I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service (Romans 12:1).
One of the hallmarks of ancient religion, both Israelite and pagan, was animal sacrifice. Jerusalem, Corinth, Rome, and every other city that had a temple of any sort within its walls would see hundreds, if not thousands, of animals brought in to be slaughtered before God or an idol to make propitiation for misdeeds or to make requests.
Therefore, everyone in Rome would understand what sacrifices were, whether they came from Jewish or pagan origins. What Paul is saying would have been abundantly clear.
Romans 12:1 represents, in large part, the sweeping conclusion to the body of theology expressed in Romans 1-11. Since all of us have sinned but have received reconciliation with God through obedient faith in Jesus Christ, and since God has brought both Jew and Gentile into one body, we are all now to become living sacrifices for God!
We are able to do this by God’s mercies. Even though we deserved condemnation (Romans 6:23), God sent His Son to die for the ungodly, allowing our reconciliation (Romans 5:5-11). We do not become living sacrifices in order to earn salvation, for we could never do such a thing. Instead, we become living sacrifices as a response to the mercies God has abundantly provided for us.
But this is certainly not a “do-nothing” scenario. God does not take us despite our will and offer us up on an altar like humans would do with a lamb or ewe. We must submit ourselves as the sacrifice!
We must recognize that becoming a “living sacrifice” is complete. The sacrificed animal does not give only part of its life up on the altar; it gives up everything. In order to secure our salvation Jesus Christ gave everything up for that purpose (Matthew 20:25-28). If we are going to be living sacrifices we must submit to God in all things– our will, our thoughts, our hearts, and our actions– and be willing to suffer the loss of anything and everything, even our own lives (Matthew 10:37-39, Galatians 2:20, 1 John 3:16). As sacrifices we must be holy– set apart and consecrated, reflecting the image of God in our lives (1 Peter 1:16; Galatians 5:17-24, Romans 8:1-11).
There is one major distinction between animal sacrifices and our sacrifice. Once one offers an animal as a sacrifice to God, that animal is dead and done. It cannot be again offered to God in a respectable way. We, however, are to be “living” sacrifices. It is not that we are going to be killed, although circumstances may demand it. Instead Paul wants us to understand that when we offer ourselves as a sacrifice to God it is not merely a one-time thing. It must be continual– we must perpetually place ourselves on that altar and offer ourselves up to God. It will only end when we are no longer living in the flesh (cf. 2 Timothy 4:6-8)!
When we present ourselves to God as a living and holy sacrifice, submitting our will to His, seeking to do the good and shun the evil, we are acceptable to God. This is reckoned as our “spiritual service.” As the priests and Levites officiated and ministered before God in the Tabernacle or Temple and thus served Him, so Christians minister before God when they offer themselves as living sacrifices (cf. Romans 9:4, 1 Peter 2:5-9). This service is “spiritual,” which in Greek literally refers to that which is reasonable. Since God has offered up so many sacrifices for us, it is quite reasonable for us to offer ourselves up for Him (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). Since God’s service has been designed to give us spiritual life, so that reasonable service is spiritual (John 3:16, 5:26, 6:27).
Animal sacrifices are not nearly as prevalent today as they were in the past, and much of that has to do with the teachings of Christianity. We no longer offer up sacrifices for sin because Jesus was that sacrifice on our behalf (Hebrews 10:4-14), and we no longer offer up any other form of animal sacrifices because we must offer ourselves up as a living and holy sacrifice before God. We must suffer the loss of our own will, our own desires, how we would like to think and feel and act, and instead submit to God’s will, God’s desires, and how God would have us think and feel and act. In order to have life in Jesus Christ it must no longer be our will, but God’s will be done. Let us be the living sacrifices we ought to be to the praise and glory of God through Jesus Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry