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Misreading Romans 12:1





I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. 
Romans 12:1 (KJV)

      One rationale some use to downplay the importance of going to church (gathering to sing praise, hear scripture, share Eucharist, etc) is the insistence that the NT never associates the Christian assembly with worship.  A parallel argument, then, is that worship is actually what we do outside of church.  This post is the first of two that will address the question: Is Sunday morning worship actually worship?

      Romans 12:1 is a central text used to suggest everything we do with our lives is worship.  This seems justified, based on the plain wording of the text in a number of modern English translations..  The Good News Translation reads, “This is the true worship that you should offer.”  The English Standard reads, “Which is your spiritual worship.”  And, of course, the New International Version reads, “This is your spiritual act of worship.”
      But, these translations, although within the scope of possible Greek to English word meanings, are misleading.  For one thing, the most common Greek words that we normally translate “worship” and “spiritual” are nowhere in the text.  A more accurate translation would not entirely change the broad sense of the verse, but would avoid citing it as a proof that daily service serves as an exact synonym of temple/church worship.  For example, the Contemporary English Version renders the phrase as, “That’s the most sensible way to serve God.”  The New King James reads, “Your reasonable service.”  These are also appropriate translations of the Greek, but replacing "spiritual worship" with "reasonable service" fosters a different image in modern American English.
      The word that some translate as “worship” is λατρεία.   The word normally means service offered to God.  In the Old Testament it frequently describes the general work of the priests in and around the temple.  In fact, it always translates the Hebrew word עָבַד, which is most often translated in the LXX as the Greek word δουλεύειν (to serve, to serve as a slave).  In John 16:2 the same word in translated in the NIV as “a service to God.”  It is true the word carries the sense of service offered to God, but it was nonetheless something distinct from direct acts of worship themselves.  “Service” or “Service to God” would be a better translation in Romans 12:1.
      The second key word in Romans 12:1 that is sometimes translated “spiritual” is not the expected πνευματικός.  Instead, it is the word λογικός.   As you might guess by sounding it out in English, logikos, the word means reasonable, logical, or spiritual – but not in the sense of being from the Holy Spirit, but in the sense of being figurative, instead of literal (1 Peter 2:2).  Living a good life that will serve God’s purposes on earth is the only reasonable outcome from understanding His mercies and promises.
      The New Living Bible, like the old King James, is very probably much closer to the original sense of the phrase as Paul intended it – presenting your entire life as a sacrifice to God is a reasonable service, in light of all God has done for you.
      Was this idea new with Christianity?  Of course not.  No pious Jew would have found the idea novel.  Second Temple Jewish writings, like the earlier prophets, frequently speak of lives carried out to conform to God’s will as a sacrifice of praise.   “Ever may their hearts, Lord, swell with thankfulness, ever may these lives you have preserved be a sacrifice of praise to you, till all the Gentiles around them know you for the only God that rules on earth!” (Tobit 8:19)
      A follow-up post will continue this general question: Is is appropriate to call what the church does in its weekly gatherings as "worship?"

4 comments:

Nathan Lawson said...
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Nathan Lawson said...

Also, the KJV rightly translates (along with the ESV, NET, & GNB) is the phrase 'your bodies [plural] as a living sacrifice [singular]'. All of us, together, are a single sacrifice to God. The general sense of the text is that because of what God has done, we must strive to be a community that is holy and pleasing to God. This is why in verse 3-8 immediately following this passage Paul launches a discussion about different spiritual gifting within the church. The many members are 'one in Christ' (verse 5). To take this text to mean that what you do throughout the week individually is what real worship is about, runs contrary to the intent of the passage of this section in scripture. In general, the KJV is simply a better translation of the original against the NIV.

twotentom said...
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twotentom said...

@ Tom,
Do you ever use any of the Aramaic translations for your word studies? I see a lot of Greek but nothing from the sister language of the Hebrews.

@ Nathan,
My KJV along with the NASB, NKJV, RSV and my newest favorite AENT, all say present your bodies 'A' living sacrifice, not 'AS a' living sacrifice. One of those statements leads one to believe 'as if' a sacrifice, instead of a definite sacrifice.
Also, are you saying that only what you do "corporately" throughout the week is "real worship"?