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Romans 12:1-2 Biblical Commentary:
ROMANS 12:1-2. PRESENT YOUR BODIES A LIVING SACRIFICE
1Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable (Greek: euareston—well-pleasing) to God, which is your spiritual (Greek: logiken—rational, genuine, true) service (Greek: latreian—service). 2Don’t be conformed to this world (Greek: aioni—age), but be transformed (Greek: metamorphousthe) by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove (Greek: dokimazein—prove, test) what is the good, well-pleasing (Greek: euareston—well-pleasing), and perfect will of God.
These verses are densely packed, and require that we examine them phrase-by-phrase. If we will do that, this passage will reward us with one unexpected treasure after another—as if we were pulling a beautiful silk scarf from its container only to find another one behind it—and another, and another.
“Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God” (v. 1a). The word, “therefore,” links this chapter to what went before—namely, Paul’s treatise regarding God’s grace and our faith. The reader might have assumed that faith is the only required response to God’s mercy, although chapter 6 should have dispelled that notion. In that chapter Paul said, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? May it never be! We who died to sin, how could we live in it any longer?” (6:1-2). “Paul…does not know, and has also never approved of a justification which does not introduce and lead to a life of righteousness” (Peter Stuhlmacher, quoted in Talbert, 281). Now Paul re-emphasizes that our faith should issue forth in holy lives—that faith and faithfulness are forever linked. In this chapter, Paul offers practical counsel regarding faithful discipleship.
“to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable (euareston—well-pleasing) to God“ (v. 1b). There are two Greek words for body: (1) Sarx, often translated “flesh”and (2) soma. While the two are similar, sarx is the external, physical body that was seen as worldly and opposed to God. Soma is similar to sarx in many ways (physical, mortal, weak), but as Paul uses it in his epistles soma is not external to the person but is rather one aspect of the person, who is inited as body and spirit. This understanding reflects Paul’s Jewish background, which viewed the person holistically.
So Paul said, “Don’t let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey its lusts” (6:12). In his view, there is nothing incompatible in body and spirit. Both are important. Both are sacred. Both are essential to human life, and both are compatible with Christian discipleship and our relationship to God.
This understanding of the body is quite different from that of Greek dualism, influenced by Plato, which separated the world into its visible (physical, material) and invisible (spiritual) aspects. For the Greeks, the physical, material world was something to be endured until the soul could be freed of it. Greek dualists could never have suggested offering our bodies to God as a living sacrifice, because such an offering would be inherently unworthy of God.
Gnosticism was a form of Greek dualism that bedeviled the early church. Gnostics took Greek dualism one further step, saying that the physical material world was evil. They accordingly denied the incarnation and deity of Jesus.
“a living sacrifice” (v. 1b). Torah law required Jews to observe a complex system of animal sacrifices to atone for sin and to remind the people of the significance of their sins. Only animals without blemish were acceptable offerings (Leviticus 23:18).
The Christians in Rome to whom Paul is writing this epistle are for the most part Gentiles, and feel no obligation to offer animal sacrifices. Paul says, however, that they have a sacrificial obligation that, in fact, surpasses that of the animal sacrifices required by Torah law. Christians are not allowed to substitute an animal’s life for their own, but are instead required to sacrifice their own lives. The requirement, however, is no longer ritual slaughter, but is instead the presentation of the living person to God—a living sacrifice—a life dedicated to the service of God—a life committed to doing God’s will—a life lived in faith and lived out in faithfulness. They are to present their bodies for God’s purposes on Sunday in worship and on Monday in the workplace. There is no moment or circumstance in which the obligation does not apply. This is “the true sacrificial worship to which the cult of the Jerusalem Temple had all along pointed. Romans 12:1 does with temple worship, in other words, what 2:25-29 did with circumcision” (Wright, 704).
This living self-sacrifice, Paul declares, is “holy, acceptable (euareston well-pleasing) to God” (v. 1). Animal sacrifices were holy, because they required taking something precious (a life) and offering it to God. In our antiseptic world, where we buy meat shrink-wrapped from a refrigerated case, we must stretch to imagine what it must be like to raise an animal from birth—and then to see that animal slaughtered—and then to eat a portion of the meat as an act of worship. It had to be sobering—wrenching. To watch an animal die violently is repulsive, and the rendering process is even more so.
