Sunday, January 19, 2020


“My Utmost for His Highest”
Ephesians 5:1-2
The practical aspects of living in the new pattern of thinking and of
life continue in the book of Ephesians as we move into the next section and the fifth chapter of the book. First, however, Paul takes a moment to further summarize how he had closed out the previous section of his letter: 

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:1-2 ESV) 

If we would think about these words for a few moments, and if we were able to follow this advice perfectly, this statement completely encapsulates what it means to be a Christian—to be a Christian is to imitate God.

In some Bible translations, the word for imitators is translated as followers, but the word that Paul used actually is meant to show that our commitment is to go beyond mere following.[1]

The difference comes in realizing that it is possible to be a follower, and yet not actually emulate or try to be like the person we are following. This is not the manner of a true follower of Christ. We are those who imitate Christ. We model our lives after Jesus and try to be like him in every way.

The verse tells us that the primary way in which we do this is to walk in love. No matter what aspect of the life of Christ is being discussed, it always seems to come back to this—love. Love, after all, is the manner in which Christ revealed himself to us. In the life and ministry of Christ on the earth, he demonstrated his love in every way. He accepted people, healed them and fed them, while at the same time teaching them truth. In these ways, Jesus gave himself up for us.

Beyond that, however, Jesus gave himself for us by presenting himself as a sacrifice to be offered in our place. Paul is actually referring specifically to this. We know this because he mentions the ultimate demonstration of the love of Christ is that he gave himself as “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

The mention of the fragrant offering is a specific reference to the Old Testament sacrificial system. The concept of a bloody sacrifice being a fragrant offering to God is something that is difficult for us to see, so it may be worth our while to look at the history that Paul is speaking about. 

A Sweet Sacrifice

The first time we read of something like this in Scripture is after the flood of Noah, when Noah built an altar and sacrificed the “clean” animals and birds that had been on the ark. The clean animals were of those species of animals that the God deemed as being ones that were acceptable for sacrifice.

We read in that passage that “The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, ‘I will ever again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done’” (Genesis 8:21 NAS).

Why did God call the sacrifice of these animals a “soothing aroma?” To many people, this seems no different than many pagan practices of offering sacrifices of animals and even human sacrifice to blood-thirsty gods who demand it of their followers to appease their anger. 
Counterfeiting Rather Than Imitating

There are two things that we first should say before we further examine the concept of a soothing aroma or fragrant offering. The first thing that must be said is that it should be no surprise to us that Satan, in his continuing attempt to counterfeit the things of God, would also introduce into pagan religions a counterfeit system of sacrifice; ones that are of the most heinous natures.

Satan does not imitate God, as Paul tells us to do, but Satan rather counterfeits God. The difference is that it is not Satan’s desire to model himself after God and seek to be like God, but rather to twist the things of God and finally to replace God entirely. This is why Satan has caused so much confusion in the world, not only in this regard but in many others as well. 

Life is in the Blood

The second thing that I wish to point out is that from the earliest of times, God has taught us the life-giving attributes of blood. This we know to be true in the physiological sense, but even before the physical properties of blood were known, God sought to instill that knowledge in us. This is why the sacrifice of a sheep given by Abel was acceptable to God, but the sacrifice of the plant crop of Cain was not (Genesis 4:2-5).

“The life of the flesh is in the blood,” God said to Moses (Leviticus 17:10).

Blood is the very essence of life. A bloody sacrifice is meant to be an expression of the realization that all life belongs to God. There is no such thing as true life apart from God.

When God was instructing Noah and his family after the flood about the eating of meat, he told them, “Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Genesis 9:4).

As God began to introduce the Old Testament sacrificial system, we continue to see the importance of a life given up in worship to God. When God was giving Moses the instructions for conferring the priesthood to Aaron and his sons, God said, “You shall slaughter the ram and shall take its blood and sprinkle it around on the altar…and you shall offer up in smoke the whole ram on the altar; it is a burnt offering to the LORD: it is a soothing aroma, an offering by fire to the LORD” (Exodus 29:16-18 NAS). 


