This word occurs 7 t in the New Testament, and the King James Version translates it in three different ways. In the two passages in Galatians, and in the two in 2 Peter, it is rendered "elements." In the two passages in Colossians, it is translated "rudiments." In He it is rendered "first principles."
1. Etymological Meaning:
The etymological meaning of the word is, that which belongs to a row or rank, hence any first thing, an element, first principle. It denotes, specially
(1) the letters of the alphabet, the spoken sounds, as the elements of speech;
(2) the material elements of the universe, the physical atoms of which the world is composed;
(3) the heavenly bodies;
(4) the elements, rudiments, fundamental principles of any art, science or discipline; compare the phrase, "the a, b, c."
2. Use of Term in the New Testament:
(1) The New Testament use of the word, where it always occurs in the plural, is as follows:
In 2 Peter 3:10,12, "The elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat," that is, the physical elements of the world and of the heavens are to be consumed, or subjected to change, by means of fire. In Hebrews 5:12, the King James Version "Ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God." This means that the Hebrew Christians had not made the advance expected, in grace and in the knowledge of God, but were in need of instruction in the elementary truths of the Christian faith.
(2) The Pauline use of the term is in Galatians and Colossians; see references as above. In Galatians 4:3,9 the King James Version Paul writes, "When we were children, (we) were in bondage under the elements of the world"; "How turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?" The apostle here means the ceremonial precepts of the worship of the Jews. These requirements involved much and protracted difficulty in their observance; they were "a yoke .... which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear" (Acts 15:10). Yet the Galatian converts were tuning back again to these legal ordinances, and desired to be in bondage to them. These elements were "of the world," they had reference to material and not to spiritual things, they were formal and sensuous. They were "weak," for they had no power to rescue man from condemnation, and they could not save him from sin. They were "beggarly," for they brought no endowment of the heavenly riches. By these epithets Paul signifies that rites, ordinances, sacrifices, observance of days and seasons belonged to the elementary stages of the Jewish religion, which had now attained its end and purpose in the coming of Christ and His work. These things were necessary at the time they were divinely instituted, but the time had come when they were no longer required. They contained and conveyed an elementary knowledge, and were intended, from the first, to lead to an advance in the moral and spiritual life, which is now revealed in Christ.
It has been thought by some that what is meant by "elements" or "rudiments" in Galatians and Colossians is the physical elements, presided over by angels, and that this is in some way connected with the worship of angels, to which Paul refers in Colossians 2:18. The Jews believed that there were, angels of fire and of the wind, and of the other physical elements. The apostle therefore wished to show the foolishness of the worship of angels and of the heavenly bodies which they were supposed to control.
This latter meaning of the term is a possible, but not a probable one. The interpretation, already first given, which understands "elements" to mean the ordinances of Jewish legalism, is most in harmony with the gospel and with the teaching of Paul. "This is probably the correct interpretation, both as simpler in itself and as suiting the context better. Paul seems to be dwelling still on the rudimentary character of the law, as fitted for an earlier stage in the world's history" (Lightfoot, Commentary on Galatians, 167).
In Colossians 2:8 the King James Version Paul writes, "Beware lest any man spoil you .... after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ"; and in Colossians 2:20, the King James Version "Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why .... are ye subject to ordinances?" The meaning of the term here is the elements of religious training, the ceremonial precepts of the Jewish Law. In Colossians and Galatians the meaning is that the systems of the false teachers, both in Colosse and in Galatia, laid stress on Jewish ritual, ceremonial law and ascetic observances--things of this world, belonging to the visible sphere, things elementary, and intended, so far as the Jewish Law is concerned, simply as a preparation for the coming of Christ. Such were the rudiments of the world, so far as their source was Jewish. On their heathen side they were still more decidedly anti-Christian. Both of these tendencies, Jewish and heathen, were "not according to Christ." For Christ Himself who atoned for sin, and who now lives and reigns, delivers believers from all such methods, as well as from the need of them.
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