Romans (Part 37) – Relationship is Key (12:1–13)
We are going to return briefly to the opening of chapter 12 to ensure we have a comprehensive hold on Paul’s direction. As mentioned earlier, when Paul says in verse 1 of chapter 12 to present our bodies as living sacrifices, his emphasis is not on the performance of dutiful obedience to God. In keeping with his discussion of the last chapter, we should realize a reversal has taken place from our old dead operation under sin. To sacrifice is to give up ownership and control of something that had been considered ours. In the sacrificial system of the OT, the process followed a sacrificer giving a sacrifice of something good into death. Thus, the one in need would give an animal that was unblemished in death—a separation from his ownership and control.
Sacrificer Sacrifice of Good in Death
one in need animal unblemished separated
So then in the sacrifice of Jesus, we have the same construct:
Sacrificer Sacrifice of Good in Death
humanity Jesus sinless separated
Notice that both the sacrifice and the sacrifice are the same. Of course, there is a sense in which we could say that God sacrificed Jesus (John 3:16). And there is also a sense in which we can understand that humanity was the sacrifice, giving up one of our own—our representative—for the sake of securing salvation. But in the focus of the process, we are talking about Jesus giving up his life to be separated from it. Note also that we are not talking about God’s punishment for sin. That again is a different aspect. We are considering death here in the context of the sacrifice, not in the context of consequence for sin.
But the chart above regards death sacrifices. Paul speaks in Romans 12:1 of a livingor life sacrifice. And in that context, we have a reversal of concepts. The livingsacrifice process also has a sacrificer and a sacrifice, but in the reverse, it is a sacrifice of a bad (rather than good) thing for the sake of life—relationship (rather than death—separation).
Sacrificer Sacrifice of Bad in Life
the saved our bodies corrupt relationship
So, Paul urges us who are saved—who have had the reversal from flesh control over spirit to spirit control over flesh—to also reverse the sacrificial process from death to life. We sacrifice our corrupt (rather than unblemished) bodies in relationship (rather than in the separation of death).
Now, this picture, then, of justified spirit yielding control of still corrupt flesh to God is the exact likeness of Jesus in his earthly life. Although he had corrupted flesh (Romans 8:3b “His own Son in fleshlike ours under sin’s domain”) and was tempted by that corrupted flesh (Matthew 4; Hebrews 4:15), he nevertheless did not give in to the temptations of his corrupted flesh but gave his body as a living sacrifice to be controlled by the Spirit of God (John 5:19: “The Son is not able to do anything on His own, but only what He sees the Father doing.”; 5:30: “I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”; 8:28: “I do nothing on My own. But just as the Father taught Me, I say these things.”; 12:49 “For I have not spoken on My own, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a command as to what I should say and what I should speak.”).
Now, I am speaking (and Paul is speaking) almost as if our spirits and our bodies are separate entities, but of course they are not. In fact, although not knowing completely the state of human spirit after death, I believe I could argue that it is impossible for human spirit to exist without physical body. [That subject is one for another time.] Yet, although understanding then that the human image bearer is necessarily one (body [essence] combined with spirit [person]), we still find differentiation to note because of the justified spirit abiding within the still corrupted flesh.
In 12:1, Paul says we are to present our bodies as living sacrifices in recognition of the mercies of God that Paul has explained in the letter up to this point and that he sang so thrillingly about at the end of chapter 11. I also want us to take a few moments to consider Paul’s (and our) appreciation for these mercies of God by examining why we consider them mercies.
What is mercy? The Greek word used here (and its root) have the meaning of not only kindness but also compassion or compassionate pity—in other words, the motivation for being kind. When we look at the reasons God redeemed, we find not only the significant explanation that God was fulfilling his righteousness—his faithfulness to his covenant of creative purpose (1:17), but we also find that he did so in compassionate pity for us (5:8; 8:28; 8:31–39; and especially 9:23).
