put Christians in bondage.” Now, as a result of the pressure from the Jews without, and the Judaizers within, some of them were turning from “grace alone” and trying to add to that by following again the observances of the Mosaic Old Covenant of “observing days and months and seasons and years.” (vs. 10)
Paul is sorrowful in verse 11 asking if all of the work he did in his teaching to try and destroy the bondage, and to teach them to “die to/separate” themselves from the law (Gal. 2:18-19), was in vain. He goes on just shortly later in Gal. 4:22-25 to visually give them a picture of the Old Covenant from Mount Sinai, and how it only produced children of bondage.
Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (NASB)
A first important thing to notice in this verse is that the original text does not have any word in it that would translate into the English word “spirits,” or “spiritual.” The NIV, ESV and NLT all “add” one of these words which simply do not have any Greek word in the original text. The only word in the corresponding Greek text is “stoicheia,” from which we have already learned from the definitions earlier, and see here correctly translated by the NASB as “elementary principles.”
These “base/elementary principles of the world” cheat and deceive Christians from all of the completeness they have in Christ. These root principles are what have developed into the philosophies and traditions of men.
Colossians 2:20-22, “20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?” (NASB)
“Basic principles (same word re: Old Covenant rudimentary principles, elementary rules, sacrifices, ceremonies, ordinances, etc.) of the world” keep us from enjoying the freedom that we have in Christ. Notice how in verse 21 it even spells out very clearly Old Covenant food and drink rules and regulations which they would be all too familiar with from the pressures and deceitful teachings of the Judaizers.
The “elements” of religion were “destined to perish (v. 22)” or be “burned up (2 Pet. 3:10)” because Christ had already made them obsolete through His death on the Cross. In Christ, we are free from the “writings of requirements that was against us (vs. 14)” by these “elements, ordinances, ceremonies, laws, requirements, principles and rudiments” of the Old Covenant.
Colossians 2:14-17 – “14 having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15 Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. 16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.”
Ephesians 2:14-15 – “14 For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, 15 having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, “
Hebrews 5:12, Here is this verse in Young’s Literal Translation, as well as 4 of the most popular modern English verses:
- “for even owing to be teachers, because of the time, again ye have need that one teach you what are the elements of the beginning of the oracles of God, and ye have become having need of milk, and not of strong food,” (YLT)
- “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.” (NASB)
- “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food,” (ESV)
- “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!”(NIV)
- “You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food.” (NLT)
- We need to ask a serious question: why is it so simple in this verse to translate the word “stoicheia” to it’s clear foundational meaning, and yet when we turn to 2 Peter 3:10, 12, for some reason this exact same word, which is “never once” translated to mean anything other than all of the verses we have just looked at (rudimentary principle, an elementary rule), are we then supposed to believe that it is all of sudden meaning the atoms of the universe?
2 Peter 3:10b, 12b, “10 …in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up … 12 the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat?”
- Again we need to ask: is Peter really trying to teach something different here in these two verses from everywhere else in the Bible? Because if he was, then he would need to explain his change from the commonly held understanding his audience would be thinking, or he would be misleading them (or in actuality, it would be the Holy Spirit who is inspiring Peter’s writing Who would be misleading them)!
- Is Peter really bringing in a new understanding of this word contrary to every one of the other 5 times this word appears in the NT outside on 2 Peter 3, or is it our presuppositions and former futurist teachings which are telling us that the root meaning of this word must be changed for the 1st time in the NT, even though it violates interpretation laws without providing clear indication of where and why it is doing so?
- No, he is not teaching any new meaning or doctrine from the other books in the Bible. We have just looked verse by verse up to this point through Chpt 3 showing from verse 1 and 2 how he was speaking in both books of 1 and 2 Peter to “remind” his 1st century Christian audience how he was only teaching them what they had heard already from the prophets of the past, and other disciples. (And it is important to remember that never, anywhere in the Bible, did any of the Prophets speak about the end of the Christian age, or cosmos, or any passing away of the heavens & earth in a literal sense).
