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. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
Colossians 2:8-15 ESV
For all practical purposes, verses 8-23 compose the same section of text. Paul writes this portion of the letter in order to warn the Colossians about the heretical teachings that surround them in Colossae. He gives the greatest details of that heresy within these verses. The apostle calls the teaching a philosophy and empty deceit, filled with asceticism, religious observances, and spirituality. Within this first section of the text, Paul first establishes the correct belief system before he dives into the false things in 16-23.
PHILOSOPHIES & EMPTY DECEITS // VERSE 8
Paul is literally urging the Colossians to not be kidnapped by the false teachings. We know that the apostle is not condemning all philosophical ponderings because he places the word “philosophy” along with the phrase “empty deceit.” Obviously, Paul’s is declaring that this form of philosophy amounts to nothing, that it is an utter waste of time. This is because that philosophy is based upon human tradition and elemental spirits of the world.
First, they are according to human tradition. “When men could not make revelation even seem to tell about deep mysteries which they were curious to pry into, they brought in human philosophy and pretended traditions to help it, as if one should bring a lamp to the sundial to find the hour” (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown).
Second, they are according to the elemental spirits of the world. It seems here that Paul is not referring demonic spirits or any such thing but rather to the elementary principles of the world. This means that all of the false teachings were based upon worldly and material ways of thinking. Perhaps this is a subtle jab at the logical inconsistencies of the gnostic heretics.
Ultimately, it is only within Christ that philosophical wonderings become meaningful. Because all things were created for Christ, all things find their meaning in Him. This is the greatest problem of the heresy (and what made in heresy): their teachings lacked the proper view of Christ.
FILLED WITH THE FULLNESS OF CHRIST // VERSES 9-10
Paul now proceeds to give us that proper view of Christ. Before we can discount the worldly based philosophies, we must under-stand the supreme sufficiency that is only found in Christ. In case we think that Christ is not great enough to encompass all true philosophy, Paul informs us that the fullness of deity dwells in Christ bodily. This refers to the grand miracle of the incarnation. Christ is one hundred percent God. He is God incarnate, completely divine. However, He displays the fullness of God bodily. Jesus is also human. As we stated in verse 15 of chapter one, Jesus is the face of the glory of God.
Notice then the wording of verse 10. Jesus possesses the fullness of deity bodily, and now Paul states that we are filled in Christ. What does it mean that we are filled in Christ who is the fullness of God? Peter tells us that “he has granted us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” John also writes, “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” This does not mean that we are “little gods” as some false teachers declare, but rather we have a new nature in Christ. We are no longer of this world. We are citizens of a new kingdom. We are now dead to the world and alive in Christ. We have become a new creation.
CIRCUMCISION & BAPTISM // VERSES 11-12
Within these verses, Paul uses two images to describe Christ’s work on our behalf.
First, he uses circumcision. In the Old Testament, circumcision was the sign of the covenant. It was not the covenant itself, but it was the marker by which the agreement was sealed. Because of its great ceremonial significance, one of the largest problems in the first generation church was the Jews insistence that all Gentile Christians must be circumcised before they became Christians. The letter of Galatians shoots that thought down. Paul’s thought here with circumcision is that during our spiritual circumcision Christ removes our body of flesh. Jesus cuts off the sinful flesh that causes us to continuously rebel against God.
Second, Paul uses the imagery of baptism. One of the greatest symbolisms of baptism is death. Going into the water represents death. Coming out of the water represents rebirth and new life. Thus, Paul reminds us that we have died with Christ and also raised with Him.
NAILING IT TO THE CROSS // VERSES 13-15
Continuing his thought of death to life, Paul blatantly states that we were once dead in sin but are now alive in Christ. This verse mirrors strongly Ephesians 2:1-10. The great problem of our sin is not simply that we were bad but that we were dead. There was no way for us to be good enough because dead men cannot be good enough. We were spiritually deceased. Thus, only God could make us alive with Christ. To think that we saved ourselves is as ridiculous as breathing on dirt and believing that it will become a living person.
Christ made us alive by forgiving our sins, but how did He forgive us? Paul says that Christ canceled our record of debt. This language is often used of salvation. Every action committed earns a response. Thus, when we (as finite beings) sinned against the infinite God, we accumulated an infinite debt, a price that was far too great for us to pay. Fortunately, Christ was able to pay our infinite debt with His blood because He is infinitely valuable. As being the fullness of God, Jesus was worth more than enough to pay the price of our debt against God. Christ accomplished all of this through the cross. As Paul noted in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged upon a tree.” All of the world is under the curse of sin for having sinned against God, but by His broken body, our debt was canceled. The hymn says it well: “This I know with all my heart, His wounds have paid my ransom.”
Verse 15 then provides another component of Christ’s substitutional death: He defeated the demonic powers. Rulers and authorities are almost certainly in referring to fallen angelic powers. Though the demonic forces likely thought that the humiliation of the cross would undo God’s plan of redemption. Thus, Jesus turned their means of shame into triumph, and His shame became victory. Triumph is probably meant to invoke Roman parades for victorious generals. By the cross, we not only had our debts canceled, but Christ also became victorious over sin.
The ultimate question for whether a religion is true or not comes down to how they view Christ. Jesus is the only means by which our debt with God has been canceled. Jesus is true religion. He is our victory over life and sin.