Most people are naturally prone to accept without question the teaching from a person or organization they hold in high regard, never considering they could be teaching something based upon an assumption or preconceived notion they were also taught. It may be that many of us have come to understand these verses based on prior traditional assumptions.
We need to examine the meaning of this word "elements", which is the same word used several other times in the New Testament. The Greek word for "elements" is "stoicheion" and means "something orderly in arrangement - element, principle, rudiment."
The word itself can refer to the parts of which our universe. It can also have another meaning it can refer to the rudimentary things of religion as well as other things too, of course. Perhaps we should consider what other scriptures may have to say on this matter of “the elements” and how the word is used? At this point in our study will look at the symbolic meaning of the passing away of the heavens and the earth, in connection with the "elements.” The elements would be the done away with the things related to Israel’s religion which would be abolished.
We find this word first in Galatians 4:3 where Paul said, "Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage, under the elements "stoicheion"of the world." Here Paul was saying that the Jewish people before Christ and salvation were living under the worldly ceremonies and ordinances of the old covenant, though now they no longer needed the law as a schoolmaster as they had graduated to Christ by faith. The elements "stoicheion" were no longer needed. When they were under the Mosaic, law before Christ they were in bondage, under the elements "stoicheion"of the world."
The Jewish leader believed just because they were fleshly descendants of Abraham that they had never been under this bondage. However, Jesus pointed out whoever commits sin is a slave of sin and bondage. (John 8:33-34)
Then in Galatians 4:9 the word is used again. "But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage?" Paul follows this by saying that because "You observe days, and months, and times, and years;" verse10. He was afraid he had bestowed his labor upon them in vain. Paul used the term in his stinging rebuke to the Galatians Christians who were tempted to forsake the freedom of the New Covenant for an Old Covenant "elementary" style legalist religious system. The things of that legalist system would shortly be "burned up."
In Colossians 2:8 Paul encourages the Colossian Christians not to go back into these elementary things of the old law. He uses the same word for "elements" ("stoicheion") though here translated "principles" "Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ." The spiritual lives of these Christians could be spoiled if they listened to those Judaizers who tried to get them to return to the old way. These things would soon go up in smoke.
Then in the same chapter, Colossians 2:20, Paul said, "Wherefore if you be dead with Christ from the elements ("stoicheion") of the world, why, as though living in the world, are you subject to ordinances ... " These ordinances would soon "perish" (be destroyed) he said (vs. 22).
The writer to the Hebrews says, "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elements (stoicheion) of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food" (Hebrews. 5:12). In context, the writer to the Hebrews is clearly speaking of Old Covenant truths, particularly since he connects it with the term oracles of God, an expression used elsewhere in the New Testament for the provisional.
These words are a complaint, which the apostle makes a certain defect in the Christian Hebrews, to whom he wrote. What is the defect? The apostle complains was they had not made that progress in their acquaintance with the things of the law or things taught in the oracles of God, which they should have made by then. They should have been moving behind the knowledge of elementary things and teachers spiritual things in Christ. Yet they were still in need of the milk of the word and not solid food.
If these other five places are using the word "elements"(stoicheion) in terms of the old legalist religious system why would we think the meaning in 2 Peter 3:10 would not mean the same thing as in these other places?
When Peter said "the elements shall melt with fervent heat" in II Peter 3:12 the Greek word for "melt" there is "Teko which means "to liquefy" But interestingly, in verse 10 where those same identical words (in English in the King James version) are used: "the elements shall melt with fervent heat", the Greek work for "melt" is different. It is "luo", which means "break up, destroy, dissolve, loose, melt, put off." In actuality, this is what happened to those "elements" of the old Jewish religion - they were broken up, destroyed, dissolved, loosened and put off. This is how the elements melted during that day of the Lord, when the heavens and the earth felt the judgment of God.
Until we learn to set aside our modern gentile traditional understand about these things and think like a first century Jew who was familiar with this style of figurative language out understanding of the Bible will forever be on the milk of the word and not solid food.
In Lamentations 2:3 it says, "he burned against Jacob like a burning fire, which devoureth round about" This did not mean that everything was burned up, but rather that judgment came upon all.
After the "heavens" of the rulership of the Jewish people had passed away, the "elements" themselves of the old or ordinances, etc., would also pass away ("be burned up"). All of this came to pass by A.D. 70 when Jerusalem and the Temple were completely destroyed. This was all at "his coming" at that "day of the Lord" when the Roman armies fulfilled the plan of God so that a new "heavens and earth" could be brought into existence.
These "elements" of religion were destined to be "burned up", because in a real sense the death of Christ had already brought them to naught
Actually, it took the events of 67-70 A.D. for the complete elimination of these "elements" from the lives of the people. All was destroyed in the holocaust of, those eventful days - the day of the Lord.
Paul warns the Colossians: "Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the basic principles (stoiceia) of the world, and not according to Christ....Therefore, if you died with Christ to the basic principles (stoiceia) 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"' (Colossians. 2:8; 20-21).
Colossians 2:20 Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations.
Galatians, Colossians, and Hebrews are all comprised of the New Testament word "elements" (stoichea) and none of them refers to the "elements" of the physical world or universe; all are speaking of the "elements" of the Old Covenant system, of which, the apostles wrote just before "becoming obsolete and growing old" and "ready to vanish away" (Hebrews 8:13). In light of those things taught in Galatians, Colossians, and Hebrews we can now understand much better what God is trying to convey to use.
The above scriptures are the only times this word is used outside of 2 Peter. Peter uses the same term in exactly the same way. Throughout the New Testament, the Greek word elements (stoicheia) always means the foundational "elements" of a religious system that was doomed to pass away in a fiery judgment not the physical world or universe.
Notice that in verse 11 Peter states Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in all holy conversation (conduct) and godliness. Why does Peter make a point of their “conduct” in contrast with things burning up, or being “dissolved?” The fiery judgment of God. (Lamentations 2:3)
The word rendering fervent heat means the intensive the Old Covenant system will undergo such a change as the fire will produce.