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Colossians 2:8

ESV 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.
NIV See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.
NASB See to it that there is no one who takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception in accordance with human tradition, in accordance with the elementary principles of the world, rather than in accordance with Christ.
CSB Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elements of the world, rather than Christ.
NLT Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ.
KJV Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
NKJV Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.

What does Colossians 2:8 mean?

In prior verses, Paul focused on a positive depiction of the Colossian believers and their faithfulness. Here, he transitions to warning them against false teaching.

Jesus came to set captives free (Luke 4:18; Romans 7:6; Galatians 3:23), not to leave people in spiritual chains. Paul personally dealt with sin seeking to make him captive (Romans 7:23), yet fought against every evil thought to make it captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

What could take the Colossians captive? Paul mentions "philosophy," which he means in a very specific sense. This is not a broad reference to all meanings of that term. The Bible's stance on deep thinking, logic, and philosophy-as-philosophy is very positive (Acts 17:11; 1 John 4:1; Proverbs 15:28). In this context, Paul is condemning philosophy which is based on explicitly anti-Christian principles. In verse 4, he referred to these kinds of arguments as "deceptive," using a Greek term which implies trickery or cheating. In other words, actual critical thinking is not the problem. Self-deluding, worldly philosophical "tricks" are the problem (2 Timothy 3:7). The false teachers of Colossae are using these kinds of attacks against Christ.

Paul refers to "empty deceit." This would include hollow rhetoric or outright lies. "Elemental spirits," in this context, is a reference to the basic assumptions we use in our thinking (Galatians 4:3). If a person starts from a blatantly anti-spiritual standpoint, they are going to come to anti-spiritual conclusions. This, again, reminds us that fallen human wisdom can be at odds with Christ's teachings.

Paul also refers to "human tradition," reminding the reader that simply because an idea is preferred, or historical, does not make it true. The phrase in Greek is paradosin tōn anthrōpōn. This implies the laws, rules, or handed-down regulations of humanity. Paul wants the Colossians—and all believers—to focus on truth, and on Christ, not on trickery and human preference.
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