Sometime during his growing up years, son Nathan asked: “Why did people have to kill animals to make God happy?” I do not remember what I answered then, but I have thought about the question since. Recently, I have looked at the question of sacrifice in the Bible again. Due to the complications of the different types of sacrifices, especially in Leviticus, I decided to look at a reference to sacrifice in the New Testament and try to understand what I needed for living the Christian life. Romans 12:1 and following provides an opportunity to better understand sacrifice, at least, its implications for today. Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. (NIV).
Paul first reminds that we can enter God’s presence (that’s what a sacrifice helps us do) only because of “the mercies of God”. We can enter God’s presence, experience forgiveness and come to a right relationship with God only because of God’s “steadfast love”. What does Paul write elsewhere about God’s love and mercy? “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8). We have been brought into God’s presence through His love and mercy shown in Christ. In Romans 9-11 Paul writes of mercy and compassion, especially to Israel, but also to Gentiles as he explains how they can be part of the people of God. At one time, you Gentiles rejected God. But now Israel has rejected God, and you have been shown mercy. And because of the mercy shown to you, they will also be shown mercy. All people have disobeyed God, and that’s why he treats them as prisoners. But he does this, so that he can have mercy on all of them. Romans 11:30-32 (Contemporary English Version)
Several things I have learned that sacrifice is not: 1. A mechanical means of making God like us again. Sometimes we get the impression that the performance of a one of the sacrifices describe in Leviticus required God to be gracious to us again and that doing the sacrifice automatically turned on God’s grace. Hosea 6:6 says that God is interested in mercy, primarily. 2. Sacrifice is not about suffering (however much it “costs” to give one’s best animal), because in Jewish practice having a very sharp knife is important so that the animal does not suffer. 3. Sacrifice is not primarily about death. In the case of the grain offering which was burned, of course, that is evident. In the case of the “sin offering” ((Lev. 16) one of the two goats used was driven into the wilderness, rather than killed. In the peace or fellowship offering (Lev. 3), parts of the animal were burnt, but the rest eaten by the family and friends of the one offering the animal. In this case, the death of the animal was not much different from any other butchering of an animal. 4. Sacrifice is not the only or even the primary image or metaphor for the work of Jesus in life and death. What kind of sacrifice did Paul have in mind? Other terms used are reconciliation, fellowship/peace, purification and sin. Did he have a particular one in mind? What definition of ‘sacrifice’ did Paul have in mind when he wrote Romans 12? We know the purpose of the sacrifice was to bring reconciliation between God and humans (I prefer reconciliation to “atonement” which is used for reconciliation in some translations. The word “atonement” was coined in the 16th century and may not clearly translate the words ‘reconciliation’, ‘expiation’ and ‘propitiation’.) Leviticus, especially, provides many details about proper enactment of the worship service of sacrifice. Sacrifice, a reconciliation worship service, expects that repentance has already taken place, confirms forgiveness and restores the humans involved to the community of God. Also, participation in sacrifice carries with it the expectation that the participant will live his or her life according to the previously agreed upon covenant with God. Could Paul have been thinking this of sacrifice? It is a ‘worship service’ that affirms that we have repented (and are repenting of) our sins and are seeking forgiveness from God that confirms that we have been restored to membership in the family of God and will be living our lives according to God’s covenant. Not only that, but we will be living the kind of ‘sacrificial’ life that Jesus lived:
and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:2)
Paul tells us that our living sacrifice and reasonable worship will lead to being transformed by renewal. What does the Hebrew Bible Paul used tell us about sacrifice and covenant living?
“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Psalm 51:16-17. “With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:6-8: For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6) “When you offer me holocausts, I reject your oblations and refuse to look at your sacrifices of fattened cattle…but let justice flow like water and integrity like an unfailing stream.”(Amos 5:21,22,24 JB) For I did not speak with your fathers, Nor, did I command them in the day of My bringing them out of the land of Egypt, Concerning the matters of burnt-offering and sacrifice, Jer. 7:22 Young’s Literal Translation
Paul would have remembered these verses that point out that right relationship with God and living according to the covenant is more important than performing sacrifices. So, I find the slant that we get from Peterson makes this point.
So, here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life–your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life–and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. (The Message)
How we live our lives is determined by our “continuing gift” of our “reasonable worship” and also ourselves. (It has been helpful to me to substitute the words “continuing gift” for “living sacrifice” in Rm. 12. How does that help or hinder us in understanding Paul’s meaning?) Most commentaries note that the NIV translation “spiritual service” does not provide the most direct translation of the Greek word used here which is usually translated “logical” or reasonable. The “reasonable” translation connects to the word “mind” in the verse following. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. Rm. 12:2 (NIV) (Perhaps I should remind Nathan that a Sunday-morning-only faith comes under the same kind of censure that the prophets and Paul had for “sacrifices”.) Transformed living (spiritual service, nonconformity, reasonable worship), then, is the subject of Paul’s writings in Rm. 12:2 through 15:13. He writes about the variety of worship of God we should be doing from brotherly love to joyful hope to fervent prayer to making love, rather than government requirements our highest value.
Sacrifice and life
Paul understood, I believe, that dead sacrifices did not accomplish God’s purposes for humans. Animal sacrifice was not effective in helping God’s people live according to the covenant. The prophets realized that a new heart and mind were required. God’s love and mercy in sending us Jesus taught us that a “continuing gift” of oneself is what God desired. In Heb. 10:7-10 we are assured that doing God’s will is better than sacrifice. So, what should I have told Nathan about God and animal sacrifice? My current understanding is that God used what people were doing anyway (sacrificing humans, animals and grain is nearly universal) to prepare us to understand Jesus life, death and resurrection. I would remind him also, that there are five major metaphors or images used in scripture of give us a glimpse of what God has done in Christ. 1. Redemption (from the world of war and commerce), 2. Reconciliation (from world of personal relationships); 3. Sacrifice (from the world of religion and worship); 4. Victory (from the world of national/international relationships and the battlefield; and 5. Justification (from the world of law and the courts). None of these images is sufficient in itself to lead us to God or help us understand how becoming what God created us to be happens. Even if we understood all of these Biblical images, we would not fully comprehend “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”