But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements (stoicheion) will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, 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 (stoicheion) will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Pet 3:10-13)
Are these elements Judaism, Jewish law, or the Old Covenant ?
What about the earth that burns ? Is it the land of Israel or the city of Jerusalem or the temple grounds ?
Elements is from the Greek word stoicheion.
Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words says that stoicheion is….
used in the plural, primarily signifies any first things from which others in a series, or a composite whole, take their rise ; the word denotes “an element first principle.” In the New Testament it is used of…
1. the substance of the material world
2. the delusive speculations of gentile cults and of Jewish theories
3. the rudimentary principles of religion, Jewish or Gentile
4. the elementary principles of the Old Testament as a revelation from God
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says that stoicheion denotes 4 things….
1. the letters of the alphabet as the elements of speech, not however the written characters but the spoken sounds.
2. the elements from which all things have come, the material causes of the universe.
3. the heavenly bodies
4. the elements, rudiments, primary and fundamental principles of any art, science, or discipline.
Paul uses stoicheion in Galatians 4: 3, 9.
Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements (stoicheion) of the world. (Gal 4:3)
But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements (stoicheion), to which you desire again to be in bondage? (Gal 4:9)
Paul again uses stoicheion in Colossians 2: 8, 20.
Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles (stoicheion) of the world, and not according to Christ. (Col 2:8)
Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles (stoicheion) of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,” which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? (Col 2:20-22)
The writer of the book of Hebrews uses stoicheion in Hebrews 5:12.
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles (stoicheion) of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. (Heb 5:12)
In Galatians, Paul was writing against false teaching that said you had to obey this law or rule to become or stay a Christian. He was angry that they would be so foolish as to think that anything other than the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was necessary for salvation. Of course, he was referring to the law of Moses or Judaism when he mentions the elements of the world. But is that all he meant ? Possibly. But you have to leave open the possibility, that the elements also referred to the stars (remember they worshipped the stars and let their lives be guided by them), or even the whole messy combination of Jewish laws, astrological rules, and pagan practices. To say emphatically that Paul was referring only to Judaism, when he used the Greek word stoicheion, would be a little stretch. In verse 8, he mentions that before they knew God they served those by nature that are not gods. Could he be combining pagan gods with the law of Moses to cover all possibilities ? Maybe.
In Colossians, Paul was attacking the false teaching, philosophies, and vain deceits that were the foundations of Gnosticism. To say that stoicheion refers to Judaism only would be disingenuous at the least. Taking the context of the whole book into consideration, along with the immediate verses where stoicheion is used, it is obvious that Paul is addressing a whole range of issues from ceremonialism, asceticism, pagan mysteries and rites, Judaeo-Gnostic teachings, and the roots of Kabbala. It seems that the elements of the world are all foundational teachings that are not according to Christ.
In Hebrews, the author scolds the Hebrew Christians for their dull hearing and lack of ability to teach. They are so dull and inept that someone needs to teach them the stoicheion of the oracles of God…..again! Does that mean that they need to learn how to circumcise themselves again ? Or the 613 commandments ? How about keeping kosher ? It would be foolish to believe that. They were out from the bondage of the law of Moses. They were no longer slaves to the law but sons of God. There are two choices.
1. The recipients of the letter had forgotten the significance of the foundational spiritual truths found in the Old Testament. They had lost the understanding of why innocent blood must be shed to cover sins. They failed to understand the necessity for a kinsman-redeemer. Why was Jesus Christ the Lamb of God ? What did Egypt represent ? What was Canaan ? What is the Throne of David ? How were the offerings and feasts fulfilled in Christ ?
2. Hebrews 6:1,2 might be a clue.
Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. (Hebrews 6:1,2)
The author wants to move beyond the foundational issues of salvation. He then lists some. He wants to speak to them of Melchizedek….they are not moving beyond repenting from dead works. He wants to speak to them as though they are sons….they are arguing over the proper baptismal practices.
We can safely say that stoicheion does not refer to Judaism or the laws of Moses exclusively. It’s a big word, with a variety of uses Biblically and non-Biblically. From the passages quoted, it would be safe to say that stoicheion refers to the elementary, first principles, or foundation blocks of all religious systems (Jewish, pagan, or extra-terrestrial) that are not based upon the finished work of Jesus Christ.
So….is this earth that burns Jerusalem, Israel, or the temple grounds ?
To answer that, we have to understand one more Greek word. The word is ge.
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth (ge) and the works that are in it will be burned up. (2 Peter 3:10)
In Thayer’s Greek Lexicon ge is…
the ground, the earth as a standing place
the main land as opposed to the sea or water
- the earth as a whole
the earth as opposed to the heavens
the inhabited earth, the abode of men and animals
a country, land enclosed within fixed boundaries, a tract of land, territory, region
In Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words ge denotes….
1. the material of which the first man was made, suggestive of frailty
2. the earth as a whole, the world
3. the inhabited earth
4. a country
Ge is used over 250 times in the New Testament. Here are a few other passages where ge is used.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth (ge). (Matthew 5:5) Is Jesus saying that the meek will inherit the land of Israel ?
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field.
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:17-19)