Rightly Dividing — “Service” in Romans 12:1

A week ago, I started a new sermon series.  One of the most commonly preached verses in the Bible is Romans 12:1, which tells us to be “living sacrifices”.  This sermon series will be focused largely on the succeeding verses, which deals with some specific aspects of being a “living sacrifice”.

I’ve preached on Romans 12:1 before, and heard a lot of sermons on it, but something always bothered me.  Let’s look at verse one:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

What bothered me?  “Therefore.”  Obviously, the verse is building on what has come before, but I’ve never really felt I had a grip on how.

You might say, “What’s wrong with you, Jon?  It’s obvious.  Romans is about the Gospel.  He’s given the doctrines of the Gospel, salvation by faith, and now Paul is challenging believers to live a life that reflects the Gospel.  He’s saying, ‘I beseech you, because of the Gospel, to live holy and dedicated lives.’  It’s quite clear.”

Certainly, most sermons I’ve heard on it (and I’ve heard a lot!) say exactly that.  So why was I uncomfortable?

  • Paul already delivered that exact message very clearly in chapter six.  He didn’t wait until chapter twelve of Romans to tell believers that, because we’ve been saved by faith, we are to be holy and acceptable to God.  It’s already been said.
  • Paul just spent three chapters talking about how the Gospel relates to Israel.  Chapter 12 doesn’t immediately follow chapter 8.  The “therefores” that I’ve generally heard preached from 12:1 (and preached myself, for that matter) point back to chapter 8 and earlier.  It’s as if 9-11 is parenthetical, not really relevant to chapter 12 at all.  Paul could have put those chapters in a different letter, for all the impact on most sermons on 12:1.  This has never seemed quite right to me.

I think I finally got the picture when preparing to preach this time.  The Greek word for “service” in this verse is latreia.  The key that unlocked my thinking was a simple little statement in A.T. Robertson’s Word Pictures commentary:  “For latreia, see note on Rom 9:4.”  (Well, ok, A.T.  I’ve never actually gone and looked at that in this context, but I’ll do it this time.)  His note on Romans 9:4 was also brief:  “The service (hē latreia). The temple service (Heb 9:1, Heb 9:6).”  (A.T., why not just plug that in at 12:1, rather than make me come to 9:4?  Jon, why are you griping at a dead person?  He’s not listening….)

Wait a minute!  Temple service?  Does latreia always mean “temple service”?  The passages Robertson cited in Hebrews certainly fit with that.  In fact, the word only occurs one other place, in John 16:2, although the verb form is more common.  It means “service” in the sense of “worship”, so “temple service” isn’t a bad reflection of the sense, especially in the context in Romans 9 — and in Romans 12, which is talking about a sacrifice.

Romans 12:1 is parallel to Romans 9:4.  “Therefore”, in Romans 12:1 does indeed point back to the Gospel and all that we have in it, as described in Romans 1-8.  But it flows directly out of Romans 9-11, as well.

In Romans 9:1-4, we see that the Jews were given the Law, the covenants, the promises, and the temple worship.  Israel stumbled in unbelief (9:31-33).  The giving of the Gospel, and Israel’s unbelief, was all prophesied in the Old Testament Scriptures (chapter 10).  Because of Israel’s unbelief, they have been “broken off” and you (Gentiles) have been grafted in (chapter 11).

Because you have been grafted onto that same tree, you also have a “temple service” to perform.  Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 6:19), and your reasonable worship or temple service is to present it as a living sacrifice, a spiritual “burnt offering” to the Lord.

Those “parenthetical” chapters weren’t just stuck in there because there wasn’t a better place to put them.  It is all part of the logical development of the book, and 12:1 HAS to follow 9-11.

We are saved by grace alone through faith alone, receiving the imputed righteousness of God (ch. 1-5).  Thus, we are to be holy (ch. 6-7), and as God’s children we’ve been given abundant spiritual blessings (ch. 8).  This isn’t a surprise, but all part of God’s plan in relation to Israel (ch. 9-10), and we have been “grafted into the same tree” (ch. 11).  Because of that, we (just like Israel in the Old Testament) have an offering to offer to the Lord, a service of worship in His holy temple (ch. 12:1 and following).

OK, that’s interesting.  So what?  How does it really change anything?  It is always profitable to understand God’s truth more fully, but didn’t we pretty much understand the verse anyway?

The answer is yes, we did.  You don’t have to understand the relation of the verse to the context of chapters 9-11, in this case, to get the general import of the verse.  The challenge is pretty clear.

The benefit that I can see is two-fold (there may be others I haven’t noticed yet).  First, it helps us to better understand the glorious gift that has been given to us.  We are priests, with direct access to God, any time and any place!  It emphasises the benefit of being grafted in.  When Paul says he beseeches us “by the mercies of God”, the very thing he is encouraging to do is something that highlights those great mercies.  He’s not just talking about our salvation when he says “mercies”, he’s talking about everything that comes with it, including our position in Christ.

Second, it gives us a better understanding of worship.  Worship is a 24/7 proposition.  If we are living sacrifices, and that is our worship, then worship is about everything we are, everything we have, all day, every day.  Everything we do should be worship to the Lord.  We see that elsewhere (I Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17, 23).  There is no “sacred/secular” dichotomy.  When you work, you are worshipping God.  When you tell your wife you love her, you are worshipping God (wives will now, presumably, tell their husbands to start worshipping God more :)).  Even eating and drinking are seen as worship to God.

I beseech you, brethren.  Because of your salvation from wrath, your freedom from sin’s power, the blessings you have received, and because of your exalted position in Christ as grafted into Him and serving as His holy priests, by all these mercies of God, present your bodies, the temple of the Lord, a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto the Lord.  Now that you have been grafted in, this is your holy temple service, the one that logically comes to you in the glorious salvation that you’ve been given.

Navigation note:  First in a series.  Next — Conformed or Transformed?

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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