“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Romans 12:1
The offering of animal sacrifices was common practice in Paul’s day. The Jewish tradition he came out of was heavily steeped in that ritualistic observance, as were many of the Gentile cultures of this era. The religious practices of the Greeks and Romans and many near-eastern societies shared animal sacrifices as a common practice.
For these societies, sacrifices were offered to appease any number of a pantheon of gods and deities who could become displeased with humanity. The sacrifices were used to buy favor with the gods, and hopefully to avert vengeful behavior. In the case of the Hebrews, the sacrifices had a two-fold ritualistic purpose: to atone for sin and to worship God. In the religious system of the Hebrews, sin required the shedding of blood to make one blameless before God, and when sins were committed, a sacrifice must be made to amend the wrong. The Hebrew observance of the Day of Atonement is a prime example of this. On this particular day, a goat would be sacrificed for the sins of the nation, thus atoning the people for their sins.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we see sacrifices used as a form of worship to God. Throughout the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures, we see people building altars to YHWH, and offering sacrifices to Him as forms of sincere and reverent worship. Abel does this, as do Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, to name a few.
Offering a sacrifice was one of the most sincere ways in which to worship God, so much so, that God only allowed this form of worship to be carried out in the Temple in Jerusalem once it was completed, and they could only be carried out by temple priests. Making a sacrifice to God was also a grave matter; it required something living to die, and it required the one making the sacrifice–especially before the institution of the priesthood– to get up close and personal with death. Offering a sacrifice was not a clean and sterilized form of worship; it was not one in which participants could opt-out. It was dirty and brutal, and there was blood. This form of worship was not for the faint of heart; it was for those who were serious about seeking after God and serious about offering genuine and sincere worship to an awesome God. Only those who took God seriously took the time to slaughter a beast to Him.
With the crucifixion of Jesus, the temple-sacrifice system had been fulfilled. Christ was the once-and-for-all atonement for all humanity, and there would be no need to continue making sacrifices in Jerusalem, nor should Gentile converts continue to make sacrifices to deities at their pagan temples. Instead, Paul–under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit–made a bold statement about what Christians should now do regarding sacrifices: they should live their lives as continuous sacrifices to God. This is not a sacrifice of atonement; Christ already accomplished that for us. Instead, we should lay ourselves down upon the altar as sacrifices, just as the saints of old laid their animal sacrifices down upon altars to God in worship.
Our most sincere and genuine worship to God comes when we lay entirely upon the altar at His feet. It is when we wrestle with our fallen flesh–our sinful desires, selfishness, malice, greed, anger, everything–and we cast those things upon the altar to be sacrificed to Him. It is when we realize we must continually plunge deeply into and be covered by the blood of Christ to live correctly as His follower. The most genuine worship we can give God is by dying to ourselves, and offering ourselves as a sacrifice–a living sacrifice–to Him each and every day. It is when we fully and totally submit to living for Him and doing His will. This form of worship isn’t for the faint of heart; it is also only for those who are serious about seeking after God and worshipping the awesome God who died to save His people.
God does not want our worship with the blood of animals; He wants our hearts covered in the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. People often cringe and complain about how bloody the Bible is. A word of warning: the Christian life, properly lived, is no less bloody. That blood is what ransomed your life.
Christ laid down His life as a sacrifice for you. Dedicate living yours as a sacrifice to Him.
Artwork: “In the Slaughterhouse,” Lovis Corinth, 1893.