Romans 12:1 “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.”
In this and the succeeding chapters we are going to learn from Paul, the apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, what it means to live the Christian life, one accepted and blessed by God.
- THIS LETTER WAS ADDRESSED TO A SPECIFIC GROUP OF PEOPLE
This great letter was written by the apostle Paul to Rome. It was not written to all the citizens who lived in that vast city. It was not written to Nero or to the Caesars and the governing classes. Its recipients were not the poets and philosophers and lawyers of the empire. If it had been addressed to them then it would be of no relevance to us. We’d be reading someone else’s correspondence. Then to whom is this letter written? There are two clues to the recipients of this letter in our text which encourage those of us who live far from Rome and many centuries later to read it and to be encouraged and edified by what it says.
i] Firstly, it was written to those Paul addresses as his ‘brothers’. In other words this letter was addressed to those who belong to the family of faith, to the children of God, to those who had received Christ and thus had been given the privilege of being adopted into the family of God. They were brothers and sisters in God’s household. In other words, this letter had a very definitive, limited constituency; it had not been sent to every Roman citizen but to the church of Jesus Christ.
ii] Secondly, it was written to those who had received God’s mercy. The readers were people who were conscious that they hadn’t lived as they should have lived. They had broken God’s commandments. They came under his condemnation quite fairly and justly, but Almighty God was exceedingly gracious and instead of condemnation he had shown his mercy towards them. He forgave them their sins; he pardoned every one of these his children. How could he do that and remain a God who is light, a sin-hating and perfect and just Lord? In the first eleven chapters of this letter the apostle has expounded the mercy of God in great and glorious detail. God sent his Son, Jesus Christ to seek and save guilty sinners. He had been the one who lived the blameless obedient life that they had failed to live, fulfilling all the righteous demands of the law in their place. Then on the cross he bore the judgment of the broken law. He crossed out the black lines of our sin with the red lines of his own blood. He had done this in his body and soul. Remember that the Son of God had taken an actual body, and had been nailed with actual iron nails to an actual cross. He shed actual blood and finally ceased breathing, and he actually died. His dead body was laid in an actual tomb. This was followed three days later by an actual resurrection. Do you think it incredible that God should raise the dead? Thus the world can know an actual atonement had been made, such an atonement that has totally succeeded in satisfying the justice of God. Horatius Bonar put it like this;
I hear the words of love; I gaze upon the blood,
I see the mighty sacrifice, And I have peace with God.
Mercy to guilty sinners by the blood of Christ – that is the message of the Christian faith. It is not an arm of Christian truth, it is the heart of it, it is the brain and the spinal cord of it; it is the soul of Christianity. Think of it, that out of the wealth of his resources God chose to pay debts which were no concern of his. He had no obligation to cancel our debts, and yet he did that, but more than that, he liquidated our debts. They are all gone. Sinners have no need to pay a penny more than the price Christ paid. Jesus paid it all. The price he paid was not his blood; it was not his obedience; it was not his death. The price he paid was himself. He offered himself without spot to God, and this is what Paul has been explaining in the first eleven chapters of this letter. That is the ‘view’ of God’s mercy he has been giving us, and that is what this word ‘therefore’ is there for at the beginning of this twelfth chapter, to make us look back and appreciate that our salvation is mercy all, immense and free. So this letter was written to Paul’s brothers, to men and women who have received the mercy of God, and so we may read it today and profit from it.
- THOUGH TRUE CHRISTIANS THEY NEEDED TO BE IMPLORED.
One of the great fallacies in the evangelical church today is that all those who’ve had the second blessing are living victoriously. For them the Christian life is a piece of cake. They are cruising along the path to heaven. They’ve had the baptism of the Spirit or whatever and so what need do they have of being ‘urged’ to live a God-honouring life? They have no need to be beseeched and pleaded with to live a different kind of life. They will do it automatically and instinctively, it is suggested. They possess the fulness of the Spirit and so they will be freely offering their bodies to God as living sacrifices without any need of a preacher’s pressure and pleading. They have no need of a searching, solemn ministry. They have transcended all of that. What folly!
