"Do not add or subtract from my Word."
ADDITIONS TO CHRIST (Colossians 2:8-23)
2:8-23 Beware lest there will be anyone who will carry you off as his spoil, by insisting on the necessity of a so-called philosophy, which is, in fact, an empty delusion, a philosophy which has been handed down by human tradition, and which is concerned with the elements of this world, and not with Christ; for in him there dwells the fullness of the divine nature; and you have found this fullness in him who is the head of every power and authority. In him you have been circumcised with a circumcision not made by man's hands, a circumcision which consists in putting off the whole of that part of you which is dominated by sinful human nature, which you were able to do by the circumcision which belongs to Christ. You were buried with him in the act of baptism, and in that act you were raised with him through your faith in the effective working of God, who raised him from the dead. God made you alive with him, when you were dead in your sins and were still uncircumcised Gentiles. He forgave you all your sins, and wiped out the charge-list which set out all your self-admitted debts, a charge-list which was based on the ordinances of the law and was in direct opposition to you. He nailed it to his Cross and put it right out of sight. He stripped the powers and authorities of all their power and publicly put them to shame, and, through the Cross, led them captive in his triumphal train.
Let no one take you to task in matters of food or drink, or with regard to yearly festivals and monthly new moons and weekly sabbaths. These are only the shadow of things to come; the real substance belongs to Christ. Let no one rob you of your prize by walking in ostentatious humility in the worship of angels, making a parade of the things he has seen, vainly inflated with pride because he is dominated by his sinful human nature and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, supplied and held together by the joints and muscles, increases with the increase which only God can give.
If you died with Christ to the elements of this world, why do you continue to submit yourselves to their rules and regulations, as if you were still living in a world without God? "Handle not! Taste not! Touch not!" are their slogans. These are rules which are humanly taught and humanly imposed, and they are rules which deal with things which are destined for decay as soon as they are used. These things have a reputation for wisdom, with their self-imposed devotion and their flaunting humility and their stern treatment of the body, but they have no kind of value in remedying the indulgence of sinful human nature.
There can be no doubt that for us this is one of the most difficult passages Paul ever wrote. For those who heard or read it for the first time it would be crystal clear. The trouble is that it is packed from beginning to end with allusions to the false teaching which was threatening to wreck the Colossian Church. We do not know precisely what that teaching was. Therefore the allusions are obscure and we can only guess. But every sentence and every phrase would go straight home to the minds and the hearts of the Colossians.
It is so difficult that we propose to treat it in a slightly different way from our usual practice. We have set it out as a whole, in what is more of a paraphrase than a translation. We will take out its leading ideas, for it is possible to see the main lines of the false teaching which was troubling Colosse; and then, after we have looked at it as a whole, we shall examine it in more detail in shorter sections.
One thing clear is that the false teacher swished the Colossians to accept what can only be called additions to Christ. They were teaching that Jesus Christ himself is not sufficient; that he was not unique; that he was one among many manifestations of God; and that it was necessary to know and to serve other divine powers in addition to him. We can distinguish five additions to Christ which these false teachers wished to make.
(i) They wished to teach men an additional philosophy (Colossians 2:8). As they saw it, the simple truth preached by Jesus and preserved in the gospel was not enough. It had to be filled out by an elaborate system of pseudo-philosophical thought which was far too difficult for the simple and which only the intellectual could understand.
(ii) They wished men to accept a system of astrology (Colossians 2:8). As we shall see, there is a doubt about the meaning but we think it most likely that the elements of the world were the elemental spirits of the universe, especially of the stars and the planets. It was the teaching of these false teachers that men were still under these influences and needed a special knowledge, beyond that which Jesus could give, to be liberated from them.
(iii) They wished to impose circumcision on Christians (Colossians 2:11). Faith was not enough; circumcision had to be added. A badge in the flesh was to take the place of, or at least be an addition to, an attitude of the heart.
(iv) They wished to lay down ascetic, rules and regulations (Colossians 2:16, Colossians 2:20-23). They wished to introduce all kinds of rules and regulations about what a man might eat and drink and about what days he must observe as festivals and fasts. All the old Jewish regulations--and more--were to be brought back.
(v) They wished to introduce the worship of angels (Colossians 2:18). They were teaching that Jesus was only one of many intermediaries between God and man and that all these intermediaries must receive their worship.
It can be seen that here there is a mixture of Gnosticism and Judaism. The intellectual knowledge and the astrology come direct from Gnosticism; the asceticism and the rules and regulations from Judaism. What happened was this. We have seen that the Gnostics believed that all kinds of special knowledge, beyond the gospel, was needed for salvation. There were Jews who joined forces with the Gnostics and declared that the special knowledge required was none other than the knowledge which Judaism could give. This explains why the teaching of the Colossians' false teachers combined the beliefs of Gnosticism with the practices of Judaism.
