Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Imperfect Sacrifices

We've been going through the epistle to the Romans in our Wednesday night Bible readings. We're up to Romans 12 now, and I have to admit it's been very convicting.

Like a lot of Christians, I've gotten caught up from time to time in a sort of Gnosticism: a sort of a sickly pseudo-spiritual affectation that looks down on the physical world. Romans 12 really smashes that sort of thing to bits:

1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the compassions of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your intelligent service. 2 And be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:1--2, JND)
What is the very first thing Romans 12 asserts? It's that our "intelligent" service is to present our bodies as living sacrifices.

We ought to consider the context of Romans when we think of this passage. Remember it's Romans 8 that tells us our bodies aren't yet redeemed (v. 8:23). Well, it's not only Romans 8; Philippians 3 is quite clear as well.

20 for *our* commonwealth has its existence in the heavens, from which also we await the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour, 21 who shall transform our body of humiliation into conformity to his body of glory, according to the working of the power which he has even to subdue all things to himself. (Philippians 3:20--21, JND)
So our bodies are yet unredeemed, even though we're spiritually alive. They'll be redeemed one day: that's the promise of Philippians 3. But right now, we're still in fallen bodies. But the shocking truth of Romans 12 is that God wants us to present these fallen bodies as living sacrifices.

And this truth ought to shock us. I was listening to a preacher once who was talking about this chapter. He made the statement that, "your [reasonable] service" means, "in light of all God has done for you in chapters 1--8, the reasonable thing to do is..." Which makes me think he wasn't really paying attention to the first eleven chapters of the book. The whole point of Romans is that there's absolutely nothing you have to offer God. The first three chapters are all about all the terrible things we've done. Chapters 6--8 are all about how we were so bad that God has to apply the Cross to us to cure us of ourselves. Chapter 7 reminds us that "in me, that is, in my flesh, good does not dwell" (Romans 7:18, JND). Chapter 8 reminds us "the body is dead on account of sin, but the Spirit life on account of righteousness" (Romans 8:10, JND). If you think you have anything reasonable to offer God, then you haven't been paying attention to the first eleven chapters.

But we come to Romans 12 and we find that God does actually want something: He wants our bodies. Our fallen, sinful, unredeemed bodies. He wants the "bodi[es] of humiliation" (Philippians 3:21, JND) that Christ is coming to change.

Now, there is an Old Testament picture of this. Consider Leviticus 22:

A bullock and a sheep that hath a member too long or too short, that mayest thou offer as a voluntary offering; but as a vow it shall not be accepted. (Leviticus 22:23)
We sometimes say the Law forbade offering a blemished animal as an offering. That's not strictly true. It was possible to offer an imperfect animal, but only as a voluntary offering. It couldn't be offered as a sacrifice for sin, or as a trespass offering. It couldn't bear sins. But it could be offered as a "voluntary offering."

I am not accepted with God for the sacrifice of my body. I can't earn a single thing by offering my body as a living sacrifice. I am accepted with God for exactly one reason: the Lord Jesus has died for me. But there is this business about a "voluntary offering," and that brings us to Romans 12.

Another passage in the Old Testament presents the concept of an imperfect offerings: Leviticus 27.

9 And if it be a beast whereof men bring an offering unto Jehovah, all that they give of such unto Jehovah shall be holy. 10 They shall not alter it nor change it, a good for a bad, or a bad for a good; and if he at all change beast for beast, then it and the exchange thereof shall be holy. (Leviticus 27: 9--10, JND)
Notice that phrase in v. 10, they can't change "a good for a bad, or a bad for a good." It's not just that they couldn't exchange a worse sheep for a better one, they couldn't offer a better sheep for a worse one.

There's a trap here for us. There's a temptation to look at our bodies and think, "this one isn't good enough." And that's true, in a way. We're waiting for the Son of God to come and change our bodies to be like His. So there's a lot of truth in the idea that the bodies we have aren't worthy of Him. I mean, if they were, the Son of God wouldn't be coming to change them.

But we're in the same position as the Old Testament saints: they weren't allowed to exchange a better sacrifice for a worse one. I'm bound to offer the body I have. I can't wait until the Son of God makes it better. I can't even wait until I drop a few pounds. I need to offer the body I have.

And it surprises us, but we find they are "acceptable to God."

We do well to remember that the Son of God came here as a Man. We are fallen creatures in a fallen world, but God's solution to that isn't that we somehow step out of the physical world. We're not called to some sort of neo-Gnostic super-spiritualism. We're called to honour God in these fallen bodies, in this wicked world.

But that doesn't mean we're allowed to settle down here. We can't forget that the Son of God is coming to get us. And the second verse of Romans 12 tells us that. We can't be conformed to this world: we're called to live here, but we're not called to live for here. Our life is in Heaven (Colossians 3:1--15). Someday we'll appear with Him in glory and the world will see He really is as wonderful as we [ought to] say. Indeed, we recall that "the things that are seen are for a time, but those that are not seen eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:18, JND). This isn't home, but we live here. So we do well to remember both sides of the truth: we're called to glorify God in our physical bodies, but we look for the day when we'll see Christ face to face and forget all about this wicked old world.

One of my daughters and I were talking about baptism when she was very young (maybe 6). I was explaining to her that baptism is how we declare that this world is under judgment, and we are take the place of death with respect to it. She said to me: "So what you're saying, Dad, is that we're here on a business trip, not a vacation." That might have been the single best summary of the snare of worldliness I've ever heard. It's not that we don't live here, but we're here on business, not pleasure.