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This passage is a bit vague at first glance:

Romans 12:1 (NIV)
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

What exactly did it mean to offer their 'bodies as a living sacrifice'? And why was it their 'true and proper worship'?

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It means don't crawl off the altar. –  Frank Luke Dec 12 '12 at 21:58

4 Answers 4

Background

This verse is the beginning of Paul's call to a holy life (imperative) on the basis of the rich Gospel he has presented (the indicative: justification, regeneration, sanctification...). And Paul, as is typical of the organization and care of his thought and especially of Romans, gives this verse and a summary or thesis statement of everything which he is going to say during the imperative part of the letter.

Translation

I would render the verse something like this:

So I urge you, brothers, because of the mercy of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual/reasonable worship.

Sacrifice

Possible reasons for using the term sacrifice:

  • Those who are in Christ imitate Christ and share his sufferings in this life. While their sacrifice is not redemptive (in the place of another), yet it is to be for another, as was his.
  • Connotation of blood and gore—the reader is called to a life of suffering in service to God.
  • The surrender of one's best to God (blemished sacrifices were not accepted).
  • Total surrender—a sacrifice is not something that one gets back.
  • The replacement of the Old Testament system: where they offered bulls and goats, the readers were to offer themselves.

Living

The sigma in the participle ζῶσαν is because it is feminine, not because it is aorist. It is a present participle and as such has a continuous aspect just like the English participle living. "The living sacrifice stands in contrast to those which were killed and refers to a constant dedication" (The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament).

Spiritual

This is λογικός, referring to the human spirit, not the more typical πνευματικός, which refers usually to the Spirit of God and sometimes to evil spirits. The precise meaning of it in this context is disputed (thus the NIV rendering "true and proper"), but I think at the very least it serves as a contrast to "bodies"—yes, they are to offer their bodies, but such a sacrifice is not to be thought of in a merely external way.

Summary

Paul is commanding his readers to totally give themselves up to God. As Paul Washer points out in a number of his sermons, he does not here mean to restrict the command to just physical bodies. Rather, lest one make holiness something which is ephemeral, he gives a concrete embodiment of the command to holiness. This is true and proper worship because the old system of bulls and goats has passed away, and because true worship to God is a holistic action of the man. God asks for total, not partial, devotion—body and soul. Once again, though, even the fact that he would urge them to offer indicates that the command is addressed to a human soul and thus a total devotion is in view.

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This is an excellent theological answer to the question. I would love to see what you come up with once you study further - specifically the socio-rhetorical and historical-cultural concept of sacrifice. –  swasheck Apr 12 '12 at 20:58
    
@Richard I am considering this answer finished now. –  Kazark Apr 18 '12 at 16:17
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The participle, though, is subordinate to the main verb, παραστῆσαι. I'd contend that the focus is not as much on drawing a contrast between the old sacrificial system, but on the constant, iterative process as defined by a way of life in the second part of Rogers' definition. –  swasheck Apr 18 '12 at 16:40
    
@swasheck I might be willing to buy that. My Greek is not yet good enough to understand the details of where the emphases lies in fine distinctions without the aid of extra materials. (Though I've studied Greek on my own a good deal, I actually have not yet taken second-year Greek in a classroom setting.) –  Kazark Apr 18 '12 at 17:37
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Don't get me wrong - your answer accurately addresses the question while responsibly handling the text. I'm just advocating for your conclusion from the text and not from the cognitive parallels –  swasheck Apr 18 '12 at 17:58

Romans was written to the Roman church which had undergone a significant series of events that may have caused a severe identity crisis. There appears to have been a rather significant Jewish population in Rome, and some of these were Christians (e.g. Priscilla and Aquila). Most, if not all, would have been expelled in AD 49 under Emperor Claudius. As such, this would have left Gentile believers as the dominant influence in the church. Then, Jews were allowed to return to Rome and the identity of the church would need to shift again.

