6 As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives [Greek: “walk”] in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. NRSV
In Col. 1:1-2:5 Paul gave a lengthy introduction to his letter, in which he greeted the Colossians, reminded them of his relationship to them, expressed the general aim of his letter, offered a statement of the gospel tailored to the Colossians’ context, reviewed his commission to make the word of God fully known, and revealed the specific aim of his letter—to counter deception among the Colossians.
Now, having finished this introduction, in Col. 2:6-4:6 Paul wades into the heart of the letter and the specific teaching he has for the Colossians. In Col. 2:6-8 he begins with a general summary of the teaching: the Colossians are to “continue” in Christ (2:6-7). A crucial aspect of continuing in Christ for the Colossians will be for them to avoid various deceptions that have been plaguing the church (2:8). In subsequent verses Paul will clarify certain specific deceptions they should avoid (2:16-19) and the reasons they should do so (2:9-15 and 2:20-23).
Colossians 2:6-7 Commentary
Paul’s central teaching of the letter, then, is that the Colossians should continue to live their lives in Christ (2:6). Just as they began by “receiving” Christ Jesus, the Lord, so they should continue to live their lives “in him.” The Greek word here translated as “received” has the sense of accepting or affirming a certain religious tradition—namely, the teaching that Christ Jesus is the Lord. From Paul’s prior teaching in the letter, the sense in which Christ is Lord is lofty indeed: Christ is the divine creator and supreme authority over all creation, which includes the Colossians. Thus, just as the Colossians first affirmed that Christ is Lord over them, so they should continue to live their lives in a way that reflects Christ’s Lordship over them. This, it seems, is part of what Paul means by telling them to walk “in him.”
However, Paul has more to say about what it means to walk in Christ. It is to be “rooted and built up in him,” to be “established in the faith,” and to abound in thanksgiving (Col. 2:7). The verbs “rooted,” “built up,” and “established” are all passive verbs, suggesting that rooting, building up, and establishing are not activities that the Colossians themselves can accomplish directly. Perhaps Paul’s idea is that Christ does the rooting, building up, and establishing. Nevertheless, the Colossians can do something to put themselves in a position to be rooted, built up, and established in the faith. First, they should abound in thanksgiving, expressing thanks for all they have been given in Christ, such as their rescue from the powers of darkness (Col. 1:13), their forgiveness (Col. 1:14), and their reconciliation with God (Col. 1:21-22).
Colossians 2:8 Commentary
Second, they can avoid empty deceptive philosophies that conform to “human tradition” and the dark powers of the universe (Col. 2:8). According to A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, the Greek word translated by the NRSV as “elemental spirits” seems to have a dual meaning in this passage. First, it refers to “transcendent powers that are in control over events in this world…elemental spirits.” Second, it seems to refer to “things that constitute the foundation of learning,” i.e., “fundamental principles” (the NASB translation privileges this second meaning). The intriguing implication is that, in Paul’s view, there is a close link between elemental spirits and fundamental principles, between spiritual forces and basic teachings. It seems that the elemental spirits exercised their control over events in the world, in part, by way of certain fundamental principles. A contemporary scientific analogy might be the link between matter and the physical laws that govern it. Paul’s idea, then, is that the elemental spirits have been holding certain of the Colossians captive by way of false principles at the root of the “human traditions” they were following. They had returned to the captivity from which Christ had liberated them (Col. 1:13-14), and thus had submitted to powers and principles contrary to Christ. Paul’s admonition is that they should allow no one—no teacher, no principles, no spirits—to take them captive in this way. Rather, Christ alone is their Lord, and so it is his teachings alone to which they should submit.
What can we learn from this passage? Paul’s central teaching that the Colossians should continue to live their lives in Christ seems crucial for us today. For Christians that emphasize evangelism or mission, the focus (especially in church gatherings) can be so much on receiving Christ that it is sometimes easy to overlook the importance and practicalities of living life “in Christ” each day. As Paul suggests here, part of living in Christ is being grateful for all we have received—both spiritual and physical blessings. If we make it a daily discipline to express gratitude to God and people, this can have a truly transformative effect on our attitude. If we are grateful, we are no longer fearful, anxious, or discontent. Rather, we meet the world with a sense that we are taken care of, and that we have enough. In this way, gratitude can bring a peaceful contentment that no pile of material treasure could ever produce.
The second provocative lesson we can learn is that whenever we follow teachings contrary to Christ’s, we have slipped out from under the lordship of Christ and are being led by dark spiritual powers. I have discussed this idea at more length in a previous post.