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.

6 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. 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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  4. I particularly like your question P. Long, of how would someone living in the first generation go about living as a sacrifice compared to someone of today’s generation. someone of the that time would “practically be obeying God’s word and continue to be transformed” (TTP, p.188). In TTP (p.188), the authors reference Paul speaking to the Romans in chapter 1 about their dishonorable passions (Rom. 1:26) such as man committing sexual acts with man (Rom.1:27), filled with unrighteousness (Rom 1:29) and they would practice those evil things while being aware that they will die from it (Rom 1:32). With the sins of the Romans that Paul calls out in Chapter 1, I think that section can go with the metaphor of the two goats that the one living is the believer that is to turn from their sins and act from God’s grace through the sacrifice of His son Jesus. Those dishonorable passions were and are not pleasing to God, so Paul challenges them to be transformed by their faith in Christ and know what is pleasing to God.

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  5. The reference to Leviticus 16:10-22 by which Paul makes an analogy is a powerful concept to help us as believers to understand how they ought to live out life for Christ. P. Long’s blog helps us understand context and summarizes how, in Romans 12:1, Paul is making an illustration to how Christians ought to live. To comment on P. Long’s first question, Bruce Longenecker and Todd Still write on this question in their book Thinking Through Paul; A Survey of His Life, Letters, and Theology. They write that living as a holy and honorable sacrifice results in a pattern of life against that of sinfulness Paul outlined in Romans 1:18-32 (Longenecker, Still, Pg. 188). What it looks like for a Christian of the first century to live as a sacrifice for Christ is to not suppress the truth, to know God and to honor and thank Him. This is a radical analogy to first century Christians partly because of what P. Long notes in his last paragraph, that this is radical because Christians did not practice sacrifices because Christ died once and for all. this is also radical because, this they did not practice sacrifices, to live as a sacrifice is a new and odd concept to Christians of Paul’s day.

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