Beginning in Romans 9, Paul begins a specific conversation with a Jewish audience. The entire conversation up until this point had been about the specific ways in which God has invited Gentiles into the family. Chapter 9 is a reminder of the privileged status that the Jews held in Gods eyes and a reminder that they have not been forgotten. This section continues into chapter 11 which begins the transition into this call for unity. This is the new reality, not just for the church in Rome, but for the Church in its broadest form. The original is still intact (with some serious modifications), but there is a new "olive shoot" growing up within it that has now become grafted into the tree.

Romans 12:1 starts with the conspicuous "Therefore" and then there is the aorist, active, infinitive παραστῆσαι ("to (be) present") which may carry an ingressive sense (that is, they need to begin the behavior), so "I urge you to start presenting your bodies as living sacrifices." Sacrifices die. That's one point of the sacrifice, to replace the offender. However, Paul has already clearly established that this sacrifice has already been made, and that the Christian has already come to be identified with that. However, sacrifices were also an ongoing sign of commitment to a covenant, something of relationship maintenance or a display that one is continuing in the commitment that has been made. As such, with their bodies, daily lives and all that encompass that daily life (as @Kazark has already wonderfully noted) should reflect their ongoing commitment to the covenant that God has made with them.

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Excellent observation from john! Prof N T Wright brings up the view in his Youtube discussion How God Became King when he remarks that Christians are content to accept that Christ died for our sins, thereby winning entry to heaven for all who believe in Him, and dismiss everything that happened between His baptism and the Atonement. The Synoptic Gospels take a lot of trouble to describe that period, and for a reason. They are a model, a path, a Way for His disciples, past and present to EMULATE! Wright says that the Cross casts a shadow over all His ministry. Everytime Christ speaks or acts, He is LAYING DOWN HIS LIFE. I'll try to expand this answer. DO, DO FAST FORWARD TO 45:00 and watch till 49:30 on the above video clip!

Transcript from Video How God Became King

47:10 (TIMELINE) Pres MBI: How do you avoid the error of tacking on the story of the crucifixion as the sad end of a promising story of the kingdom of God? If I can clarify this in connection with the question ”What would be the connection be between the crucifixion and the resurrection and the kingdom of God that He proclaimed in His brief earthly ministry?”

NTW: The book does go into exactly that in some detail. All the way through from the beginning of Mark pretty much when Jesus is doing all that kingdom stuff, there is opposition, there are threats, there are plots, there are accusations. The shadow of the Cross is cast upon the story of the kingdom of God from the beginning. Just as when Jesus is going to the Cross, the evangelist makes it clear that this is not something other than the climax of His kingdom work when He is crucified with the words ”King of the Jews” above his head.

The point is that when Jesus is doing all that ”kingdom stuff”, He is figuratively laying down His life, picking up His cross, DAILY.

Luke 9:23-24 NET Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.

It's no easy task to stick out your neck and propose an interpretation of a text or pray for a blind person to be healed (both are healing blindness, albeit one being spiritual versus physical). Failure at either invites attack. Trust in God is vindicated as the healings do take place, Jesus being resurrected on each occasion. People believe, are saved.

John 15:13 NET No one has greater love than this – that one lays down his life for his friends.

Trust in God is what enables success in overcoming obstacles, be they the ”giants” in Canaan, or the Law of Sinai. Victory leads to entry into the Promised Land, the Kingdom of God. Joshua's trust cleans the people, but to clean the land the trust must be a physical sacrifice, the eponymous act at Calvary. Picking up the cross is not just figurative there, but real.

A pure people in a pure land make a powerful combination. Jesus purified his mind and His body, during the stint in the wilderness, there where Israel failed. He is now living the eternal life, the subduing power life assigned to Adam: even the wind and the waves listen to Him. However, every time He exercises that power, He takes His life into His own hands. Will God continue to vindicate His stepping out in faith? The results are plainly seen, as the curses of the Fall are rolled back, till even physical death must be conquered.