Are these people wiser than the inspired apostle Paul ands holier than first century Christians? Do they think their hunches and feelings are going to keep them invariably on the narrow path that leads to life? Do they imagine that all they need is a little fine tuning each Sunday, some specially singable songs for thirty minutes to be followed in the sermon with no exhortations to mortification, to pluck out the right eye if it is offending them, or to cut off the right hand? Do they dream that they have no need to be exhorted to look unto Jesus and to lay aside every weight even the sins that so easily beset them because they have been baptized in the Spirit? Are those their fantasies, that they’ll never need to be challenged as to whether they are taking up their cross and denying themselves and following Jesus, as Spirit-filled men and women? But Paul did not think as they do. When he explained to them the Christian ethic, that is, the implications of receiving the mercy of God, he actually urged them to live in this new way. In other words, he exhorted them with many an earnest appeal to live consistently with the gospel they’d received. What we have here is urgency. There is a note of authority summoning Christian men and women to be changing their lives. Paul is not wringing his hands pleading for a favour. He is not suggesting that . . . “it would be just great if some of you could consider become holier, more god-like people.” He is insisting that they all take this exhortation very seriously. Any teaching or form of worship that suggests anything else or weakens the pleading authority of New Testament preachers is to be deplored and changed or shunned. They were living in times of great growth and revival, but they still needed to be exhorted to live holier lives. They had a letter fresh from the pen of the apostle Paul, but they still need to be urged to live elevated and noble lives.
- PAUL’S APPEAL WAS FOCUSED ON THEIR BODIES.
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies . . .” (v.1). The apostle’s first practical exhortation of these next five chapters deals with the human body. It is not that the word ‘body’ is being used to represent the whole person so that the real meaning is ‘present you persons.’ No. There is no warrant for us to dilute the plain meaning of this word by use of a figure of speech. From all his usage of this word elsewhere – I counted fifteen such examples – Paul is referring to our physical bodies. How important the body was in the esteem of Paul. How significant in the work of redemption is the consecration of our bodies to the living God. How different is Christianity from the tendency of the Greeks to depreciate the body and emphasize just the soul. How different from all those people today who talk of their commitment to what they call ‘spirituality’ when they disregard what God says about how we are to use our bodies. True spirituality centres on how we use our bodies.
When man was first created great attention was focused on the body that God prepared for him which God pronounced as “very good”. I don’t simply possess a body as something incidental to the real me. I am body, and I am soul or spirit. When I pray in the mornings my body prays as well as my spirit. I don’t push my spirit out of bed to pray while my body continues to snooze. I pray, body and spirit. I have an obligation to look after my body; I wash it, and check it out for any signs of wear and tear. I splash lotions and potions and deodorant and after-shave on it, but I also know that this body that I care for is going to die. Worms are going to devour my body from the inside and outside. The wages of sin is death, but my great hope is that as Jesus bodily rose from the dead he did so as the first fruits of them that slept, and because he lives I shall live also. “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 15:51-57).
Rome was like the western world today wallowing in every kind of indulgence of vice associated with the body. In some ways it is more dangerous with us today in that vice has now entered every home by the world wide web. The craving for the urges and desires of the body to be satisfied was everywhere in Rome even as it is everywhere in Wales today. Paul was a realist. If the Christian faith did not affect how men and women behaved regarding their bodies then the claims that Jesus Christ saved and changed people for the better, totally and completely, could be discarded. If Christianity were simply a philosophy or a form of meditation to attain tranquility then how Christians lived wouldn’t matter very much. Christianity could then be another form of Buddhism, but Paul is beseeching these Christians to take very seriously what he says about the use of their bodies.
We teach our children from the youngest age that God expects them to glorify him in their bodies. One day we hope that our children’s bodies will be temples of the Holy Ghost, that God the Spirit will take up his residence within them, that he will visit them in regenerating power and energy giving them another birth and make them new creations. We pray that he will enable them to yield the members of their bodies as instruments of righteousness to God. We long for their strength, stamina, and resilience to be dedicated to God’s glory, and so every parent has a concern for the physical side of his child’s development. What is more important than to instill into children a correct attitude to their bodies. What is a child’s attitude going to be? Is it going to be ashamed of its body, immodest about its body, or prudish? Will it be pensive about its body, or pamper it, or discipline it? Will it harm its own body, or at the other extreme, idolize it? Will it care for its body?
