We explained in the original study that the aspirations of Paul writing the book of Colossians was to deal with false teaching, known as the Colossian heresy. The Colossian heresy has caused a lot of ink to be printed in academia, commentaries, and scholarly works. Today’s verse is one of the verses that fuels this scholarly work. There are four main lines of thought concerning the Colossian heresy.
- The heresy is rooted in Greek Philosophy, especially an early form of Gnosticism (having knowledge), which devalues the physical and overemphasis the spiritual. The goal is to reach this higher level of knowledge. We have no clear evidence that Gnosticism existed in the church in the 1st century, but some argue the seed of the thought was found.
- The heresy is rooted in Jewish tradition, similar to the Galatian church who sought to merge Jewish civil and ceremonial laws with the church. This line of thinking is found in the book of Hebrews, where the readers thought that Jesus was not enough.
- Other scholars fall somewhere in the middle, explaining the Colossian heresy is a fusion of numbers one and two, a mix (syncretism) between Greek philosophy and Jewish traditions.
- A minority of scholars argue that there was no specific Colossian heresy, or it is impossible to find out precisely what it could be. The letter addresses issues that have been raised, but the heresy has been exaggerated.
I believe number four has a point in that it is hard to know exactly what the heresy is, but to ignore it completely might be an exaggeration in itself. I believe number three is the most likely, having a majority of Greek names in chapter four. Also, there are clear elements of Jewish tradition being emphasized in the letter (Col 2:16-18).
However, knowing helps us with trying to understand the letter to the original audience, but the remedy is the exact same in the first century and the twenty-first century. Christ is sufficient and supreme. Thinking that additional traditions or practices will help you in your Christian walk actually devalues Christ in thought. Christ is not supreme because he needs extra help with power and authority. Christ is not sufficient because he needs extra worship to angles or feasts to help with salvation. Up to this point, Paul has encouraged and reminded the church in Colossae of their faith and union to Christ. He has only given three ‘warnings,’ or light rebukes up to this point (Vs. 1:23, 1:28 and 2:4). Unlike the letter to the Galatians, that does not have the standard introductory prayer and thanksgiving and has strong language (not cussing). “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Gal 3:1a). Verse 8 takes a shift in the letter to start to address the false teaching that is found in the church. Epaphras has taught them well (Col 1:5, 7, 2:7). They are not like the Galatians in that it seems the church in Galatia was quick to desert the grace of Christ. However, the Colossians seem more like the church in Sardis in Revelation. “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Rev 3:1b). The church in Colossae is not pronounced dead at this point, but this is the warning of their direction if they continue to be deluded by plausible arguments.
I. Be watchful
One of the most important words in the verse is ‘see.’ The small word in English does not really capture the weight of the word. See sounds like a light warning, when in fact, the translation needs to be more emphatic. See! Look Out! Caution! The NKJV captures this with ‘beware.’ When you see a warning sign normally, the warning is smaller than the actual explanation of the sign. At the top in big red letters is the explanation, warning, caution, beware. The verb see is an imperative, which is best categorized as a command. Be attentive, watchful, and observant. Paul gives the warning first that you need to be cautious because people will come and steal, kill, and destroy. He warns the church that someone will come and capture them. The word translated captive is used to describe someone taking plunder or kidnapping.
The false teachers come dressed in fine suits and look like perfect examples. Paul warned the Ephesian elders, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29-30). Paul warned Timothy, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim 4:3–4). Not only do false teachers come in, but also the hearers have ‘itching ears’ which find teachers that teach what they want to hear. What a great warning for us. We might not face false teaching of syncretism of Greek philosophy and Jewish tradition. However, we need to be sure that we are watchful and cautious that no one ‘kidnaps’ us.
a. Be watchful of philosophy
Philosophy was well established in the times of the early church. Many schools of philosophy were established. The Greek empire was widely spread and still the superpower of the day. Paul interacted with philosophers, “Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him” (Acts 17:18a). Philosophy means ‘friend of wisdom’ or ‘love wisdom.’ However, we need to be cautious about the wrong type of wisdom. Proverbs speaks of those who seem wise. “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Prov 17:28). “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov 14:12). “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion” (Prov 18:2). The wisdom that seems only through the mind or eyes of man is not wisdom if it disregards Christ. Wisdom is foolish if all you do is look at creation and try to explain away the creator.
b. Be watchful of empty deceit.
