Present your bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12; Pentecost 13A)
There are a number of well-known, oft quoted verses in Romans. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom 7:18)—expressing the innate sinfulness of humanity that perhaps Paul was seeking to explain at 5:12–21, and which Augustine sought to leverage through his interpretation of two small words in 5:12.
There is also the succinct “Christ is the end of the law” (10:4), which seems clear it—although a number of interpreters (myself included) maintain has been taken out of context and misinterpreted in ways that Paul did not intend. And, on the other side of the equation, “the one who is righteous will live by faith” (Rom 1:17)—although here Paul is quoting a prophet from within Israelite tradition itself(Hab 2:4).
Also, there is “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand” (Rom 5:1–2)—made famous by Luther’s sola gratia, sola fide. Paul returns to this motif when he affirms that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom 8:1–2). All rich, juicy statements about the Gospel.
So from the passage offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday, Pentecost 13A (Rom 12:1–8), we hear this familiar injunction, to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Rom 12:1–2). It’s a familiar command that has a clear place within the context of the communities of faith in Rome to whom Paul was writing, and which has been applied time and time and again over the centuries, to believers in vastly different cultures and contexts.
With these verses, we leave the complex theological argumentation that we have been exploring in the passages that the lectionary has offered from Romans 4–11 (Pentecost 2A to 12A), where Paul teases out all of the factors that are involved in his proclaiming the gospel which is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek”, in which he demonstrates that “the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith” (1:16–17).
Paul has made the exuberant affirmation that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:31–39).
He has then sung with joy, celebrating “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.” (11:33–36).
It sounds like he has completed the work that he set out to do in writing this letter. A big full stop (Amen), underlined by a shout of praise (to him be the glory forever)!! But not so fast—there is more to come, as Paul immediately pivots from his theological exposition, into a section where he provides a string of ethical exhortations and instructions to the community in Rome. The pivot happens with a simple phrase: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters” (12:1).
The words which Paul uses here deserve careful attention. First, we should note that this is a word of exhortation; Paul begins his sentence, “I appeal to you” (NRSV), “I urge you” (NIV), “I encourage you” (CEB), even “I beg you” (Phillips), or the more antiquated “I beseech you” (KJV). Paul seems to be hoping to instruct the believers in Rome, without coming across as dominating—although he has been consistently forceful in the first eleven chapters, as he set out his understanding of the Gospel.
In fact, the Greek phrase used here, Παρακαλῶ οὖν ὑμᾶς, is a common way of turning the attention of his listeners from more abstract (or doctrinal) matters, to direct ethical matters of behaviour. We see this at 1 Cor 4:16 and 2 Cor 10:1, each time signalling a new section, as well as at 1 Cor 1:10 and Phlm 9, where the primary issue of each letter is described. It is a familiar rhetorical turn of phrase designed to draw the attention of those hearing, or reading, the letter, to a new topic of instruction.
Indeed, this phrase itself draws from the practice of Greek moral philosophisers in antiquity, of providing “moral exhortation in which someone is advised to pursue or abstain from something”. That’s a quote from one of my teachers, Prof. Abraham Malherbe, who spent decades researching and writing about these philosophers; see Malherbe, “Styles of Exhortation”, in Moral Exhortation; Westminster John Knox Press, 1986 pp. 121–127.
So Paul utilises this technique from Greek literature—just like he also makes extensive use of many elements of a diatribe in his letter to the Romans. However, although he is writing in Greek, some of the language which follows is drawn from Jewish traditions. Paul exemplifies the richness of the multicultural society of the day, where Jewish and hellenistic Greek customs, traditions, and religions intermingled, along with distinctively local practices in each place of the Roman Empire where the traditional deities, language, and culture survived.
“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice”, Paul advises the Romans (12:1). However, he is not specifically instructing them to offer their loves as martyrs. The language is more subtle than this. The offering of sacrifices to the deities was known within ancient Greece and in the Roman Empire. Writing on religion in Ancient Greece, Colette and Séan Hemingway state that “the central ritual act in ancient Greece was animal sacrifice, especially of oxen, goats, and sheep. Sacrifices took place within the sanctuary, usually at an altar in front of the temple, with the assembled participants consuming the entrails and meat of the victim.”
Paul himself asserts that “what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God” (1 Cor 10:20), and so, when believers share in meals involving meat which has been bought at the meat market, “if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it” (1 Cor 10:28). The offering of meat as a sacrifice which was subsequently sold on to the market by the pagan priests was obviously still happening in Corinth.
However, sacrifice was also at the heart of Israelite faith; the Temple was not simply the holy place where the God of Israel resided, but it was also the place to which offerings and sacrifices were brought in order to give thanks to God and to seek forgiveness from God. As the psalmist sings, “lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the Lord” (Ps 134:2).
Since “the Lord is in his holy temple” (Ps 11:4) the psalmist also promises, “I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice and call on the name of the Lord; I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people, in the courts of the house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem” (Ps 116:18–19). Sacrifice was integral to the ancient faith of the Israelites, continued on by Jewish people into the first century CE.
