NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson I)
Verse 1: For this reason, I beg you, brothers and sisters, because of God’s great acts of mercy shown to all of you, that you offer your bodies as a living sacrifice to Him – a holy offering that is dedicated to God, that will please Him. Considering what He has done, it is only logical that you should worship Him in this way.
What reason was Paul talking about? It was all that he had shared with them in chapters 9-11. His positive presentation of the Christian life. The “dos,” in this chapter outnumber the “don’ts,” almost four to one! That is the basic difference between trying to survive under the First Covenant of Law and living in liberty under the Last Covenant of Grace. But in some circles, the church has adopted the first covenant way of teaching the will of God. Haven’t they heard, it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile.
Paul is not merely asking or suggesting something here, he is begging for compliance. Therefore, the consequences of not complying must be severe enough and the benefits must be grand enough for the listener to stop and make a thorough examination of their motivations and intentions. Paul was such a sincere messenger that more than once he pleaded with his readers to pay special attention to his words of knowledge and wisdom. For instance, he wrote to the Corinthians: “Christian brothers, I ask you with all my heart in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”1 And to the Ephesians he pleads: “I beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. ”2
But Paul’s earnest request was not based just on his relationship with the believers in Rome nor on his status as an Apostle of Christ. Rather, he pleads with them based on the mercy of God. One Psalmist called it “His generous dealings.”3 In fact, the Greek noun oiktirmos used here is translated as “compassion,” “pity,” as well as “mercy.” It is such a unique word that it is only used by Paul.4 Thayer in his Lexicon thinks this is a reference to the “seat of compassion” and the “heart of compassion.” As such, it is a longing on the part of one to help another at all cost, because without such assistance all will be lost.
In this case, Paul is pleading with the Roman believers to lay everything on the altar for God’s sake. If we look at this from a Psalmist point of view, it means to take a vow, making oneself indebted to God.5 Paul’s request here of laying one’s body on the altar in the form of vowing one’s very life to God may bear some resemblance to what he told the Corinthians: “Food was meant for the stomach. The stomach needs food, but God will bring to an end both food and the stomach. The body was not meant for immoral behavior. It was meant to work for the Lord.”6
When we stop and think about it, we use all parts of our bodies for those things that bring us comfort, satisfaction, and gratification. Paul is asking that we consider submitting our bodies to God for His use to bring us the same spiritual things. I’m sure Paul was not thinking here of asking all the believers in Rome to become monks or nuns. That would cancel the great commission that Jesus gave to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. Rather, Paul is saying that whenever we use our bodies for anything, ensure that it all conforms with God’s Word so as to honor His sovereignty over our lives. We can see this expressed by the writer of Hebrews: “Let us approach the Holiest Place with a sincere heart, in the full assurance that comes from trusting – with our hearts sprinkled clean from a bad conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”7
Paul knew that any Jewish member of the congregation would be intimately familiar with the sacrificial system carried on in the Temple in Jerusalem where animals and birds were slaughtered every day in a futile attempt to atone for all the sins of those who bought or brought them. But once the sacrifice was laid on the altar, its life was taken from it and it in effect became a dead sacrifice. But Paul wanted believers to see themselves in the eyes of Isaac; that God provided another sacrifice to take his place, and, like him, they could rise up off the altar and go out to serve God having benefited vicariously from the sacrifice – Jesus, the Lamb of God, so they could stay alive.8
In one of his Psalms, David expressed a similar feeling of being laid on an altar as a living sacrifice when he wrote: “I am afflicted and hurting; God, let your saving power raise me up. I will praise God’s name with a song and extol Him with thanksgiving. This will please Adonai more than a bull, with its horns and hoofs.”9 And Hosea the prophet exhorted the people of Israel to do the same: “Return, Israel, to Adonai your God, for your guilt has made you stumble. Take words with you, and return to Adonai; say to him, ‘Forgive all guilt, and accept what is good; we will pay instead of bulls [the offerings of] our lips.’”10 Theologian John Gill tells us that the Jews had a saying that goes: “Worthy is the portion of the righteous, who offer every day this offering before the Lord; and what is it? Their bodies and their souls, which they offer before Him.”11 So Paul was not confronting the Jewish members with some new way of thinking about the sacrifice God really wanted.
In fact, this call for sacrifice wasn’t new that Paul had already said to the Gentiles. For instance, he told the Philippians: “Even if I give my life as a gift on the altar to God for you, I am glad and share this joy with you.”12 Since Paul is speaking of sacrifices here, I like the way the Complete Jewish Bible renders this verse: “Indeed, even if my lifeblood is poured out as a drink offering over the sacrifice and service of your faith, I will still be glad and rejoice with you all.”
