Romans 12:1 and the Scapegoat

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.

scapegoatNobuyoshi 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.”

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.

12 thoughts on “Romans 12:1 and the Scapegoat

  1. For a person living in the first century of the church to actually live out being a living sacrifice, they would have to remove themselves from the culture around them that makes life into a largely self-fulfilled thought process. By doing this, the person would stop thinking about finding fulfillment in raising themselves up in the eyes of those around them, but instead they would look to help others. Through the lens of Christianity, the believer would not be living for themselves anymore after accepting Christ, because Christ was that sacrifice, the only logical thing to do is to share the knowledge of that once and for all sacrifice with everyone else, no matter the cost. In Mark 8:34, Jesus says that if anyone wants to follow him they must deny themselves and take up their own cross to follow him. This means that Jesus is saying that the Christian believer should not be thinking of themselves but giving up the comfort of normal life and living sacrificially when following Jesus. I would say that Paul is radical in a way that his listeners would have understood. When using examples from the OT and even sacrifices in general to pagan gods, these things would have been understood by all, and thus, it makes it a little less abrasive to his listeners as not coming off as super radical because he is using examples from their own lives to show them what he means.

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  2. It’s interesting that we are called to be “living sacrifices”. Like you stated, sacrifices were a part of the culture norm in their time. To be a living sacrifice would be a radical idea for their society, but it matches the call that is presented in verse 2. “Do not be conformed to this world.” Like Moo says in chapter 16, “”Animals might be slaughtered in sacrificial worship, but people worship God by using their God-given intelligence to honor him.” Worshipping God with our minds instead of our actions was counter-culture.

    We are sort of like the scapegoat in Leviticus. We do not carry the weight of sin on our shoulders, but we are released from death, unlike the other goat, and sent to be free.

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  3. As early Christian believers, it would have been radical within itself to not sacrifice anything to their God like other religions did as a practice. The fact that they were called to live in a way that is opposite of the cultural norms and lifestyles was radical as well. These Christians in the early church can be considered a “living sacrifice” because for a time, they bear their own weight of sin in a way until they pray and confess their sins to God. Christ was ultimately sacrificed for the sin, but we are left walking and living to show the grace of God in that He has offered us life which we did not deserve. In Hebrews 13:9, the author tells the members of the early church to not fall to the rituals of religion or to fall to the different teachings. We have been given grace from God to not need those things and so we have been set free to walk towards Him who ultimately gave us the freedom.

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  4. The idea of a living sacrifice was known in the ancient world. But what does that mean for the Christian who ought to offer themselves as a living sacrifice? Moo states that in light of all God’s mercies we are to be dedicated to service Christ, what his will is (Moo 163). When Paul mentions “body” he is not just talking physical, but mental and spiritual self also (Moo 163). This idea of a living sacrifice points to the mindset of living in the Spirit. Choosing the things that honor and glorify God is how the early church believers ought to live. Being a servant, saying no to the cultural norms because they were not God honoring would be a way to be a living sacrifice. Caring for the poor and needy. Treating slaves on the same standing as yourself would be another way to present yourself as a living sacrifice.

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  5. The metaphor of a “living sacrifice” that Paul uses seems to be sort of an oxymoron. To the Gentile majority, this metaphor may have made a lot more sense to them than the Jewish way of sacrificing may have. In the ESV study Bible notes, Schreiner states, “They are a living sacrifice, meaning that they are alive from the dead since they enjoy new life with Christ. Living also means that they will not be put to death as OT animal sacrifices were, for Christ has fulfilled what was predicted by those sacrifices” (Schreiner, 2178). Someone who have read this verse in the first generation of the church could have been a living sacrifice by giving everything in their life back to God. Once we realize the cost that Christ gave on the cross, by sacrificing his life, the least we can do is give the same and give our life back. Although, instead of dying, we are to give our life through worship and praise. Through those, and other actions, others will see us and come to Christ as well.

    Schreiner, Thomas R. ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. Print

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  6. Moo describes the person who is a living sacrifice not as something that is a physical sacrifice, but rather a person who offers his thoughts, will, emotion, actions, and everything else up to God. It has nothing at all to do with a real sacrifice but it is something that we can offer to God. Romans 12 says that when we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice it is proper worship. I would argue that a sacrifice, as it was known previously was less about worship and more about atonement. Here instead of begging God to forgive our sins or transferring them to a goat, we are worshiping Him by living a life that is pleasing to Him. Because of this I don’t really see the connection between the goat and a living sacrifice, in fact the only similarities are that they are both living. The sacrifices in themselves are different. With the goat, sins are transferred to it. This is not what is happening when we offer ourselves up as living sacrifices.

