Have you heard the saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”? When I was young, I had no idea what that meant. Why can’t you see the forest? Isn’t it made up of trees? If you can’t see the trees, then how can you see the forest? Of course, the point is that, by focusing just on the individual details, it’s impossible to see the grand structure.
Joan Chittister tells the story, “In the Middle Ages, the tale goes, a traveler asked three hard-at-work stone masons what they were doing. The first said, ‘I am sanding down this block of marble.’ The second said, ‘I am preparing a foundation.’ The third said, ‘I am building a Cathedral.’”
Surely all of them were focused on the precise aspects of what they were doing. They hadn’t lost sight of what they were doing. Still, as we move along, we notice an expansion of vision, a deeper understanding. By not simply focusing on the individual details, a growing awareness of the grand structure becomes possible.
When Banu gives me the list of ingredients in a dish she’s preparing, I take notice of certain details, certain elements. One of the big ones is “onions.” I do not like onions. I really do not like onions. When she’s cooking them, I complain that she’s employing chemical warfare.
She often gives me the explanation that I won’t be able to taste them. My reply is usually along the lines of, “So why use onions if I won’t be able to taste them?” Because, she says, they combine with the other ingredients to bring out the flavor. In a way, the onions serve as a sort of catalyst. By mixing with the other elements, they bring about a change that otherwise wouldn’t happen. So they serve a valuable purpose! By focusing on that single detail, I miss out on the grand structure.
But I still don’t like them.
In his letter to the church in Colossae, St. Paul issues a similar warning. (Though it has nothing to do with onions!) His warning regards not embracing a full life in Christ. He wants to warn them against certain errors. A big part of his message involves a term that appears twice in chapter 2.
In verses 8 and 20, we have the Greek word στοιχεια (stoicheia). Stoicheia is not an easy word to translate. In today’s passage, it is rendered as “elemental spirits.” In the New King James Version, it is “principles of the world.” It’s not easy to translate, because it can mean different things. Here’s a quick thumbnail sketch:
In 2 Peter 3:10, we hear of the day of the Lord arriving, the heavens passing away, and the elements (the stoicheia) being dissolved with fire. This goes back to the ancient concept of the elements as earth, wind, fire, and water.
In Hebrews 5:12, the author talks about becoming dull in understanding. The hearers are told, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements (the stoicheia) of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food.” In effect, they need to go back to the beginning, to relearn the ABCs.
In Galatians 4, the church is reminded that they have been freed of the requirements of the Jewish law. They’re no longer minors; they are no longer “enslaved to the elemental spirits (the stoicheia) of the world” (v. 3). And so, we come back to Colossians.
I should quickly add, just to muddy the waters a bit, that the definitions I mentioned are not shared by everyone. There has been plenty of debate down through the ages. Included in the debate is that, in some places, actual demons or spirits are intended. And then others jump in, saying stoicheia didn’t mean that until a couple of centuries later.
We might say that stoicheia are the most primary component of whatever we’re talking about: the basic element, the basic principle.
Just as with missing the forest for the trees and losing sight of the whole structure for the stone before one’s face, the apostle Paul cautions the Colossians to not lose themselves in unhelpful details. These are details that threaten to bog them down, to take their eyes off the prize.
“See to it,” he says, “that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (v. 8). Another translation reads, “Make sure that no one captivates you with the empty lure of a ‘philosophy’ of the kind that human beings hand on” (New Jerusalem Bible).
One place we can find plenty of empty lures, empty philosophies, is on Facebook. A whole lot of emptiness gets posted there, emptiness which is designed to captivate. This emptiness is not designed to inform in a sincere way but to lure and stir up strife. For example, a video was recently sent to me purporting to be a current member of Congress expressing the benefits of spreading Islam throughout the US. However, a simple look at the timestamp showed it dated back to 1989. The member of Congress in question would have been thirteen years old at the time. It’s safe to say the woman in the video was older than thirteen!
In chapter 1, Paul celebrates how God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (v. 13). To return to that darkness, to embrace the empty lure, the empty deceit, is to revert, to go back to slavery. That slavery is more than what’s called “fake news.” It is the whole range of bogus requirements promoted as the way of salvation.
