Paul is trying to explain to the Galatians why they no longer need to be enslaved to the Law. He uses the analogy of a young child who needs guardians to watch him until he is old enough. He writes, “as long as he is a minor, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything” (Galatians 4:1 NET).
Then Paul delivers the good news: “So also we, when we were minors, were enslaved under the basic forces of the world. But when the appropriate time had come, God sent out his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we may be adopted as sons with full rights” (Galatians 4:3-5 NET).
That phrase “basic forces” of the world is sometimes translated “basic principles” or “elemental spiritual forces” of the world. In the Greek it is simply the word stoicheion (pronounced stoy-kee-on). The reason the English translators have a hard time with his word is because is has layers of meaning, especially in the polytheistic culture of the Roman world.
Stoicheion means: a single letter of the alphabet, an element, a first principle. So it can be used to reference an elementary principle of faith (like the Law) or an elemental building block of nature (like wind, fire, water, earth, stars, etc). We might use this word today to describe the elements on the periodic table or the Bill of Rights. And one can see how, in a polytheistic culture where things like earth, wind, fire, trees, stars, lunar and solar seasons all had spirits associated with them that were worshiped, this word stoicheion would have layers of meaning.
This is why Paul said to the Galatians: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces (stoicheion)? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!” (Galatians 4:8-10)
To the Jewish Christians, Paul was saying, “Now that you’ve been adopted into the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ, and now that you’ve been given the Holy Spirit, for you to think that the observance of Jewish holy days will make you righteous is tantamount to astrology and the pagan worship of seasons.”
He was trying to help them see that the stoicheion of Judaism was similar to the stoicheion of the pagan Roman world. Both religious practices lead to slavery. Trying to be justified by the Law is enslavement to the demonic religious spirit just as trying to be justified by pagan religious practice is enslavement to demonic spirits behind the pantheon of gods. (“…the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God.”- 1 Corinthians 10:20)
Rather than return to elemental principles of the world, which amount to worshiping the elemental demonic spiritual forces, Paul reminds them of who they really are in Christ. He writes, “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir” (Galatians 4:6-7).