Romans 12:1 – A Living Sacrifice?

Paul uses a metaphor for the Christian life in this verse: the “in Christ” people are to be like “living sacrifices” to God. This is a metaphor that a Roman, Greek, or Jew would fully understand. Typically a sacrifice is killed on the altar, but here Paul says that the sacrifice acceptable to God in the present age is to remain alive.

Living SacrificeNobuyoshi Kiuchi suggested that the background for this living sacrifice that is holy and acceptable to the Lord is the Hebrew Bible, specifically the Azazel-goat in Leviticus 16:10-22. As a part of the Day of Atonement ritual, two goats were selected. One would be sacrificed, the other was “presented alive.” As the high Priest laid his hands on the goat he confessed the sins of the people and the goat was released “into the wilderness” or “for Azazel.”  The Mishnah reports he would say to the goat: “Bear our sins and be gone!” (Yoma 6.4).  As Kiuchi points out, this is the only sacrifice for sin in the Hebrew Bible that is a “living sacrifice.” The tradition that the goat was pushed over a cliff and killed comes from the Mishnah and is not found in Leviticus.

A potential problem for Kiuchi is that the Azazel-goat is never called a living sacrifice in Second Temple literature. In the Mishnah and other texts it is the “sent-away goat” since it represents the sin of the people being carried away into the wilderness. While Kiuchi suggests that Paul’s allusion to the Azazel-goat is intended to draw attention to Leviticus rather that contemporary practice (p. 259), it is hard to see how this is helpful for unpacking the metaphor since it is Jesus that bears away the sin of the believers. Jesus is the “living sacrifice” who solved the problem of sin and human estrangement from God. In this view of the metaphor, the sacrificed goat would be Jesus and the believer is the “living sacrifice.” Perhaps I am forcing the metaphor more than Paul intended,

The solution is to see the sacrifice in Romans 12:1 as a reference to the new life of the believer in Christ. From a Gentile perspective, living a morally virtuous life is of more value than the worthless dead sacrifices happening in the temples. Even if the Jewish sacrifices are in mind, a life that is lived as a “spiritual form of worship” is better than the daily sacrifice in the Temple.

One aspect of this metaphor of a living sacrifice that is rarely mentioned is the fact that the early Church had virtually no ritual elements compared to other ancient religious movements. Christians did not go to a temple to sacrifice to their god like virtually everyone else in the world at that time. Paul says here that the acceptable sacrifices are not animals, but the worshipers themselves.

How would person living in the first generation of the Church actually go about being a “living sacrifice”? How radical is this calling that Paul describes here?

Bibliography:  Kiuchi, Nobuyoshi. “Living like the Azazel-goat in Romans 12:1B,” Tyndale Bulletin 57 (2006): 251-61.

13 thoughts on “Romans 12:1 – A Living Sacrifice?

  1. The living sacrifice is a straightforward application of Psalm 110.

    your people are willing in the day of your weal
    in the honour of holiness from the womb of the dawn
    yours is the dew of your childhood

    Here is the day of battle, (chail, strength, wealth, conflict, weal – archaic word trying to capture these three at once.) It is our battle, and we are to be willing priests of our own bodies as sacrifice. The sacrifice lives because we no longer live for ourselves but in the one who was raised from the dead (last verse of the psalm). Here is the honour of holiness in that the individual is brought by that death into the Holy of Holies and in that life renews the dew of youth, sharing in the glorious nature of the One who is raised from the dead. This too is a day of his power. Given the nature of his rest, we live in the day in which the LORD God created the earth and heaven (Genesis 2:4). The womb of old time is the black hole of the cross where time is slowed to nil and transcendence radiates in all lives forward and backward, redeeming the time. So it is in the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world that our birth in the Spirit is grounded. So it could be said that the Lord both precedes and follows this oracle of David.

  2. Presenting ourselves as living sacrifices is our response as Christians, to when Christ died for our sins, no matter what era we are from. I honestly can not picture there to be too much of a difference in application between the first generation church and today in Romans :12:1. When this was written, salvation by grace was already made possible from Jesus’ death, therefore we are all saved the same way. I think one of the main things that the early church was focused on was not falling back into their cultural ways and being one with the world. But then again, we still have that objective today in the modern church; being set apart. I have to say that there is not much of a difference when it comes to people in the early church and people in the modern church living as a sacrifice. We love God, and we should view ourselves as a vessel. Obviously now, God calls His children to do things that are different from the things that the early church once did, and vise-versa.

