Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible
ELEMENT . A component or constituent part of a complex body. The ancient philosophers inquired after the essential constituent elements, principles, or substances of the physical universe; and many supposed them to consist of earth, air, fire, and water. As used in the NT the word always appears in the plural.
1. In 2 Peter 3:10; 2 Peter 3:12 the physical elements of the heavens and the earth are referred to as destined to destruction at the sudden coming of the Day of the Lord, ‘by reason of which the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat.’ In the same sense the apocryphal Book of Wisdom ( Wis 7:17 ) employs the word, and speaks of ‘the constitution of the world and the operation of the elements.’ It should be observed also that the later Jewish angelology conceived these different elements and all the heavenly bodies as animated by living spirits, so that there were angels of the waters, the winds, the clouds, the hail, the frost, and the various seasons of the year. Thus we read in the NT Apocalypse of the four angels of the four winds, the angel that has power over fire, the angel of the waters, and an angel standing in the sun. And so every element and every star had its controlling spirit or angel, and this concept of the animism of nature has been widespread among the nations (see Angel).
2. The exact meaning of the phrase ‘elements of the world’ in the four texts of Galatians 4:3; Galatians 4:9 and Colossians 2:8; Colossians 2:20 has been found difficult to determine. ( a ) Not a few interpreters, both ancient and modern, understand the ‘elements’ mentioned in these passages to refer to the physical elements possessed and presided over by angels or demons. It is argued that the context in both these Epistles favours this opinion, and the express statement that the Galatians ‘were in bondage to them that by nature are no gods,’ and the admonition in Colossians against ‘philosophy, vain deceit, and worshipping of the angels,’ show that the Apostle had in mind a current superstitious belief in cosmic spiritual beings, and a worshipping of them as princes of the powers of the air and world-rulers of darkness. Such a low and superstitious bondage might well be pronounced both ‘weak and beggarly.’ ( b ) But probably the majority of interpreters understand by these ‘elements of the world’ the ordinances and customs of Jewish legalism, which tied the worshipper down to the ritualism of a ‘worldly sanctuary’ (cf. Hebrews 9:1 ). Such a bondage to the letter had some adaptation to babes, who might need the discipline of signs and symbols while under the care of a tutor, but it was a weak and beggarly thing in comparison with conscious living fellowship with the Lord Christ. For the sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ are not to remain little children, or in a state of dependence nothing different from that of a bond-servant, but they receive the fulness of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, and cry ‘Abba, Father.’ Such are no longer ‘held in bondage under the rudiments of the world,’ for Christ sets them free from dependence upon rites, ordinances, vows, sacrifices, observance of times and seasons, which all belong to the elementary stages and phases of the lower religious cults of the world. It should be noticed that both these interpretations of the texts in Gal. and Col. claim support in the immediate context, and both will probably long continue to find favour among painstaking and critical expositors. But the last-mentioned interpretation seems to command widest acceptance, and to accord best with the gospel and teaching of St. Paul.
3. The word is found also with yet another meaning in Hebrews 5:12 , where the persons addressed are said to need instruction in ‘the rudiments of the first principles of the oracles of God.’ Here the term ‘rudiments,’ or ‘elements,’ is obviously used in an ethical sense. By these ‘elements of the beginning of the oracles of God’ the writer means the primary and simplest truths of God’s revelation of Himself in the prophets and in Christ. These are the A B C of the Christian religion.
M. S. Terry.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Element'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/e/element.html. 1909.