Question: "What is the meaning of vain deceit in Colossians 2:8?"

Answer: The apostle Paul believed the Colossian church was under attack. The believers there were in danger of being captured and dragged away from their genuine devotion to Jesus Christ by the deceitful philosophies and high-minded ideas of false teachers: “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” (Colossians 2:8, KJV 1900).

The meaning of vain deceit, an unfamiliar expression to the modern ear, is conveyed in newer translations as “high-sounding nonsense” (NLT) and “empty deceit” (NIV, ESV, NKJV). The term vain (mataios in Greek) means “empty, vacuous, useless, fruitless, and devoid of significance, point, or benefit.” False teachers were spreading dangerous lies and deceptive philosophies, but, to the Colossian believers, the ideas sounded appealing. Paul’s ruling was that it was all hogwash. Their greatly touted teachings were fruitless, pointless, misleading concepts that lacked any actual content. Without a solid foundation in the truth of God’s Word, Christians can quickly be captivated by the vain deceit (or high-sounding nonsense) of false religions. Those who embrace empty deceptions are in danger of being spiritually kidnapped and carried far away from the absolute supremacy of Jesus Christ.

Paul delivered a similar warning to the church in Ephesus: “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 5:6). The empty, hollow, deceitful words of false teachers blatantly conflict with the truth of Jesus Christ, in whom “lives all the fullness of God in a human body” (Colossians 2:9, NLT; see also Colossians 1:19). With empty deception or vain deceit, false teachers try to undermine the deity of Christ and the truth of God’s Word still today.

Paul identified the roots of empty deception or vain deceit as coming from two sources—“the tradition of men” and “the rudiments of the world” (KJV). According to Scripture, human thinking and earthly wisdom are “foolishness in God’s sight” (1 Corinthians 3:19; see also 1 Corinthians 3:20; James 3:13–15). God’s thoughts are infinitely higher and wiser than the thoughts of humans (Isaiah 55:8–9; Psalm 92:5). False teachers spew ideas spun from their own lowly mortal minds and not from the exalted truth of God’s Word.

The original Greek word translated as “rudiments” (KJV) in Colossians 2:8 means “one in a series or row.” The term could be applied to elementary sounds or letters (as in the ABCs), to the fundamental elements of the earth and universe (as in 2 Peter 3:10–12), or to elementary teachings (as in Hebrews 5:12). One other application of the term in the ancient Greek world related to “the elemental spirits of the world,” such as angels and other unseen spiritual forces (see Colossians 2:20, ESV). The same word was associated with the religious astrology of that time.

Thus, in Colossians 2:8 Paul traced empty deception or vain deceit back to the dark spiritual forces at work in the world. Christians who dabble in horoscopes, astral charts, tarot cards, or experiment with any other occult practices are opening themselves to deception and spiritual captivity. God’s wisdom “doesn’t belong to this world or to the rulers of this world” (1 Corinthians 2:6, GW). On the contrary, these worldly spiritual powers have been disarmed, disgraced, and publicly defeated by Christ (Colossians 2:15). Believers are complete in Jesus, who is “the head over every power and authority” (Colossians 2:10). If any teacher tries to add or take away from the simple truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, they are teaching empty deception or vain deceit (see Galatians 1:9).

Before the apostle Paul issued his warning against false teachers, Jesus alerted His followers to “false Christs and false prophets” who would rise up, mock the truth, and even attempt to deceive God’s chosen ones (Matthew 24:23–27; see also 2 Peter 3:3 and Jude 1:17–18). Christians must follow the Lord’s instruction and watch out that no one deceives us or leads us astray (Mark 13:5; see also 1 John 3:7). We must “test the spirits” to see if what they are teaching comes from God (1 John 4:1). The most effective defense against empty deception or vain deceit is knowing the truth (2 Timothy 2:15) and holding fast to Scripture (1 Corinthians 15:1–4).