“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.”
Part of always following Jesus means a call to exclusivity – that is, not only must you always follow Jesus, you must only follow Jesus. The Colossian church is dealing with some doctrinal issues, exactly what is hard to pin down, but it seems that false teachers were slowly sneaking in and adding bits and pieces to the faith. That’s what he means when he says “philosophy.” He’s not speaking of the academic practice of philosophy, which is not inherently sinful, but Paul is referring to inventions of the human mind. Dangerous ideas that were new on the scene. Be wary of new ideas friends. Spurgeon once said, “Be assured that there is nothing new to theology except that which is false.”
Paul's response to man-made tradition (whether Jewish or pagan) is the same: “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” An appearance of wisdom. That should cause us to pause, shouldn’t it? Man-made religion, man-made religious elements, they can have an appearance of wisdom. Especially when compared with the Christianity of the Bible. Is Christ the only way? That’s what the Bible says. But what about works? What if we throw in some works? Many of us are swept away and caught in the trap of legalism, and why? Because it has an appearance of wisdom! Because it makes sense, it’s plausible, it’s attractive. We like the idea of being able to earn something! But Christ says, “No, you don’t have to do anything. I’ve done it all for you. No works, no ceremonies, no asceticism. Just me.”
Our law-wired hearts don’t know what to make of that. Yes, man-made religion and regulations may have an appearance of wisdom, but that’s all it is – an appearance, a mirage. But there are of no effort in stopping the indulgence of the flesh, in stopping sin, in saving your soul. Remember: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose was is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
Are we being swept away by our own inventions? This is a very serious concern. Look at the language Paul uses. The word “see” is a word that implies being on guard or on the lookout, vigilant, alert. Prison guards are trained to do just that. And you know what never gets by them? A mad dash for the fence during time in the yard. But what about a patient, methodical plan, that unfolds over months or even years? Perhaps you remember the story a few years ago of the infamous drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s escape from a Mexican prison. They found a 60-foot hole underneath the shower drain that led to a mile-long tunnel with a motorcycle rigged to a track. The track led to the basement of a newly constructed home, which was of course deserted by the time the authorities got there. How long do you think that escape plan took? A few days, weeks? Closer to years, probably. Blatant heresies hardly ever get by unnoticed. But what about subtle distortions of the truth? What about lies that just slowly chip away at the foundation? That’s much more dangerous. And we need to always be vigilant, on the lookout, because these errors, these false doctrines, will take us captive. They don’t cozy on up next to us. They don’t live peaceably with us. They don’t share the pew with us. They own us. They enslave us. The wisdom of the world will enslave you – the foolishness of Christ will set you free.
The difference between authentic Christianity and some perversion of it is that the perversion will have the handprints of man all over it, authentic Christianity will only have the handprints of Christ. Real Christianity is only Christ.