Ivan the Great, Tsar of Russia in the fifteenth century, was a great General and is called the father of modern Russia because he led his soldiers in driving out the Tatars, and consolidating the tribal territories, and acquiring more land than any other Tsar or General in Russian history. He was so busy as a General, however, he never found time to marry and his counselors became quite concerned that there was no heir to the throne. Consequently, he told them to find him a wife.
They traveled the capitols of Europe looking for the right wife. They solicited the royal families and finally found a beautiful young woman by the name of Sophia who was the daughter of the king of Greece. So the contract was made—except she refused to marry Ivan the Great unless he did one thing – that was to join her church, the Greek Orthodox Church. He readily agreed – so the wedding was set and he made his journey down to Greece and took with him five hundred troops and the palace guard.
When they arrived, the troops decided that they wanted to do as their Tsar and join the Greek Orthodox Church. A Priest was assigned to each one of the soldiers – five hundred Priests to five hundred soldiers, leading them through the catechism and preparation for church membership.
Then they came to a very difficult problem. The teachings of the church said that no-one could be a member of the church, and be a professional soldier. This seemed to eliminate them, but they devised a plan to go ahead and be baptized.
The day came for the mass baptism – the Eastern Orthodox Church baptizes as do we, by emersion. They came to the river, and five hundred candidates and five hundred Priests were led into the water. The candidates were in their full uniform with all their implements of war. As the Priests on the shore recited the right of baptism and as each Priest started to immerse his candidate, each soldier reached his right hand to his scabbard and pulled out his sword and thrust his arm and sword out of the water! So – they could say, “Our bodies are in the church, our souls are in the church – but we have held onto the right to take this sword and fight in battle, for it has not been baptized or committed to the church.”
Now my dear friend, this is a true historical incident. And it is fascinating for it is a parallel that could apply, perhaps, to some of us today. I wonder if there are any un-baptized arms or swords around here today? Could it be when I made my commitment to Jesus Christ, to His church, accepted Him as Lord and Savior – I said, “But there is one area that is still my own in my life – there is one thing I still hold onto – there is something yet not surrendered to Him – and so, as we made this commitment and we were received and baptized, we figuratively or spiritually reached down and took hold of this and thrust it out saying, this is still mine.”
I ask this penetrating question of every one of you: Are you totally committed to Jesus Christ? Is there a total surrender? Or is there something you have held back – some area of your life, whether it is a social part of your being, a business side of your life – whether it is your money, or your talent, or your tithe – whatever it is – a secret sin, something that you just do not feel right about – and you know if Christ were to come into that area of your life, he would change some things – so you have held onto it – and have thrust it out saying, “I will keep this. Yes, Lord. I belong to you – Yes, Lord, I am committed – Yes, Lord, I am saved. But it is not a total, all out commitment.”
That is what the apostle Paul talks about here in Romans 12. In the first eleven chapters Paul describes the glorious thing God has done for us. He talks about the rath of God, the lostness of man, our condemnation – and then how God in His eternal purpose sent Jesus Christ, how Christ died on the cross and the wonderful salvation we have in Jesus Christ. He lays this foundation – then –
Chapter 12, verse 1, is like a hinge and the book now swings literally. Paul says, “I beseech therefore, brethren, on the basis of all that God has done here now – therefore, by the mercies of God – what God has done for you – present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.”
In this appeal, Paul puts two pictures before us:
- The picture of an altar. This is anything but familiar to you and to me today. However, every Roman understood what an altar was. There were the altars in the pagon shrines and temples. There was the altar in Jerusalem where the sacrifice was made. There were the Priests who went in and who offered the sacrifices to God on the altar, the atonement for sin to bring the people to God. Pagons or in judiasm, they all understood this, it was out of their everyday life. Paul says, “here is an altar.”
- The second picture he presents is a sacrifice. Now let us lay a sacrifice on this altar. But, is it to be the sacrifice of a goat, or two turtle doves, or a bull that is slaughtered – is it to be a blood sacrifice? No – he has covered all of this in the first eleven chapters. Christ has become the sacrifice once and for all. He has died for sin. So it is not a sin offering we are to bring to this altar.
The sacrifice to be laid on the altar is a living sacrifice. It is to be our living bodies. We are to lay ourselves on that altar. He is talking about an act of consecration, an act of dedication, and act of surrender. In the light of what God has done for us, we ought to make this total sacrifice of ourselves as to lie down on that altar.
