What does Colossians 2:20 mean?
ESV: If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations —
NIV: Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules:
NASB: If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as,
CSB: If you died with Christ to the elements of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations:
NLT: You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as,
KJV: Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances,
NKJV: Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—
Verse Commentary:
Paul begins this verse with a conditional statement, "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world." There are two possible meanings for this phrase. First, Paul may have had in mind the underlying assumptions used by the false teachers mentioned throughout this chapter. The idea of "elemental spirits" was also mentioned in Colossians 2:8. There, he was speaking of the fundamental theories of a non-Christian, fallen world. A second option is that "elemental spirits" refer to demonic spirits. Paul clearly spoke about spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:12) and may have had this in mind to wrap up the final verses of the chapter.

The context of this statement is the difference between human-centered efforts, versus a Christ-centered reliance on God. For that reason, is seems far more likely that Paul is again referring to worldly thinking and deceptive arguments.

Paul's point in the second half of this verse is clear. If a person really believes that Christ, not the Law, is the focus of their lives, why would they continue to obsess over human rules and regulations? In other words, Paul questioned why the Colossian believers still acted like unbelievers in some areas. Instead of living by faith in their own ability, they were to walk by faith in Christ (Colossians 2:6). The ascetic teachings or rules of false teachers were not binding upon them and offered no advantage.
Verse Context:
Colossians 2:16–23 is an application of the ideas Paul mentions in the previous verses. Verses 6 through 15 explained the supremacy of Christ over deceptive, human-based thinking. In this passage, Paul explicitly states that rules, rituals, and self-denial are not the path of spiritual growth. Trying to grow, spiritually, through these efforts is as impossible as a body part developing naturally while severed from the head! Living under severe rules might look good to others, but it's not how God has called us to relate to Him as Christian believers.
Chapter Summary:
In this passage, Paul warns Christians not to be taken in by deceptive arguments. These claims are attractive, but are merely tricks: they sound true, but they are not. Arguing for self-denial, legalism, visions, and other practices only looks good to observers. None of these are the real source of spiritual growth. Paul emphasizes the way Christ accomplished everything we need to be justified before God. As a result, there is no reason for believers to pursue these false, shallow ''shadows.'' We have the real substance: Jesus, so we should follow Him.
Chapter Context:
Chapter 1 introduced Christ as supreme over all of creation. Chapter 2 refines this argument by showing how the salvation offered through Jesus is superior to false, alternative systems. Paul specifically refutes several ideas, such as legalism, asceticism (self-denial), and mysticism. These are not how God intends us to grow, spiritually. Later chapters will contrast these false, external attempts with the true, inner spiritual growth which comes only by faith in Christ.
Book Summary:
The book of Colossians describes Christ as superior to all other teachers, faiths, and philosophies. In this letter, written from prison, Paul once again tackles false teachings. Among these errors are claims that Christians need to give up all physical enjoyments, that they should worship angels, and that they need to rely on the wisdom of an elite few. These problems are consistent with an ancient heresy known as Gnosticism. In response, Paul explains that Christ is supreme, and sufficient for our salvation.
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