Now, just in case some of those in Rome thought the Apostle Paul was going a little overboard, he tells them that what he is encouraging them to do was the least they could do to honor the One who died for them. However, the English translation of this being their “reasonable service” has inspired various translations and interpretations. For instance, the American Standard Version has: “spiritual service.” The Bible in Basic English renders it: “which is the worship it is right for you to give.” The Common English Bible says: “your appropriate priestly service.” The Complete Jewish Bible has “logical ‘Temple worship.’” The Darby Translation reads: “your intelligent service.” Along with many others, there are two words that appear most often: “service” and “worship.”
The Greek noun latreia that Paul uses here should give us a clue. It means “service rendered” either for hire or out of devotion to God. That is the way the writer of Hebrews uses it.13 Thayer, in his Lexicon, lists it as part of what the priest did in the Temple, therefore, it pertained to any service rendered in the worship of God. Thayer also makes note of how Plato uses this same word in his Apology where we read: “And I shall repeat the same words to every one whom I meet, young and old, citizen and alien, but especially to the citizens, inasmuch as they are my brethren. For know that this is the command of God; and I believe that no greater good has ever happened in the state than my service to the God.”14
This brings us back to the part that whatever service we render, it must be “acceptable” to God. On this subject, God is not silent. He says through Jeremiah: “What do I care about incense from Sheba or sweet cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are unacceptable, your sacrifices don’t please me.”15 In other words, it’s not what we think God wants us to offer Him, but it is what God thinks we should want to offer Him. Paul knew what this meant, that’s why he told the Ephesians: “Try to find out what will please the Lord.”16 Paul tells young Timothy that one of the things God is pleased with is when we offer prayers for those who rule over us,17 and goes on to tell him that God is also pleased when we look out for those in need.18
Even the Apostle Peter understood this: “You are to be as living stones in the building God is making also. You are His religious leaders giving yourselves to God through Jesus Christ. This kind of gift pleases God.”19 Not only that, but Peter also advises us: “What good is it if, when you are beaten for doing something wrong, you do not try to get out of it? But if you are beaten when you have done what is right, and do not try to get out of it, God is pleased.”20 So as we can see, there are varied ways in which we can render unto God service that pleases Him. It’s just a matter of searching His Word to find out what they are instead of waiting around for Him to speak to us directly. As one writer put it: “How a Gentile was to be a ‘living sacrifice’ involved specific behavior and relates to how they were to give their body to God’s service as they have their mind renewed.”21
Early church scholars have much to say about Paul’s opening of chapter twelve. Suffice it to say, that although they are interesting, space does not allow us to copy them all here. But Ambrosiaster says that God’s will is our sanctification.22 Therefore, our bodies that are subject to sin are as good as dead since they have no hope of obtaining the promise of eternal life. Ambrosiaster sees it as serving the purpose for which we have been saved, so from now on we should lead a pure life and stir up the love of God in us. This way His work of grace has the right effect.
After all, the ancient believers killed sacrifices which were offered in order to signify that those who sinned were subject to death. But now that God has graciously offered His gift of salvation so that those who believe can be purified for His service. But instead of being a dead sacrifice like those of the past, they were to be a living sacrifice as a sign that they were committed for eternity. No longer will the bodies of animals be sacrificed for the sin in the bodies of those under the Law to make them holy. Instead, the sin in the bodies of those who believe will be sacrificed so that the believer’s body will remain holy unto God23.24
1 1 Corinthians 1:10 – New Life Version
2 Ephesians 4:1 – New Living Translation
3 Psalm 116:12 – Complete Jewish Bible
4 See 2 Corinthians 1:3; Philippians 2:1; Colossians 3:12; Hebrews 10:28
5 Psalm 50:14
6 1 Corinthians 6:13
7 Hebrews 10:22, See Ezekiel 36:25
8 1 Corinthians 5:7
9 Psalm 69:29-31 – Complete Jewish Bible
10 Hosea 14:1-2 – CJB
11 Zohar in Leviticus, folio 4b
12 Philippians 2:17.
13 See Hebrews 9:1, 6
14 Apology: The Complete Works of Plato, Trans. Benjamin Jowett, Compiled by Dr. Mohamed Elwany
15 Jeremiah 6:20
16 Ephesians 5:10
17 1 Timothy 2:3
18 Ibid. 5:4
19 1 Peter 2:5
20 Ibid. 2:20
21 Messianic Bible Study of the Book of Romans: YashaNet, op. cit., loc. cit.
22 1 Thessalonians 4:3
23 John 8:34-36
24 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc., cit.