The seal of the American Baptist Missionary Society so very graphically portrays the surrender we ought to make. In the center is an ox; on one side is an altar; on the other side is a plow. Underneath are the words, “ready for either.” And the commitment and surrender of the living sacrifice of a missionary sent out onto the field is: I am ready to be hitched to the plow like an oxen and, day by day in the dull drab routines of living, I will pull and work and labor. Or, I am ready for the altar – if I must go and die, I am ready to die. Let me be sacrificed; I am ready to give my life to this cause. My friend, this is the commitment that every one of us ought to make. Lord, I am ready for either. Live or die! My life is totally surrendered to you.
I think of a great Methodist missionary, Melville Cox who went from Wesleyan University to Liberia in Africa. He said to a friend on campus: “If I die in Africa, you must come and put this on my tomb stone: Let a thousand fall but let not Africa fall.” Four months later he was dead. But he was glad to say, “My life is on the altar for the cause of Christ, ready to plow or ready to die – but this cause is so great, let it not fall!”
This is Paul’s appeal, here is the altar and here you stand. Now here is the sacrifice, your life and my life, our talents, our abilities, our time, our energies. There are not exceptions. You cannot stand back and say, I don’t have anything to lay on the altar. I am not talented. I am not skilled – I cannot sing like these young people or this choir – I cannot teach, I cannot witness, I cannot preach. Paul said there are no exceptions.
There are many members, many parts, to the body – but there is just one body. We have many gifts. Some have the gift to prophesize; some have the gifts to teach, let them teach. Some are preachers. Then – there are some who just give. They may not be able to do some things but they can say, “My life is laid on the altar. As I make the living for my family and my needs, I can bring to the Lord my gifts, my tithes and offerings – and I can be a part of the body of Christ. I will be a part of the preaching of the word of God, a part of the mission enterprises – a part of it all! Because I am giving.”
No one is exempted. All must come. I appeal to everyone of you: present your bodies a living sacrifice. Oh, my friends there are three reasons that Paul outlines why we ought to do this.
THE MERCIES OF GOD
Because of what God has done for us – that is our motivation. In the first eleven chapters Paul covered it all – what Jesus Christ has done for us on the cross. There is no higher motivation. He saved me – He gave me joy and peace – He gave me the life I have. By His mercies – how good God has been to me.
Sometimes we get to fussing and complaining about the bad things that happen in life. Oh how we need to start listing on the other side the goodness of God! Compare yourself to the other people of this world – not just in your neighborhood, but in the whole world. Think about the affluence of America, the wealth that is ours, the comfort that is ours, the medical resources, the abundance we have in this land. Think about the poverty-stricken billions of people in this world who have no hope and future, physically or economically, culturally or socially. How good God has been to you and to me! We cannot help but say, “Oh God, How much I owe you because of your mercies and goodness to me.”
Furthermore, Paul would say: There is to be no great victory achieved, no great battles to be won, no great marks to be set in life unless there is sacrifice – total commitment. Mark it down! Unless there is total commitment, little is achieved.
Look at a young person in school – dabbling around, dilly-dallying, studying little, not studying, off again, on again – he gets on a job, off of a job, this little thing, that little thing, going this way, that way – no goals! No purpose. No Commitment. And not much is accomplished by such a life. We all know that. We call it motivation. Our just wish says some, my son or my daughter would get motivated – they have the ability, but I wish they would get motivated. Motivation is commitment.
Motivation is to say I am going in a direction – I am ready to pour out my life toward this goal and this end. There is nothing great to be accomplished in life unless there is some commitment. And the greater the commitment, the greater the accomplishment in life.
You can apply it in other areas. You do not become a great musician without total commitment to that calling. You do not become a great athlete without total commitment.
Ty Cobb, of baseball fame, kept training all the time. Even at the peak of his career, when he was the best baseball player in the world, he still went out for batting practice every day just like a rookie. That is why he was great. There was this commitment – total commitment to the goal.
Now Paul said this is true of the Christian life and the life of the church. There needs to be people like you and like me who are ready to say, I make the commitment, the total commitment. I put my life on the altar of sacrifice.
