Colossians 2:8-10, “8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.”
While the Colossian Christians were standing in the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Colossians 2:5), they still needed to remain steadfast against error in their city. Having encouraged them to walk in Christ, and believe in Him as the image of God and to submit to His Lordship so as to resist error and grow in the faith, now, Paul warns them to beware of “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” in today’s passage (v. 8).
It’s important to explain that Paul is not against philosophy, nor the tools this particular discipline can give us, which are helpful in formulating summaries of biblical orthodoxy. Paul’s point here is to explain the danger of philosophy grounded in human reason alone, apart from divine revelation. The term philosophy in the 1st century had a broader meaning than it does in our own day and was used to describe any kind of belief, not only the systematized thinking of the Greek philosophers. In Colossians 2:8, Paul is highlighting false religious instruction, specifically that false teaching being taught in Colossae. This teaching did not exalt Christ as true biblical doctrine, resulting in it being empty and worthless. These false teachers claimed to have a superior Christian life than the one taught by Paul, a claim they thought made real promises but resulted in them being groundless
Colossians 2:8-10 describes these particular errors taught by these teachers as according to “elemental spirits of the world,” a translation of the Greek word stoicheia, which had several meanings in the ancient world. Paul uses this Greek word to refer to the “gods” of the nations, the patron protectors of particular geographic locales. As Christians though, we know, these “gods” are nothing more than demons who aim to enslave those they are supposed to liberate (1 Corinthians 10:1-22). Colossians 2:16-23 teaches that these false teachers in Colossians emphasized the keeping of food laws and following a specific calendar, to achieve holiness. These doctrines were according to “elemental spirits”- demons- because evil powers used these teachings to keep people enslaved to sin. Traditions like these are sinful, only in so far, we think of them as earning salvation, or if we impose them on others for salvation.
God prescribed food laws and other ritualistic observances for old covenant Israel, so we know that these practices are not inherently evil. They only become wrong when they become ends in themselves (1 Samuel 15:22-23). We may not be tempted to follow specific food laws today, but we are tempted to think that real spirituality is tied to particular forms of personal devotions, avoiding certain movies, never gambling, and so on.
The Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum, is famous for the particular scene in which Dorothy and her entourage discover the truth about the seemingly great and powerful Oz. In attempting to scare the wizard, the Lion gives a roar that causes Toto the dog to jump in fright and knock over a screen in the room where Dorothy and the others are speaking to the wizard. To their amazement, instead of the supposedly powerful being that had formerly talked to them, “they saw, standing in just the spot the screen had hidden, a little old man, with a bald head and a wrinkled face, who seemed to be as much surprised as they were.”
While Dorothy and her friends learned that Oz was not all he was cracked up to be, we never need to fear that Jesus will turn out as less than He has been revealed in the gospel. Jesus is fully God (John 1:1; Titus 2:13), possessing all of the attributes that make up the character of our Creator. He is also sufficient for life and godliness. The “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world” being preached in Colossae when Paul wrote to the Colossians said otherwise (Colossians 2:8), explains why the apostle in Colossians 2:8-10 refers to the fullness of deity dwelling in Christ (Colossians 2:9; Colossians 1:19). Paul’s point in doing so is to contrast the truth of Jesus with the empty lies of the false teachers in Colossae. As he does this, he explains how empty deceit and philosophy according to human tradition are convinced Christ is insufficient and therefore less than God. We may add to the list of what must be pursued for growth in grace (Colossians 2:16–23), but Scripture, teaches Jesus is sufficient for real holiness because He is, as the Nicene Creed says, “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance of the Father, by whom all things were made.”
In Christ Christians have been filled (Colossians 2:10), and since He is fully God, Paul means that all Christians have been filled with the fullness of the Almighty Himself. Christians have been filled with the Holy Spirit who gives life to the dead and the desire and ability to live in and walk by the Holy Spirit, not the flesh (Romans 5:1-11; 8:1-11). Thus, Christians indwelt by the Holy Spirit, have the power of God to conform them to godliness and do not need anything or anyone else to make us holy.
To say that all Christians need is Christ for growth in grace is not to make the Word of God, the sacraments, or the church null and void. Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, dwells in His people, but remaining sin means that we are often deaf to His leading. Through His proclaimed Word, our Savior speaks, teaching us how to discern His direction in our lives. By faith, to have His Word is to have Christ, for it is an expression of Himself.