Now Jesus lays down His life, by surrendering to the authorities, returning to Jerusalem, to certain death. Will God again vindicate Jesus obedience, confirming that the Second Adam has the power to command even death to come and go, as well as again defeating His adversaries by proving His claims (and saving even more people in the process)? Obedience previously rewarded by entry into the Promised Land, where empowered obedience is again rewarded by being confirmed as belonging to God. And who better to be used as a test for this other than He who will lay down His life only to take it back again.

John 10:17 NET This is why the Father loves me – because I lay down my life, so that I may take it back again.

Hebrews 3:15-19 NET As it says, “Oh, that today you would listen as he speaks!Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” For which ones heard and rebelled? Was it not all who came out of Egypt under Moses’ leadership? And against whom was God provoked for forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose dead bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear they would never enter into his rest, except those who were disobedient? So we see that they could not enter because of unbelief.

Brothers and sisters, strive to enter that rest. Keep this verse in mind, as a reminder that the empowering is from God, lest you strive in the flesh:

Exodus 14:14 NET The Lord will fight for you, and you can be still.”

That is why the rest is a real rest:

Matthew 11:28 NET Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

Please critique the above and provide input where it can be improved on.

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Hmmm.. I don't see a link to the video you are recommending. But more critically, we prefer if answers stand on their own. If, for whatever reason, the clip is unavailable, this answer will be useless. If, however, you were to transcribe the relevant bits, we'll have a useful artifact that will live as long as this site does. Even better would be if you were able to more explicitly connect Wright's words to this particular passage. It's good that you are planning on expanding the answer, however. Thanks in advance. –  Jon Ericson Dec 12 '12 at 21:33

The language used in Rom 12:1 is symbolic of temple and alter related service by priests but not in the way you think. Paul never intended to require christians to imitate the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus by hoping that their good manners in the flesh would be a pleasing sacrifice to God for it is written "In our flesh dwelleth no good thing."

Rather, because they were experiencing an identity crisis regarding whether the Jew and his covenant were still necessary and if not, what was the gentile to refer to for his access to christ; Paul points out that their bodies are holy and acceptable because of christ's sacrifice. The identity crisis would have caused them to shrink from ministry and to have a lack of confidence in standing before God in any capacity. Paul reassures them that they can stand without the Jewish rites. They are acceptable. If they had been priests like in the old day, their commision or service at the alter in the things of God would have been accepted. He goes on in the chapter to encourage them to prophesy, exhort others etc. It is the "mercies of God" that have made this possible.

A sacrifice does not merely connote the thing that must suffer, but a sacrifice was also symbolic of the thing that pleased God when it was offered. It is quite possible that Paul is encouraging a confidense in gentiles formerly cast away, to approach the throne of grace with boldness in the holiness christ made possible. They would in the old pictures and types of temple service be as acceptable and as pleasant as the fragrance of the sacrifice that when burned ascended up to heaven.

2 Corinthians 2:15 For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved...

It is just that we release our pleasing savour as sacrifices that are living. Our very status as christians in christ allows us to appear or present our bodies as pleasing already in the presence of God. We should carry ourselves as a people redeemed, agreed. However our doing so does not aid in any way the process that initially made us acceptable. Paul is saying to the Romans "Reckon yourselves presentable before God as the sacrifice used to release a sweet savour before God."

When God came looking for Adam in Eden, Adam was not presentable and as a result did not appear before God. He concealed himself because of an evil conscience. God is still calling to Adam in Rom 12:1 to enter appearance before God that he may be washed and anointed and employed again in reasonable or active and acceptable service. The service at the alter by the new testament christian is to appear as an adopted son and not a hired slave. His offering is more a confident and purged conscience as opposed to appearing before God constantly in fear and mistrust. A man presents himself acceptably before God when his concience is purged from a trust in dead works and guilt. It is more a good conscience than good manners that makes a body presentable before God. Adam was worried that his nakedness appeared. God asked "Who told you that you are naked?" Good behaviour starts in the mind. Sinful bodies likewise borrow it from the mind.

I would risk the interpretation that Rom 12:1 is saying the following; Hebrews 10:22 Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.

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