September 9, 2022
TODAY’S SCRIPTURE REFERENCE:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer yourselves as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God for this is your true and proper worship [or your proper service to God.] Do not, therefore, conform to the pattern [of thinking] of this world but be transformed [into the pattern of the Kingdom of God] by the renewing of your mind. It is then that you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is; that is, what is His good, pleasing and perfect will for us all.” (Romans 12.1-2)
Whenever we listen to the words of Paul the apostle, we must remember that he draws from now three religious cultures: Roman (from his father), Jewish (from his mother) and Christian (from God his heavenly Father through Jesus Christ His Lord.) All three expressions weigh heavily in the scripture upon which I am reflecting from Romans 12.1-2. It is especially true for the call to “present ourselves as living sacrifices”:
- Roman: Paul himself was cast into the role of “martyr” and “acceptable sacrifice” by his accusers, the Judaizers. They opposed his ministry for the Christian movement. It stood against the Judaism of their forefathers. Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, was an anathema to them because at one time he represented their hatred for the Christian movement. He had been appointed “chief executioner” of the leadership of “The Way,” as it was called in those early years following the Pentecost event led by Peter, the lead disciple of Jesus Christ. Paul was at the stoning of Stephen, a Hellenized Jew now a Christ follower, and cast in a manner of giving ascent to Stephen’s death. As the Christian movement grew throughout the Middle Eastern provinces of the Empire, their influence for Christ and against the paganism of Rome made them targets as enemies of the State. Persecution of Christians grew in intensity and number at the hands of the Roman Empire by order of Caesar himself. The call to maintain one’s faith in Christ even in the face of death was critical to the impact Christianity would have on all who witnessed it. It is in this light, that the gospels recount Pilate’s aversion to punishing Jesus on account of the word of the Temple leadership alone. In his questioning of Jesus, he could find no fault worthy of execution. He did succumb, however, to the will of the Temple leadership when they threatened him with a referral to Caesar that the province was out of control because of “these Christ followers” beginning in Jerusalem and spreading into all Judea and Samaria. Paul’s call, and personal example as he was presumed beheaded in Rome, to “present yourselves as living sacrifices” was spoken in the face of such persecution. What purpose would it serve if the believers would recant their faith only to save their lives from torture and death? To die for Christ was to live in Him forever. To live for one’s self was to be dead to Christ forever. How would He understand such a failure to choose eternal life when He Himself accepted the cross and approached it as a lamb led to slaughter uttering not a word? You see the admonition of “what does it profit a person if they gain the whole world but forfeit their soul” pointed to merely avoiding death in the flesh which was, after all, unavoidable. But, avoiding eternal life for the sake of living in the broken world as a part of it? The consequence of that would be unavoidable as well, and far worse than death by persecution. To be a “living sacrifice” pointed in the direction of being alive in Christ with faith embraced in the promise of resurrection and being in the glorious presence of God for eternity. Such faith in the face of death soured the desire of onlookers and stood as a testimony to the destitution of the Roman Empire and ultimately its destruction.
