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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
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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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    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
  • Paul Washer on Romans 12:1. – Kazark May 8 '12 at 16:02
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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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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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Look at some scriptures to help get beneath the words on the page: "He is not God of the dead but of the living, because all are living to Him" Luke 20:38; " If a seed falls to the ground and dies it bears much fruit" John 12:24; and read up on Galatians 3:15-29 about the "seed" of Abraham; "Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil." 1Timothy 3:6, and when the word "novice" appears, the Greek word is "neophyte," which means new convert, or newly planted seed. So using those few scriptures we meditate on that and understand that Paul is telling us about being initiated into the mysteries of the kingdom through facing the death of the lower natural nature, ("I face death every day-yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our LORD" 1 Cor 15:31). In fact, the entire Epistle to the Romans by Paul is a tract on the subject of recruiting the human mind to begin the process of receiving the revelation of Christ in the Gospel. Romans would be the work of the first degree of initiation, which is to die in the flesh and sow to the spirit, this is how we offer our bodies up as a living sacrifice. This is the beginning of proper spiritual worship. Keep it simple and the revelation happens.

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What does the living sacrifice mean in Romans 12:1?

The Old Testament counterpart of Romans 12:1 is found in the whole of chapter 1 of Leviticus: the burnt offering. This sacrifice is NOT compulsory.

Burnt means to arrest the carnal passions. This sacrifice must be unfermented or unleavened (without sin). It must be baked (to prevent the leaven or sin within the soul from rising). Fine wheat flour is symbolic of refined revelations. We must chew or ruminate on divine revelations. Split hooves speak of two Testaments, the donkey (OT) and the colt (NT). The oil is symbolic of the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Leviticus 11:2-3 Berean Study Bible

“Say to the Israelites, ‘Of all the beasts of the earth, you may eat any animal with split hooves and that chews the cud.

Jesus recommended that a good biblical teacher should align foundational revelations with new covenant revelations.

Matthew 13:52 (NKJV)

"Then He said to them, “Therefore every scribe (teacher) instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new (New Testament) and old (Old Testament).”


Excerpts from Origen Adamantius "Man of Steel", Leviticus Homily 1

  1. Therefore, at the beginning of Leviticus, it says, "The Lord called Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting" that he should publicly announce to the sons of Israel the laws of sacrifices and offerings. It says, "If a person should bring an offering to the Lord, then he should make the offering from cattle or sheep;" that is, from lambs or goats. "But if from birds, then turtledoves or young doves."

(2) "But if' not a person but "the soul should bring an offering to God," it says, "it should offer unleavened bread baked from fine wheat flour in an oven, or at least fine wheat flour covered in a pan with oil or at least turned in oil from a small griddle."

(3) Then we are taught that nothing at all "fermented" ought to be offered at the altar of God. Neither is "honey" to be mixed with the sacrifices in any way. Rather, the entire sacrifice or offering is to be salted with salt.

(4) In the second place, it taught about "sacrifices of first-fruits" which it commands to be offered to the Lord "fresh, cooked and well cleansed.

(5) After these things, under the same classes of law concerning "salutary sacrifices," we are commanded to offer first "from calves," second, "from sheep." Among these either "lambs" or "goats," "males" or "females" may be offered. And it prescribes that besides these animals nothing is to be offered in the salutary sacrifices.

(6) But let us go back a little and see first of all what it means when it says, "If a person should present an offering as if someone other than a person could offer something. And, in any case, it should have been sufficient to say, "If any of you should bring an offering," but now it says, "If a person brings an offering"; and in the following, it says, "But if a soul presents an offering.

Farther on, in the things that come next, when the Lord now speaks to Moses a second time and commands concerning the sacrifices to be offered for sin, he speaks thus: "If the high priest sins, he will offer this and that. Or, "if the entire synagogue sins" or "if the prince sins" or "if a single soul sins, it is commanded to each and everyone what they will offer. Why therefore do we think this distinction of persons to be unimportant so that indeed one is commanded to offer under the name of "a person," another under that of "a soul," another under that of "a high priest," but another under that of "synagogue," even another under that of "a prince," or under the surname of "a single soul"?

