The apostle Paul provides some insights into a life of worship in Romans 12:1-2. But before reading these two verses, let’s consider the historical context of the book of Romans and the biblical context of these verses as a transition into Romans 12.
Historical Context of the Book of Romans
The book of Romans is written by Paul to the believers in Jesus who were living in Rome during mid-50s A.D. Most Bible scholars believe Paul had never met these believers residing in Rome, but rather was writing a doctrinal explanation of who Jesus is, the gospel and its implications for everyday life. These believers most likely had encountered the truth about Jesus spreading through the Roman Empire as Jesus followers traveled among the cities. Historians document that many of the believers in Jesus experienced persecution more from the Jewish leaders than the Roman authorities. Therefore, Paul could have written the book of Romans to help both the Jewish and Roman believers in Jesus understand that the gospel is for everyone who believes in what Jesus has done for them (reference Romans 5:1).
Biblical Context of Romans 12
In Romans 1-8, Paul provides an explanation of why reconciliation with God is needed, and why a person is justified (i.e., made right before God), not by their earthly works nor by keeping the Mosaic Law, but rather through faith in Jesus alone. Paul also explains how any person can enter a relationship with God, have peace with God, live for God daily through one’s earthly body, and receive God’s guarantee of a future hope by their faith in Jesus.
In Romans 9-11, Paul declares that the promise given first to Abraham and the people of Israel, is now available to “Gentiles” (non-Jewish people) through Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah. Paul uses these two categories, Jewish and Gentile, to describe that every person is created by God, but not all persons God has created are reconciled with God. Only those individuals who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ as God and believe His death, burial, and resurrection are reconciliation with God and receive adoption into God’s forever family; they become the children of God.
After writing eleven chapters of doctrinal teachings about the gospel, Paul begins chapter 12 of Romans by supplying practical advice for daily living. Paul wanted the Christians in Rome to know the truth about Jesus, the gospel, but he also wanted their daily actions to reflect their knowledge and understanding of their relationship with God through Jesus. If they consider all that God has done to provide a way for them to have a relationship with God, what should be their response? Paul answers this question in Romans 12:1-2.
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. Romans 12:1-2
In view of all God has done for them, Paul pleads or urges these believers in Jesus to “give their bodies to God – let them be a living and holy sacrifice – the kind [God] will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship [God]. (Romans 12:1)
Although all of these believers in Jesus are reconciled with God and have a right standing before God through Jesus, they remain in their physical, earthly bodies, living out their lives. Paul acknowledges this fact in Romans 7-8 and the bodily struggle that can exist, yet every believer in Jesus has a choice to give “their bodies” fully to God (i.e., live under the guidance and power of God, the Holy Spirit) or to give their bodies to sin (i.e., live controlled by sinful nature).
Sacrificial System of Leviticus
When Paul uses the concept of “giving your bodies” as “living and holy sacrifice” to God, he seems to be referencing the sacrificial system of Leviticus (Old Testament). The priests were assigned the responsibilities to present offerings and sacrifices to God on behalf of God’s people. Broadly categorized, the offerings and sacrifices presented to God by the priests were for either reconciliation (atonement) or celebration (praise) purposes.
Paul has already explained to these believers that Jesus Christ served as their priest and has presented Himself as the sacrifice for reconciliation with God. Now, in response to Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf, Paul urges them to present themselves as “living and holy sacrifices.” Think about this phrase – “living sacrifice” – sacrifices are supposed to be dead on an altar before God, but Paul is claiming that God wants every believer in Jesus as His living sacrifice. God wants you to live this earthly life giving yourself fully to Him as your acceptable act of worship. You give yourself fully to God and His purposes (i.e., “holy” means set apart for God).
This is the only acceptable way to live the Christian life. God accepts you fully through your belief in Jesus – you give yourself fully to God – this is your “reasonable” or “rational” response to God who has reconciled you to Himself. It is “reasonable” or “rational” because you think about all that Jesus has done to reconcile you to God.
But how do you give yourself fully to God in worship? Paul gives practical instruction regarding daily actions in Romans 12:2.
Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. Romans 12:2
Paul is commanding these believers to evaluate and change their eternal behaviors if they discover their behaviors do not accurately represent their internal status – children of God. They are God’s adopted children through faith in Jesus. Paul does not want them to allow their previous behaviors that were part of their everyday lives to continue if these behaviors do not align with their relationship with God. Paul wants them to actively discover ways to act upon the truth they know through their relationship with Jesus.
But, how would you (or they) know what behaviors are pleasing and acceptable to God as an act of worship? You would not know naturally, but “let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” (Romans 12:2b)
God knows you have an established “way of thinking” that has been influenced by your relationships, education, social status, economic circumstances, religious affiliations, cultural norms, etc. But then you placed your faith in Jesus, and this established “way of thinking” must be evaluated through the person of Jesus. God reveals Himself through the person of Jesus but also through His Word – the Bible. Jesus presents who God is – His character, attributes, thoughts, and actions. God does not change in terms of who He is, and Jesus presents Himself as the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Therefore, when you learn who Jesus is and how He thinks, you discover new ways of thinking like Jesus, and then you can take action in accordance with your “transformed way of thinking” – “Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2c).
Every believer in Jesus must evaluate their “way of thinking” against to the truth of God’s Word – who Jesus is and the gospel. Does “your current way of thinking” align with what you know about God through Jesus, or do you find yourself using “your “old way of thinking” before you believed in Jesus to dictate your actions? The more you discover ways to act upon the truth – the transformed way of thinking like Jesus – the more you could make living the truth about your relationship with God a natural part of your daily life. You worship God by giving yourself fully to Him – soul, body, and mind. This is the only acceptable way to worship God.
Watch the LIVE REPLAY to learn more about acceptable worship of God. Join us LIVE every Monday at 3 p.m. ET on @GodGivesCourage Instagram for our Spiritual Growth Series and check back here on Tuesdays for the companion blog post.