Sunday July 28th 2019
Pastor Galen Zook
The Year of Living Biblically
Several years ago, New York Times Bestselling author A.J. Jacobs wrote a book entitled The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, in which he humorously documents his year-long experiment at trying to follow every single commandment in the Bible literally, even the most obscure and seemingly outlandish commandments tucked away in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Jacobs, who grew up in a secular Jewish household and doesn’t necessarily believe in God (but doesn’t discount the possibility of a higher power), wanted to highlight the reality that even the most diehard fanatical followers of the Bible who say they take the Bible literally don’t usually follow the whole Bible, nor do they apply every single commandment in the Bible literally.
I’m only halfway through reading the book so I can’t tell you how it ends, but I can tell you that Jacobs’ quest brings him into contact with a wide range of people, from passionate and religious fundamentalists on the one hand who share his almost obsessively-compulsive approach to Biblical interpretation, to people who readily explain away most or all of the commands in the Bible (or even the whole Bible itself) on the other hand.
One gentleman, for example, offered to come to Jacobs’ house with a microscope and tweezers to examine every piece of clothing in his house in search of any hidden fibers that might violate the prohibition against mixing linen and wool found in Leviticus 19:19. Someone else taught him how to blow a shofar, a ram’s horn, in keeping with the commandment to blow a horn on the first day of every month, found in Lev. 23:24.
Other people, of course, scoffed at his experiment, and random passersby often called him Gandalf (from Lord of the Rings), since his experiment involved not trimming the corners of his beard (as instructed in Leviticus 19:27) and since he took to wearing long white flowing robes, in accordance with the encouragement to “always be clothed in white” found in Ecclesiastes 9:8.
Religious Extremism vs. Pluralism
Although A.J. Jacobs’ book falls under the category of humor, his book does raise the serious topic of the danger of religious fundamentalism. Even well-intentioned religious fervor, when taken to the extreme, can cause a lot of harm and violence.
On the other hand, does that mean that we should toss aside every commandment in the Bible and let anything go, as if it doesn’t matter?
The Situation in Colossae
Such is the situation that we encounter here in Colossians 2.
As we saw in Chapter 1, the people of Colossae were new believers in Christ. They had come from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, most of them non-Jewish. Paul and Timothy, the authors of this letter, have never met the Colossians in person, but they have heard that there are people who are trying to take them “captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8).
These religious fundamentalists are trying to get the Colossians to follow every single letter of the law, from becoming circumcised and keeping the Jewish cultural dietary restrictions, to even following the man-made customs and traditions that had been added to the law, often called “the tradition of the elders.” On the other extreme, it seems that there are people who are trying to get them to worship angels and obsess over visions (Col. 2:18), and I’m sure others who were trying to tell them to disregard the law altogether.
In the midst of this whirlwind of religious fanaticism, what are the young Christians in Colossae to do? How can they sort out the truth from the falsehood, and how can they possibly determine how they are supposed to live their lives? How can they know which commands they have to follow, and which ones they can ignore? How can they stay balanced in the midst of all the craziness and conflicting opinions swirling around them?
Rooted and Established in Christ
Paul and Timothy cut straight through all of the chaos by encouraging the Colossians to stay rooted and established in Christ (Col. 2:7), to make Jesus Christ the center of their attention, their focus, their worship, and their devotion.
Paul and Timothy remind the Colossians that it is in Christ that “the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9), harkening back to their statement in chapter 1 that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).
Paul and Timothy remind the Colossians that in Christ they received a “spiritual circumcision” (Col. 2:11), which is even better than a physical circumcision.
And when they put their faith and trust in Christ, they were “buried with him in baptism, [and they] were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12).
Whereas they used to be “dead in trespasses” and sins, now they have been made “alive together with [Christ]” and they have been forgiven of all of their trespasses and sins (Col. 2:13).
Not only have their sins been forgiven, but the whole record of their wrongdoing and all of the demands of the law has been nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14). Jesus has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” (Col. 2:15).
In other words, they shouldn’t let anyone condemn them or disqualify them for not keeping every single law and custom, because their hope, their identity, the assurance of their salvation is not in keeping every single aspect of the law, but in the love and the grace and the mercy of God, expressed ultimately through Christ’s death on the cross.
Rather than living their lives in constant fear on the one hand, trying to make sure that they are checking off all the right boxes, dotting all of their “i’s” and crossing all of their “t’s”, and rather than getting swept away by empty philosophies such as the worshiping of angels and obsessing over dreams and visions on the other hand, Paul and Timothy want the Colossians to focus their time and energy and attention on following and worshipping and being like Jesus, continuing to live their lives in him, being rooted and established in Christ.
Because in the end, Jesus is the best guide that we have, the best example that we have to follow. Jesus shows us not only who God is, but also who we are supposed to be.
Model, Method, Means
I like to say that Jesus is the Model, the Method, and the Means for how we ought to live our lives and for making this world a better place.
First of all, the Model. Imagine with me for a minute that everyone in the world sought to live their lives like Christ. Imagine that every religious fanatic and extremist out there, every religious fundamentalist, were to shift their time and attention to living like Christ. Imagine if they were kind to the marginalized and vulnerable. Imagine if they were nice to children. Imagine if they stood up for those who are oppressed and if they helped those who were in need.
And on the other hand, imagine if those in our society who have very few moral standards began to try to imitate Christ, if they gave up their loose living and sought to do good in this world? Imagine if those who were selfish began to live lives that were less focused on themselves and more focused on others, if those who commit crimes of violence stopped hurting others and began to help others instead?
Imagine how your workplace, your neighborhood, this community would be different if everyone was trying to follow Christ’s example and live like Jesus?
And now imagine with me that everyone in the world began to live out Jesus’s teachings, if we followed the Method that Jesus gave us in how we ought to live our lives. Imagine if each of us loved our enemies, and did good to those who harmed us. Imagine that we all treated others the way we want to be treated, and loved our neighbor (of every cultural background and ethnicity) as much as we love ourselves?
That would be the kind of world that I would want to live in, how about you?
But the reality is that trying to be good all on our own will only get us so far. And that’s why I say that Jesus is also the Means by which we should live our lives and seek to make the world a better place.
We need the power of the Holy Spirit, the love and the grace and the mercy of God expressed through Christ’s death on the cross. We need the healing and forgiveness that Jesus offers, we need our trespasses and sins to be put to death and we need to be made alive in Christ if we are to live lives that are pleasing and acceptable to God. We cannot do it on our own strength. We need Jesus himself in order to live the method he taught us and in order to follow the model he left for us.
Rooted and Established in Christ
And so this morning, like the Colossians, I want to invite us to stay rooted and established in Christ. Not to get swept away by the latest spiritual fads and philosophies on the one hand, nor to find our identity in how perfect or fastidiously we keep the law. Instead, let us look to Jesus as the Model, the Method, and the Means for how we live our lives. Let us continue to live our lives in him, and to hold fast to Christ, even in the midst of the chaos and confusion and all of the various thoughts and opinions swirling around us.
We who were dead in trespasses and sins, have been made alive together with him! And so let us stay rooted and established in him, and let’s allow everything else to fall into it’s proper perspective.