Summary: How does one become a living sacrifice?
When we read the Old Testament, we see countless examples of sacrifice. All of these sacrifices involved the death of the victim. These sacrifices pointed forward to the coming of Jesus and His sacrifice unto death. But here, Paul calls us to be living sacrifices. What does a living sacrifice look like? Let us examine this text from Romans and find out.
Sometimes it is the smaller words in the text that are most important in coming to a proper understanding in the text. We tend to look at the big words. But in this case, it is the word “therefore” that we should zoom in to. What is this word there for? Some translations don’t even translate this word, but it is there in the Greek text. “Therefore” links this text to what comes before it. What Paul is saying then is because of what I have just concluded, you should “present yourselves as living sacrifices.”
The question of interpretation is how far does the “therefore go back to? Does it go back to the last paragraph of chapter 12 which is Paul bursts out in praiseful worship of what God has done, is it based upon the entirety of Paul’s argument starting in the first chapter? If it is just the preceding paragraph, then it emphasizes the spiritual response we should have to the goodness of God and His unsearchable and sovereign ways. If it goes back to the beginning of the epistle, then the view zooms into the idea of “Because we have been justified by faith in Jesus, let us.…” Of course, it could refer to both.
The interjection “by the mercy (or mercies) of God helps us to understand the scope of the “therefore”. The Greek word for mercy is in the plural; however, it is best to understand this as a plural of majesty. It is not just “mercy” but “great mercy”. What God has done is far more than cut us a little slack. The whole epistle to this point is a demonstration of how great a mercy God has bestowed upon the believer and how this mercy has been demonstrated in the incarnation, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Epistle has so far demonstrated the totality of human depravity which is a demonstration of how great our need of mercy is. Without this recognition of this need, the doorway for mercy cannot be opened.
Paul has just concluded this need for mercy in Romans 11:32 by saying that it was the purpose of God along to shut the doors to everyone trying to achieve a standing before God based upon human merit. All humanity is locked up in prison together. We cannot underestimate the power of another little word, “all”. The word “all” (panta, in Greek) was the food of philosophers who tried to come to a unity of existence. One tried to sum up all of reality with the words “All is water.” Another philosopher said “all is air”. A third argued that “All is static”. Yet another argued “All is flux”. The only thing the Greeks could agree on was that they could not come to agreement of what “all” encompassed.
The Bible is not a book of philosophy. It is a book about God. The real problem to be solved is not to find the relationship between unity and diversity. The problem is that fallen man is out of sorts with God, and God in his mercy has sent us the means of reconciliation to us in the Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The “all” of Scripture is summed up well by Paul earlier in the epistle in Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” The call of God is that “all” are under condemnation and in the need of God’s grace. The summons goes out to “all” to repent and believe the gospel.
Paul ends the first eleven chapters of the spittle with a grand doxology of the greatness and wisdom of God’s ways. In it he cites several Old Testament passages from Deuteronomy, Job, and Isaiah. Human wisdom would never have chosen the way that God did. Humans in their rebellion against God start with themselves and not God and try to work up from there. But we can never rise above ourselves. We can never make or think anything which is greater than ourselves. And as Paul has aptly demonstrated, the fallen condition of humanity is so low that it is impossible for us to save ourselves. We think that we can save ourselves with our technology. We might point to the human achievement of discovering the x-ray, for example. X-ray technology has prolonged the lives of many people. But we must also realize that with the discovery of nuclear secrets that we use the same technology to make atomic bombs.