While both these reasons exist, they are connected. Yes, God wanted to maintain his righteousness in his covenant commitment, but that covenant commitment itself was about his love—to create for everlasting love relationship. Therefore, when sin put that covenant commitment at risk, God did move to rectify it for his faithfulness sake, but it still was a faithfulness to his heart—the desire for that everlasting love relationship. And in that love motivation, his mercy (compassion) shone clear. My focus now is to follow this trail of God’s compassion.
Compassion on the one estranged normally links back rather solidly to the reason for the estrangement. For humanity, that estrangement came in the Garden. God had given a command (for the purpose of covenant of life obligation to trust in him) and Eve and Adam disobeyed. They ate the apple. The human race, and all its physical association in creation, was plunged into sin requiring eternal punishing separation from God. But does this not sound harsh—absolute, everlasting torture for . . . biting into an apple? When we read Jesus’s words in Matthew 13:50 in the parable of hell, we could legitimately substitute Eve’s name there, but when we do, it continues to sit awkwardly in our minds as we try to reconcile the punishment to the crime: “Throw [Eve] into the blazing furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth! After all, she ate an apple!” (Okay, I added that last line in there for effect.)
To defend God’s action, we call on God’s Covenant of Operational Essence—the requirement that he always acts according to his perfect essence of truth, goodness, and beauty. And we well know that absolute justice is incorporated in that TGB. Therefore, he must, we argue, be true to who he is by separating from even the smallest of sins. But wait just a second. Isn’t compassion also incorporated in that absolute truth, goodness, and beauty?
So when infinite compassion hits head to head with absolute justice, how does justice winning and infinite compassion losing make God still righteous regarding his Covenant of Operational Essence? Something had to fall by the wayside. Something had to suffer in limitation. And since God is defined by infiniteness, as soon as we say God was limited in any of his essence of TGB, God no longer fits the definition of God—in other words, God ceases to be God.
Let’s look at this from another angle, just to maybe view the problem more clearly. Let’s say a Hitler/Stalin-type person has been conducting his genocidal insanity for decades of his life. And he is truly an evil person, disgustingly arrogant, without an ounce of kindness or compassion in his entire being. You can almost see the evil flash from his eyes and ooze from his skin. After a lifetime of non-stop, hateful wickedness, this person lies on his deathbed. Music is playing in his room, and a Bible verse happens to be sung in the song being played. He hears it, and a sudden, Damascus-road light shines within his soul. He realizes his depravity, calls out to Christ, saying, “I believe; I repent; rescue me, Lord!” and he falls back, expelling his last breath.
Put that scene to the side for a moment. Imagine a young boy about nine years old. His parents are not Christians, but they are decent, honorable citizens, intent on raising their son to be of good moral character. And the son is a particularly mild-mannered child, never giving his parents any trouble, and actually interested in the pursuit of doing good. He is out one day on a city sidewalk and sees a little, old lady trying to cross a busy street. But the cars seem to be paying no attention to her, just zipping by. So the boy goes over to her, tells her he’ll help, waves both arms at the traffic stream, getting them to slow and stop. He takes the lady by the arm and leads her across the street safely. She thanks him, telling him what a kind and good boy he is. He smiles at her, turns to cross back, steps into the street, is hit by a truck, and expels his last breath.
These two—the genocidal maniac and the nine-year-old boy—stand before the Great White Throne of God’s judgment. Jesus looks at the man and says, “Your name is written on my very heart. Come, enter into the joy of your God!” Then he looks at the boy, and says, “I never knew you!” as he casts him into the torture of the Lake of Fire for all eternity.
So then, justice?
Of course, we’ll have all sorts of arguments regarding the rescue of the man—and they are good, biblical arguments. Christ did die, offering his death as substitute for ours. But let’s concentrate on the boy. As I asked before, doesn’t that seem rather harsh?
Yes, it does appear harsh. There is an answer for what is going on here, and the answer is not to abandon traditional Christianity. But the answer may involve changing our view of God’s look at the world and its image bearing prisoners a bit differently (or, at least, more consistently with the biblical record). We’ll talk about that biblical view next time.