Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world…
I. THE POISON. "Take heed" implies a real, not an hypothetical danger. Paul is not crying "wolf." "Any one," i.e., somebody; as if he had said, "I name no names — it is not the persons, but the principles I fight against — but you know whom I mean." "Maketh spoil of you." He sees the converts taken prisoners, and led away with a cord round their necks, like the strings of captives on the Assyrian monuments. He had spoken in chap. Colossians 1:13 of the conqueror who had translated them; now he fears lest a robber horde, making a raid upon the peaceful colonists in their happy new homes, may sweep them again into bondage. The cord whose fatal noose will be tightened round them if they do not take care is "philosophy and vain deceit." If Paul had been writing in English he would have put philosophy in inverted commas, to show that he was quoting the heretical teachers' own name for their system. For true love of wisdom neither Paul nor Paul's Master have anything but praise. The thing spoken of here has no resemblance, except in name, to what the Greeks in their better days called philosophy, and nothing warrants the representation that Christianity is antagonistic to it.
1. "Empty deceit" describes this system. It is like a bladder full of wind. Its lofty pretension is that it is a love of wisdom, but if we look at it closely it is a fraud.
2. It is "after the traditions of men."(1) It is significant that the expression is a word of Christ's (Mark 7:8). The portentous and smothering under growth of such traditions is preserved in the Talmud, where for thousands of pages we get nothing but Rabbi So-and-so said this, but Rabbi So-and-so said that, until we feel stifled, and long for one Divine word to still all the babble. The oriental element in the heresy, on the other hand, prided itself on a hidden teaching too sacred to be entrusted to books, and was passed hem lip to lip in some close conclave. The fact that all this had no higher source than man's imaginings, seems to Paul the condemnation of the whole system. His theory is that in Christ every man has the full truth. What an absurd descent then to "turn away from Him that speaketh from heaven" to human voices and thoughts.
(2) These special forms of tradition trouble no man now. But the tendency to give heed to human teachers, and to suffer them to come between us and Christ is deep in us all. There is at one extreme the man who believes in no revelation, but pays his teacher a deference as absolute as that which he regards superstition when rendered to Christ. At the other are the Christians who will not let Christ and the Scripture speak unless the Church be present at the interview, like a jailer, with a bunch of man-made creeds jingling at its belt.
3. It is "after the rudiments of the world."(1) Rudiments means the letters of the alphabet, and hence "elements, first principles," the A, B, C, of a science. They boasted of mysterious doctrines for the initiated, of which the plain truths Paul preached were but "milk for babes." Paul retorts that the true mystery is the Word he preached, and that the poverty-stricken elements were in that swelling inanity which called itself wisdom and was not. He brands it as rudiments of "the world," which is worse, as belonging to the outward and material, and not to the higher region of the spiritual, where Christian thought ought to dwell. Its use in Galatians 4:3, points to a similar meaning here. He regards it as a retrogression to childish things, and as a pitiable descent to a lower sphere.
(2) The forms which were urged on the Colossians are long since antiquated, but the tendency to turn Christianity into ceremonial is running with a powerful current to-day. But enlisting the senses as allies of the spirit in worship is risky work. The theory that such aids make a ladder, by which the soul may ascend to God, is perilously apt to be confuted by experience, which finds that the soul is quite as likely to go down the ladder as up. Stained windows are lovely, and white windows are "barnlike"; but perhaps if the object is to get light these solemn purples and glowing yellows are rather in the way. A lesson for the day is Paul's principle here, that a Christianity making much of ceremonies is a retrogression.
4. Paul sums up his indictment in one damning clause — "not after Christ." He is neither its origin, substance, rule, nor standard.
II. THE ANTIDOTE (vers. 9-10).
1. These words may be a reason for the warning, "take heed for;" or they may be a reason for the exclusion of Christless teaching. Anything not after Christ is ipso facto wrong. "In Him" is placed with emphasis at the beginning, and implies "nowhere else." "Dwelleth," i.e., has its permanent abode. "All the fulness of the Godhead," i.e., the whole unbounded attributes of Deity. "Bodily" points to the incarnation, and is an advance on Colossians 1:19. So we are pointed to the glorified humanity of Christ as the abode now and for ever of all the fulness of the Divine nature which is thereby brought very near to us. This truth shivers all the dreams about angel-mediators, and brands as folly every attempt to learn God anywhere but in Him.
2. If He be the sole temple of Deity why go anywhere else to see or possess God? "In Him ye are full," which sets forth their living incorporation in Christ, and consequent participation in His fulness. Every one may enter into that union by continuous faith. All the fulness of God is in Him, that from Him it may pass to us. According to our need it will vary itself, being to each what the moment most requires — wisdom, or strength, or beauty, or patience.
3. The process of receiving all the Divine fulness is a continuous one. We can but be approximating to the possession of the infinite treasure, and since the treasure is infinite, and we can indefnitely grow in capacity of receiving God, there must be an eternal continuance of the filling, and an eternal increase of the measure of what fills us. The indwelling Christ will "enlarge the place of His habitation," as the walls stretch and the roof soars. He will fill the greater house with the light of His presence and the fragrance of His name.
4. From such thoughts Paul would have us draw the conclusion — how foolish it must be to go to any other source for the supply of our needs. Christ is "the Head of all princi pality," etc. Why then go to the ministers when we have access to the King? Why leave the fountain of living water for the broken cisterns?
(A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.