Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
These verses are familiar to anyone who has studied the Bible for any length of time. We recite them as children and catch a twinge of guilt whenever we're reminded of them. But what do they mean? First off, a look at the words.
— The end of Romans 11 talks about the relationship between the Gentile Roman Christians and the ethnic and religious Jews. Salvation came from the Jews in the person of Jesus. They rejected Christ and were under a "partial hardening" (Romans 11:25), which blinded many of them to the truth about Jesus being the Messiah. The reason given for the hardening is so that the "fullness of the Gentiles" would have the opportunity to learn about and accept Christ. The Jews were supposed to accept Christ and tell the world about Him. Instead, they rejected Him. But God's plan would not be thwarted; He can take our sin and redeem the situation. So He took the Jews' rejection and used it to carry out His plan, anyway.
Romans 11:28-32 says that this dichotomy between disobedience and grace is a long-running theme throughout history. Both the Jews and the Gentiles go back and forth between rejecting God and receiving His mercy. The ultimate result will be "mercy on all" (Romans 11:32).
Romans 11:33-36 quotes Isaiah and Job in exalting God's inscrutability and then acknowledges that He is the source of this crazy plan.
— because of the history of God working in the world, responding to disobedience with grace and rejection with salvation — we should do the rest of the stuff in Romans 12:1-2. And even this is only possible "by the mercies of God."
— We've been taught in Sunday school that mercy
is not getting the punishment you deserve. The Greek oiktirmos
seems to have an even more emotional side to it. It includes the compassion, deep in the bowels, that drives pity. Our disobedience has made us so pathetic, that it is only through pity that God can save us.
— The Greek paristemi
, has a few subtle shades. It can mean to provide, to stand beside, to place at someone else's disposal. Considering the body is being offered as a sacrifice, the latter would be the closest meaning.
— The Greek for "body," or soma
means what you would expect — the physical body of a person or a "body" as in a group, as in the church. But more Platonically, it means "that which casts a shadow as distinguished from the shadow itself." In Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," this would mean the true object, and not the shadows or poor reproductions that we see every day. But it could mean that we are to present ourselves and not just the result of our ourselves. Meaning, we are to give our very identities and not just the results of our labor. God wants all of us, not just our work.
— There are three words for "life"
in Greek. Bios
is the physical body and psuche
is the mind, emotion, and will, but zoe
is used here. It's vitality. It's the life
God gives us through Christ. It is blessed and active and eternal. The sacrifice of our being isn't passive; it's like a rushing river.
— "Holy," or hagios
, is described in Laurel Davis's recent article
...clean, good, pure, godly, sacred, sanctified (set apart). In the general sense, a synonym for "holy" is "moral," and in the strictest, biblical sense it describes an attitude and corresponding behavior — that's character — that show reverence toward God and respect for His moral standards.
She points out that holiness is something we aspire to, as opposed to "righteousness," which is only endowed by God.
— Although the English word "sacrifice" has a root in the Latin for "sacred," the Greek thusia
is all about death. The root thuo
means to immolate, slay, kill, and/or slaughter.
— "Acceptable" is the Greek euarestos
, which can mean acceptable or well pleasing. One of the word's roots is found in Matthew 25:21's "Well done
, good and faithful servant..." Jesus used the other root in John 8:29 when He said, "I always do the things that are pleasing
" to God. So, for those who wish to hear God praise their service to Him, "acceptable" is kind of a tame translation. Euarestos
is the best we can ever hope to do.
— When we think of "spiritual," we usually think of other-worldly. But the Greek logikos
is related to both logos
and our "logic." The word implies that the spiritual side of life is logical and makes sense, contrary to how modern culture may insist. It is only logical in God's point of view to serve God in this way. Douglas J. Moo in The NIV Application Commentary
says it probably means "informed" or "understanding." So that this act worship is something we've thought about, mulled over, and deliberately chosen.
Service of Worship
— In the Greek, "service of worship" is one word: latreia
. It is a service for hire which, when it is God Who is being served, has a sacred or set-apart tint to it. It applied to the work that the priests did in the Temple.
With all of this mess, Romans 12:1 could be interpreted to say:
Because of the pity God shows us in our constant cycle of disobedience and grace, we should place our life, our life's work, our identity, at the disposal of God, for Him to use as He sees fit. The well-informed and deliberate sacrifice of any right to our being is the best and most logical way we can set ourselves apart from the world for the service of God.
— There is a dry definition for "conform" (suschematizo
), but when I think of the word, I think of the meme going around proving that cats are liquid. Have you seen them? There's a kitten in a wine glass, a Persian in a pickle jar, and a pair smooshed into one vase. My favorite may be the cat in a violin case. That's what we tend to do — smoosh, stuff, and contort ourselves into whatever the world tells us is right.
— The "world" is actually aion
, from which we get eon. It means the age, as in the culture, that we live in, but it has a sense of a very long time. So it's not just 20th century culture that we need to reject, it's the entire cultural history of humanity. There is nothing of any human culture that we should seek to emulate. Not that we can't like superheroes or football or Downton Abbey
. Just that we shouldn't value vile things, and we shouldn't raise tame things to the level of idolatry.
— Instead of stuffing ourselves into a box, sink, or vase and pretending we fit, we are called to "transform," or metaorphoo
. We are to change to a form that is not native to the world. It's actually the same word used when Jesus was "transfigured."
— How? By "renewal" (anakainosis
) of our "minds" (nous
). We are to change our way of thinking and our point of view and our paradigms to those that are held by God. Our reason and perception should be changed so that they no longer reflect the human cultures of the ages, but mirror the truth that only God can see. It helps that the spiritual of God is also logikos
— the logical truth.
Prove the Will of God
— It is only when we have the perspective of God that we can analyze the situation and "prove" (dokimazo
) what He wants us to do about it (thelema
). This isn't an uncommon situation. If I asked someone to get me some milk, they might consider that they know I try to eat fairly healthfully and show up with a carton of skim. If I tell my husband, who knows much more about me, he'll get a box of rice milk, because he perceives me enough to know it's the only type of milk I'm not allergic to.
— "Good," or agathos
, is a little different from euarestos
(which directly follows it), in that it reflects the innate character of the thing as opposed to how another perceives it. God's will is not only pleasing, it is inherently good in its core nature.
— God's will is also "perfect" (teleios
). It requires nothing else to be complete. There is nothing that can be added to it to make it better.
Romans 12:2, then, says:
Don't mold yourself into an unnatural form in order to fit in with human culture. Grow to be completely changed in your very nature by learning, understanding, and adopting God's point of view which is actually based on reality. If you see things as God does, you'll be able to understand what He would want you to do about it. And that plan He has for you is always good in general, good for you, and absolutely complete.
So what does Romans 12:1-2 mean? It's the story of a person who realizes that even her best efforts can only ever hope to elicit pity from God because her attempts at obedience are so transitory and pathetic. Not due to anything she can offer but only by God's continual acts of mercy in her life, she considers her options and chooses to give herself — heart, body, soul, will, and work — to God to use as His logical will dictates. She rejects the influence of human wisdom and culture to mold her into something unnatural, and instead accepts that God's wisdom is best because He knows all and perceives reality accurately. This change in her point of view elicits a change her nature and allows her to see what part she has in God's plan. And it assures her that this plan, which looks like foolishness to the world, is the best possible option in all of creation.