As Paul concludes his letter to the Christians in Rome, he explains again why he has written, i.e. in fulfillment of his commission from God as apostle to the nations (Rom. 15.15-16). He incorporates cultic or ritualistic language in order to describe the nature of this commission (leitourgos (priest), prosphora (sacrifice), euprosdektos (well-pleasing), hierourgeō (meaning to be determined), hēgiasmenē (sanctified)). Paul employs this language metaphorically to describe his role in taking the Gospel to the nations. In the midst of this description he employs the verb hierourgeō with to euaggelion tou theou (“the Gospel of God”) as its modifier or definer. This expression in turn explains the prior phrase leitourgein Christou Iēsou (“the priest/cultic servant of Messiah Jesus”).
This is the only occurrence of the verb hierourgeō in the New Testament. However, we do find it used frequently by the Jewish writers Philo, Josephus and the author of 4 Maccabees, as well as occasionally in other Greek writers, mainly after the 1st cent. B.C. (e.g. Nicolas of Damascus, Plutaruch, along with some inscriptions). The word is formed on the analogy of lexemes such as kakourgeō, “to misbehave, act wickedly, do bad things.” Our verb is formed from hieros, an adjective meaning “belonging to the temple, something sacred” and -ergos, defining some kind of activity or work. Schrenk in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament III (252) defines it as “to perform holy or sacrificial ministry.” Liddell and Scott indicate to “perform sacred rites” and BAGD suggest “to act in some cultic or sacred capacity, perform holy service, act as a priest.”
Philo used hierourgeō to describe Israelite participation in Passover. In Moses II.229 he is commenting on the story in Numbers 9:1-14 and indicates that God provided guidance in the matter of Passover for those who were unclean because of funeral rites. God “included in the divine edict those who for other reasons might be unable to join the whole nation in a sacred service (hierourgēsai).” Philo again comments upon the uniqueness of the Passover in that “on this occasion the whole nation performs the sacred rites (hierourgei) and acts as priest (hieratai) with pure hands and complete immunity” (Spec. Leg. II.145). The physical sacrifice of the Passover lamb forms the focus here. Note how Philo regards the involvement of the whole people of Israel in this sacrificial action as an unusual exception in Israel’s sacrificial regulations, in which a priest normally is required. Philo uses the verb over thirty times. In every case the verb has the sense of sacrificing something to the deity. For example in Spec. Leg. I. 177 Philo comments on the sacrifices to be offered when a new moon occurs. Ten animals are required and this number is regarded as the perfect number, matching the completion or perfection of the month. God “considered that the number of animals to be sacrificed (hierourgeisthai) should be perfect.” Such sacrifices follow the instructions of the deity.
Josephus similarly uses this verb in the sense of sacrificing something to the deity. Josephus recounts the story of Jephthah’s vow: “after praying for victory and promising to sacrifice, should he return home unscathed, and to offer up (hierourgēsein) the first creature that should meet him,…”(Antiquities V.263). Similarly in recounting the story about Saul’s decision to make sacrifice when the prophet Samuel was delayed, he describes how Samuel scolded Saul for acting precipitously and “forestalling him by having offered sacrifice (hierourgēsas) wrongly…”(Antiquities VI.102). One other example. When David buys Arauna’s threshingfloor, Josephus says that “having built the altar he performed the sacred rites (hierourgēse) and offered burnt-offerings and peace-offerings”(Antiquities VII.333). So plainly in Jewish Hellenistic writers of the first centuries A.D.hierourgeō means in many contexts to perform sacred rites, namely offering sacrifices.
When we come to Rom. 15:16, however, the object of the participle hierourgounta is “the Gospel of God.” This phrase plainly cannot serve as the direct object of the participle in the sense of being the sacrifice, i.e. “offering the Gospel of God as a sacrifice,” because the actual sacrifice is mentioned in the following purpose clause (hē prosphora tōn ethnōn, “the offering of the nations”). The accusative phrase “the Gospel of God” generally is interpreted as an accusative of reference, with the action of the verb done in reference to something. In this case Paul’s priestly actions occur in reference to the Gospel of God.
An analogy to this interpretation may occur in a variant reading in 4 Maccabees 7:8, a writing regarded by many as contemporary with Paul’s correspondence. The writer praises Eleazer, the main character, for his unswerving loyalty to the law, despite the diverse tortures he experienced. Intending to encourage such loyalty in other Jewish priests, the author observes “such should be those whose office is to serve the law (dēmiourgountas ton nomon), shielding it with their own blood and noble sweat” (NETS translation). The textual variant reads hierourgountas ton nomon “performing priestly actions with reference to the law.” The noun ton nomon serves as an accusative of reference to the participle hierourgountas, as seems to be the case in Romans 15:16.
Paul expresses his conviction that by God’s grace he is a “priestly minister of Messiah Jesus, carrying out priestly duties with reference to the Gospel of God, in order that the nations might become an acceptable offering to God,..” (Romans 15:16). He proclaims the Gospel as a priestly minister of Messiah Jesus and all of his activities to this end are priestly rituals defined by this Gospel. Non-Jewish people who respond to this Gospel become the sacrifice which he offers to God and Messiah Jesus, and made holy for this purpose by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. In terms of the Jewish Temple and priestly occupations associated with it, Paul’s usage of this terminology expresses a radical revision of such priestly vocation in the service of the Messiah.