Paul writes in Galatians 4:9,
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?
When Paul speaks of "the worthless elemental things" in Gal. 4:9, he was not trying to give a scientific explanation of the elements such as zinc or hydrogen. He was using a specific term employed by the religious philosophy of Epicurus, who lived about three centuries earlier.
The Materialistic Elements of Epicurus
Epicurus was popular among the common people, even as Plato was more popular among the upper class. Many of the Galatian Christians had probably converted from Epicureanism, and if not, they certainly were very familiar with it.
Epicurus was a materialist, in that he believed that both body and soul were made up of matter. He taught that all good and bad is derived from pleasure and pain. If it feels good, then it is. If it feels painful (or leads to pain), then it is evil. He did have the foresight to see that some pleasurable things would ultimately lead to pain, such as overeating, so he did not promote pleasure per se, but merely sought the absence of mental and physical pain.
Epicurus taught that if you continue to divide matter down to its smallest possible particle, that particle was called an atom (Gr. atomos). He had adopted this “atomic theory” from Democritus and Leucippus who lived a century earlier. A string of atoms, held together by “strong hooks,” make up elements, he said. Epicurus thus focused upon matter, or atoms and elements. His entire religious philosophy of pain avoidance was based upon materialism. Norman Wentworth DeWitt writes,
“Epicurus chose to sponsor the atomic theory of the constitution of matter, whether animal or mineral. The term atom signified the minimum self-existing particle of matter. The word itself means ‘indivisible’ and in order to express this idea in Latin, the Romans coined the word individuus, from which we have the word ‘individual.’
“The whole theory of physics was reduced by Epicurus in Twelve Elementary Principles, and a syllabus bearing this title was published for the use of his disciples.” [St. Paul and Epicurus, p. 11]
Again, DeWitt tells us on page 12 that
“…it was usual also to denote the atoms by the word elements, which properly means letters of the alphabet. The etymology of this word elements is curious and enlightening. The names of the letters seem to have come to us through the Romans from the Etruscans, who for some reason began with L M N, that is, el em en, hence Latin elementa, instead of beginning with A B C.” [St. Paul and Epicurus, p. 12]
The Greek word for “elements” is stoicheion. Strong defines it as “orderly in arrangement, i.e., (by impl.) a serial constituent." In other words, it has to do with a series, such as ABC or LMN or 1-2-3 that is simple and fundamental. For this reason the word is also translated "rudiment," which is a fundamental principle.
When Paul speaks of “worthless elements,” he did not intend to speak scientifically, but philosophically. Elements were not merely physical elements, but philosophical elements—that is, the fundamental principles of Epicureanism. Those who followed that philosophy were bound by and bound to the elements.
In other words, Epicurean religion was earth-bound, carnal, and focused upon material things instead of spiritual things. In fact, Epicurus did not know about spiritual things, for Greek philosophy used soul and spirit almost interchangeably. Since the soul was said to be composed of matter (like the body), it is plain that he did not recognize what we would call spirit.
Paul recognizes that the soul is carnal and is, in fact, the carnal mind. It is the “natural” (lit., soulish) mind by which we think and reason. But this “natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him” (1 Cor. 2:14). Paul understood from Lev. 17:11 that “the fleshly soul [nephesh] is in the blood,” but that the spirit (ruach) is like the breath or wind by which we receive inspiration.
And so, to Paul, the atomic theory and its “elements” were worthless insofar as the revelation of God was concerned. In fact, these “elements” of materialistic, carnal religion only placed men in bondage to earthly, carnal things that were of little benefit except perhaps to the bodily realm.
And so, Paul, being well schooled in the philosophies of the day, compared Epicureanism to Judaism. Both were carnal, and both schools of thought had bound men as slaves to the earth.
The Elements of Judaism
In Galatians 4:9 Paul chided them for turning back again to the “weak and worthless elemental things” which had “enslaved” them. He then gives us a very brief sampling of these things in verse 10,
10 You observe days and months and seasons and years. 11 I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.
He does not tell us which days or in what manner the Galatians were observing those days. We only know that whatever they were doing, it was not in accordance with Paul's teaching. But Paul wrote a similar letter to the Colossians, where he gave a fuller commentary in a parallel passage. Col. 3:16-23 gives a list of things, beginning with “days and months.”
16 Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day— 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
One might argue about which festivals (feast days) they were observing, whether pagan or those of the Old Covenant, but Paul's reference to the Sabbath day can only be a reference to the practice within Judaism itself. Likewise, the new moons, marking the start of each month, were occasions of sacrifice and the blowing of trumpets (Num. 10:10).
Paul makes it clear that these observances were “a mere shadow of what is to come,” implying that their manner of observance had changed with the coming of Christ. We see an entire list of those changes in the book of Hebrews. The reality replaced the shadow, the antitype fulfilled and replaced the type.
