Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits[a] of the world, and not according to Christ.”
Despite the fact that the Christians in Colossae were standing in the truth when Paul wrote his letter to them (Col. 2:5), there was still a need to be vigilant about the error that was being proclaimed in their city under the auspices of Christianity. So, having exhorted them to keep on walking in Christ, believing in Him as the express image of God and submitting to His lordship as the way to resist error and grow in the faith, the apostle warns the Colossians to beware of “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” in today’s passage (v. 8).
The apostle is not disparaging philosophy as such, and the tools this discipline gives us can be immensely helpful in formulating summaries of biblical doctrine. What he is condemning is philosophy that is based on human reason alone, apart from divine revelation. Moreover, the term philosophy in the first century had a broader connotation than it does in our day—it could be used to describe nearly any kind of belief and not just the systemized thinking of the Greek philosophers. In Colossians 2:8, Paul is referring to false religious instruction, specifically the erroneous teaching being proclaimed in Colossae. Because this “instruction” did not exalt Christ (as God did), it was empty and worthless. Like the emperor in the old story, those promoting such lies had no clothes—the superior Christian life that they claimed to be wearing was nonexistent, made of that which is unreal, making promises it could not keep.
Today’s passage describes the errors taught in Colossae as according to “elemental spirits of the world,” a translation of the Greek word stoicheia, which had several meanings in the ancient world. Paul seems to use it here for the “gods” of the nations, the patron protectors of particular geographical locales. As believers, we know that such “gods” are nothing more than demons who enslave those whom they are supposed to liberate (1 Cor. 10:1–22). Colossians 2:16–23 indicates that the false teachers in Colossae advocated, among other things, keeping food laws and following a specific calendar as the key to holiness. These teachings were according to the “elemental spirits”—demons—because evil powers used such things to excite sin in people, not because ritual calendars and dietary regulations are inherently evil. Traditions like these are sinful only if we think salvation is in them or if we impose them on others.
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 Sam. 15:22–23). We might not be tempted to follow certain food laws today, but we are tempted to think that real spirituality is tied to specific forms of personal devotions, avoiding certain movies, never gambling, and so on.