The one thing certain is that the false teachers taught that Jesus Christ and his teaching and work were not in themselves sufficient for salvation. Let us now take the passage section by section.
Traditions And The Stars (Colossians 2:8-10)
2:8-10 Beware lest there will be anyone who will carry you off as his spoil, by insisting on the necessity of a so-called philosophy, which is, in fact, an empty delusion, a philosophy which has been handed down by human tradition, and which is concerned with the elements of this world and not with Christ; for in him there dwells the fullness of the divine nature; and you have found this fullness in him who is the head of every power and authority.
Paul begins by drawing a vivid picture of the false teachers. He speaks of anyone who will carry you off as his spoil. The word is sulagogein (Greek #4812) and could be used of a slave-dealer carrying away the people of a conquered nation into slavery. To Paul it was an amazing and a tragic thing that men who had been liberated (Colossians 1:12-14), could contemplate submitting themselves to a new and disastrous slavery.
These men offer a philosophy which they declare is necessary in addition to the teaching of Christ and the words of the gospel.
(i) It is a philosophy which has been handed down by human tradition. The Gnostics were in the habit of claiming that their special teaching was teaching which had been told by word of mouth by Jesus, sometimes to Mary, sometimes to Matthew, and sometimes to Peter. They did, in fact, say that there were things which Jesus never told the crowd and communicated only to the chosen few. The charge Paul makes against these teachers is that their teaching is a human thing; it has no basis in Scripture. It is a product of the human mind; and not a message of the Word of God. To speak like this is not to drift into fundamentalism or submit to a tyranny of the written word, but to hold that no teaching can be Christian teaching which is at variance with the basic truths of Scripture and with the Word of God.
(ii) It is a philosophy which has to do with the elements of this world. This is a much-discussed phrase of which the meaning is still in doubt. The word for elements is stoicheia (Greek #4747), and stoicheia has two meanings.
(a) It means literally things which are set out in a row. It is, for instance, the word for a file of soldiers. But one of its commonest meanings is the letters of the alphabet, no doubt because they form a series which can be set out in a row. Because stoicheia (Greek #4747) can mean the letters of the alphabet, it can also very commonly mean elementary instruction in any subject. We still speak of learning the A B C of a subject, when we mean taking the first steps in it. It is possible that this is the meaning here. Paul may be saying, "These false teachers claim that they are giving you knowledge which is very advanced and very profound. In point of fact it is knowledge which is uninstructed and rudimentary because at the best it is knowledge of the human mind. The real knowledge, the real fullness of God, is in Jesus Christ. If you listen to these false teachers, so far from receiving deep spiritual knowledge, you are simply slipping back into rudimentary instruction which you should have left behind long ago."
(b) Stoicheia (Greek #4747) has a second meaning. It means the elemental spirits of the world, and especially the spirits of the stars and planets. There are still people today who take astrology seriously. They wear signs of the zodiac charms and read newspaper columns which tell what is forecast for them in the stars. But it is almost impossible for us to realize how dominated the ancient world was by the idea of the influence of the elemental spirits and the stars. Astrology was then, as someone has said, the queen of the sciences. Even men so great as Julius Caesar and Augustus, so cynical as Tiberius, so level-headed as Vespasian would take no step without consulting the stars. Alexander the Great believed implicitly in the influence of the stars. Men and women believed that their whole lives were fixed by them. If a man was born under a fortunate star all was well; if he was born under an unlucky star, he could not look for happiness; if any undertaking was to have a chance of success, the stars must be observed. Men were the slaves of the stars.
There was one possibility of escape. If men knew the right pass-words and the right formulae, they might escape from this fatalistic influence of the stars; and a great part of the secret teaching of Gnosticism and of kindred faiths and philosophies was knowledge which claimed to give the devotee escape from the power of the stars; and in all probability that was what the false teachers of Colosse were offering. They were saying, "Jesus Christ is all very well, he can do much for you; but he cannot enable you to escape from your subjection to the stars. We alone have the secret knowledge which can enable you to do that." Paul, sufficiently the child of his age to believe in these elemental spirits, answers: "You need nothing but Christ to overcome any power in the universe; for in him is nothing less than the fullness of God and he is the head of every power and authority, for he created them."
The Gnostic teachers offered an additional philosophy; Paul insisted on the triumphant adequacy of Christ to overcome any power in any part of the universe. You cannot at one and the same time believe in the power of Christ and the influence of the stars.
From William Barclay's Daily Study Bible