However, there’s no need to be afraid.
For countless millennia, humans have observed the stars and noted their movements. We have gazed and admired their awesome beauty. And that word “awesome” should be taken literally. We have been in awe—we have revered—those diamonds in the sky. We have often thought of them as gods, or at least spirits, and made them objects of veneration, objects of worship. We have worshipped the creation rather than the Creator.
In time, we devised practices and customs to direct us in faith and in life together. Sometimes those traditions have come to be seen as divine in and of themselves. Defying these elemental spirits, these principles of the world, could have dire consequences!
Robert Paul Roth comments , “Paul teaches the Colossians and us that we need have no fear.” Speaking of those who insist on adding to Christ those elemental spirits, “We need no code of regulations, no bodily or spiritual exercises that we can add up on an account sheet to balance our debts with credits.”
Sadly, we still have our own stoicheia, our own “elemental spirits of the universe.” We worship our culture, our cars, our cats! We worship our concepts themselves. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with having certain beliefs. They identify us; they help give meaning to life. Still, it’s possible to worship even our concept of God. You know, the two are not the same! We can put our economic or political system in the place of God.
The good news, as verse 15 tells us, is that Christ has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” He has stripped them of their power and put them on parade.
I’m reminded of the so-called perp walk, in which the arrested suspect is marched in public before cameras and shouted questions. And then we might have the medieval-like spectacle of people gathering around and yelling, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at the unfortunate person. (Well, at least, I’ve seen it done in movies!)
The apostle tells the church “do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths” (v. 16). Those are some of the bogus religious requirements I mentioned earlier. He adds, “These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (v. 17). They are only a shadow. Another way of putting it might be, “Don’t be scared of your shadow!”
I like what Paul says in the last part of the chapter. “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe [there’s the stoicheia again], why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?” (v. 20). I really like his question about their submitting to certain regulations. “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? (v. 21). I can’t help but think Paul’s injecting a lot of humor. He’s having a good time!
Apparently, the late Eugene Peterson thought so, too. Here’s how he sums up that last bit in The Message:
“So, then, if with Christ you’ve put all that pretentious and infantile religion behind you, why do you let yourselves be bullied by it? ‘Don’t touch this! Don’t taste that! Don’t go near this!’ Do you think things that are here today and gone tomorrow are worth that kind of attention? Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice. They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and ascetic. But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important.”
Clearly, we can mess up, be led astray, by worshipping these unworthy things. But that leads to the origin of the word “worship” itself. It comes from the Old English word woerthscipe, which means “worthy-ship.” As we just saw, there are those who pronounce us “unworthy” if we fail their expectations of worship.
There are plenty of those “elements of the world” floating around which would claim our allegiance. Yet Paul says the elemental spirits have been overthrown by Christ. We are reminded that we “are now under the rule of Christ who has disarmed the powers that formerly ruled over us. Therefore we are now free to walk with the wisdom of Christ and not by vain and deceitful human traditions.”
What elements of the world do we face? What thrones or dominions or rulers or powers rise against us? Do we still live as though we belonged to the world? Paul says we “were buried with [Christ] in baptism, [and we] were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (v. 12). We don’t enter the waters of baptism alone. We aren’t raised from the waters of baptism alone. Christ is with us, in and through the church, which is his body.
Alone, we’re helpless. The elements of the world are too strong, too secretive, too seductive. They play on our fears, our pains, our hatreds.
However, together with Christ in the one holy catholic and apostolic church, we are more than conquerors. We are more than conquerors, because in Christ, the war has already been won. We’re just on mopping up duty. The sun is setting on those elements, those principles of the world. We need not be scared of their shadow.
 Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 111.
 Robert Paul Roth, “Christ and the Powers of Darkness: Lessons from Colossians,” Word and World 6:3 (1986), 343.
 Walter Wink, “The Elements of the Universe in Biblical and Scientific Perspective,” Zygon 13:3 (September 1978), 240.
 Roth, 343.