“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.” (Colossians 2:8 ESV)
Every Friday my wife Jenny and I spend time meditating on a small section of Scripture together. It is a refreshing change from what time in the Word looks like throughout the week and is something we get to do together. What I love about it is we let the Holy Spirit choose the text. We take a moment to acknowledge God’s presence and ask, “God, what do You want to say to us?” We then sit quietly and let different passages come to mind. After a few minutes, we discuss and choose one to meditate on.
As we sat down a few months ago, Jenny suggested that we turn to Colossians 2. And, wham. Verse 8 jumped off the page. It was as if the Holy Spirit had highlighted this verse in our Bibles while we were asleep the night before.
Here I am, months later, and I can’t stop thinking about it. In fact, I have gone back to this verse many times for reflection and application. There’s a reason why this verse is so illuminating to me. The more I bring myself back to it, the more I see its significance for all Christians today. What are the human traditions that might be pulling me towards empty deceit or, even worse, captivity? This is the question I’ve been asking myself and what I want to encourage you to do as well.
Notice that this is a command. Something God wants us to do. But what strikes me is the language Paul uses. “See to it …” I couldn’t think of any other commands that use that language. So, like any good seminary graduate would do, I dove deeper into the language. I found that, in his use of the phrase, Paul is putting weight to it. For Paul, “see to it” renders the feeling of being watchful or keeping a close eye on something. It almost carries a sense of suspicion. It’s like when you’re asleep and you hear something in your house that wakes you up. This is what Paul is saying. “See to it” because something is in the house. What am I looking for? A burglar? A bear? Flooding? No. He’s telling us that it’s nothing obvious—it’s sneaky, inconspicuous “empty deceit.”
Paul saw the threat not as something “out there,” but as something very near to the church at Colossae. Their threat was a deviant form of Christianity that was trying to pull these believers back into a faith that was not true and couldn’t save them. It was a threat that claimed to be true and even had clear resemblances of truth, and yet in reality it was “empty deceit” and “not according to Christ.” It was a false message. A false gospel. Hidden from plain sight in order to entice people away from real faith. It hid within the fabric of “human tradition,” embedded in the culture of “this is the way things are,” and “this is what everyone does.”
Paul is not saying that human traditions and cultural norms are all evil. But he is saying that to fall in line with mainstream cultural traditions without making sense of them in light of God’s revealed will is dangerous. Even more dangerous is when any mainstream cultural tradition, idea, or belief labels itself as “Christianity” when it is not. That is sneaky. That is deceptive. And this is what Paul is commanding us to be on watch for—the things that feel normal in everyday life that might be trying to deceive you.
God is commanding us to the same level of watchfulness and vigilance as Paul commanded to the church in Colossae. The threats to our faith today are not just “out there,” and, even more so, they are not big, obvious, heretical beliefs that we have to refute (although those certainly exist). The greatest threats to our faith are right in front of us. These small ideas, messages, and lies embed themselves in the fabric of our everyday moments. These messages lie in wait in our social media accounts, the entertainment we consume, the technology we use, and even in today’s fashion trends.
None of these things are in and of themselves bad. They are simply human traditions. The command does not say to never engage in human traditions. Instead, it commands us to not be held captive by the empty deceit they are offering. We are free to participate, but our participation should never be devoid of God’s Word and His desires for our whole lives.
This is Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees in Mark 7:9 when he says, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” Our participation in any human tradition must always be subject to God’s Word. Otherwise, the messages these traditions communicate will become our moral compass and, over time, we could find ourselves somewhere we never intended to be.
For me, I started by thinking about all our human traditions and then looked for the small lies and messages within them that might be trying to deceive me and pull me away from Christ. I quickly realized that’s impossible. There are a gazillion human traditions and they change every second.
But Jesus Christ does not change. “[He] is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8 ESV) Thank God! If we have a robust and right understanding of who God is and what His revealed will for every aspect of life is, then we should be able to easily identify how our human traditions are trying to deceive us and hold us captive.
The way to ensure we aren’t held captive by something that is “not according to Christ” is by knowing what it means to be held captive to Christ. We must know what God’s unchanging Word says about God, ourself, other people, and the world in order to see how our human traditions are trying to subtly deceive us. God’s Word allows us to see the ideas, messages, and lies that are trying to deceive us into falling in line with the way of the world unknowingly. Remember, these empty deceits are not glaringly obvious. They are trying to make slight shifts in our thinking and beliefs that overtime create a fundamental change to our faith without us ever realizing it. What makes this a challenge for us is that these human traditions feel so normal that we rarely think to pause and ask ourselves how they are impacting the major aspects of our faith and lives.
Here’s how this played out for Jenny and me. At the time we meditated on this verse, there was a TV show Jenny and I were watching. It was incredibly entertaining. It contained drama, action, spies, and all the other elements to keep the viewer wanting more. One night, after we were about half-way through the first season, Jenny woke me up around 2am and said that she thinks we should stop watching that show because it was impacting her view of God’s design for marriage, sex, and family life. I agreed, and we went back to bed. To be honest, a part of me was bummed out because I really liked the show. But, I knew she was absolutely right. Although it was entertaining, it was not helpful for us. As I look back on it, this is exactly the kind of empty deceit Paul is talking about. Hidden within the shows that everyone is watching are messages that want to distort our thinking.
I am not saying that Christians should quarantine themselves from every form of human tradition. Not at all. All I’m saying is that we should see to it that we are not held captive by the messages it is communicating. So participate if your conscience allows you to, but participate watchfully.
In order to do this well, I think it would be helpful for us to ask the following questions for the major human traditions we experience—social media, entertainment, technology, and fashion. This is by no means exhaustive and you can include more if you think of them.
1. How is [insert cultural practice] impacting my beliefs and relationship with God?
2. How is [insert cultural practice] impacting my beliefs and relationship with myself?
3. How is [insert cultural practice] impacting my beliefs and relationship with other people?
4. How is [insert cultural practice] impacting my beliefs and relationship with the world?
God, we belong to you! There is no greater participation than being a part of your family. I ask that by the power of the Holy Spirit you would give us eyes to see what is noble, worthy, and excellent according to Your Word. Please protect us from the empty deceits that we encounter every day. Help us to be people who are in the world, but not of the world. Amen.