What does Colossians 2:8 mean?
“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.” (Colossians 2:8, ESV)
To understand all the parts of this verse and what they refer to or mean, we need to take a look at the context surrounding the verse. Beginning with Colossians 2:6-7, we see the basis for why Paul says in Colossians 2:8.
He starts by telling the Colossians to walk in Christ because they have received him. Since they have begun to follow Christ, they should continue to walk in him. What is walking in Christ? Paul clarifies in the next verse.
Walking in Christ means to be rooted and built up in him, to be established in the faith. This refers to the doctrines and standards of the Christian faith. The Colossians need to be well-versed in doctrine and practice, doing what the Lord teaches.
They need to abound in thanksgiving for the teaching they have received and what Christ is doing for them. The reason why all of this is so important as a backdrop or background for Colossians 2:8 is because it will talk about all the other things they used to follow.
Paul tells the Colossians to not be deceived by human philosophies and traditions. He has talked about human philosophy in 1 Corinthians 1:20-26. It talks about the wisdom of the world and the philosopher of the age. Human philosophy by itself leads humanity astray.
Some commentaries suggest that there is a specific or particular philosophy that Paul is railing against. This philosophy is based on speculation, religious dogma, perhaps a touch of the kind and nature that pagans worship, etc.
Human tradition may refer to the things we celebrate, like festivals and holidays. It may specifically refer to Jewish traditions, the feasts and holy days. He has dealt with them in other epistles.
The elemental spirits could be one of two things. If Paul is referring to elemental principles, like those found in religions of all kinds made by humans, then that would be the first option. The second option is to understand it to be referring to the elemental spirits, celestial or earthly.
In the second option, Paul may be referring to things like earth, air, wind, fire, and other elements of the earth, or even spirits that are not godly. No matter how you look at it, these were all things that would pull the Christians away from Christian faith and doctrine and sidetracked them, distracting them from growing in the faith.