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So far in our study of Colossians I've avoided saying anything in depth about the problem that led Paul to write this letter in the first place. There is good reason for that. I long ago lost count of the number of theories concerning the essence of the so-called "Colossian heresy" (it probably consisted of an odd mix of gnosticism, asceticism, and an inordinate emphasis on the importance of angels; some have contended there was also a Judaizing element in it).

But we can no longer afford to ignore this issue, and the reason is obvious. Here in Colossians 2:8-10 Paul explicitly warns his readers: "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."

There are four observations that need to be made.

First, contrary to what some have said, Paul is not condemning all philosophy, as if the discipline is itself inherently dangerous. I've actually run into a few individuals who, upon entering college, believed that this passage prohibited them from majoring in Philosophy. "The idea of a 'Christian philosopher,'" said one, "is a contradiction in terms." Now, there may well be reasons why one should opt for another major, but this verse isn't one of them!

Paul is clearly referring to one specific expression of philosophical thought that was a threat to the faith of the Colossians in the first century (note the presence of the definite article, although left out by most English translations, hence more literally, "THE philosophy . . ."). This is a philosophical perspective characterized by "empty deceit." It is deceitful, as over against "the word of truth" (Col. 1:5). It is empty, as over against the glorious riches (Col. 1:27) and treasures (Col. 2:3) that are in Christ.

Philosophy, more generally considered, is an extremely helpful discipline designed to help us think through ultimate issues such as the existence of God, the meaning of life, the nature of good and evil, how we use language, and a variety of other tough topics. Philosophical reasoning, therefore, that is subject to the final authority of Scripture can shed great light on our search for and understanding of truth.

Second, on the other hand, Christians do need to be cautious about any form of philosophy that is "not according to Christ" (v. 8), That is to say, if it is in any way contrary to the revelation of God in Christ or diminishes from his supremacy and glory, it is to be shunned.

That Paul has in mind a particular philosophy that detracts from the centrality of Christ and undermines our confidence in his sufficiency to be and do for us all that we need is evident from vv. 9-10. Note the word "for" with which v. 9 begins. Paul's point is that "because" ("for") all the fullness of the divine nature dwells in Christ and "because" we have been made complete in him and in no other, we have no need for human reasoning that purports to give us something that Christ didn't provide. Any philosophy (or theology) that says, "Christ was necessary, but not sufficient; we have more, we have the 'fullness' of divine wisdom and power that isn't available merely in a relationship with Jesus Christ," is demonic and must be rejected.

Third, the philosophy that Paul condemns is "according to human tradition" (v. 8). In other words, it is earthly in origin. This is a philosophy that was conceived in the mind of man and did not come by means of divine revelation. It may well be compatible with and confirm human traditions, and make sense when looked at from a this-worldly perspective, but it has nothing in it of God.

Fourth, and perhaps worst of all, this philosophy is "according to the elemental spirits of the world." Since the Greek word translated "elemental" (the word "spirits" is not in the original text) was employed in the ancient world to refer to the letters of an alphabet, it may be used here as a reference to first principles or the fundamental elements of something, hence the rudimentary concepts of human thought or the basic ideas of human reasoning.

But it is more likely that by this word (stoicheia) Paul is referring to spiritual beings, i.e., demons, that were thought to be active within and exercising influence over the physical universe. In other words, this would be another way of referring to those spiritual beings which Christ created and over which he exercises sovereign rule, as well as those demonic spirits that Paul will soon declare (Col. 2:15) were defeated by means of the cross.

If this is the case, no wonder Paul warned them so strongly lest they be taken captive. There is demonic energy behind any philosophy, says the apostle, that undermines or detracts from or tries to supplement the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. He, and he alone, is truly enough! He is all we will ever need.

The NASV makes this clear by translating the first half of v. 10 as, "in Him you have been made complete." There is fullness in only one: Jesus! In him, and therefore in no one else, you will find every resource, every truth, and all power. Look again at Colossians 2:3 where Paul declared that it is "in him" that we find all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Instead of "made complete," this word has also been translated "you have been filled" or even "fulfilled." The same verb is used to describe Christians as being "filled" with the "fruit of righteousness" (Phil. 1:11), "joy" and "peace" (Rom. 15:13), as well as "goodness" and "knowledge" (Rom. 15:14), not to mention the "Spirit" himself (Eph. 5:18)! The false teachers tried to convince the Colossians that the fullness they desired was unattainable in Christ alone. Paul responds by reminding them that everything they need to be complete, full, and fulfilled is in Jesus, and Jesus alone.

The "Colossian heresy" no longer exists in precisely the form it did in Paul's day. But there is still great relevance in his words of warning. We must be diligent, constantly on guard, and ever alert to those deceitful and ultimately destructive philosophies and theologies that to the slightest degree draw us away from reliance on Christ and his all-sufficient grace.

Any idea or system of thought that would suggest he is not supreme and sovereign or that he is not infinitely and exclusively worthy of our absolute devotion and adoration is demonic at its core. Beware, says the apostle, of any such philosophy. Identify it. Denounce it. Deliver others from its destructive clutches.

Full, filled, and fulfilled in him,