Paul uses amazingly diverse metaphors to define his identity as a follower of Jesus. At the conclusion to Romans he mentions once again the gracious gift that God gave to him, transforming him into the “priestly servant (leitourgos) of Christ Jesus for the nations” (15:15b-16). As Romans 1:5 indicates, “grace and apostleship” are synonymous in Paul’s mind as he understands his relationship with God and his ministry among the nations, calling them to obedient faith.
What is intriguing is the way Paul uses the language of sacred worship to define his ministry and calling among the nations. Terms of sacrifice and priestly work fill vs. 16. His missionary service equates with the role of the priests in the Jerusalem Temple, as they offer sacrifice to God and maintain the holy rhythms that honour God in worship. He too “serves the gospel of God in priestly ways (hierourgounta)”.
How does Paul understand this language? How does it help him conceive of his work for God and his identity in Christ? The verb Paul uses here (hierourgew) describes the work of a priest in preparing and offering sacrifices to God within the Temple, and more generally, all the rituals that contribute to and sustain the worship of God. Since the object of the verb here is “the gospel of God”, presumably Paul is not offering the gospel as a sacrifice, but rather serving it in a priestly way.
In using this metaphor, Paul is not putting himself in some special status, i.e. that he is the mediator between the nations and God. Rather, he is saying that he serves God like a priest and is the priestly servant of the Messiah whenever he proclaims God’s gospel about Jesus Christ. So he sees all of his efforts and struggles in terms of priestly service. As well, he implies that the Jewish Temple and all its rituals no longer function as the place and context in which God is worshipped. Rather, God is worshipped as His people fulfill the Great Commission and obey the Great Commandment in all of their living. Each believer can claim to be a ‘priestly servant of the Messiah’. A Christian’s existence is one of constant engagement in priestly, sacred toil for God. Such worshipful work is not localized in any particular place. It happens wherever God’s people are living for Him. Further, Paul indicates that everything in the Christian’s life is now imbued with sacred hue. Because we act for God in priestly service 24/7, there is no profane space in the believer’s schedule. Everything becomes sacred, an act of worship before God. Life is transformed into a constant stream of worship before God.
As people around us respond to God’s good news, they become the “offering (prosphora) of the nations” to God. Whether in this Paul means that the Gentile believers become themselves the sacrifice (as in Romans 12:1) or become additional priests serving the Gospel is difficult to say . In either case this is a radical statement. In Judaism the nations were barred from setting foot in the inner precincts of the Temple. Here, because the Gospel has transformed everything, they serve God as His priests!
Paul claims that this offering is “acceptable (euprosdektos)” to God. In the Old Testament an acceptable sacrifice had to meet stringent standards of quality – without blemish. It had to be offered in the right way, by the right officials and with the right attitude of heart. As the nations respond to the Gospel of God, they meet these criteria and become an acceptable offering. Again, the boundaries between clean and unclean are drastically redrawn. These people too become “consecrated in the Holy Spirit.” In 12:1 Paul describes their ‘living sacrifice’ as something that makes God really pleased (euareston). But here he uses a term that emphasizes the complete acceptability (euprosdektos) of their offering. Each term says essentially the same thing, but emphasizes a different aspect.
How do you see your work for God? Does it have the dignity, the worshipful essence, the fundamental importance of honouring God? If we only see ourselves as doing a job or performing a task, or putting in time, then we have lost sight of Paul’s vision for our ministry for Jesus. Is everything you do a ‘sacred act’, done to bring glory to God? Paul sees himself as participating in God’s incredible plans for involving humanity in the achievement of God’s purposes. It has eschatological urgency and Kingdom importance. Our motivation for ministry and our sense of its importance will be proportional to our belief that we are priestly servants of the Messiah, accomplishing this priestly work for the sake of God’s Gospel. Can it get any better than that
Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today:
- Do you see your involvement with God as His gracious gift or your right? What was Paul’s view?
- What metaphor best describes the way you see your work for Jesus? How does the image of "priestly servant" and "priestly work" enhance or deepen your understanding?
- Do you see your ministry as a divinely-enabled contribution to God’s eternal purposes? Are you ministering so that others might make their lives an offering of priestly service to God?
- 1. Paul may be basing much of his thinking on texts like Isaiah 66:19-21 – "They will proclaim my glory among the nations. And they will bring all your brothers, from all the nations, to my holy mountain in Jerusalem as an offering to the Lord..And I will select some of the them also to be priests and Levites.."