We are surrounded by hideous influences that say, “If your body has certain appetites and hungers and desires then all that is simply natural. Go ahead! Satisfy them! If you like the taste drink it. If you like to enter the dream world then smoke it. If you like the buzz then snort it. If you like the ecstasy then swallow it. If you like the mood change inject it. If a person likes it, that is the single criterion that matters. Go on! Do it! If both persons like it then let them both do it.” The only ethical guideline they have is this, “Does it do anything for you?” That attitude dominates our culture, but the word of God stands over such hedonism and indulgence. It says certain experiences might very well seem beautiful to you, but self denial and cross bearing are more beautiful. It says, “Glorify God with your bodies.” Serve him cheerfully with your energy at every age from the dash of youth to the more sedate pace of old age. Satisfy your bodies in the God-designed manner and you will learn solid joy and lasting pleasure. Maintain purity before marriage and faithfulness within it. We have to answer at the judgment day for the deeds done in the body. Make sure your body is the temple of the Spirit.
- WE ARE TO PRESENT OUR BODIES AS A LIVING SACRIFICE.
The language is of a sacrificial ritual well known to the Jews and well known to the pagans too. They brought an offering to their god, perhaps in thankfulness for mercies received, children born, husbands returned from a sea voyage, recovery from sickness, or they brought an offering to propitiate their god for their bad behaviour. The offering was killed and its blood was poured on the flames of the altar. That is the familiar picture Paul is referring to, but there is this notable difference, that the human body is not presented to be slain. Paul’s words are, “as living sacrifices” (v.1). The body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling place of Christ is to be presented to God, constantly, day after day. John Stott describes his first action every morning as he rises presenting his arms to God, and his legs to God, and his mind to God and his affections to God. There is the constant dedication of our bodies to God while life and thought and being last or immortality endures. Every day I’m to present my body to him as a living sacrifice, may it be received by him, may it be blessed by him, may it be used by him, may it glorify him. I put myself on the altar to be dedicated to God.
I want my tongue to be used for God; “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephs. 4:29). I want my eyes to be used for God. I keep a covenant with them, what I look at. Will I lust and covet and fantasize through my eyes? Will I have a ‘single’ eye? I give my brain to God, what I think of, what I dwell upon. I want every thought to be captive to Jesus Christ. I want him to be lord over every single cel
l in my brain and all the trillions of connections in the brain. I don’t want there to be one connection that is not honouring to God in its use. I want my ears to be used for God so that I reject the tales that put down men and women and show disrespect to other people. I won’t be party to filthy conversation. There is music that is primitive and base; I won’t listen to it. My ears I present to the Lord. My affections are his; what I get excited about, what makes my heart beat faster, what I talk over with animation to my friends, the things I love and am delighted in, my enthusiasms, what I have to see and be a part of – these affections I give them to my Master. My loins and my sexuality, my hormones and drives, what distinguishes me as a man or a woman, my longings and desires for love and companionship and union with my wife or husband for the rest of my days – I give them to God. He is Lord over that entire area of life. I see how others have made a disaster of their lives and marriages because they have felt they were completely in charge of this, and could do as they would. No. This dimension of my life I have handed over to the Lord. It is for him; it is for his honour and glory. My belly; my enjoyment of good food and wine, my interest in certain cooking programmes, and famous TV cooks and their recipe books. What interest there is in all of this, in what shops sell the best foodstuffs and the cheapest, what we give to people who come to our house for a meal. Then there are the recommended diets, and there are the eating disorders. What a fascinating subject it all is, but I have given it all over to the Lord. I want to eat and drink to the glory of God. Then there are my legs and feet and whatever athletic or sporting skill I may have as a young person, and that is given to the Lord. I am saying that we can use our bodies in the service of our God and Saviour. Let our strength be used first of all in loving our neighbours as ourselves. Let our dexterity and co-ordination be given to love the Lord and in loving others more and more.
We are to continually present our bodies to the Lord, and that is our daily exercise. Think of an athlete in training. He or she will eat right, get to bed on time and take on the daily discipline of practice. Certain muscle groups will be worked on in thousands of repetitions till they have mass and flexibility. Certain moves will be practiced again and again till they become second nature. Each time the athlete trains he gets a little better. Each time she works out then some sloppy old habit dies a little and some disciplined new one begins to come to life. In other words, each training session causes a tiny conversion, but it is only after many seasons of such training that a person can perform skills by second nature. These mini-conversions repeated thousands of times add up to the changing of one’s life. A duffer becomes a disciplined athlete, and the Christian life is like that. We daily make that commitment; “I shall present every part of my body to the Lord today,” and as we do that it becomes second nature. Each time we bend our knees and pray, each time we open our mouths and speak a word of testimony, each time we pick up the towel and the basin of water and wash dirty feet our old self dies a little and our new self comes more to life. Add up all these mini-conversions across years of following Christ and you have a dedicated servant of God. A flabby and clumsy Christian becomes trim and graceful.