Back in 1977 the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary celebrated their 100 Anniversary of the Seminary being in Louisville, Kentucky. Started in Civil War days in Greenville, S.C., with 24 students, the seminary was about ready to collapse at the end of the war. But three men had a dream and a vision, and they moved the seminary out of the deep south to Louisville where there were more students and resources.
But before they did this there was a prayer meeting where they made a covenant of blood sacrifice, each with the other, and with God. This is what they said: “The seminary may die; but if it does, we will die first.” They were saying, as long as we live, we are going to pour our lives out to keep this seminary alive.
From that tiny beginning a great institution was born that has sent literally thousands of ministers and missionaries and church workers around the world – because somebody made a commitment, and put their lives on the altar.
There are no great churches built, no great things done in a city for Christ unless there are some people ready to say, “I am committed. My life is on the altar.” It is not only your money God wants, it is you – a total commitment of you. And when there is a total commitment of you, then you have no problem about that tithe that ought to be paid. God calls for you.
By the mercies of God – because there is no great achievement without total commitment – you ought to do this.
It is your reasonable service to do it. It is good sense to do it. Get your head on straight. Think it through. Get smart. Has anyone ever given their heart and life to Jesus Christ, and made a mistake in doing it! Of course not. All the reasoning in the world tells you – it is the reasonable thing to be a Christian – the reasonable thing to serve God. The smartest thing you can do is to give yourself totally to God. It is very unwise to give yourself to other things – but nobody ever made a mistake in making a total commitment, a total surrender of their all. No one ever looses. This is the reasonable service.
This reminds me of a story about a country preacher:
A young man visited in this community who was a preacher. The pastor of a large Baptist church invited him to visit and to fill his pulpit that Sunday night. The pastor tells what happened. The young man preached as no man I ever heard – such power and force, such spiritual depth – he moved us all. Later that night, I said, “Son, where in the world did you learn to preach like that?” The answer was I don’t know that I have learned to preach – I just studied hard. But you have something I don’t have – what do you do? The young man answered, “I’ve just given my life totally to Jesus Christ. I’m just fully surrendered. I’ve given Him everything I have and told him to use it.” Then, he asked me, “haven’t you given everything to Jesus Christ?” This totally shocked me and I could not sleep that night. Is that why there is something missing – is that why I don’t have the joy and the victory – is there something I have not given completely to Jesus Christ? I’ve given Him my sins, my life, and told Him I would preach for Him.
The next morning my wife said, You didn’t sleep last night. What is the matter? I said, I want to tell you something – I gave my fox hounds to the Lord last night. You see, I had surrendered everything to the Lord – but I never thought about it – I had always thought the fox hounds were mine. That’s my sport – and I had just surrendered everything to the Lord, but I never really had said, Oh, Lord, you can even have my fox hounds! And the greatest peace came over me when I said I will sell them – I will get rid of them – I will give it up. They’re yours, Lord. Everything in my life I give to you. The pastor said then, that is why my life turned around; when I made that complete surrender.
My dear friend, you see, God is not going to take your fox hounds or your boat or whatever, away from you – not at all. But God just waits for you to say, I’m going to put it all on the altar. Present your bodies a living sacrifice. And you don’t thrust the arm and the sword and say, “You can have everything except this is mine – I want to keep it.”
And when you give it all to Him in complete and total commitment and surrender, He comes to bless you and bless you in a way you could never dream. Paul says, “Present your bodies a living sacrifice.”
William Carey had an uncle who was a sailor who filled his heart with stories about the world and people of the world. He began to study geography along with his bible. His heart became concerned about these people of the world who did not know Jesus Christ.
Carey, a cobbler by trade, made a globe of leather and, on the outside, he outlined the continents and hung it above his bench. While he repaired shoes, he pointed out the countries to his customers and talked about the lost people in darkness who needed Jesus Christ. His heart truly burned.
One day he was told his business was about to fail because he talked about the world and missions. He answered, you have it wrong; this world and missions is my business. I just cobble shoes to make a living. And then he laid his life on the altar and went out to India to serve for forty years. Today there are more Baptist in India than in any other part of the world outside the continental United States. The result of one man – and his total commitment.
That is what God can do for you. However you make your living – whatever you do – you do it to get by, but your business is the Lord’s business! Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service! The smartest thing you can do is this and God will open up the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing so great you’ll not be able to receive it.