- Judaism: This, then, was the power of the gospel according to the witness of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ of God Himself. He was the ultimate sacrifice made for the forgiveness of sins and the affirmation of the righteousness of God. You might remember how I cast that Pentecost morning fifty days following the resurrection of Jesus. Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, perceived as drunkenness by the uninformed and assuming public gathered in the Temple court to bear witness to the sacrifice offered for the blessing of First Fruits, Peter and the disciples stood in contradistinction to the whole event led by the Chief High Priest. Recast your thinking about the musical theme from the movie “Deliverance” and you might gain an interesting perspective of what was happening that morning. There were no dueling banjos in the background but the antiphonal declarations were unmistakable. Of course, we only hear from the witness of Luke’s gospel of the Church, the Book of Acts,in the voice of Peter. The voice of the Chief High Priest is only assumed and falls into silence as “actions would speak louder than words.” The intent was to highlight the futility of animal sacrifice with the drawing of attention to the human sacrifice which was condoned and promoted by the same High Priest. It would be interesting to have heard those dueling monologuea as each man would speak of their faith in antithetical verse. But, without knowing the full script of the High Priest, which Luke would not know as a Gentile convert to Christianity (he was a Greek physician), we can only imagine the rhythm of the event pursuing the climax of the “execution of justice.” And why would Luke give any ear to the words of the High Priest? For Luke, and the followers of Jesus, the High Priest was “dead to Christ having crucified Him by proxy and assent.” Not only that but in his “dead state of spiritual relationship to God” he was offering a “dead sacrifice” to that same God who had declared centuries prior that He no longer accepted such sacrifices because they were offered by those who pursued Him with a hard heart, cold spirit and a purposeless faith in disobedience to His call for their lives. They were unrepentant as they believed they “did no wrong.” Wrong! I went further to cast the scene with a hint of frustration on the part of the Chief High Priest as he sought to ignore and overcome the “banter” of Peter and the disciples who had fully engaged the crowd under the influence of the Holy Spirit. In that frustration I could see the High Priest sever the head of the lamb to be slain instead of cutting into the carotid artery to bleed it out in order to present a kosher offering to please God and bring about a fruitful harvest. Instead of a “kosher” sacrifice, he presented a “dead sacrifice” which, by understanding of the Law, would have cast a shadow of doubt on the future of the harvest. In opposition, there was Peter declaring that the slain “lamb of God” was raised from the dead on the third day as the prophet declared and now was seated at the right hand of God to mediate true justice and blessing on those who repented of their sins and proclaimed allegiance to the One True God and Father of them all. Jesus was that “kosher” and acceptable offering for the sake of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven. He had been bled out as was proven upon His last breath on the cross with the testing of the Roman spear to His side but “no bone was broken” as an anointing for the sake of those who would believe. Because of His faithfulness to God to the very end where He would surrender His “life’s breath,” the Holy Spirit within Him, into the care of God, He was granted the reconciliation, restoration and responsibility of being seated at the right hand of God and made “Judge over all as Lord and Savior.” The call to present one’s self as a living sacrifice was a powerful image for the Christian believer. They would not mind, though I am sure it was no happy thought, to lose their head for Jesus and the sake of God’s righteousness. They would not consider forfeiting their soul to save their limited time on earth without a hope for heaven to come.
- Christian: That leaves us with only one good, that which serves the will of God, option: present yourselves as a living sacrifice. After all, in the words of Jesus “no greater love is there than this that a person would lay down their lives for the sake of another.” And Jesus wasn’t limiting the consideration to saving a life from earthly harm, though that was often an image His own ministry projected by miracle (such as the Gadarene demonic) and by parable (such as the Good Samaritan.) What was truly at stake was “laying down one’s life for the sake of promoting the gospel opportunity to believe in God with all one’s heart, soul, mind and strength as the One who sent the Christ/Messiah into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who, though in the form of God (as a man) did not count equality with God something to be grasped in order to gain eternal life.” The witness of “dying in faith for faith” was what caused the gospel to spread powerfully and transformationally across the Empire and would eventually lead to its downfall. It would change the face of the world and the course of history. It should be doing so today if the call to be living sacrifices was embraced more than “preserving one’s own life, idealism and property” which seems to be virally and unreservedly rampant today. Living such a life is akin to standing opposed to the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, standing in affirmation of presenting dead sacrifices to enhance idealisms that serve no good and eternal end. It is only by being living sacrifices that we can make our greatest impact on the world around us and bring the hope of salvation to more people for the glory of God and their own welfare now and forevermore. But, Paul does not leave the calling to simply being an urging of “present yourselves as a living sacrifice.” He adds the caveat that we are to be “living sacrifices” that are holy and pleasing to God. There can be no half-hearted, half-spirited, half-witted, half-willed, half-intented and half-way sacrifices to witness to the full measure and stature of Christ in whose image we have been reshaped, refashioned, remade, recreated, restored and reconciled. And that is what will truly matter as we press on in the days ahead.
Father, You have made it possible for us to have life and have it abundantly by faith in Jesus Christ who died for us that we might live for Him. This we will strive to do faithfully today to bring others to that awareness of hope which is their sincerest desire- the hope of dwelling with You forever in Jesus’ name. AMEN.