- It would also be beneficial for us to re-mention here the well-known Bible interpretation rule called the hermeneutic “law of 1st mention,” which law states that if a writer is wanting to relay something different to his audience then was originally taught in this “law of 1st mention,” then he must explain the change to his audience, and if there is no explained change, then the correct way to interpret the passage is through the original doctrine taught in the passage it first appeared.
- It is unanimously agreed to by all that 2 Peter was written after both Galatians and Colossians, so this necessitates that 2 Peter be interpreted in light of those earlier writings since Peter does not indicate that he has changed any original understanding and is now all of a sudden speaking about some different meaning.
Additionally, have you ever wondered why the Holy Spirit inspired Peter to use the phrase in vs. 10 “the works that are in it will be burned up”? How does something not physical (a work) burn up? The Holy Spirit never does something arbitrarily. He chooses His words for a reason, and this makes it very beneficial for us to understand as much about the audience, context, their history, their worldview and other aspects of the people being written to as possible à here is the definition for “works:”
- Greek = Ergon. Strong’s Concordance: work, task, employment; a deed, action; that which is wrought or made, a work.
- HELPS Word – studies: érgon (“work”) is a deed (action) that carries out (completes) an inner desire (intension, purpose).
- You cannot burn up something which is not physical or tangible à like the “works or actions” meant by this word used in this verse. However, this word has powerful and meaningful understanding when seen in the light of the rest of the verse, as well as the audience relevance of Old Covenant Israel, and seeing it in respect to the burning of the temple, city, and entire system of the “covenant of works.” (Mosaic Old Covenant)
2 Peter 3:11-13 “11 Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, 12 looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? 13 Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
The Old Testament language that “All the host of heaven shall be dissolved” in Isaiah 34:4 is the same kind of language in 2 Peter 3:12 – “the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire.” Neither of these is describing a complete dissolving of the physical heavens. Isaiah 34:6 tells us that Isaiah is talking about Bozrah and the land of Edom and their judgment at the day of the Lord’s vengeance (Isaiah 34:8)(i.e. Ezek. 35:1-4, 15; God would use the Babylonians to fulfill this: Jer. 25:8-9, 17-26; Mal. 1:1-4 looks back on the Isaiah 34 fulfilled prophecy). Isaiah and Peter are using symbolic terminology referring to judgment of a nation and its religious system, and not to the actual heavens being burned up.
Also, of high important is to notice the “tense” used in the 2 Peter 3:11-12 à where our English translations say “will melt/dissolve” the actual Greek was written in the present participle of “being dissolved,” and “are melting,” respectively in vs. 11 and 12. We need to understand the power of what Peter is writing à he was writing in the “present tense” of this “dissolving/melting” already in process at the time he wrote this letter.
No, it is impossible that he was referring to the literal heavens and earth, as we would not be in existence if part of them has dissolved away. However, this makes perfect sense when we see he was referring to the Old Covenant Mosaic system, having been annulled at the cross (Col. 2:14), and as Heb. 8:13 says, “…Now what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
In 2 Peter 3:11 he was saying to them that in spite of their first century persecutions, the believers should be godly, knowing that God’s judgment is coming soon upon Israel and their Jewish tormenters. The word “earth” (2 Peter 3:7, 10) in this letter from Peter refers prophetically to the (Greek: ge) “land” of Israel. “Burned up,” and “Fire” (3:10, 12) refers to the thorough devastation that took place in AD 70 throughout the entire land of Palestine. The “heavens” (3:10, 12) being dissolved (present tense), refers to the annulling of the Old Covenant Mosaic system in the nation of Israel, and their ultimate final passing away as a special covenantal people. The “elements” (3:10, 12) melting, refers to the Old Covenant ordinances and rules that are no longer needed or valid in the worship of God.
Related full “Study Series” (available upon request if not hyperlinked):
[For a more in-depth study see eschatology “Study Series 10 Study on 2 Peter 3 vs. 1-13”]