What Does it Mean to Be Alive? A Reflection on Paul's Counter-Cultural Use of the Word "Living" (Reading Romans 12:1)

In Romans 12:1 Paul uses the word “living” which is a Greek word used to describe the essence of life. It means to be “alive.” I have been exploring that word for a couple of hours now and I must admit my mind is exited by what I have found but at the same time it is muddled by it. It is at these moments that I ink thoughts like those that follow. I know what I am trying to say, but I am not really sure where to end. All in all, the simple point I would like to make about the word “living” in Romans 1 is that Paul’s use of it was radically counter-cultural in the first century and remains so today. As a student of Scripture we need to read it with the understanding that each word is carefully chosen and equally beautiful. I believe Romans 12:1 – 2 is one of the most well crafted statements in human history. I wish I could choose my own words so well. Maybe you, the reader of this blog, can help me bring all of this to some conclusion! I am out of time today. I value your input.

What does it mean to be alive? Is life the mere biological function of a body or is it something more? There are times when being alive is an expression of euphoria. When my daughters were born I felt very alive. Where does life come from? Bodies exist without life. Life is not simply that which makes a body move, but it is also that which makes one self-aware. Lifeless bodies can be moved. Thus life is not merely something kinetic that moves a body, but it is the awareness that the body is being moved. Somewhere deep within a person is where all of this comes together and makes him alive. Biologically he is functioning. He is self aware. In a normal state he can make his left hand rub his right eye. He is invigorated by the memories of the births of his daughters. He is alive. Yet the reality of his life was beyond his choosing. He did not ask to be alive. Because he is alive, he is very aware of the mystery of his own existence. Because he is alive this is a mystery that matters to him.

The Greek philosophers understood that life had nothing to do with the body. The body was merely a vehicle that made life apparent to and connected it with the material world, but life was something else. Life was a divine gift. Deity is the source of awareness, namely knowledge. Deity was self existent outside of the material world. The soul is the place where the divine gift of life touched human matter, the body. This made the life of man more than biological life. The purpose of other creatures was merely to pass on life and thus continue the species. The divine spark in man gave rise to greater possibilities. Man lived for a reason and he knew this due to the nature of his life. The life of deity was constantly fulfilled outside of the body. Man existed only in possibility within the body. Because life was sourced in the divine this means man was in some sense a pre-existent stranger within a body. Thus, the full potential of man, his true life could only be found in a return to its source, separate from the body. This did not necessarily mean that man had to somehow be apart from his body, but that he could not reach his potential until somehow his knowledge and awareness were found separate from his body. He would not truly live until he understood life had nothing to do with being in a body.

Paul brings clarity to vague philosophy. He finds a place for the body. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (Romans 12:1).” In Christ Paul found the means by which man can reach his full potential. Because of the radical nature of salvation (the mercies of God) man is able to be in the body while fully connected to the divine source of life. Paul appeals to humans to do something even more remarkable than that which Plato required. Paul implores humans to be fully alive in the body, with the body, while at the same time acknowledging that life is more than biological function. The body is not an odd trap of the divine life spark. A man who is fully alive can make a choice about his body. The body does not define life, nor does it control life. A man who is fully alive can control his body so much so that he can present it back to God. This idea is a greater end than the philosophy prevalent in Paul’s day. Thus in the first century context Paul’s teaching was radical.

Romans 12:1-2 is radical today. Naturalism has reduced life to something merely biological. Naturalism is philosophical rape. It is the abuse of science. It is dishonest thought. It violates the very essence of life. There is nothing biological about sacrifice. The natural instinct is survival, not sacrifice. Only a man who is fully alive can make the conscious choice to make the body a living sacrifice for God.

We all crave to "be alive." What does it mean to be alive? Paul has defined it well.


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