  3. There are many ways that people living in the first generation of the church could go about being a living sacrifice. The whole reason that Christ came was to die. So that was the mentality that Paul had and that he wanted to press on the first generation church. They shouldn’t live as if they are going to be here on earth forever. If they were to live that way then they wouldn’t ever give anything up to follow Christ. I think that it is extremely radical. To call someone to live in such a way that they don’t live for themselves and go about life not seeking their own pleasures.

  4. Presenting our lives as a “living sacrifice”, is a way of saying that we are open and willing to accept what God has for us in our lives. As a “living sacrifice” for God, we are willing to go where He needs and wants us to be no matter what the cost. Christ was the sacrifice for us so that we may no longer have to face Hell, so in return He is asking that we give ourselves as a living sacrifice, and give our lives to Him to be a work for Him through out all of our lives. As Romans 12:1-2 says, we are to present our bodies as living sacrifices so that we may be holy and blameless before the Lord. It doesn’t stop there though. We are not to conform to the world that we live in, but be transformed. Becoming a living sacrifice is something that can take up an individuals whole life. By being a living sacrifice for Christ, we are to not be conforming to the world that we are living in, but rather we are to stick out and show the world what it is like to live as saint and workers for Christ.

  5. How radical is this calling Paul describes here? No more radical than to. In the first century there were far less Christians on the planet than there are today. So the idea of a living sacrifice was radical in the sense of its newness. Today that concept is not new in terms of the time that it has been around and there are far far more Christians today. Why would such a radical statement like being a living sacrifice not be ingrained in us believers today? Its been around long enough, haven’t caught the idea yet that what God says is important? I think in both times past and present that statement is radical. Back then the Church was new, never hearing of this concept. They had not seen very many living examples or people they knew to keep them accountable. Today I know we are just lazy, because we can glide by with our golden ticket to heaven. We have a very “its given to us” culture and so that is our mentality about our spiritual lives as well. We think God is going to give us a promotion without any discipline on our part.
    In the end regardless of our daily discipline of level of spiritual maturity, the fact still stands that Paul’s statement about being a living sacrifice is radical if it has stood 2000 years as something we believers strive for.

  6. Paul’s calling to be a “living sacrifice” seems pretty radical for first century Christians. As we have been talking about cultural context in class, to think about one presenting themselves as a living sacrifice, it would be a totally transformed life which would go against the norm of society then. A new Christian living as a “living sacrifice” would differentiate oneself from the rest of society by not participating in the pagan temple ceremonies, which were so common. As Drake mentioned in his post, there were less Christians at that time, so living in the way Paul told them to live would be a contrast from the rest of society, especially because of the newness of it all. Today, we have the benefit of being able to see how other Christians, possibly mentors, live their Christian life, so we have a role model to look up to for practical Christian living. In the first century, it would have been a totally new concept.

  7. Another way to think of this is as a sacrifice that has been allowed to live. A sacrifice is something given completely to a cause. It is no longer its own. A sacrifice usually dies as a part of its job. We are to give ourselves entirely to Christ; we belong to him. But we are not to die, but instead live as though we are not our own. If we are to be in Christ, then we are no longer able to think of ourself as our own. We can hardly be upset at being asked to do something that we don’t want to do. We are slaves to Christ.

