Where Is the Altar for a Living Sacrifice?

While the patriarchs appear to have been able to build altars and offer sacrifices in various places, when God instituted the Law of Moses, the tabernacle (and later the temple) became an exclusive place for sacrificial offering. In fact, it was so exclusive that when the two and a half tribes of the Israelites that lived on the eastern side of the Jordan River built “a great, impressive altar,” apart from the one at the tabernacle, the remainder of Israel “gathered together… to go to war against them,” accusing them of committing “treachery… against the God of Israel,” turning away from Him, and rebelling (Joshua 22:10, 12, 16). While it turned out that they had only built a replica of the real altar that they intended to use as a teaching tool (Joshua 22:22-29) and war was averted (Joshua 22:30-34), the precedence was set; the altar used in sacrifice really mattered.

When Jesus died on the cross, He “offered one sacrifice for sins forever,” taking away the Old Testament’s priesthood, altar, and animal sacrifices (Hebrews 10:1-14). It was not God’s intention though to remove the realities of priesthood and sacrifice altogether but to broaden and deepen them. Instead of a single Israelite tribe called to priestly service like the Old Testament had, Jesus makes all of us who have been “washed… from our sins in His own blood” become “priests to His God and Father” (Revelation 1:5-6). And instead of calling us to offer dead animal sacrifices at a tabernacle or temple while seeking forgiveness for our sins, we are called to offer our “bodies a living sacrifice… to God” because of “the mercies of God” that we have already received (Romans 12:1). So, in Christianity, we still have priests and sacrifices – but where is our altar?

Some Christians effectively attempt to envision themselves as modern day patriarchs, believing that a living sacrifice can effectively be offered anywhere. However, this isn’t a conclusion that is supported by the context of Romans 12:1. As He did under the Law of Moses, God has specified an altar for those living under the Law of Jesus Christ.

While Romans 12:1-2 are some of the most often used verses in all of the Bible, the verses that follow don’t get nearly as much attention. They should; they are purposefully linked together with these verses by Paul. Let’s break down Romans 12:1-8, taking special care to notice the way Paul uses seven connecting words to chain his thoughts together: 1) therefore; 2) and; 3) but; 4) that; 5) for; 6) so; 7) then.  

  • Verse 1 - Paul begs the Romans “therefore” – in light of his teaching about the exclusive power of God’s Gospel to save (Romans 1-11) and God’s glorious wisdom expressed in both realized and potential salvation (Romans 11:25-36) – to present their bodies as living sacrifices. This is a “reasonable service” in light of the “mercies of God” they (and all Christians) have received.
  • Verse 2 - “And” joins this idea with a contrasting picture: being “conformed to this world.” The Romans are to “not be conformed,” “but be transformed,” a work that begins in the mind and influences all of life (cf. Proverbs 4:23). They are to do this in order “that” they may demonstrate and establish God’s “good and acceptable and perfect will.”
  • Verse 3 – The chain of connecting words doesn’t end in verse 2; “for” continues the thought. Removing the intervening words, Paul connects the command to not think too “highly,” “but to think soberly” with what’s been said previously. But why? It seems as if he anticipated Christians overvaluing their “living sacrifice.” The first thought in properly evaluating this sacrifice is to recognize that it is something God has given as a “measure of faith,” or, as verse 6 will describe, a gracious gift. If even Paul had to speak by grace, who could say that he or she offered in sacrifice to God anything other than what God Himself had first given, i.e., an “ability which God supplies” (1 Peter 4:11)?
  • Verses 4-5 – “For” continues the thought with an illustration that is tied to another thought through the word “so.” Neither the Romans nor we should overvalue (or undervalue) our living sacrifice but recognize it for what it is. First, as the previous verse indicates and verse 6 will echo, any ability that we have is a gracious gift of God. Second, and importantly for our current discussion, our abilities represent a unique role in the body of Christ. We need to think soberly: our role would be nothing without the roles of others, but others need us to play our role, or, in other words, to offer our living sacrifice.
  • Verses 6-8 – “Having then" established that God has given Christians "gifts,” Paul reaches a conclusion: let us all offer our living sacrifice by fulfilling our unique role in the body of Christ. To help us discover our role, he identifies seven such roles: prophecy, ministry, teaching, encouragement, giving, leading, and expressing mercy.

Reflecting on these connected verses, we can clearly see the altar for our “living sacrifice”; it’s none other than the body of Christ, which is the church of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23; Colossians 1:18, 24). It was never God’s intention for us as Christians to live as patriarchs, offering our sacrifices to Him when and where we see fit. When we obeyed the Gospel, the Holy Spirit placed us into Jesus’ body, the church (1 Corinthians 12:13). Sober thinking sees us discover our role, and, without overvaluing or undervaluing it, supply it in service to God through the church. God’s mercy demands nothing less than our sacrifice, and God’s grace supplies nothing else than this beautiful altar.

Let me conclude by encouraging you to do three things. First, if you haven’t obeyed the Gospel of Jesus, do so; only priests washed in His blood can offer living sacrifices. Second, don’t think too highly or too lowly of yourself, but with the measuring stick of faith, discover your role in the body of Christ, your living sacrifice. Third, offer your sacrifice willingly, seeking to bring God “glory in the church by Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:21).

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