New Moon Festivals
In regard to the “new moons,” the Jewish-Christian scholar, Alfred Edersheim, wrote this in the 1800’s:
“Scarcely any other festive season could have left so continuous an impress on the religious life of Israel as the 'New Moons.' Recurring at the beginning of every month, and marking it, the solemn proclamation of the day, by—'It is sanctified,' was intended to give a hallowed character to each month, while the blowing of the priests' trumpets and the special sacrifices brought, would summon, as it were, the Lord's host to offer their tribute unto their exalted King, and thus bring themselves into 'remembrance' before Him.” (The Temple, p. 288)
In the decay of religious life as early as the time of Isaiah, the priests had added more ceremonies and rituals to try to impose more zealous observance into their spiritual life. But rituals could never be a substitute for personal faith in God. So Isaiah 1:12-14 says,
12 When you come to appear before Me, who requires of you this trampling of My courts? 13 Bring your worthless offerings no longer, incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies—I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn assembly. 14 I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me. I am weary of bearing them.
Paul may have had this passage in mind when he spoke of “worthless elements” in Judaism. Isaiah had used a similar term, though in Hebrew to describe their sacrifices and offerings.
Sabbaths and Feast Days
Hosea prophesies in 2:11,
11 I will also put an end to all her gaiety, her feasts, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her festal assemblies.
The early Church interpreted this to mean quite literally that God would “put an end” to the feasts, new moons, and Sabbaths as they had been practiced. The epistle of Barnabas is an early Church writing which comments upon this as well. In 13:9, 10 he writes:
9 Lastly, he saith unto them, 'Your new moons and your sabbaths I cannot bear them.' Consider what he means by it; the sabbaths, he says, which ye now keep are not acceptable unto me, but those which I have made; when resting from all things I shall begin the eighth day, that is, the beginning of the other world [age]. 10 For which cause we observe the eighth day with gladness, in which Jesus rose from the dead; and having manifested himself to his disciples, ascended into heaven.
Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, agreed with this. He was reputed to be the child that Jesus sat on His lap, telling the disciples to allow the children to come to Him. Ignatius was just three years of age at the time, but he also was one of the 500 witnesses of Christ's resurrection. He was a disciple of John, who lived until about 100 A.D. Ignatius died a martyr at the age of 83 in the year 113. They were long-time friends.
Ignatius wrote a letter to the Magnesians, saying in chapter 9,
“If therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing Sabbaths, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death—whom some deny, by which mystery we have obtained faith, and thereby endure . . .”
It is plain from these early Church writings that the Christian manner of observing Sabbaths and New Moons had changed. And because no early Church leader found it necessary to give a complete dissertation on the topic, we know that by the early second century Paul's viewpoint, in agreement with John, had become dominant throughout the Church. Christian Judaism itself had suffered defeat along with Judaism itself when Jerusalem was destroyed with its temple in 70 A.D., as Jesus had prophesied.
The Old Covenant manner of keeping Sabbaths and festivals prophesied of a “better” way under the New Covenant. Hence, the book of Hebrews is known as “the book of better things.” God expressed His dissatisfaction with their observances through Isaiah, and Hosea prophesied the end of those observances. In practice, we find a new manner of observance, rather than abolition. In other words, the FORM changed to suit the terms of the New Covenant.
The old Sabbath system was based upon Passover—hence, the death of Christ. The new Sabbath was based upon the resurrection of Christ on the wave-sheaf offering, which was the start of the seven-week countdown to Pentecost.
The first time the word “Sabbath” is used is in Exodus 16:23, where Israel was told that there would be no manna on that day. They were to gather manna for six days and rest the seventh. The seventh day from what? The Sabbath came after gathering manna for six days. Hence, it was based on the giving of the manna after the people had complained about a lack of food.
Their complaint was made on the fifteenth day of the second month (16:1) while they were camped at Elim. This was one month after their departure from Egypt on Passover. A year later this day would become the Second Passover (Num. 9:11). It was established when certain men had touched a dead body and were unable to keep the Passover in the first month.
God revealed that they could keep it in the second month, killing the lamb on the fourteenth of the month, with the Passover day itself being on the fifteenth.
Hence, the Sabbath cycles began to be counted from the day of the Second Passover and is therefore a commemoration of His death on the Cross as the Passover Lamb. That is why Deut. 5:15 says that the Sabbaths were to be observed as a remembrance of their departure from Egypt (at Passover).
The wave-sheaf offering, on the other hand, prophesied of Christ’s resurrection “on the day after the Sabbath” (Lev. 23:15). Christ was raised while it was yet dark, but He had to await the third hour of the day to present Himself to the Father in heaven as proof that He was alive. The priest waved the sheaf of barley then, setting the time prophetically of the presentation of the Son to the Father, to fulfill the Law in Ex. 22:29. 30,
29 You shall not delay the offering from your harvest and your vintage. The first-born of your sons you shall give to Me. 30 You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep. It shall be with its mother seven days; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me.
Hence, when one studies the law of the eighth day, the first-born of man or beast were to be presented to God only on the eighth day. It was not lawful to present “the first-born from the dead” (Col. 1:18) on any day other than the eighth day. This law had to be fulfilled by the first-born son of God, for He is called in Colossians 1:18, “the first-born from the dead.”