  8. Though I agree with Drake that a “living sacrifice” was equally as radical in the past as it is today, I believe you can make an argument that because of its “newness,” it presented a larger and more drastic connotation to the nature of first generation Christians. Remember, this was the same crowd that was stupefied by the chain-of-events occurring in their lifetime; they were in the epicenter of the single-greatest event to ever set foot (literally) on this planet. Before this God’s people had to follow certain guidelines (the laws of Moses) that were more than pleasable to God. This was all they knew before Jesus’ death at the cross and his resurrection (I mean yes, it was written before in Scripture but the simple fact was it was actually occurring). This is substantially much different than how we perceive it in the Modern Church. They no longer had to kill an animal as atonement for sin; Jesus was the substitute.
    Therefore, preaching people the module of what a “living sacrifice” was, in all honestly, pretty difficult for the people to fathom and in a sense too good to be true, since “physical” sacrifice meant much more to people back then than it does to us now in the current age. Now, in this new generation of Christians, to most the component of a “living sacrifice” has become more generalized. It is progressively taught to most of us in the rudimentary stages of our biblical education. However, if there is something that relates us (the Modern Church) to the first generation Church, is that we still understand the concept love and sacrifice. The main constituent in the gospel is love. Consequently, deep in our hearts we know that we would do anything for those we truly love.
    This is why I believe that there is still a common nuance of radicalism that is shared in both generations. However, it is plausible there could be an argument made for the level of radicalism (in terms of a “living sacrifice”) the first generation experienced in contrast with our new generation.

  9. I am not convinced that it was a radically new concept – what about circumcise the foreskin of your hearts in the prophets – that would kill you if you did it literally – but metaphorically you live and the sacrifice is living. (Circumcision is a type of our death in Christ – see Col 2:11). Also the OT clearly notes that burnt offering is not a requirement (Psalms 50-51). The psalms, by the way are a living dialogue with the Lord – plenty of nudging and correction in them as well as much joy.

  10. The concept of a believer serving Christ as a “living sacrifice” certainly is a radical thing. It is now and it definitely was in Paul’s day. As was said in the post, one way that followers of Christ stood out from the rest of the world is that they engaged in virtually none of the religious rituals that every other religion mandated. This alone would cause Christians to dramatically stand out from the crowd. People would notice that the Christians weren’t participating in the sacrifices or the banquets and relationships would be damaged as a result. This was a particularly big deal in a world that was so concerned with social status. Maintaining a good social standing was an important thing, and asking believers to sacrifice it in order to be faithful to Christ was no small thing. In order to be a living sacrifice, believers have to be willing to sacrifice what is spiritually detrimental and live our lives for Jesus (Heb 12:1). Now, what exactly does that mean? Dr. Thomas Constable does a great job describing this in his Notes on Philippians: “Life is whatever we put at the center of living. Paul put Christ there. Consequently, he viewed God as Christ did. He saw people as Christ did. He viewed his purpose as Christ did. He established his priorities as Christ did. He conducted his daily affairs as Christ did. His life was Christ.” This is what it means to be living sacrifice.

  11. Back in the first century when people heard the word sacrifice they would think of sacrificing an animal of some sort on the alter. So when Paul said a living sacrifice, it was something completely new to them. As others have said it, standing out back then was not participating in other religious rituals. So when Paul says being a living sacrifice, he is saying that we should completely sacrifice our lives to God. People would already be different by not participating in other religious rituals, but now they would be a completely for God, and be even more different than what they were before if they were completely sacrifice their life for God. In the end it was completely radical for Paul to tell people that they should be a living sacrifice for God, because Paul was asking them to stand out even more than what they were before.

  12. A person living in the first generation of the Church would actually go about being a “living sacrifice” by not participating in pagan worship in the temples, or eating foods sacrificed to idols, or participating in the imperial cult, etc. By realizing and adjust one’s behavior to be in accordance with imitating the life of Christ, one could begin to living a sacrificed life. In this way, the flesh is not being gratified but rather, sinful behavior is put to death by daily picking up one’s cross and following Christ’s example (Mark 8). This calling that Paul describes here in Romans 12:1 is extremely radical. Before this, Jews and Gentiles alike would have been familiar with the concept of sacrifices such as killing “innocent” animals and sacrificing them. However, the concept of being a “living sacrifice” was probably very radical and foreign. The Jewish world and even Greco-Roman society may have found the concept of daily sacrifice strange since the ritual of sacrifices had been around for so long. It is interesting to look at Paul’s rhetoric when reading his letters because often when we examine the context and setting to which Paul is writing the words he uses come alive with new meaning and depth.

  13. I would think that being a living sacrifice in the first century would be a very radical idea. with what the people of that time being use to with sacrificing to their gods, they may have seen this and thought in the terms of what they were use to. With Christianity being a new thing, it may have been hard for them to see this as we do now. Worshiping Christ was a new thing and may have not known the proper way of being a living sacrifice.

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