I myself, meanwhile, in my humble understanding, think that, whom he called "a person" in this place and placed first among all for the making of a sacrifice to God, is to be understood as the whole human race and that that one is called "a person" who offers "a calf without blemish from the herd as a whole burnt offering.

(7) Moreover, see if this "calf without blemish" is not that "fatted calf' which the father, who had lost his son who "had squandered all his substance," killed for that one who had returned and was restored to him; and he made a great feast and had great joy, so that also, "the angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents." This person who "had been lost and was found" since he had nothing of his own substance that he could offer for "he had squandered all things living luxuriously, found this calf which was indeed sent from heaven, but coming from the order of the patriarchs and following from the succeeding generations of Abraham.

Therefore, it did not say "calf' and stop, as if it might appear that just any calf whatever was commanded, but "a calf from bulls"; that is, one that came from the generation of the patriarchs.

(8) Moreover, it is "a male without blemish. It is truly "a male" which does not know the sin which is of female fragility. Therefore, only that "male," only he is "without blemish," who "did not sin and guile was not found in his mouth, and who "acceptable before the Lord," is offered "at the door of the tabernacle. "At the door of the tabernacle" is not inside the door but outside the door. For Jesus was outside the door, "for he came to his own and his own did not receive him. Therefore, he did not enter into that tabernacle to which he had come but "at the door of it" he was offered for a whole burnt offering since he suffered "outside the camp.

(2) I myself think that the priest who removes the hide "of the calf' offered as "a whole burnt offering" and pulls away the skin with which its limbs are covered is the one who removes the veil of the letter from the word of God and uncovers its interior parts which are members of spiritual understanding. He does not put these members of the Word which are known inwardly in some base place but in a high and holy one, that is, he places it "upon the altar" when he explains the divine mysteries not for unworthy men who are leading a base and earthly life but to those who are the altar of God, in whom the divine fire always burns and the flesh is always consumed.

(3) Upon such as these, the "calf of the whole burnt offering" which was divided limb by limb is placed. For he divides "the calf limb by limb" who can explain in order and speak with proper distinction what advantage there was "to touch the hem" of Christ; "to have washed his feet with tears and to have wiped them clean with the hairs of her head; and how much more (an advantage) it should be "to have anointed his head with ointment"; but also "to have reclined on his breast which has preeminence. Therefore, to discuss the causes of these individual things and to accommodate some, indeed, to those who are beginning; some to those who now are progressing in the faith of Christ; and some to those who are already perfect in his knowledge and love-this is "to have divided the calf limb by limb."

(4) But also he knows how to show what the principles of the Law were, what progress was added in the Prophets but what completion is found in the fullness of the Gospels; or who can teach with what "milk" of the word "the little children in Christ are to be fed," and with what food those "who are weakened in the faith" must be restored, and even what is the "solid and strong food, with which the athletes of Christ must be "made fat"; he who knows how to separate such diverse things with spiritual reason, such a teacher can be seen as the priest who "places the whole burnt offering that was divided limb by limb upon the altar."

(5) And he who adds "firewood on the altar by which the fire is lighted and burns, is the one whose word treats not only the bodily virtues of Christ but also his divinity. For the divinity of Christ is from above by which this fire is inflamed. Suitably, therefore, the heavenly fire consumed all these things which were done in the body by the Saviour and restored all things to the nature of his divinity. However, this fire is kindled by the wood that is brought to it; for the suffering of Christ in the flesh was right up to the "wood." For when he was suspended on the wood, the dispensation of the flesh was finished; rising from the dead, he ascended to heaven where again his fiery nature is evident. And from this place, the Apostle said, "Even if we have known Christ according to the flesh, now we no longer know him thus. For indeed, the whole burnt offering of his flesh which was offered through the wood of the cross united the earthly with the heavenly, the human with the divine.

(6) The word of instruction commands "the inner parts together with the feet to be washed with water, announcing the sacrament of baptism by a figurative prophecy. For he who cleanses his conscience washes "the internal parts"; he washes his feet who receive the fullness of the sacrament and knows that "whoever is clean needs nothing except to wash his feet, and that "no one is able to have a part with Jesus unless he shall have washed his feet.

