Religion Of Men


Colossians 2:8

The Simple Christian

Religion Of Men

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. (Colossians 2:8, NKJV)

The false teaching among the Colossians was marked by an emphasis on philosophy and empty deceit. Most of all, it was according to the tradition of men. It had the stamp of man on it, not God.

The best sense of the phrase cheat you is actually, “lead you away as prey.” It also had the ideas of robbing and plundering:

“Their goods were the salvation they had received from Christ; and both the Gentile and Jewish teachers endeavored to deprive them of these, by perverting their minds, and leading them off from the truths of Christianity.” – Adam Clarke

This philosophy that threatened the Colossian Christians was a strange eclectic mix of early Gnosticism, Greek philosophy, local mystery religions, and Jewish mysticism. The philosophy threatening the Colossian Christians was so dangerous because it was not obviously sinful and licentious. It was high-sounding and seemed highly intelligent.

“It had originally a good meaning, the love of wisdom, but is used by Paul in the sense of vain speculation, and with special reference to it is being the name by which the false teachers at Colossae designated not only their speculative system but also their practical system, so that it covered their ascetic practices no less than mysticism.” – Marvin Vincent

There is significant debate among commentators as to the exact nature of the Colossian heresy. Some see it as predominately an expression of early Gnosticism with some Jewish mystical elements added; others see it as primarily Jewish mysticism with a few aspects of early Gnosticism. Whatever the exact origin or composition of this heresy, it seems clear that it had both elements.

The connection to early Gnosticism is clear from the way Paul brings forth his points:

  • Religion Of MenGnosticism taught that God (as a Perfect Spirit) could not come into direct contact with the material world. Paul took care to point out that Jesus is God, and He came in the body of His flesh (Colossians 1:19-22).
  • Gnosticism taught that since God could not have direct contact with the material world, that God Himself did not create the world, but He worked through lesser spirits or angels. Paul took care to show that Jesus was the creator of the world (Colossians 1:15-16).
  • Gnosticism (and some forms of Jewish mysticism) taught that God did not deal directly with mankind and the material world, but that He dealt with the world through a series of mediators. Paul took care to show that Jesus did the work of reconciliation Himself (Colossians 1:19-20).
  • Gnosticism (and some forms of Jewish mysticism) greatly esteemed these supposed mediators and considered them angelic beings of a sort. Paul was careful to warn the Colossians that angels should not be worshipped (Colossians 2:18).

The connection to Jewish mysticism is clear from the way Paul brings forth a few more points:

  • Jewish influence on Christianity emphasized dietary laws. Paul took care to say that Christians were not under Jewish dietary laws (Colossians 2:16).
  • Jewish influence on Christianity emphasized the observance of particular days as an obligation. Paul took care to say that Christians were not under these obligations (Colossians 2:16).

The Colossian heresy promoted itself as traditional. It could trace some or many of its ideas back to traditions among the Jews or the Greek philosophers or both. Paul here warned that the tradition of men has no equal authority to the word of God.

The ancient Greek word translated basic principles is a word that can mean several different things based on their context, and Paul may have used such a broad word to cover a variety of meanings.

“The noun stoicheia means primarily things placed side by side in a row; it is used of the letters of the alphabet, the ABCs, and then, since learning one’s ABCs is the first lesson in a literary education, it comes to mean ‘rudiments,’ ‘first principles’ (cf. Hebrews 5:12, as the ‘rudiments’ of the gospel).” – F.F. Bruce

Because of this association with fundamental elements, the word came to also refer to basic elements such as earth, water, air, and fire.

Many ancient mystery religions thought of the world as a dangerous place, threatened by spirits or spiritual forces they called elements or elemental forces (such as Paul uses the word in Colossians 2:8 and 2:20). They thought one was protected from these dangerous spiritual forces by either worshipping them or by finding protection under a greater deity or spiritual power that was superior to these elements.

Yet, one might say that Paul’s meaning here certainly includes an answer to early Gnostic ideas, but the meaning also goes beyond those specific ideas:

“It has been frequently taken in this sense as the ABC of religious knowledge . . . the expression must apply to something both [Jews and pagans] had in common.” – Arthur Samuel Peake

Common to both Jews and pagans was the basic idea of cause and effect and in a sense, it rules nature and the minds of men. We live with the idea that we get what we deserve; when we are good, we deserve to receive good; when we are bad, we deserve to receive bad. Paul warned the Colossians to not subject themselves to this grace-eliminating kind of thinking and to consider themselves dead to it.

Beware of the religion of men:

For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men —the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.” (Mark 7:8)


Gracious Father God, help us to distinguish between the religion of men and the faith that is rightly placed in Jesus and Your word. Give us the strength to not give into the temptation to follow the way of men.  In Jesus name, Amen.

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