Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. (NIV)
I recently heard a sermon on this verse. In it, the preacher spoke of our motivation to become a living sacrifice, God's mercy. Something about that statement bothered me, so I did some digging into the passage and found it to be quite enlightening.
Prior to this verse, Paul has a section of Scripture (Romans 11:33-36) where he just bursts out in praise to God, talking about His wisdom and glory, and the fact that we cannot even begin to fathom Him. Then he goes into verse 1 of chapter 12, beginning with the word therefore, which leads me to believe that he is connecting one thought to the other. You could almost replace the word "Therefore" with "Because of God's unbelievable greatness."
The next phrase, "I urge you," is interesting because it has some possible other interpretations. It could be "urge," "admonish," "instruct," or even "to call to one's side." I really love that last one, because that is how I see Paul, as one who wanted his readers to join him.
It is the phrase "in view of" that I struggle with, because it seems to lead me in a direction that I do not want to go. Is our motivation for serving God really that fact that He is merciful? What about those who do not, for a variety of reasons, see Him as merciful? How would they get past such a thought? I believe that Paul saw God as merciful in all situations, but I don't know that he would put this our as our motivation for serving God, nor do I think it was his motivation. But that is how we think in America. You give me something and I will give you something in return. God gives me mercy, so I will serve him. Looking at Paul's previous verses, I don't think he is about to go into such a huge shift of thinking, from saying how wonderful, awesome, and beyond our understanding God is to saying that we should serve Him because of His mercy. So I did some more digging. It seems that the phrase "in view of" is based on the Greek word "dia," which simply means "by" or "through." So the thought occurred to me that perhaps instead of saying "why" we might become a living sacrifice, Paul was stating "how" we can do it, which is only by or through God's mercy.
So I did a little more digging. I found that the word "mercy" in this verse is not the usual word that is translated mercy in the New Testament. Instead of using either of the Greek words "eleeo" or "eleos," which both carry the idea of granting mercy or kindness, he uses the Greek word "oiktirmos." This word has a meaning "the bowels of compassion," or what we might today call "a heart of compassion" or even "pity." So is Paul really saying our motivation for serving God is that He pities us? Or, is Paul saying that because the Almighty God of the Universe takes pity on us, we can serve Him as a living sacrifice? I have to believe the second choice not only fits the text, but also the overalll message of the Bible.
Perhaps I seem to be splitting hairs here, but I think the implications are huge. Under scenario 1, I see God's mercy as my motivation for serving Him, my service is a repayment, an obligation. But Paul has just stated in Chapter 11, "Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them?" (Verse 35) It is as if God gives us a gift, and then is so enthralled when we give Him back what was His in the first placde. Besides, who likes repaying debts? I don't. If my bank called today and told me all of my debts were cancelled, I would be thankful. I might even want to do something to show my appreciation. But I would eventually get over it. This is not the basis of a live change. Should we really base our response or relationship with God on this kind of thinking?
But under scenario 2, things change. Our lives as living sacrifices are not viewed as an obligation, but rather as a priviledge that is granted each and every moment by a God who has compassion on us and takes great pity on us. This is another reason I see Paul calling us to join him in this rather than commanding or urging us to do this. Look back at Romans 11:33-36, and the incredible picture Paul paints of God. Who wouldn't want to have the opportunity to serve such a God? But how could we ever hope to do so, when God is so beyond us? And the answer lies in God's great compassion for us. So now I can live each day as a living sacrifice, I can be holy and acceptable to God only because of what He has done for me in Christ. And this is true and proper worship.