The slaughter of the animal reminded the person that, apart from the grace of God, it would be his/her life required on the altar. Now Paul tells Roman Christians that it is indeed their lives that are required, but not on the temple altar. Instead, they are to offer themselves as living sacrifices. Such sacrifices are holy and pleasing to God, even as animal sacrifices, offered in the right spirit, were holy and pleasing to God. Living sacrifices are holy in that they represent lives lived in accord with the will of God.
“which is your spiritual (logiken—rational, genuine, true) service” (latreian—service) (v. 1). The wordlogiken has a variety of meanings, and it would seem that Paul chose it for its breadth. To present our bodies to God as living sacrifices is, indeed, a spiritual act. To live lives dedicated to God’s service, whether as clergy or laity, is genuine worship—the logical outcome of a decision to follow Christ.
“Don’t be conformed to this world (aioni—age), but be transformed (metamorphousthe) by the renewing of your mind“ (v. 2). The word that is translated “conformed” has to do with conformation that is malleable—that can change from day to day or year to year. The person who is “conformed to this world (aioni)” is free to embrace the next popular philosophy or fad at will. Being “conformed to this world” is rather like being a leaf blown by the wind, never knowing exactly where you are going next—or why.
The word that is translated “transformed,” however, is quite different, and involves transformation at the core of one’s being (Barclay, 157-158 and Dunn). If being “conformed” would leave us adrift like a leaf, being “transformed” leaves us with feet on the ground—anchored—steady. Paul is calling us not to be caught up in every fad or wafted by every breeze, but instead to let the Spirit transform us at our core so that we can have a faith strong enough to maintain course in spite the winds of popular opinion.
What are the things of this age that mold and shape masses of people? They include popular culture, such as motion pictures, movies, music, and sports. They include popular philosophies, such as New Age and PC thinking. They include incentives to succeed, even at the expense of vulnerable people. They include racism, nationalism, sectarianism, and denominationalism—forces that teach that our tribe is good and other tribes are bad. There are surely many other examples of the things of this age that would mold us into shapes not suited for the kingdom of God. Meditate and see what comes to mind.
“but be transformed (metamorphousthe) by the renewing of your mind“ (v. 2b). In verse 1, Paul called us to give God our bodies. Now he calls us to give God our minds.
Metamorphousthe is the word from which we get our English word, metamorphosis. The example of metamorphosis that comes to mind is the caterpillar, which is transformed into a butterfly. For a time, it is one thing, but then it becomes, by the grace of God, a wholly different thing. The caterpillar is not beautiful, but the butterfly is. The caterpillar crawls, but the butterfly flies on gossamer wings. Gardeners don’t like caterpillars, but plant special plants to attract butterflies. So it is by the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit that we who were one thing (conformed to this age) can be transformed (metamorphosized) into something wholly different—people who are Godly and holy.
“but be transformed (metamorphousthe) by the renewing of your mind“ (v. 2b). Today, we would be more likely to speak of a “change of heart” than a renewal of the mind. Paul, however, calls us to permit the Spirit to transform our minds, knowing that the person who learns to think Godly thoughts will soon experience a changed heart as well. Godly thoughts transform every aspect of our being. As an example, the person who adopts Godly thinking often enjoys improved health, because he/she learns to regard his/her body as a temple of the Holy Spirit and is therefore more likely to treat his/her body with new respect. That is not to say that Christians do not engage in unhealthy practices, but the more Godly our thinking, the less likely we are to become victims of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, tobacco, promiscuous sex, workaholism, worry, and other unhealthy practices.
“so that you may prove (dokimazein—prove, test) what is the good, well-pleasing (euareston—well-pleasing), and perfect will of God “ (v. 2c). The renewing of our minds enables us to “discern the will of God” (v. 2). The world is full of people who assume that God’s will mirrors their own—people who try to force God into the mold of their own thinking. Republicans and Democrats alike assume that God endorses their respective party platforms. Denominations often assume that their particular slice of the church has discovered truths that make them superior to other Christians. But these are examples of the ways that we allow this age (aioni) to shape our thinking. If we are to discern God’s will, it will not be by trying to remake God in our own image—by having God conform to our prejudices—but by allowing the Spirit to renew our thinking—by becoming putty in God’s hands, so to speak—by allowing God to shape our thinking and our lives.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible: The Letter to the Romans, revised edition (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975)
Dunn, James D. G., Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8, Vol. 38A (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)
Morris, Leon, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1988)
Talbert, Charles H., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Romans (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2002)
Wright, N. Thomas, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
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