The NIV treats these words as adjectives to philosophy, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy” (Col 2:8a, NIV). Douglas Moo argues this is a good translation for this verse. Either way, we need to be mindful of deception that, in its end, is empty or hollow—false promises. False teaching is filled with this line of thinking. Many arguments are based on the end, with incorrect assumptions or ‘silver bullet’ reasoning. Missions are good; therefore, any form of mission work is good. If one person comes to Christ, then it is worth it. We need to shift our view on ‘x’ because then more people outside the church will come. These are empty promises built on deceit. Many liberal denominations, in a means to reach the culture, have looked so much like the culture there is no need for them, and they are shrinking at enormous rates. False teaching always seems to preach the easy path and Christianity ‘light’. We are prone to have itching ears because we like our life how it is and don’t want to hear about the mortification of sin, because we love our sin. We love our comfort and then in steps teaching that says you can have your best life now, the perfect marriage, great finances, and hear only of the love of God. Our itching ears love it because our sinful heart loves it.
c. Be watchful of human tradition
One of the most common phrases any pastor will hear is, “that’s not how we have done it in the past.” Now many pastors use this and think they can come in and change what they want. I want to understand traditions and value the past rather than throw it out. Traditions, like everything, have strengths and weaknesses. One of the reasons for the Reformation was that church tradition became a pillar of the church, along with Scripture and the papal office. Each seemingly had an equal footing. The reformers explained ‘Sola Scriptura’ meaning Scripture alone. What they mean by this was all things should be placed under Scripture. Tradition has its place, but it is below Scripture not equal with it. We need to be mindful of traditions, that we remember them below Scripture. Traditions are helpful, but we need to differentiate between what is commanded in Scripture and what has been a human tradition. Frequently in the Gospels, we see the priority of tradition over the word of God (Cf. Matt 15:2-6). Traditions might be permissible but not beneficial (1 Cor 10:23).
d. Be watchful of Elementary principles
Colossians 2:8 is one of the critical verses that has many scholarly articles about its meaning. This phrase is the cause of this debate. Three major thoughts arise. Firstly, the term speaks of four ‘fundamental elements’ of the world: air, earth, fire, and water. Second, the term speaks of ‘essential principles’ (Cf. Heb 5:12), such as learning the alphabet or notes on a scale. Third, the term speaks of ‘spiritual beings.’ This was made common from later writings, but we have no reason to believe this was common in the day of Paul. The second example is still possible and is used this way in Heb 5:12, but does not use this exact phrasing. The first example might need to be more nuanced but does fit considering Greek philosophy, and Paul’s use of world (cosmos) referring to the universe, not just merely the spherical planet we call earth. Throughout Paul’s letters, he shows how a man will ‘spiritualize’ or ‘divinize’ the material elements, worshiping the creature/creation rather than the creator (Cf. Rom 1:22-23). This understanding also fits with Galatians 4:8-9. “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Gal 4:8–9, emphasis mine).
II. According to Christ
Whatever the meanings of all of these above points, they are not according to Christ. Each of these is an addition to Christ that his word and his actions were not supreme or sufficient. Douglas Moo, in his commentary, explains it well, “But, for Paul, in this case, addition means subtraction: one cannot “add” to Christ without, in effect, subtracting from his exclusive place in creation and in salvation history.” We need to be watchful for all that proclaim a gospel that adds to or takes away from Christ because it is a false gospel. We need to place Christ as the one who is supreme in our faith and practice. Christ, who is sufficient to be our mediator and redeemer. We do not need the above things that will take us captive, but we need to captivate to;
- Christ’s wisdom (Col 3:16, 1 Cor 1:30, Prv 1:7, Jam 1:5)
- Christ’s truth (John 14:6, 8:32; Heb 6:18)
- Christ’s traditions (1 Cor 11:2; 2 Thess 2:15, 3:6)
- Christ’s principles (Col 1:15-20, Heb 5:12)