Then, when God began to teach the Israelites about atonement, we again see the importance of a blood sacrifice that is to be given.

We do not often use the word atonement in our common and everyday parlance, but you can consider an atonement as a payment given for a wrong done.
But it is more than that. An act of atonement is given not simply for repayment, and nothing more. It is offered also so that there will be a reconciliation between the offender and the one offended. In this case it is a reconciliation between man and God.

“The life of the flesh is in the blood,” God said concerning the system of sacrifice that he was instituting, “and I have given it to you to make atonement for your souls upon the altar; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul” (Leviticus 17:11).

The Old Testament teachings concerning the sacrificial system are quite extensive and very detailed in every regard. God additionally instructed Moses in this manner: 

Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, “When any man of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of animals from the herd or the flock…And he shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, that it may be accepted for him to make atonement on his behalf.

“And he shall slay the young bull before the LORD; and Aaron’s sons, the priests, shall offer up the blood and sprinkle the blood around on the altar that is at the doorway of the tent of meeting. And the priest shall offer up in smoke all of it on the altar for a burnt offering, an offering by fire of a soothing aroma to the LORD.” (Leviticus 1:2, 4-5, 9b NAS) 

Although these instructions may give us some idea of the importance of a blood sacrifice, this subject of the sacrificial system is one of those in Scripture that I have always believed has deeper teachings and realities that have not been revealed to us at this time. We would be wrong in pretending that we have a complete understanding of why it was necessary for the blood to be such an essential part of the sacrifice to be offered in order for there to be an atonement made for the sins of the people, and thus restoring their relationship with God. Nevertheless, it is clear from Scripture that this is the case.
One could say however, that we are to understand that the blood sacrifice was meant to teach us that the life of one is required to give atonement for the life of another. In some regards, we could view it as payment in kind—a life given for a life.

The Perfect Sacrifice – the Perfect Atonement

As we move from the Old Testament to the New, we begin to learn something else about the bloody sacrifices that had been performed on altars for centuries. The earlier sacrifices of the Old Covenant, as imperfect as they were in providing this restoration of man with God, were a foreshadowing of the perfect sacrifice later given with the blood of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the clearest explanation of this is found in the book of Hebrews. The writer of that book confirms the truth that throughout history God was trying to teach the importance of blood with the sacrifices on the altars of the tabernacle and the temple.

Speaking of the Old Testament sacrificial system, the writer says, “Under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).

That truth, the Israelites should have learned long before. It was a lesson that had been conducted and taught for centuries. However, the additional truth that the writer of Hebrews now wishes to explain is that these Old Covenant sacrifices were not an end unto themselves. Their true and greater purpose was to point to what was to the people of those times a future and perfect sacrifice—the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The writer of the book of Hebrews, writing after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, explains it in this way: 

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come,  He went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made by hands and is not of this creation. He did not enter by the blood of goats and calves, but He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by His own blood, thus securing eternal redemption.  

For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that their bodies are clean, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God, purify our consciences from works of death, so that we may serve the living God!  

Therefore Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, now that He has died to redeem them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. (Hebrews 9:11-15 BSB) 

I mentioned earlier some of the ways in which Jesus expresses his love for us, such as feeding the hungry and healing the afflicted. His greatest and ultimate expression of love however, is that he offered his own body as the sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins and our rebellion against God. This is the sacrifice provided that finally gives us the means to gain our atonement with God. Jesus became our bloody sacrifice to restore our lost relationship with God the Father. 

Love and Commitment to the Extreme

Now Paul is writing to the Ephesians in the first verse of the fifth chapter, telling them that they are to be imitators of God and to walk in love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant sacrificial offering to God.

We also are to love to this extreme. This does not mean that we are all called to be physically sacrificed for God or for others. As a matter of fact, if one would teach this, it would seem to indicate that they would see the sacrifice of Jesus as being inadequate.

