A (somewhat forced but helpful) outline of the argument – Theology expressed and applied:


  • (v8-10) Don’t be led astray by false teachers, who do not hold to Christ, the fullness of God

  • (v11-12a) You have been buried with Christ in his death
  • (v12b-13a) You have been raised with Christ in his resurrection
  • (v13b) You have been forgiven of your sins
  • (v14-15) You have been delivered from the law and the enemy


  • (v16-19) Therefore, don’t let this false teacher trouble you or seduce you

  • (v20-23) If you died with Christ, then you have died to all false religion
  • (v1-4) If you have been raised with Christ, then set your mind on him with hope
  • (v5-9) Since you have died with Christ, put away all that is sinful and worldly
  • (v10-11) Since you have been raised with Christ, you are part of the renewed creation
  • (v12-13) Since you have been forgiven, live in love and forgiveness
  • (v14-17) Since you have been delivered, serve Christ as Lord with joy and thanksgiving

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.

At its most basic level, the warning here is to watch out for false teachers. Unlike the cartoon bad guys, these teachers do not wear black cloaks and have a shifty look on their faces. They have the appearance of wisdom, of standing on the authority of respected people or traditions, and of teaching something that appears to accord with reality. It’s called deceitful because it appears to be one thing but is, in fact, something else.

This is a very common warning throughout the New Testament. In the era between the resurrection of Christ and his return, the Church faces a serious threat of false teachers and spiritual forces that seek to derail the mission of the Church in the world. For example:

  • Matthew 7:15 - Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
  • Philippians 3:2 - Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.
  • Acts 20:29-30 - I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.
  • 2 Pet. 2:1 - But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.
  • 1 John 4:1 - Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

For the early Church, by far the biggest threats and the most destructive false teachings were coming out of Judaism. Sometimes it was outright persecution and explicit opposition to the truth of Jesus as Messiah. Other times it was more subtle and deceptive, accepting Jesus as the Messiah but also teaching that Gentiles must be circumcised and observe the ceremonies of the law in order to be full members of the covenant and be saved. You see clear examples of this in Acts 15 and the book of Galatians. Much of the New Testament is composed of opposition to this teaching, which went against the very heart of Christianity – that in the death, resurrection, and exaltation Jesus the Messiah, the old order of things has passed away and the new creation has dawned; that he has fulfilled all that the law foreshadowed, and that forgiveness of sins and membership in the New Covenant is freely available to both Jew and Gentile by faith in the Lord Jesus. The denial of this reality took many forms, including ceremonial requirements, teaching that required subjection to mediating spirits, magic, and other forms of pagan spirituality, or other forms of religion which explicitly or implicitly denied the gospel.

In this situation, the false teachers could argue for their position based on an appeal to traditions, as well as an apparently shared belief in powerful spiritual forces that govern the world. The word philosophy here is not limited to what we normally mean by the word philosophy today. It is much broader and can incorporate any number of religious teachings. The deceitful philosophy that Paul warns of threatens to enslave the Colossians. In contrast to what they’ve learned in Christ, the false teachers are seeking to lead them according something else, which Paul calls “elemental spirits.” What exactly does this mean? The word used here is a bit ambiguous, since it can mean “basic elements of the material world,” “the letters of the alphabet,” “rudimentary religious teachings,” “heavenly bodies,” “or angelic beings.” He uses this same phrase 3 times in Galatians 4:1-11. Once, he’s referring to himself and other Jews under the Old Covenant law, while the other two times he is referring to the former pagan religion of the Galatians. For both situations, the elements are an enslaving force in contrast to the freedom gained in Christ.

The contrast with the gospel is clear: The word of truth vs. the deceitful philosophy; the rescuing and liberating Christ vs. the enslaving teacher of the philosophy.

Whatever the specific error the Colossians faced, Paul’s warning is broad enough to apply readily to our day. The deceitful philosophies abound still, and using the Jews under the Old Covenant and the pagans of Galatia as a starting point we see similar examples today of enslavement to a deceitful philosophy following human traditions:

  1. Those enslaved to legalistic religion
  2. Those enslaved to a materialistic naturalism
  3. Those enslaved to their own lusts and pleasures

QUESTION – What are some examples today of enslaving philosophies? False religions that are prevalent?

