For hundreds years now, many of us have read the New Testament letters for personal spiritual formation, to help us learn how do better as individuals. What if that was never the goal?
What if the NT letters were written primarily to teach us how to be better communities, how to live together as human beings on God’s earth? How would we see them differently if that was our goal?
Okay, let’s try this with a familiar favourite:
Romans 12 (NIV) 1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship.
All my life, I’ve heard preachers telling me to offer my body as a living sacrifice because that’s how I please God. That’s not what Paul wrote at all.
These are not instructions for an individual seeking spiritual enlightenment. These are communal instructions. It’s addressed to a church. The you is plural. He spells it out: “brothers and sisters” (adelphoi). It’s about being family.
Read carefully: he asks us (plural) to offer our bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular). The picture is not of each individual presenting their own body as a separate sacrifice. It’s about us forming something together that we offer to God as a corporate living sacrifice. How do we do that?
Asking communal questions
To make sense of Paul’s picture, we need to start with the people Paul wrote this to. When we know what this would have meant to them, we can understand what it could mean to us.
Paul knew the church in Rome was a blended family. There were Jews who had known the God of Jacob and treasured the Scriptures for generations. Naturally they would have taken leadership in the church. But the Jews ran into political problems and were expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius around AD 50 (Acts 18:2). As they gradually returned, they discovered that gentiles had coped without them and were not keen to hand control back. The Jew/gentile divide was the simmering pastoral issue.
Paul opens his letter by presenting Jesus as the Jewish Messiah (“son of David”) appointed to bring the nations (gentiles) back under God’s reign (Romans 1:1-7). The Jews were the older brother in this family since God gave them the message first (1:16), at a time when the nations were still far from God (1:18-32). But the Jews were disobedient too (2), so humanity is rescued only through the persistent faithfulness of the heavenly sovereign (3). God has been faithful to Abraham (4) and to Adamic humanity (5). He has given us a new exodus (6), a liberation more powerful than the Sinai law covenant (7). He has adopted us as sons of the one Father, in the Messiah, through the Spirit (8).
The gnarly issue of the relationship between Jews and gentiles is explicitly addressed in chapters 9–11. Then the rest of the letter is devoted to the practical issue of how they can live together as one family under God (12–16).
That’s a huge ask! In addressing this mixed mob as “brothers and sisters,” Paul is asking them to treat each other as family — descendants of Abraham, sons of one Father, heirs of the same promises.
That’s not just theory. Imagine their horror when Paul suggests the gentiles join in offering a sacrifice! Any gentile who tried that at the Jerusalem temple would be sacrificed alright — by the temple guards!
For Jewish people, the sacrifices at the Jerusalem temple made the nation pure, and an impure sacrifice defiled the people (or at least defiled the priests offering it). And yet, Paul asked the Jews and gentiles to bring their bodies and offer them together as a single sacrifice for God. It’s precisely because this might sound like a mongrel unclean sacrifice that Paul must declare it is “holy and acceptable to God.”
Paul says this blended sacrifice — bodies of Jews and gentiles together as one sacrifice — is their “logical worship.” Why so? We offer our bodies as a living sacrifice when we give up what marks us off from others, when we are formed into one community that lives in the service of the one true God. That’s the logical response to the good news that our eternal sovereign has created one new humanity in the Jewish Messiah. It’s what we can offer as worship.
The Jew/gentile divide isn’t the main issue we struggle with today when it comes to offering ourselves together as a communal sacrificial gift to God. The main issue is our individuality. In our culture, I want the freedom to be my own individual self. No one else will define me or tell me what to do. So when Paul says, “Give yourselves as a communal sacrifice,” we react before we even understand.
God is in the process of restoring the divided and warring world into a respectful and caring community under the governance of Jesus our Lord. It’s what Jesus called the kingdom of God. He is king by God’s decree. We are his kingdom. King and kingdom are inseparable: there is no king apart from his kingdom, and there is no kingdom apart from the king. The king’s character is revealed in his kingdom, and the kingdom’s character reveals their king.
So, as the people of King Jesus, we are called to offer our individual beings (our bodies) together as a sacrificial community. That’s the logical response to what our king did for us: he offered himself sacrificially to establish this community.
The English word “worship” is literally worth-ship. How do we show the worth of our self-giving king? By responding to him as he did to us: he presented his body as a sacrifice for us. But we don’t serve a dead king. He offered himself as a “holy and acceptable” sacrifice, and he was raised out of death, to the throne. He is the “living sacrifice” — the one who became king not by grasping for power, but by trusting himself into his Father’s hands.
We who follow King Jesus are called to take his approach. We no longer fight for power; we lay down our power and give ourselves sacrificially, for the sake of the world that belongs under Jesus’ kingship. This lifestyle characterizes the kingdom of God, because this lifestyle characterizes our king. We are a living sacrifice only because we participate in the life of our king. It is in the Messiah we live; it’s no longer the individual I living for myself; it is the life of the Messiah permeating us, making us alive in him — a living sacrifice.
As we offer our bodies to him just as he did for us, we together are a living sacrifice, a sacrificial community brought to life by the resurrection life of the Messiah who lives in us. That Christ-enlivened community is the undoing of death at Eden: it is holy and acceptable to God.
That’s what we offer to God as worship, the logical response to what King Jesus has done to restore us by the mercies of our eternal sovereign.
So what does it look like to live as this kind of God-honouring rather than self-serving community? That’s precisely what Paul tells us in the rest of his letter (Romans 12–16).
[next: How a new mind transforms the world (Rom. 12:2)]