- OUR BODIES ARE TO BE HOLY AND PLEASING TO GOD.
The fundamental character of Christians is that they are holy people. They want to please God and they do so by living holy lives. Their bodies are holy to the Lord. Your body sends out signals. What you do to your body and what you wear (or don’t wear) sends a message. A girl who dresses like Britney Spears is sending the message, “I am a sex object. I follow Madonna, not the Bible.” The Bible says, “I want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety” (1 Timothy 2:9). A boy with jewelry or hair like a girl is sending the message, “I don’t know what I am, and I’d rather be a gender blender than obey the Bible.” In the Bible God not only opposes homosexual activity, he also opposes body language that blurs the created difference between male and female. In the Old Testament he says, “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord detests anyone who does this” (Deuteronomy 22:5). In the New Testament God insists that men and women honour the difference between the sexes even in their hairstyle or head covering (1 Corinthians 11:2-16).
Now, if your body sends signals by clothing and grooming, then making permanent modifications to your body with a scalpel sends an even stronger signal. When you do things to your body that have always marked pagans, you are sending the message that you favor paganism over Christianity. Even if you don’t intend to send that message, that’s what your body is saying.
The Bible teaches a different view of the body than pagans do, and God commands his people to treat their bodies in a holy way that pleases God. In the time of Moses, God commanded, “Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:27). God’s priests, especially, were not to cut their bodies (Leviticus 21:5). Centuries later the prophet Elijah had a showdown with the priests of an idol called Baal. As these pagan priests tried to get their idol’s attention and bring down his power, “they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until the blood flowed” (1 Kings 18:28). But the Lord’s prophet, Elijah, did no such thing. He didn’t need piercing, tattooing, or slashing. Elijah prayed by simply talking to God, and the Lord answered his prayer in a mighty way.
Moses told the people, “You are the children of the Lord your God. Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead, for you are a people holy to the Lord your God. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth, the Lord has chosen you to be his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2). So there were certain practices that pagan people did, shaving the front of their heads and cutting themselves when someone died. “Don’t do that to your bodies,” God said. Your bodies are holy to the Lord.
God takes body language seriously. He doesn’t want us to desecrate our bodies like idol worshipers. If you think body language doesn’t matter, you’re out of tune with God’s Word. Some church people looking for loopholes to allow body modification might emphasize Christian freedom. But the Bible says, “Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature” (Galatians 5:13). Some might say that times change and that some parts of the Bible address different cultural issues than we face today. Maybe so. We might not always know exactly how to apply a biblical rule in a new setting. But is this issue really unclear? Are paganism and perversion really so different today than in the ancient world? Does God now want us to imitate what pagans do to their bodies? Has God suddenly decided it’s time to blur the difference between Christians and unbelievers? I know one girl very well and when she first was contacted with the gospel she had a stud through her lip and another through her tongue. Then after a year or so she became a Christian and both the studs had gone. None of us ever mentioned to her that we were unhappy with these t
hings, but she came to believe that this was not helpful to her and her walk with God.
If you belong to Christ, all your body language ought to say that one message because it is the clearest and best message you have to give. The Bible says, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Your body is God’s creation to celebrate, not your own private object to manipulate. If you’re a Christian, your body is blood-bought by Jesus. The Holy Spirit lives in it as his temple. If your body is the Holy Spirit’s temple, then shine with his light. Don’t make God’s temple look like a copy of Satan’s temple.
Let your body language proclaim that you have received the mercy of God and are a child of the Father, purchased by the Christ the Son, filled with the Holy Spirit. Don’t just ask what God will let you get away. “Why can’t I have a tattoo?” Ask how you can best honour God with your body. If you look for loopholes in the Bible to let you do your own thing, you might say, “What’s wrong with it?” But ask instead, “What’s right with it?” Does body modification honour God and mark you as a holy follower of Jesus? If not, don’t do it. If the owner of the tattoo shop is reading this then I say to you to follow Christ, and obey the Lord, and sell your business and do something else with your life that is holy and pleasing to the Lord.