This proves that the meaning of “the day after the Sabbath” in Lev. 23:15 is not simply Abib 16, as the Pharisees believed, but was the day after the weekly Sabbath, as the Sadducees believed. Those two sects disputed the meaning of this verse, but it is resolved once we understand that it prophesied of Christ. When we connect it to the Law of the presentation of sons on the eighth day, which Jesus fulfilled on the same day, we can see that the day after the Sabbath was also an eighth day, not merely Abib 16.
For this reason also, the Law calls each eighth day of the Pentecostal cycle “Sabbaths.” Lev. 23:15 says,
15 You shall also count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day when you brought in the sheaf of the wave offering; there shall be seven complete Sabbaths.
In other words, beginning with the wave-sheaf offering on the day after the (old) Sabbath—which today is called Sunday—the people were to count “seven complete Sabbaths” to Pentecost. These new Sabbaths had a different reference point—the wave-sheaf offering, and they ended on Pentecost Sunday.
After His resurrection, Jesus then made it a practice to appear to the disciples each “eighth day” afterward. This established the pattern for “The Lord’s Day” during the seven weeks leading to Pentecost. Both the wave-sheaf offering and Pentecost occurred on Sunday. Hence, the early Church met on Sunday, which they called “The Lord’s Day” and “the eighth day.” It was an entirely new Sabbath system, designed to remember the resurrection of Christ, as revealed in the Law.
This is what Paul meant when he lists “Sabbaths” as part of the “worthless elemental things” in Galatians 4:9, 10. The fact that the Sabbaths were of utmost importance in Jewish life surrounding the old temple system shows that it was one of the “elements” or fundamental ABC’s of Judaism.
Where to Keep the Feasts
The feast must be kept (by law) in the place where He has put His name (Deut. 16:2, 6, 11). First He placed His name at Shiloh (Jer. 7:12), then Jerusalem (Jer. 7:14). He forsook Shiloh because of the corruption of the priests, the sons of Eli. The glory departed from that place, and a newborn boy was named Ichabod to remember the occasion (1 Sam. 4:21).
About 80 years later, the Ark was brought to Jerusalem during the time of David. It was housed in a tent called “the tabernacle of David” during David’s reign. When his son, Solomon, built the temple, the Ark was placed in that temple. The point is that the name of God was removed from Shiloh and placed in Jerusalem.
Anyone who wanted to keep the feasts in the lawful manner had to go to Jerusalem, rather than to Shiloh. But Jerusalem too became corrupted, and Jeremiah prophesied that they had turned that place into a den of robbers (Jer. 7:11). For this reason, God vowed to forsake that place even as He had forsaken Shiloh.
12 But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I made My name dwell at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel. . . 14 Therefore, I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to the place [Jerusalem] which I gave you and your fathers, as I did to Shiloh.
So the glory departed from Jerusalem, even as it had departed from Shiloh some centuries earlier. This departure is recorded in Ezekiel 10 and 11. The glory went “outside the camp” to the top of the Mount of Olives (Ez. 11:23), but did not yet fully depart until Jesus ascended from that location in Acts 1:9-12.
His resurrected body housed the glory of God. After ascending to heaven on the fortieth day of the Pentecost cycle, the glory returned ten days later to fill a New Jerusalem Temple on the day of Pentecost.
Hence, we read in Rev. 22:4, “and His name shall be on their foreheads.” This is the new location of the glory of God. He now inhabits a Temple that is the Body of Christ, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, having also Jesus Christ as its chief corner stone (Eph. 2:20-22).
The change was made from a geographical location to the true Temple where God had intended to dwell from the beginning.
The feast of Passover was once a matter of killing a lamb, putting its blood on the doorposts and lintel, and staying up all night. Now it is observed when a man is justified by faith in the blood of the Lamb.
Pentecost used to be a feast where God was given two loaves of bread baked with leaven. Today it is observed by receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Tabernacles used to be kept by dwelling in booths made of green tree branches. This has not yet been fulfilled, but it will be fulfilled when we are changed into His likeness, leave our old bodily “house” and receive that tabernacle from above, which is the immortal body (2 Cor. 5:1-4).
Hence, we no longer go to an external location to keep a feast, for the law demands that it be kept only in our forehead (mind). One may hold conferences at the time of these feasts, but the true observance of a feast must be internal. If it is not kept in our foreheads, then such a practice is unlawful.
When the location of feast-day observance changed from external to internal, the forms of observance also changed necessarily. Apparently, the Judaizers had come from Jerusalem to Galatia and Colosse to “correct” Paul's teachings. After all, the temple in Jerusalem still stood, and the Aaronic priests were still ordained by God to make daily sacrifices, they argued. We only need to add the Messiah to that system to be complete.
The Judaizers were so successful that Paul wondered if his labor had been in vain. But the temple was soon to be destroyed, and God confirmed Paul's gospel by casting out Hagar.