Not Slaughtered bulls or scorched grain: Sacrificial living according to Romans 12

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).

God’s Mercies

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)

Sacrifice

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)

Reasonable Worship

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)

Everyday worship

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.”

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Nothing separates us from God’s love

God has taken charge; from now on he has the last word.”  Ps. 22:28 (Message)

 

Psalms of lament usually begin with the psalmist’s declaration that he is in a really bad place.

Psalm 10

Why, Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you pay no attention during times of trouble?
The wicked arrogantly chase the oppressed;
the oppressed are trapped by the schemes the wicked have dreamed up.
Yes, the wicked man boasts because he gets what he wants;
the one who robs others curses and rejects the Lord.
The wicked man is so arrogant he always thinks,
“God won’t hold me accountable; he doesn’t care.

 

Other Psalms such as Psalm 34 and 69 have similar beginnings.  But, when we read a psalm, we have an expectation that things will change; that God has been present throughout the difficulties, that God will provide help. We read the whole Psalm to understand and interpret and understand the beginning of it.

The first words from Psalm 22 are much more familiar in the King James.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  What from this Psalm would Jesus have us understand?  On the cross, nailed in such a way that he could hardly breathe, he spoke no more than that first line.  Surely Jesus, just as the Psalmist, was speaking from his immediate pain and isolation.  Soon he would be thinking about remembered trust and confidence in God.  Had Jesus not been nailed to the cross in such a position, I believe he have quoted the whole psalm with the movement from a sense of distance from God to full confidence that God was with him.  Consider the context of the scripture to see if there is support for this view.

Context is everything:

An insurance company’s lawyer was questioning an old farmer in court.  The company did not want to pay his claims for injuries. These occurred when their client ran a stop sign and hit the farmer’s trailer that contained his favorite mule.

Lawyer: “Didn’t you tell the police officer “I fine” when he arrived?

Farmer:  Well, that morning I loaded Old Bessie into the trailer and started down the road.  Hadn’t gotten far . . .

Lawyer (interrupting): “Just answer the question.  Did you say, “I’m fine”?

Farmer:  I loaded old Bessie into the trailer  … .

Lawyer:  Just answer the question.  Judge, please instruct the witness to answer.”

Judge:  Why don’t we let the witness continue?  I want to hear what he has to say.

Farmer:  I had Old Bessie in the trailer and we were driving down the road to the vet’s when this red car came zipping through the stop sign and hit the truck and trailer.  I was trying to get out of the truck to check on Bessie who I heard moanin’ and groanin’.  I was afraid she was a goner.

About that time a trooper came up and saw Bessie was a goner so he pulled out his gun and shot Bessie.  I was still trying to clear my head and get over to Bessie when the trooper came up to me with his gun still in his hand.  He said, Hey, old guy, how are you doin’?

I said: “I’m fine, I’m fine”!

Context!

Jesus’ Context:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  So, what is the context?

I think there are three parts to the context.  First, is Jesus’ situation.  Nearly all the disciples have deserted him.  Jesus has pressure on his lungs due to the pull of his arms from his nailed hands.  He feels the burden of the sins of people of all ages have put him on the cross.  As a loving son, he asks John to take care of his mother, Mary.  Jesus knows that like in the parable of the tenants (Matthew 21:28-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19) we have tried to put ourselves in God’s place.  But, as the loving Jesus still speaks words of forgiveness to the criminal crucified with him.  He includes us in the words “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”  We were forgiven, not because Jesus was “forsaken”, but because Jesus interceded with a loving God on our behalf.  A contemporary Christian song include the words “the Father turned his face away”.  Another contains the words “The wrath of God was satisfied when Jesus died”. *  Where do those phrases come from in scripture?  Doesn’t scripture say that God wants to forgive?  How can one say that God deserted Jesus without saying that the Trinity was split apart?  When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing” he clearly assumes his role as our intercessor in the model of Moses and Ezekiel.  After the resurrection, Jesus would be seated at God’s right hand to continue that intercessory role.  Finally, Jesus concludes with a commitment to the Father.   “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

That is the immediate context.

Context of the original words

Psalms of lament like Psalm 22 frequently begin with the psalmist in a bad way.  Awake! Why are you asleep, O Lord? (Psalm 44:24) “You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.” (Psalm 88:6)  Do we conclude that is the whole truth about the Psalmist?  What is the usual way of interpreting a Psalm of lament?  “Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.”  Psalm 69:20.  Would Jesus use the first words of Psalm 22 in a way to contradict the later verses?

Then look at the context of the words Jesus quotes from Psalm 22, especially the latter part of the Psalm.

28 God has taken charge;
from now on he has the last word.

29 All the power-mongers are before him
—worshiping!
All the poor and powerless, too
—worshiping!
Along with those who never got it together
—worshiping!

30-31 Our children and their children
will get in on this
As the word is passed along
from parent to child.
Babies not yet conceived
will hear the good news—
that God does what he says.

Psalm 22, The Message

 

Broader Biblical context

Several passages in John tell us that Jesus and the Father are one.  Especially note John 10:30 and John 16:32. Jesus speaks further of this identity in John 17.    Paul understood what Jesus meant when he wrote: “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.”  God was present with Jesus in his hour of deepest need.  This text, for me, does not say Jesus was forsaken and condemned that I might be forgiven and accepted.2  Therefore we can be confident that God will be with us when we experience great need.  Surely, in this hour, Jesus temptation to despair was greater than any we can experience. The writer of Hebrews assures us, that Jesus was “tempted in every way as we are”.   Did Paul think about Jesus at the cross when he wrote these words?

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39 NET

How do we embrace the whole of the Psalm in our understanding?  I would like to believe that Jesus, with the Psalmist would affirm:

God has taken charge;
from now on he has the last word. Psalm 22:28

 

 

*Michael Card, “Love crucified alone”;  Stuart Townsend, “How deep the Father’s Love”.  Other similar:  Natalie Grant, In Christ Alone; Chris Tomlin:  “You Are My King” 2I’m forgiven because you were forsaken” These songs do an excellent job with most of the Gospel story.  But they obscure an important part:  God was always reconciled to us, God always wanted to forgive us and God always wanted to restore us.  It is we as humans that need to change and be changed. I am still working out the implications of this.  Our understanding of God and how he forgives and restores leads to important actions.  Believing in a punishing God leads to sentences for persons guilty of crimes that feature jail first, rather than restorative justice; solitary confinement rather than opportunities for education and improvement; and capital punishment rather than compassionate care.  I am still thinking through this aspect of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

My thinking on this topic was shaped by reading Darren Belousek, Atonement, Justice and Peace.  Any confusion is mine.

 

Other scriptures to consider:

“When you all run away from me and leave me alone, I won’t be alone, because My Father is with me.” (John 16:32).

Corporate Lament

  • Examples include: Psalms 12, 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90, 94, 123, 126, 129

Personal Lament  (these psalms fit more than one category)

  • Examples include: Psalms 3, 4, 5, 7, 9-10, 13, 14, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27*, 28, 31, 36*, 39, 40:12-17, 41, 42-43, 52*, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 64, 69, 70, 71, 77, 86, 89*, 120, 139, 141, 142