Living Sacrifices (Romans 12.1)

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In August 1991, I traveled to the Qinghai Province in northwestern China with my family. We visited various cities where my missionary grandparents had planted churches prior to the Communist Revolution of 1949. While in the city of Xining, I saw a butcher kill a goat on the sidewalk in front of his store. Until then, I’d never seen a butcher at work. But now I had, and it gave me a new perspective on Romans 12.1. Here’s what Paul writes: 

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 

The work of a priest and the work of a butcher are very different. In the Old Testament, a priest killed an animal as a sacrifice to God. A butcher, by contrast, kills an animal in order to sell its meat to customers. The ends a priest and a butcher pursue may differ, but the means to those ends are the same. Either way, as sacrifice or meat, the animal must be killed. 

But the necessary death of a sacrificial animal renders Paul’s remarks oxymoronic. How can something be a “living sacrifice”? It’s helpful to remember that Paul is speaking metaphorically here. He’s talking about us, not animals, although he uses the language of sacrificial animals to make an important point about us. 

That point can best be illustrated by Pastor Mung, a remarkable Christian leader I met in Xining. Pastor Mung had been a colleague of my grandparents. He was an exceptionally gifted pastor and evangelist. Because my grandparents were American citizens, they fled the Communist Revolution and returned stateside. But as a Chinese national, Pastor Mung had no place to go. 

The Communists were not kind to Chinese Christians. They viewed them as ideologues of the non-Communist West. So, the Communists confiscated Pastor Mung’s church buildings, they banned him from holding meetings, they imprisoned him, and even when they paroled him, they curtailed his ability to find good housing and a job. Throughout those very hard years, he soldiered on, ministering to his congregation in secret, encouraging small handfuls of believers through home visits. 

Pastor Mung lived sacrificially. I’m sure he could have said a few words or performed a few actions that would have somewhat alleviated his situation. But before God, in his conscience, he knew that he could not compromise his calling. He subordinated his own interests to the greater interests of the kingdom of God. 

Pastor Mung’s living sacrifice was effective. When I met him in 1991, the Communists had relaxed their attitudes, restored his church buildings, allowed him to openly gather a congregation, and even paid him a retirement pension. (He was in his early 80s at the time. He died a few years ago.) Most importantly, nearly 10,000 people had become baptized members of his church. 

In the Old Testament, a priest killed an animal, and it provided atonement for a time. On the streets of Xining, a butcher killed a goat, and it fed people for a meal. But Pastor Mung’s ministry will stretch throughout eternity, as only living sacrifices can do.

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