Colossian Problem I—Greek Philosophy: Colossians 2:1-8
In the first century Mediterranean world, there was no sharp distinction between religious speculations on the one hand and intellectual study on the other hand. And as a result, the word philosophy was typically applied to occult religions, especially those that were based on religious traditions. Often, these traditions involved special mysteries and rites as well as secret knowledge and wisdom. Sadly, some of these occult philosophies were finding their way into the church at Colosse. We can see Paul’s concern over this in Colossians 2:1-4:
I am struggling for you … in order that you may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge… so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments (Colossians 2:1-4).
Paul’s words here indicate that the Colossians valued mystery, wisdom and knowledge, all of which Greek philosophy and religion typically valued. So, in response to the claims of the false teachers in Colosse, Paul emphasized that true mystery, wisdom and knowledge were found only in Christ, and not in pagan religion.
Then, in Colossians 2:8 Paul explicitly identified pagan philosophy as his target and condemned it in no uncertain terms:
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ (Colossians 2:8).
Here, Paul directly labeled the false teaching hollow and deceptive philosophy. As we have seen, in typical Greek usage the word “philosophy” referred to religious speculations based on traditions, not to purely intellectual or rational study.
These verses strongly suggest that the false teachers in Colosse were enamored with beliefs and practices based in Greek religion and occult mysticism. To gain acceptance in the church, they probably embraced some elements of Christianity. But they clearly did not embrace Christianity as it was taught by the apostles, or else they would not have relied on occult tradition as the basis of their system.
The pagan philosophy advocated by the false teachers in Colosse also seems to have included elements of asceticism. Asceticism is an improper avoidance of physical pleasure. It is often rooted in the mistaken idea that pleasure is immoral, and it sometimes goes so far as to advocate inflicting physical pain on oneself. Paul denounced such asceticism in Colossians 2:20-23. Paul wrote:
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why … do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? … Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with … their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Colossians 2:20-23).
Paul objected to the ascetic practices in Colosse for at least two reasons. First, their asceticism was based on the basic principles of the world. This language refers to spiritual beings and angelic powers. Second, it was of no value in resisting sin, and thus provided no benefits.
In summary then, the false teachers in Colosse tried to mix the church’s teachings with Greek traditions that were supposed to bring wisdom and strengthen believers against temptation. But in reality, the wisdom they offered was false, their practices were worthless, and their teachings denied the supremacy of Christ.