On Being God’s Living Sacrifice

A Bible Study on Romans 12:1-2 from Prayerful Preparation

by Musa W. Dube

The book of Romans, held to be Apostle Paul’s magnum opus, was written to the Church in Rome, the seat of imperial power. He writes to the Church in Rome saying, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, 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). Paul knows that empires demand bodies and minds of their subjects; they demand their subjects to conform to their ideology. Thus Paul underlines, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). As Katherine Grieb point outs, “To the degree that the living Lord has drawn us into a new sphere of power, the powers of the present age lose their ability to conform us to the world. Christians no longer ‘belong’ to these powers because their bodies have been offered as a living sacrifice to God and belong to God as the body of Jesus Christ” (2002:119).

Paul, therefore, calls for absolute resistance to the Roman Empire. Empires are, by design, governments of subordination, exploitation, violence upon its subjects; regardless of the reasons they advance to justify their power over the Other. Empires forcibly cross many boundaries through military force; ethical claims to save the natives from their own cultures; ideological claims of superiority of sorts, which they use to impose their religions, economic and political structures upon their colonized subjects. Empires are more about excessive collection of wealth from the subjugated through the exploitation of their labour and resources, thereby creating established global economic inequalities. Displaced and dispossessed populations become economic refugees, who are forced to migrate in search of greener pastures, even to the central cities of the empire. Imperial settings are thus multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-racial contexts without celebrating

Lord Remind me
when I need to know,
You did not
Ask me to
Defend your church
But to lay down my life
For people

(Bishop Colin Winter, in: Carden, 1998:185)

The exploitative agenda of empires does not only affect human beings, it also affects the land. Not only are there wars of imposition and resistance that often devastate the land, there are also resettlements and the over-crowding of the dispossessed as their lands are given to imperial agents and class. Since empires are about accumulation of wealth for their mother countries, they, more often than not, turn massive lands into commercial projects that deny their subjects land for subsistence living. Driven by the ethic of excessive profit, its commercial projects inevitably beget pollution, exploitation and violence upon the land as large tracts are cleared to make room for commercial projects to feed the imperial tastes, while indigenous people are displaced and forced to live in arid and crowded areas, thereby further stressing the environment. Imperial structures create social, cultural, economic and political contexts where human dignity is denied and God’s whole creation suffers violence. Modern imperial structures affected two-thirds of the planet. Although wars of liberation have been fought and won, many former colonies’ economic, political and cultural structures remain tied to their former colonizers in a relationship that continues to peddle inequalities, while in many settler colonies, natives remain permanently displaced from their land. Moreover, we are living in a new imperial age, popularly known as globalization or the neo-liberal economic structure, which is driven by competition for profit so much as that the welfare of communities, families and the land are a second hand concern. In the neo-liberal economy, the state must give way to privatisation, which is the handing over social welfare services and public resources such as water, electricity, grazing land, education, health, etc. to profit-driven companies. The empire is violent to God’s created community as a whole.

Because you have given us the Earth to care for
But we take more than our share
We come to you

Gracious God
Come to us and meet us on the way.
You have given generously
But we do not know how to respond
So help us to strive for integrity and faithfulness

(Brienen, 2000)

In Paul’s time Rome was an empire of equal repute. The Revelation writer describes the Roman Empire as Babylon, as the seven-headed dragon and as the prostitute that intercourses with all, to gather profit to “himself.” Scholarly research highlights that wealth was in the hands of few, while unacceptable poverty prevailed in Rome. Much evidence highlights that Rome was violent, brutal upon resisting subjects. It was exploitative, collecting taxes from its subjects and transporting them to its center. It was culturally suppressive, imposing imperial cults upon its subjects. The emperor was to be worshiped. In this setting both Jews and Christians were in the line of fire for refusing to bow down and worship the emperor, as they theologically recognized only one God. Subjects had to learn to collaborate, to assume arts of hidden resistance or to undertake open resistance at their own risk.