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  7. Christians of Paul’s day would have found it hard to believe that the true God of the universe did not require sacrifices from them to gain forgiveness for their sins. They would have thought it was a radical idea to be living sacrifices, rather than sacrifice animals to God, in order to please Him. Paul was trying to explain in Romans 12 that one is a proper living sacrifice when they are worshiping God with their hearts, and also by abstaining from cultural norms that went against what Jesus wanted His followers to be doing. Moo mentions that what Paul really meant when he said to be living sacrifices was this, “it includes our thoughts, our emotions, and our wills. All are to be given over to God in his service” (Moo, 163). It has always been a challenge for Christians in every era to go against the grains of society and live out a Christian lifestyle rather than cultural patterns that are foreign to adhering to the will of God. It would have seemed radical to them to give up all of the sinful practices of their peoples’ (if they were a converted Gentile), and it would have been hard for Jewish converts to get used to the fact that God no longer required them to sacrifice animals or follow rituals to obtain and maintain good standing in the sight of God (as well as to receive salvation). Despite the radicalness of this idea of being a living sacrifice, Paul tried to be as clear in his reasons as he could be, so that his fellow Christians would be living as Christ wished and intended them to live.

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  8. If we look at the context, Paul has just described how through the Jews fall salvation has come to the Gentiles 11:11, but that they should not be highminded but fear 11:19-22. Because of all he has just described, (all glory is His) by the great mercy the Lord has given, the reasonable service in response is to give all of your life to Him. ch 12 further describes specifics of what Paul means in relation to one another, 13 how to conduct oneself related to those with authority. 14 is full of specifics as to how to co-exist with saints where the Jewish saints are still subject to Jewish laws as Jews-eg observing Passover. Here is where Paul is adding his knowledge in how they are one church yet distinctions(commands given to Gentiles were only what was necessary in Acts 15:19,20.
    15:1-3-even Christ pleased not Himself, but suffered persecution for doing the will of the Father.
    The unitedness of the saints both Jews and Gentiles saying the same thing, loving one another in this self-sacrificing way, manifesting the sign gifts, was radical to all the worlds around them.
    side note: *12:12-indicates Paul is thinking the Day of the Lord is imminent, likewise, 16:20

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  9. By reading and discerning Paul’s language about being a “living sacrifice” it is good to note that his teaching to the Roman church was radical and strange. Christianity, in general, was a radical religious movement that many were uncertain about due to their upbringing in either Judaism or other pagan worship (Greco-Roman religions). So as Paul mentions that we are living sacrifices, it is bizarre to most. I can see why theology like Kiuchi’s is forced because we try to redefine these crazy truths by including things during that time to have it make sense. I think most people have the desire to normalize crazy statements into a concept that makes sense during that time. Kiuchi’s take from Jewish literature should not be totally disregarded, however, it seems to be clear that the concept of “living sacrifice” is a great metaphor for what Christ did and where we stand in that. This is our call to worship God as other’s do, however, we do this in our own temples and not man-made temples (1 Corinthians 6:19). Our body is the temple. Much of what Paul writes pertaining to this concept is radical and new to the world.

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  10. The term “living sacrifice” presents itself as an oxymoron. As Long explained, people in Biblical times sacrificed animals to their gods as a part of a religious ritual. With that in mind then, both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians would find that this notion to be a living breathing sacrifice crazy sounding. It would be less so for the Jews since they would have understood the “scapegoat” imagery if that is in fact what verse 1 alludes to according to Kiuchi. For the Jewish Christian, they could potentially compare their life style to the characteristics of a sacrificial goat to figure out how they would accomplish this “living sacrifice” objective. A sacrificial goat was without defect or blemish. For the Christians then, they could understand this as not participating in pagan traditions as their neighbors would. Because of Paul’s command, they could no longer live the way of a pagan Roman. In doing so, they could live as a “living sacrifice”, holy and acceptable. Of course no non-divine human can live perfectly. However, the Apostle Paul presents in verse 1 a high standard that Christians are to attempt to live up to. To behave differently in a culture saturated by pagan practices and rituals is daring. To reject sacrifices not only to the pagan idols but also to Yahweh would seem disrespectful to both the Jew and the Roman. Being different from society is incredibly difficult to do, but it is what God called the Roman Christians to do and it is what He calls modern Christians to do as well.

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  11. Being a “living sacrifice” for Christ in our day and age currently looks a lot different from what it did back in the day. We are no longer required to offer an animal sacrifice to God, because Jesus was sent as the ultimate and perfect sacrifice for everyone. To be a living sacrifice today means giving up your selfish wants and desires, living for God and sacrificing for Him and others. We are to live in service as Jesus came to the world to serve and not to be served (Mathew 20:28). Moo explains the importance of serving Christ on page 163. Through Moo’s words and examples, we are encouraged to follow this higher calling and live out our lives in as sacrifices. Romans 15: 1-3 tells us that Jesus suffered through persecution for doing the will of the Father. His example is powerful to say the least. As Christians today we do not suffer near as much or as badly as Christians before us have. We have it so incredibly easy, yet we act as if we have no time, no energy and are being persecuted. We continually make excuses as to why we cannot be “living sacrifices.” In all honesty, if we would just stop complaining and being so self-focused and followed what the Bible says and what we are called to do, we would experience so much peace and fulfillment.

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