QUESTION – What can we do to watch and ensure that we’re not taken captive by these deceptive philosophies?

QUESTION – How can we watch out for our brothers and sisters in Christ? What does this involve?

The standard for discerning truth and error is Christ. Is it in accord with the reality that is made know to us in Jesus? Any philosophy or system of thought that finds its basis in anything other than Christ is enslaving. Paul’s warning – Watch out! If it doesn’t line up with King Jesus, beware.

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,

The basis for this confidence in Christ, over against all of these other sources, is the fact that in him all the fullness of deity dwells bodily. This is similar to v.3 above, where Paul says that in him are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” Jesus is both fully God (the whole fullness of deity) and fully man (bodily). And in his person we have all of the power and knowledge of God himself. Unlike any other angelic beings, who are intermediaries and lesser powers, in Christ we have the fullness of God. There is no need to be subject with fear to other forces in the world, because Christ is supreme over all and his authority unmatched. Likewise, as the true image of God and the perfect human, his teachings really do accord with how creation really works, in contrast to the corrupted traditions of fallen men.

and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.

In Christ, the Church has been filled with all the fullness of God. We do not need to look anywhere else for wisdom, or truth, or satisfaction. We need not fear or be subject to any other forces in the universe because out head is the head of all rule and authority.

QUESTION – If all the fullness of God is in Christ, and Christ is in us, and Christ is all powerful, how should this affect us when facing opposition?

QUESTION - Do you have any fears when it comes to speaking the truth to others?

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism,

The old covenant rite of circumcision was the means that identified someone as a member of the covenant. It signified a setting apart from the world and sin (death), and a setting apart to God (new life). In this passage we see that Christ’s death on the cross is the reality to which circumcision pointed. This death, this circumcision of Christ, is counted to use when we are united to Christ in baptism. In him we have died and have been buried, truly cut off from the sinful world.

QUESTION: Why is circumcision no longer necessary for those in the covenant?

In contrast to the false teachers, who were likely teaching that the Colossians must be circumcised to be faithful, Paul teaches that their circumcision took place in Christ, and that by being baptized into his death the gentiles are full-fledged members of the covenant of salvation in Christ. The Colossians, though physically uncircumcised, have received the true circumcision of the heart through the death of Christ.

Both circumcision and baptism are external signs that point to an internal reality in the heart. Circumcision is not longer necessary because the reality has come in Christ. Baptism signifies our spiritual identification with Christ in both his death and resurrection.

QUESTION: What does it mean for your life here and now that you have died with Christ?

in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him,

Just as we were united to Christ’s death through faith, so we are united to him in his resurrection. The resurrection is counted to us by faith in the powerful working of God. For those who are baptized but do not have faith, they end up with the sign of death but not the subsequent resurrection.

Existing in a state of spiritual death and living apart from the covenant of God and righteousness, they have been given new life by partaking in Christ’s life. As he was raised, so are they. Their state of uncircumcision is removed by his circumcision and their state of death removed by his death and resurrection.

QUESTION: What does it mean for your life here and now that you have been raised with Christ?

having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

The reference here is to a signed certificate of debt. Not only has he cleared the debt, but he has even set aside, or taken away, the instrument that keeps tracks track of the debt. The past sins have been forgiven and the present remains clean. The image is one of taking the record and nailing it to the cross. That is, Christ in his death on the cross became our record of sin and that record was wiped out in his death. The debt of the mosaic law, which kept Jews under condemnation and kept Gentiles out of the covenant, has been removed.

QUESTION: If our past sins were were forgiven, what happens with sins that we commit in the future?

2 Corinthians 5:21 - For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Ephesians 2:11-16 - Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

The defeat and humiliation of the cross was actually Christ’s victory and exaltation and served as the defeat and humiliation of the enemies. The description of defeat and humiliation is graphic here and intended to leave you with no doubt that the spiritual accusers and oppressors of God’s people have been rendered powerless by the cross of Christ. All that is needed for judgment and salvation is accomplished in Christ.