Instead, we are taught to commemorate the sacrifice of Jesus through the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup in the Lord’s Supper. This is what the Apostle Paul said in First Corinthians 11:26: As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.

Nevertheless, even though all are not called to die for others and for Christ, it is true that some are. It is the painful reality in several countries where Christians are under persecution by the governing authorities. But what is more basic to our understanding of this love, even though we are not all called to be martyrs, we are all called to love to the extent that we would be willing to do so, should that be what we are given to do.

It is the life that knows the love of God to this extreme that brings the soothing aroma or fragrant offering to God. It is a life that is given in sacrifice to the cause of Christ that will bring praise to God. 
A Life “Poured Out” in Worship

It is a life that is completely poured out in praise. It is as Mary the sister of Lazarus poured her entire vial of costly perfume on the feet of Jesus as an act of worship, holding back nothing for her own use (John 12:1-8). It is a “drink offering,” poured upon the altar.

Paul actually referred to the act of being poured out twice in his writings concerning his own service to God. He wrote to the Philippian church, “But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you” (Philippians 4:17 BSB).

Near the end of his life, he also wrote to his young friend Timothy, 

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8 NAS) 

Captivated by the Love of Christ

A life given completely in devotion to God is also what Paul spoke about when he wrote to the Corinthians concerning some of the difficulties he was experiencing in this service to Christ: 

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in his triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. (2 Corinthians 2:14-15 NAS) 

This phrase of God leading us in triumph in Christ reminiscent of what Paul wrote earlier in Ephesians when he also spoke of Christ leading a “host of captives.” In that instance, he was probably referring to Christ’s victory over the Satanic forces at the ascension “on high” of Christ.

Here in the book of Second Corinthians, Paul is applying that same thought of captivity to us as believers. This time however, he is applying it in a different manner. We also are being lead in “triumph in Christ” when we consider our lives a sacrifice in “the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.” These words speak of the results of a life that is wholly dedicated to God.

The benefits of this ministry of love flows in every direction. We do not only give love to others, but at the same time, we are receiving the benefits to ourselves. The dedication that we demonstrate to God and to other believers is a pleasing sacrifice to God.

In turn, we ourselves are blessed. Paul writes of this to the Philippians when he says, “I have received everything in full, and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. And my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:18-19 NAS). 
The Sweet-Smelling Aroma of a Life Given Completely to God

Whatever the entire understanding may be of all the deeper meanings of the blood sacrifice, the one thing that is clear is that it speaks of a complete commitment of a life to God. That is why when Paul speaks of Christ loving us to the extent that he gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice, he speaks of a life totally presented before God.

It is impossible to say what each one of us must do as individuals in presenting our lives before God as a sweet fragrant offering. What I am called to do is different from what you are called to do.

Nevertheless, our callings are the same in that each of us are called to complete dedication and sacrifice. We are to hold back nothing. We are to give our lives in their entirety. We are poured out in our entirety, claiming nothing for ourselves.

It is a sacrifice, but in the larger picture of what Paul has been trying to teach us all throughout the book of Ephesians, it is a sacrifice that actually is logical. Our lives, viewed from the mountaintop and lofty perspective of eternity, have much greater and deeper meanings than we can possibly see now. What seems to be a loss in the present will bring great gain in eternity. The Lord, the righteous Judge, will reward all who have poured out their lives in service and who wait for his appearing.

Jesus appeared to the Apostle John and said to him, “Behold, I am coming soon, and My reward is with Me, to give to each one according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:12-13 BSB).

When we consider our lives in this way, what is it of this life that you would actually want to hold on to? What will become of any accumulation of wealth or property that we can gain? What of life experiences? Is life only about what you can experience now, about career success and how many places you can travel?

Bucket lists are only for those who have nothing to look forward to beyond this present life, but a life poured out as a sweet fragrance in sacrifice to God will give much more satisfaction not only now, but also certainly in eternity. 

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
(Words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:1-2 NAS)

[1] The word is mimétés: an imitator. It is the root for our English word mimic, which in this sense is a positive imitation

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