As I was reading a post from Allan Stanglin’s blog today, it struck me and I started writing a comment. Just like my last comment-turned-post, this one also got too big and so I decided to flesh it out in a full post. Allan wrote about how great it is to worship with one another, but how meaningless it is unless we go and live it out. They will be mere empty words unless we act on our promises, and he quoted Paul from Romans 12 to back that up. His words sparked my mind about how the rabbis said something very near to that, and why.
Even though the temple’s sacrificial system was in place for a majority of the first century and for several hundred years previous, the idea came about that God wanted more than burnt offerings and incense. This was from God’s direct words in the Bible where God declares he wants your heart, and not meaningless, hollow acts of worship.
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6, NIV)
This idea continued to develop and was adopted by the Qumran community, probably identified with the Essenes (ca. 160 BC – 70 AD). They acknowledged the importance of spiritual sacrifice too, even though it was for a different reason. The Qumran community regarded the priests in the temple as illegitimate and therefore, the sacrifices. Thus without a sacrificial system, they derived the practical theology of atonement through righteousness and trying to be obey God.
“They shall atone for guilty rebellion and for the sins of unfaithfulness that they may obtain lovingkindness for the Land without…fat of sacrifice. And prayer rightly offered shall be as an acceptable fragrance of righteousness, and perfection of way as a delectable free-will offering”
— 1QS 9:3-4; Geza Vermes DSS in English [2nd ed. 1975], p. 87; cf also 1QS 10:6, 14
So we can see that by Paul’s time, this idea was not new to Judaism. Paul (a Jewish Rabbi and theologian) wrote something similar to the Christians in Rome, but for a different reason. Paul died circa 66 AD, before the temple was destroyed, and so when he wrote this letter to them, the sacrificial system was still very much in practice. But for Paul, as with all Christians, the sacrificial system had symbolically ended with the death of Jesus (see Book of Hebrews). So Paul comes to the conclusion that we should view our lives as sacrifices to God from a different angle than his Jewish theological contemporaries:
“Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1, NIV)
After the temple was destroyed and the Jews could no longer make their sacrifices, there was a crisis in Judaism. Without a temple, how could they continue their religion? The “cultus of Judaism” was centered around the temple priestly sacrificial system, and without it, the heart of Judaism was gone. The rabbis knew this and decided something very similar to Paul in Romans 12, this being derived from verses like Hosea 6:6, Psalm 40:6, etc.
“Rabbi Joshua said: ‘Woe to us, for this house that lies in ruins, the place where atonement was made for the sins of Israel!’ But Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai replied, ‘My son, be not grieved, for we have another means of atonement which is as effective, and that is, the practice of loving-kindness, as it is stated, ‘For I desire loving kindness and not sacrifice'”
— Babylonian Talmud, Aboth de Rabbi Nathan 20a
Even though the Jews and Christians arrived at this idea from opposite ways (Christians because Jesus fulfilled the sacrificial system, and Jews because there was no means to continue the sacrificial system), I find it highly interesting that the Jews also found the same logical conclusion that the early Christians did: God requires of you to live out your faith as a living sacrifice. From this imagery, I cannot see how anyone comes up with the idea that being a follower of Jesus will be easy! That kind of imagery denotes pain, giving up what I personally want, and putting myself before someone else. But there’s something bigger at work here than just following God’s commands.
Paul viewed his faith in his Messiah Jesus as the natural extension of his Jewish faith. If the First Covenant was Act 1, then the Second Covenant is Act 2, but still the same show. Therefore, Paul looked at the sacrificial system demanded in the Torah and saw a logical extension. The culmination of the sacrificial system was the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus, and now, the evolution of that system is in us. We are the spiritual continuation of those sacrifices, and our lives are to be pleasing aromas to God, just as the incense in the temple was. Do not think that I or Paul am saying that living as a sacrifice before God will guarantee salvation – Paul is writing to people who are already saved, people who had already trusted in the Messiah. Rather, this is an admonition by Paul to the saved on how to live their lives. And so just as the sacrifices to God had to be blameless, so we too must strive to be blameless if we are to be living sacrifices. I praise God that the blood of the truly perfect lamb Jesus cleanses us from each and every stain, but that is not an excuse to stop trying to rid yourself of every kind of sin and remain spotless. Therefore, if we are to be blameless (“holy and pleasing to God” as Paul puts it), we’re being called to a whole new level and a whole new standard – think very carefully about how specific and detailed God was in the Torah about the sacrifices offered to Him and what happened to people who offered sick, lame, or otherwise imperfect sacrifices. Do you dare offer yourself before God while you still willingly let sin run rampant in your life?
Living as a sacrifice before God means I have to strive to attain that perfect love and bring that love out into the world. I won’t always make it, and Jesus is there to pick up my slack when I fail, but being a living sacrifice is the goal, the mark, the bulls-eye. That’s pretty intense.
Peace to you,
P.S. My friend Bryan on his blog (First Century Sage) wrote his own take on Romans 12:1 which happens to go hand-in-hand with mine, called “The Power of Prayer“. Check it out.