The attestations of the canonical Gospels are eloquent on the Roman imperial presence, its violence and its exploitation. For example, Jewish Palestine featured puppet kings exampled by Herod (Matthew 2 and 14:1-12); Roman Imperial troops and their captains were deployed to suppress uprisings (Matthew 24:27-31); tax collectors were engaged to fulfil the exploitative needs of the Roman Empire (Matthew 5:46 and 9:10); and the representative governor, in the person of Pilate, was stationed in Jerusalem (Matthew 27:1-23 ). Jesus was born, lived and died under the Roman imperial power. In fact, the Matthean testimony highlights that baby Jesus, proclaimed to be the King of Jews, was immediately recognized as a threat to Roman imperial structures. His life was hunted and his parents had to flee with him to Egypt (Matthew 2:1-23). During his ministry Jesus was asked questions about paying taxes to Caesar (Matthew 17:24-27); he was tried in the court of Pilate for being subversive to the power of Caesar (John 17-18). Knowing the power and violence of the empire Jesus turned to both open and hidden arts of resistance: He openly proclaimed the present and soon-coming kingdom of God, thereby challenging the prevailing kingdom of Caesar as illegitimate; he taught that one should give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21), a statement that automatically disqualifies Caesar’s power, for there was only one God for Jewish people; he identified Roman occupying forces with demons that needed to be exorcised from the possessed (Mark 5:1.20). When asked about his kingship by Pilate the Roman governor Jesus employed various arts of resistance, ranging from silence, to changing the topic, to employing hidden transcripts such as, “You said so,” an answer that neither denied nor confirmed his kingship.

You asked for my hands
That you might use them for your purpose
I gave them for a moment
Then withdrew them for the work was hard

You asked for my mouth to speak against injustice
I gave you a whisper that I might not be accused

(South Africa, in: Carden, 1998:180)

Although Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor in Palestine, sentences Jesus to death, Jesus rises from the dead (Matthew 28:1-10). Resurrection is itself a divine statement and action against exploitative structures that dehumanize people and reduce the quality of God’s good creation. Resurrection remains an attestation of God’s solidarity with the subjugated—God’s insistence on life in abundance for all of the creation community. Resurrection remains an attestation that those who lay down their lives for the realization of God’s justice, though they lose their lives they shall regain them. God transforms and renews believers and a church that presents itself as a living sacrifice. The resurrecting people of God become a living sacrifice that can never be decimated by forces of evil. A living sacrifice is thus an offering that keeps on giving in the struggle for and in solidarity with God, for God’s justice to be realized on Earth as it is in heaven. The church, and members of the church, who present their bodies as a living sacrifice do not die, for they embody the indestructible power of God. God renews and transform them. They rise. As Maya Angelou said in her book, I Shall not be Moved:

Into the crashing sound,
Into wickedness, she cried
No one, no, nor one million
Ones dare to deny me God. I go forth
alone, and stand as ten thousand

The Divine upon my right
Impels me to pull forever
At the latch of freedom’s gate

Angelou was describing the evil forces that confronted African Americans. Enslaved and denied their human dignity, “their eyes were watching God,” as Zora Neale Houston said. Their eyes kept on looking to and for God—for the justice that God guarantees to all members of the creation community. Unceasingly calling, “kumbaya my Lord” they continued to rise, for the God of resurrection was with them. Becoming a living sacrifice thus does not exclude vulnerability to destructive powers of the world.

It is rather to live in the transformational power of God, the power of resurrection that enables us to speak truth to power and to become mustard seeds that have been planted in the good soils that arise in multiple-folds, becoming houses for many birds in the field. To become a living sacrifice is, therefore, to become a church, and members of churches, who will keep coming back to face all destructive powers. Living sacrifices do not surrender to the forces of evil, for they have surrendered themselves to the power of God. To become a living sacrifice is to live in and move by God’s power in the world. It is to embody the light of God and to shine it where evil structures are ever invading, marring God’s created community. To become God’s living sacrifice is therefore to assume a posture of vigilant resistance to forces of evil invading the creation community. As Bruce Malina and John L. Pilch point out, “the purpose of sacrificing is to have life-effect: to preserve life or transform life” (2006:276). To offer our bodies as a living sacrifice is to acknowledge that we have been transformed, when we became the body of Christ. We are the body of Christ.

You asked for my life
That you might work through me
I gave a small part that I might not get involved.

