When you read the Bible, sometimes you will come across a term or a phrase that catches you by surprise. One such phrase that always makes me think is found in Romans 12:1, where Paul urges the Christians in Rome to offer up themselves as a living sacrifice. Certainly you would anticipate dead to be used in conjunction with sacrifice, but Paul says, living sacrifice and the way it’s employed should cause us to consider the way such a phrase drives home a distinct point.
As Moses met with God, he was given the law to deliver to the people. At the heart of God’s blueprint for the worship practices of his people was the altar. We see this language in Exodus and throughout Leviticus.
Exodus 20:24 – An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.
The Hebrew root for altar means “to slay” or “slaughter.” As Moses met with God, he was likewise given the specific blueprint of the Tabernacle that was to be constructed and which would govern the way in which Israel worshipped God.
The Old Testament tabernacle was the place where God’s people kept the Ark of the Covenant. Specifically – this was the place where God met with His people. The Ark of the Covenant was the dwelling place of God’s presence with the children of Israel. The Tabernacle was a tent like structure constructed with wooden poles and curtains. It is best described as a tent-like temple! It was where the worship and sacrifices were carried out by the children of Israel.
The Ark had a mercy seat where the High Priest would sprinkle the blood of the lamb on the Day of Atonement each year for the nation of Israel. Nobody could enter into the Tabernacle (large tent like structure) on the Day of Atonement and enter into the Holy of Holies except the High Priest. The purpose was a worshipful sacrifice offered up on behalf of Israel to God by the High Priest.
As the Tabernacle was constructed and completed, it was surrounded by walls and had one door or entrance. As you entered the door—the very first thing you would see would be the bronze altar – ablaze with fire. It was large. It was central. It was necessary in order to meet with God.
The altar was made of wood from the acacia tree and overlaid with bronze (which was a typical sign of judgment on sin), The altar was 7.5 feet on all four sides and 4.5 feet deep. On the inside was contained a bronze grating which was used to hold the animal that was offered up to God. On each of the four corners were horns that projected from the top of the corners. In scripture, the “horn” stands for power and strength (Habakkuk 3:4). A. W. Pink comments:
There it stood: ever smoking, ever blood-stained, ever open to any guilty Hebrew that might wish to approach it. The sinner, having forfeited his life by sin, another life—an innocent life—must be given in his stead.
Out of the five types of sacrifices, the burnt offering was common for Israel and we see it in specific ceremonies or big events in Israel’s history as well.
- Gideon offered burnt offerings Judges 6.
- When the Ark of the Covenant was returned from the Philistines – burnt offerings were offered to God (1 Samuel 6).
- David offered burnt offerings as a result of his sin (2 Samuel 24).
- King Solomon offered 1,000 burnt offerings at the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 3).
When you hear about the worship sacrifices of Israel, the common denominator is death. Each year, the city of Jerusalem would fill up with people and animals for sacrifice. Josephus, the ancient historian, claims that several hundred thousand lambs were herded through the streets of Jerusalem every Passover. Jews who lived outside of Jerusalem would travel home for Passover. According to 2 Chronicles 35, when King Josiah celebrated Passover, he slaughtered more than 37,000 sheep.
So, to hear a phrase such as living sacrifice would’ve caught the attention of anyone—especially the Jew. Yet, that’s exactly what Paul says regarding the self-sacrifice of God’s people. They are to offer themselves up to God as a living sacrifice.
Remember when Jesus was tempted by the scribe in Mark 12, king to trip him up with a question—to see if Jesus would violate the law of God. Yet, when asked what the greatest Commandment was, Jesus responded by quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6.
Mark 12:29–31 – Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
In essence what Jesus does in this one citation is he summarizes the law of God in full. He summarizes the first of the two tables of the Ten Commandments by pointing us vertical – to love God supremely. He summarizes the second table of the Ten Commandments by pointing us horizontal – to love our neighbor as oneself.
The idea of offering up yourself as a living sacrifice, as Paul describes it, is the same point that Jesus made in his quotation of the Shema. God demands everything. In order to worship God as supreme (as Romans 12:1 says – spiritual worship) involves the proper engagement of heart, soul, mind, and strength. In other words, the totality of who we are both inwardly and externally should be devoted to God.
Since we have been raised to walk in newness of life and are called out of darkness into the marvelous light of Christ—our lives should be viewed as devoted to Christ rather than this world and our worship should have the aroma of godliness rather than carnality. John Calvin states:
By bodies he means not only our skin and bones but the totality of which we are composed. He adopted this word that he might more fully designate all that we are, for the members of the body are the instruments by which we carry out our purposes.
When was the last time you evaluated your personal and corporate worship? Is it carnal or spiritual? Is it self-serving or self-sacrificial? What about how you use your time, talent, and treasure? May the Lord receive worship that is logical and spiritual!