5. But if you wish to understand these things in the moral sense, then you have "a calf' which you ought to offer. The "calf' is your flesh and it is indeed exceedingly proud. If you wish to present it as an offering to the Lord, then you keep it spotless and pure, bring it "to the door of the Tent," that is, where it can hear the divine books. Your offering should be "a male." It should not know a female; it should avoid concupiscence; it should shun weakness. It should require nothing dissolute or perverted. And also, "place your hand upon your offering" that it may be acceptable to the Lord.

Kill it "before the Lord, that is, place a bridle of continence on it and do not remove the hand of discipline from it just as that one placed the hand on his own flesh, that one who said, "I torture my body and subject it to slavery lest, perchance, when 1 have preached to others, 1 should myself become reprobate. And kill it "before the Lord" mortifying without wavering your "limbs" "which are upon the earth. And "the sons of Aaron the priest" should offer its blood. The priest and his sons are in you the mind which is also its understanding in you who are rightly called a priest and "sons of a priest," for they are the only ones who perceive God and are capable of the knowledge of God. Therefore, the divine word desires that you offer your flesh to God in purity with reasonable understanding, as the Apostle says, "A living offering, holy, pleasing to God, your reasonable service. To offer blood on the altar through the priest or the sons of the priest is to be made pure both in body and spirit.

(2) For there are also others who offer their flesh as a whole burnt offering but not through the ministry of the priest. They offer neither knowingly nor according to the Law which is in the mouth of the priest. They are indeed pure in body but are found to be impure in spirit. For either they are defiled with the concupiscence of human glory, or they are polluted with the lust of greed, or they grow filthy by the misfortune of jealousy and malice, or they are tormented by being mad with hatred and with an excess of rage. It is possible for such to be pure in body. Yet, they do not offer their whole burnt offerings through the hands and ministry of the priest. For they do not have in them the counsel and the prudence with which to perform the priestly function in the presence of God. They are like those "five foolish virgins" who certainly were kept virgins and had the purity of body. But they did not know how to store up the "oil" of charity and peace and the remaining virtues "in their vases"; and therefore they were excluded from the marriage chamber of the bridegroom. Hence, the continence of the flesh alone is not able to reach the altar of the Lord if it is lacking the remaining virtues and the priestly ministry.

(3) And therefore, we who read or hear these things should attend to both parts to be pure in body, upright in mind, pure in heart, reformed in our habits. We should strive to make progress in deeds, be vigilant in knowledge, faith, and actions, and be perfect in deeds and understanding in order that we may be worthy to be conformed to the likeness of Christ's offering, through our Lord Jesus Christ himself, through whom to God the Almighty Father with the Holy Spirit be "glory and power forever and ever. Amen.

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Throughout the Roman empire (and in all the world) both Jews and gentiles were accustomed to the idea that worship involved sacrifices. What deity in their right mind doesn't appreciate BBQ, seasoned with salt? And having eaten a good meal the deity is then more disposed to be merciful and provide rain and military victories to the worshipers.

The gentiles of Athens, when wanting to cover their bases, set out offerings on an altar with a note saying essentially "These gifts are for any deities not covered by gifts to the deities we already know about":

KJV Acts 17:23 For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

Sacrifice to Athena

Paul, like the Jewish prophets points out that the one true God doesn't need anything and isn't properly worshiped by gifts of food and drink or gold or silver:

KJV Acts 17:

24 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; 25 Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;

NIV Psalm 50:

7“Listen, my people, and I will speak; I will testify against you, Israel: I am God, your God. 8I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me. 9I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, 10for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. 11I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. 12If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. 13Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? 14“Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, 15and call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”

Paul's new approach: "divine service according to knowledge"

In Romans 12 Paul sets forth the new paradigm of worship to God that involves a "living sacrifice" where one offers one's own body, alive for divine service (λατρείαν). He exhorts them to sweep away the thinking characteristic of those who don't know God and think in a new way, according to a knowledge of the true God so they can please God and determine the will of God based on understanding:

NET Bible Romans 12:

1 Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice—alive, holy, and pleasing to God—which is your reasonable service (τὴν λογικὴν λατρείαν ὑμῶν). 2 Do not be conformed to this present [ignorant] world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.

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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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