Lord, forgive me for my calculated efforts to serve you
Only when it is convenient for me to do so
Only in places where it is safe to do so
And only with those who make it easy to do so

Creator God forgive me
Renew me
Send me out as a useable instrument
That I might take seriously the meaning of your cross

(South Africa, in: Carden, 1998, 180)

And so it was in the first-century Palestine that Roman exploitative rule met resistance of sorts, from those who prayerfully offered themselves as living sacrifices to God. This resistance was characterized by Pharisees who resorted to learning, teaching and keeping God’s law meticulously; by back-to-the-desert movements, characterized by John the Baptist, Qumran and Essenes groups, which prayerfully sought to experience God’s liberative powers as experienced by the Israelites’ emancipation from Egyptian slavery; by the Sadducees and high priests, who seemingly resorted to collaboration, to trick the system and mitigate the violent power of the empire, holding that “if we let him (Jesus) go on like this… the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation… it is better for one man to die than for the whole nation to be destroyed,” (John 11:49-50); and by Zealots, who rose up to fight and to remove the imperial presence in their land in 66 CE. Their uprising was a statement to the effect that the Roman imperial rule was unwanted and unacceptable, for its self-imposition and exploitative agenda. Although temporarily successful, the strategy of open confrontation proved fatal, for Rome unleashed its military power, with devastating consequences of the destruction of the temple and the banning of Jews from Jerusalem, their centre of worship (Matthew 24:1-2). The thing that the high priests and Sadducees were at pains to avoid through adopting strategies of collaboration to trick the enemy had happened.

It is within this context that Apostle Paul writes a letter to the Church in Rome, the seat of the imperial power. The Roman Church constitutes those who were in the line of fire daily. Paul urges them to offer their bodies as a living sacrifice to God. He urges them not to be conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the mercies of God. Believers confronted by and living within the structures of evil and injustice are urged to present their bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” for such constitutes their worship. The Christian physical bodies and their minds are to be dedicated to God and to make no room for any other power, save for the power, will and mercies of God. Paul knows that the temptation may be high to conform to the standards of the Roman Empire, but advises otherwise. Believers are to be “transformed by renewing their minds,” for the purposes of vigilance, namely, to develop the capacity to “discern what is the will of God,” so that they do not err or move from the mercies and will of God. His is a call for focus and dedication. Such dedication demands bodies and minds to be fully given to God to allow no room for compromising and collaboration with forces that contradict God’s will on Earth. Understanding the mercies and will of God demands self-dedication to the same, that is, offering oneself as A LIVING SACRIFICE TO God. It calls the whole church, which is the body of Christ, to remember that they have already been transformed and renewed, yet they have to keep on rededicating themselves anew.

A church that knows itself to be a living sacrifice does not embrace imperial values and standards. Consequently, Paul opens the letter to the Romans by identifying Jesus as one who descended from “David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:3-4). The tradition of messiah, the Christ, or the anointed one amongst Jewish people, referred to the expected liberator from imperial structures, who was expected to come from the house of David. By evoking the Davidic line of Jesus, Paul asserts that Jesus resists the empire, and so should his church—by offering themselves as God’s living sacrifice. Given the contemporary imperial structures that characterise this world today, the church and its members are still being urged to present their bodies as a living sacrifice to God, for even though they confront violent and crushing powers of evil and injustice they live in Christ’s resurrection power, the power to keep coming back to speak the will and mercies of God in God’s creation.

Study Questions

  1. What Empires exist today, especially in your life?
  2. How do Empires operate today? In what ways do they exploit, repress, subjugate, destroy?
  3. In what ways have you become reliant on or benefited from today’s Empires?
  4. In what ways can “offering your body as a living sacrifice” resist today’s Empires?

Angelou, Maya. I Shall Not Be Moved. New York: Bantam Books, 1991.
Brienen, Francis. What Does the Lord Require? Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2000.
Carden John. A Procession of Prayers: Meditation and Prayers; Meditations and Prayers from Around the World. Geneva: WCC, 1998
Dube, Musa W. “Rereading the Bible: Biblical Hermeneutics and Social Justice,” pp. 57-68. In African Theology Today. Scranton: Scranton Press, 2002.
Garnsey, Peter & Richard Saller. The Roman Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
Grieb, Katherine. The Story of the Romans. London: John Knox, 2002.
Horsely, Richard. Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society. Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1997.
Malina, Bruce & John Pilch. Letters of Paul. Minneapolis, Fortress, 2006.
Roetzel, Calvin J. The World that shaped the New Testament. Atlanta: Knox Press, 1995.