But sacrifice was not just the slaughter of animals and birds. Interpreting the death of Jesus in terms of his sacrifice was a logical move for the Jews who were the first followers of Jesus. In doing that, they “spiritualised” the concept of sacrifice. It was a small step from that, to apply the language of sacrifice to the lives of believers.
Jewish writers had already taken this step: the psalmist sings that “the sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps 51:17), and “those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honour me; to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God” (Ps 50:23).
So to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1) was not, therefore, a call to martyrdom, but a call to humble, selfless living. The bodies of believers are to be presented to God as holy. Holiness was at the heart of Israelite religion, the faith into which Paul, and Jesus, were born.
Paul also notes that the “living sacrifice” presented to God should be “acceptable”. There’s a strong emphasis throughout Leviticus on the need to bring an offering or sacrifice that is “acceptable” (Lev 1:4; 7:18; 19:5–8; 22:17–21, 26–30); for a sacrifice of wellbeing “to be acceptable it must be perfect; there shall be no blemish in it” (Lev 22:21). That was the role of the priests: to examine carefully the animals being brought for sacrifice, to ensure that they were “perfect”.
The next phrase, often rendered as “spiritual worship”, also needs careful consideration. Paul has earlier referred to “some spiritual gift” that he wished to share with the Roman believers (Rom 1:11), and talked to the Jews about “real circumcision” being “a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal” (2:29). However, the Greek word used in both instance is derived from the root word for spirit (πνευματικὸν at 1:11; ἐν πνεύματι at 2:29).
Not so at Romans 12:1–the phrase in question is τὴν λογικὴν λατρείαν ὑμῶν, which the NASB translates as “your spiritual act of worship”, the NCV as “the spiritual way for you to worship”, the WEB as “your spiritual service”. The use of the word “spiritual” here is misleading; more accurate translations are offered by the NRSV as “your reasonable act of worship”, the NIV as “your true and proper worship”.
The kind of worship for which Paul is advocating is worship which is grounded in the logos, the reason, the rational capacity of human beings. He is not encouraging the Romans to waft off into the ether of “spiritual gifts” that he had found manifest, causing such problems, within the community in Corinth. He is, rather, advocating for a careful, reasoned approach to the worship of God. The sacrifice to be offered should be considered and well thought-out, much in the same way that priests in the Temple would scrutinise and assess potential sacrifices.
There are clues, then, as to what would typify this kind of “worship”. Paul refers to the grace which was “given to me” (12:3)—grace at work in Paul’s life (1:5), and grace lavished on believers (3:24; 5:2, 15–21; 6:15–15). That grace has been a significant motif throughout the theological exposition that Paul has undertaken in the complex argumentation he sets out in the chapters prior to chapter 12.
The ethic that is inculcated by this grace is to think first of the other: “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (12:3). Again, the Greek term translated as “sober judgement” (σωφρονεῖν) has the sense of what is sensible or reasonable. Mark employs this word when he reports that the Gadarene demoniac, after being exorcised by Jesus, was “sitting there, clothed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15).
This leads smoothly into a discussion of the community of faith as the body—an image which he had already used in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 12:12–31). There, Paul first identified a range of gifts (1 Cor 12:8–10), and then emphasised the claim that “the body does not consist of one member, but of many” (1 Cor 12:14). As a result, each and every member plays an integral role in the whole.
From this, Paul deduces that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable … God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member” (1 Cor 12:22–25). The context in Corinth shapes the direction into which Paul develops this image.
Here, in writing to the Romans, Paul begins with the same affirmation that “in one body we have many members” (Rom 12:4), but then heads firmly in the direction of identifying the gifts that God has given: “we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us”, before naming seven such gifts (Rom 12:6–8).
The list of gifts in these verses overlaps with, but differs at key points from, the lists found in 1 Cor 12:8–10 and 12:28. The specifics of the particular gifts are not the point at hand; of more significance in this letter is to press the point that the Romans are “not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think” (Rom 12:3).
This is a central ethical exhortation to which Paul will return in later chapters when he instructs the believers in Rome to “extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13), “live in harmony with one another” (12:16), and “love your neighbour as yourself” (13:9, quoting Lev 19:18). He directs them to “welcome those who are weak in faith” (14:1), urging them, “let us no longer pass judgement on one another” (14:13) and “let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (14:19)
As he draws towards the close of his long letter, Paul advocates for “the good purpose of building up the neighbour” (15:2), and so the believers in Rome are to “welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed you” (15:7). This is the mode for which he has advocated in chapter 12, when he has urged them, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (12:2). The transformation that Paul seeks is to develop a perspective that is fully oriented to the other, “not to please ourselves” (15:1), but to “please our neighbour” (15:2).
His prayer for the Roman believers is that God will “grant you to live in harmony with one another … so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:5–6). His words in 12:1–8 (which the lectionary offers us this coming Sunday) have set a strong foundation for this trajectory of teaching about mutual responsibility and accountability.
John Squires edits With Love To The World. This piece first appeared on his blog, An Informed Faith.