“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. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 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, 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, 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. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
—Colossians 2:8-15 (ESV)
The word translated “elemental spirits” in the beginning of that passage is stoicheia, which literally means “elements”; this refers to the spirits who were thought to control the physical world—the four elements, the stars, the other heavenly bodies, the signs of the zodiac—all those things which were commonly thought to control human destiny. These were the powers, people believed, that ruled the world, and had to be placated in order to get on with life.
To most people, I suspect, Paul’s warning in Colossians 2 seems irrelevant—it has nothing to do with how we live now. Sure, there are those who are into astrology and won’t do anything without consulting their horoscope, but most people know better than to think that the stars rule their lives; surely, the concern Paul raises is nothing we need to worry about in our own lives.
For my part, though, I’m not so sure; I think our culture has its own set of stoicheia that continue to assert their authority in our lives. They may look different, and they may not be tied into religious observance (as they were in Paul’s day), but they wield similar influence. I think we need to ask in all seriousness—and try to answer in all seriousness—what are the spiritsour society accepts as the elemental powers that rule human destiny?
I don’t have a complete answer to that, by any means; but I think that one force that has assumed that role in our culture, anyway, is sex. The ancients believed the stars ruled their fates, and that however hard you tried to resist or avoid your fate, you couldn’t; increasingly, our culture has much the same view of sexual desire, seeing it as a force too great to resist—and indeed, one which shouldn’t be resisted. Even among Christians, who should really know better, this sort of thinking is used to justify an appalling number of adulteries and divorces; on a larger scale, it’s also the assumption which underlies the debate over homosexuality. Clearly, on our society’s view, asking people not to act on their sexual desires is completely unreasonable—you might as well ask them to jump out a window and not fall.
Biblically, though, that’s neither more nor less than slavery “to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Granted, certainly, it’s a slavery which is (at least on some levels) comfortable and pleasant for us, and which is difficult and painful to escape; there’s no question that to tell people, whatever their particular desires may be, that God calls them to resist sexual temptation is to ask them to commit to a difficult and painful struggle, and one in which they may not know true victory in this life. This isn’t something we can do in our own strength; it’s beyond human ability.
That’s why Paul immediately moves from his warning to this wonderful passage about Jesus. We can’t do what God wants us to do: our sin, the debt we can never repay, gives the “elemental spirits of the universe” power over us, and we can’t get free of that power. But what we could never do, Christ did for us, and in us: he took that debt, he blotted it out, and then he nailed it to the cross. In his crucifixion he took those spirits and he disarmed them, stripping them of all their power and authority; in his resurrection he made a public spectacle of them, displaying their powerlessness for the world to see in the light of his great triumph. Nothing in this world has any power over you any longer, Paul says, because you are in Christ and Christ has defeated every other power—he alone is victorious.