For some of you it’s too late. You hadn’t thought much about body language. You’ve had the surgery and the piercing and the tattoos. You weren’t really aware of the Bible’s call to honour God with your body, and you weren’t aware of the pagan meaning of body modification. Well, now you know, and if you love the Lord and believe the Bible, then honour God with your body from now on by offering it to him, holy and pleasing to him. Make sure your body language says that you belong to Christ and that his Spirit lives within you, and all the time grow in biblical teaching, correction, and training in this area of your life.
You have problems of self-identity. “Who am I?” The answer is in Jesus Christ the true and proper man. The answer is not to mutilate ourselves or try to remake our bodies. That’s the pagan answer to our need for atonement, but God’s life-giving answer to our need for atonement is the blood of Jesus Christ. He was pierced for our sins (Isaiah 53:5). Jesus’ blood poured out on the cross has the power to do what our own bleeding cannot do. His blood washes away sin as nothing else can. So don’t count on the pain of body modification or the blood of mutilation to deal with the guilt of your sin. Count on Christ. Believe in his blood. Count on his Holy Spirit to live in you and transform you by the power of God’s love.
Your body needs to be different, but not in the way that body modification makes it different. You don’t need to put new holes in your body. You don’t need to tattoo new designs on it. You don’t need to escape the gender you were born with. You don’t need to reinvent your body or take total control of your own body. How does your body need to be different? It needs to be holy to the Lord, well pleasing to him, ruled by God instead of Satan, devoted to holiness instead of wickedness. “Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness… For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:19,23).
There’s a huge difference between Christian baptism and pagan body modification, isn’t there? In baptism you are plunged under the waters as a statement of your being defiled but that Jesus Christ has washed and cleansed you of the guilt of sin. Baptism is painless and bloodless. Christ has already suffered on my behalf and provided the blood for my washing. I have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. My Father, the Creator, gave me a body that is wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). The Son, my Lord Jesus, paid for me, soul and body, by dying to pay for my sins. My Comforter, the Holy Spirit, lives inside me and makes my body his temple. My baptism seals these things without hurting or marring my body.
How much better are the wondrous ways of God than the cruel abuse of Satan! I want to take good care of my body and let the clean, healthy life of God shine through it. Why try to change the body my Father created for me? Why act as though my body is my own when Jesus bought and paid for it? Why deface the temple of the Holy Spirit who lives in me. Why let Satan mess me up, when I can enjoy the love and joy of Almighty God?
- OFFERING YOUR BODY TO GOD IS A TRUE ACT OF WORSHIP.
What does Paul say about offering your body to the Lord? “This is your spiritual act of worship.” This word ‘spiritual’ is used nowhere else by Paul, and is found only in one more place in the New Testament. Paul is talking of our whole life as an act of worship that we render to the Lord. Keith Underhill went to Kenya over forty years ago and for thirty-five he has been labouring there, traveling, thinking, speaking, serving God with his stamina and strength. On Sundays he worships God at both the services, but every day of the week, 24/7, his spiritual act of worship is to serve the Lord through everything he does in his body. It is not mechanical service he renders to God. It is not automatic. There was a lot of external ceremonial in heathen worship in Rome, but the Christian’s worship is not like that. It is rational; it is thoughtful; it is reasonable service. The spiritual worship that Keith gives to the Lord every day – the worship we all must give the Lord throughout all the hours of our brief lifetime – is conscious, intelligent, consecrated devotion to the service of our God in our bodies and through our bodies. When Jesus knelt down and washed the feet of his disciples that was a spiritual act of worship. When the apostles gave food to the Jerusalem widows that was a spiritual act of worship. But in every action we do to work for six days, to maintain our homes and families we are engaged if spiritual actions. We are worshipping God in these things. You know the hymn of George Herbert;
“Teach me, my God and King in all things Thee to see;
And what I do in anything, to do it unto Thee.
A servant with this clause makes drudgery divine;
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws makes that and the action fine.”
Christianity is a physical faith. It also involves the spirit realm, of course, but Christianity remains a very physical faith. This physical faith is grounded in our creation by God out of the dust of the earth, the incarnation of the Son of God as bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, and in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. God cares about the physical world and not just the spirit realm. Salvation is as big as creation itself. It touches not only spiritual attitudes such as kindness and mercy but also physical actions such as preparing food for a Fellowship Lunch and washing the dishes afterwards and stacking them in the cupboards.
Make drudgery divine by offering everything to God as your spiritual act of worship. I can say that our worship will continue in a short time in the Fellowship Lunch
19 January 2009 GEOFF THOMAS