The word of the day is “false.” In our reading of Colossians 2:20-3:3, St. Paul continues to warn against the false religiosity of teachers who are leading the congregation at Colossae away from the freedom of the Gospel. In today’s passage, we read, “Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourself to regulations…” (vs. 20).
In their ignorance of God, humans have devised all sorts of false piety. Speaking to the philosophers in Athens, Paul noted the variety of altars to the gods on the Areopagus.” To him, these shrines were signs that the Athenians were “very religious” (Acts 17:22). The Apostle noted that God, the Creator had so ordered the human race that human persons “should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27).
Even so, human societies have invented countless ways of “groping” for God throughout the ages. But now God has revealed Himself in His Son. And Christ’s death and resurrection have freed believers from the human exertions to find and please God.
The “principles of the world” are Paul’s way of describing the rudimentary principles of the universe’s cosmic forces (Strong’s #4747, 234). Regardless of their origin, Paul considers them to be “doctrines of men” (vs. 22).
The Orthodox Study Bible categorizes these rivals to the Gospel: “false worship,” “ false mysticism,” and “false asceticism” (OSB fn. 2:16-23). To explain, “false worship” is magical and superstitious ritualism. “False worship” is the esoteric knowledge of alleged “higher realities,” filling one with pride. “False asceticism” is self-imposed religiosity that neglects the body and brings false humility.
All counterfeit religiousness has one key characteristic. It promises to free us from our ties to this world. Yet false religion does the opposite. It binds us to our worldly imaginations and deceptive desires. In our reading, Paul prescribes the way to avoid being fooled by false religion. He says, “Set your mind on things above, not on things of the earth” (vs. 3:2). The principle is this: ritualism, mysticism, and asceticism are spiritual pitfalls if pursued in themselves. But if ritual, mysticism, and asceticism are used to raise our thoughts from this world to the heavenly world where Christ dwells and reigns, then they are spiritually useful.
Humans have an innate need for God that they try to satisfy with self-made religions. But St. Porphyrios answers the quest for religiosity with the simple words, “What makes a person holy is love, the adoration of Christ” (Porphyrios 2005, 134).
Porphyrios, St. 2005. Wounded by Love: the Life and the Wisdom of Saint Porphrios. Translated by John Raffan. Limni, Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey, Publisher