Sunday School Notes: Romans 12:1
Therefore, I exhort you, brethren, through the mercy of God, to present your bodies a living, holy sacrifice, pleasing to God–your reasonable worship.
As we have noted before, Romans 1-11 is largely doctrinal, while 12-15 is largely practical. This distinction between the two parts has caused some to suggest that there is no real connection between them. There are those that say 12-15 are merely a series of unrelated, generic admonitions to godly living that are echoed in other parts of the New Testament. Others suggest that 1-11 and 12-15 (possibly including 16) are two different letters of Paul to the Romans that at some point became connected. [This point would have to have been early on in the transmission of the letter since, as far as I can tell, none of our complete manuscripts of Romans–including the fourth century codex Sinaiticus–contain 1-11 without 12-16, or vice versa.] However, I believe 12-15 is clearly based on 1-11, and with the help of the group, I think we’ll see that as we study.
We start with a “therefore,” and as the old saying goes, if there’s a “therefore,” you need to ask what it’s there for. This is, to me, a clear sign that Paul is basing his exhortations on what he’s just said. Back in 11:30-32, Paul talked about the mercy God has shown to both the Jews and the Gentiles. It is, perhaps, in light of that mercy that Paul gives the exhortation.
The range of meanings for the Greek verb parakaleô cover “exhort,” “encourage,” and “comfort.” In this context, given what he is about to say, I think Paul is certainly exhorting. Chapters 1-11 should have reminded them of who they are in Christ, and it’s on the basis of that he expects certain attitudes and behaviors.
The term “mercies of God” uses a Greek word for “mercy” that is not the same as the one found in chapter 11. In the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, or LXX), it is used to translate the plural Hebrew word rachamîn, which usually has a singular meaning. This is why English translations might have “the mercy of God” at this point. While the word may be different, the concept is clearly the same.
We spent a little time discussing the purpose of exhortations such as this. Is Paul saying that by obeying the command, we are in some way paying God back for the mercy He has shown to us–“you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours”? We rejected that idea, largely because the debt we owe God on account of our sin is a) more than we could ever pay, and b) paid in full at the cross. And since the debt was perfectly covered by one who was the spotless Son of God, fully divine and fully human, what could we ever do that would come close to being “quits”? There is nothing. We owe Christ an eternal debt of gratitude. Furthermore, 11:35 indicates that no one can have God as his debtor, or repay God.
This, then, is one of the reasons why Christians obey: gratitude, and perhaps a sense of obligation. We need to be careful here, because the truth that we ought to obey God because of what Christ has done can lead to legalism, and the thinking that if we don’t perform, God won’t love us any more, or will love us less. Yes, we should feel a certain sense of duty to obey, but we should also remember that, a) the ability to obey is a gift of God, and b) the strength to obey comes from God’s empowerment. Also, because of Christ, God can not love us any more or any less than He does now. Our work, or lack of it, cannot change our status in Christ (remember Romans 8?).
Because we have been redeemed, and we are no longer at enmity with God, but have hearts that desire to serve, honor, and glorify Him, it is our delight and joy to respond to exhortations like this. We often fail, tempted and drawn as we are by the world, the flesh, and the devil to return to the bondage to sin from which Christ freed us. But if we are Christ’s, we will never ultimately turn away, and his grace will prevail in our lives. And it’s exhortations like this that, many times, are the means the Spirit uses to turn our minds back to the Lord, and keep us living for Christ.
Paul’s exhortation is that his readers (and us) present themselves as a living, holy sacrifice, pleasing to God. The words “living,” “holy,” and “well-pleasing” are all adjectives qualifying “sacrifice”–they are describing what kind of sacrifice it is. It’s interesting, considering all that Paul has said about the Law in 1-11 that he should then speak of sacrifice here. Perhaps he intends his readers to understand that it’s not bulls, goats, pigeons, doves, and grain that matters to God; it’s not the sacrifice, but the one offering the sacrifice. It’s our lives He wants. And we offer ourselves freely out of love and gratitude for the gracious gift of His Son.
“Holy”: This means “set apart,” and in this context, set apart for use by God, or dedicated to God. “Living” seems a bit obvious since we are offering our bodies. But perhaps the point is that since we are alive, our offering is continual–not like the dead offerings that were burned up and new ones offered next time. It is also true that we are dead to sin, but alive in Christ, and because of Christ’s death on the cross, our death is no longer necessary (see 6:4 ff.). “Well-pleasing to God” indicates that the sacrifice is acceptable to God, and this is true because we are alive in Christ. Note that such a sacrifice is not exclusively a Jewish or a Gentile sacrifice: the offering of oneself is something that transcends culture and ethnicity.
Finally, we briefly discussed the term “reasonable worship,” or as some translations say, “spiritual worship.” The Greek is logikê latreia. “Reasonable” or “rational” seems very different to “spiritual,” so what exactly is this referring to? This term is not found in the Greek Old Testament, so we can’t be sure if there is a Jewish background to Paul’s use. It is found in Greek literature outside the Bible where it is used to refer to worship appropriate to humans–rational, because people with reason do it. There is, then, a sense of this being worship that incorporates both the mind and the heart, the whole person, in contrast to the superstition that was prevalent at the time. [I am reminded of Acts 17:16-23 where Paul addresses the Greeks, noting how “religious” they are. While he is probably using that word (deisidaimôn) in a positive sense, it can be used negatively: “superstitious.”] If this is worship given by the whole person, then “reasonable,” “spiritual,” or even “appropriate” will work as translations. In Romans 2:28, Paul spoke of the “inward circumcision” necessary to truly follow the Lord–being a Jew internally, not just doing all the externals. This is, perhaps, what Paul has in mind.
We will pick up with verse 2 (and perhaps get even further!) next week.