This month we take a straightforward look at a popular New Testament verse and mine out the beauty among the details. We look at the Greek and find comparative and contrasting words and thoughts, and determine what the author may have been saying and hoping to convey. It’s a good, old-fashioned Scripture study, sure to settle your soul and hopefully, to inspire you onward, full of the love of God. But we don’t stop there. How can we? This is the essay edition, and side stories, end-around, conjecture, quips, opinions and questions are all welcome here. In fact, they are expected. So don’t be surprised as we turn from the text to the journey to see if perhaps, there is something else behind the curtain, a little more than meets the eye.
“I beseech you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
Our focus is more on verse 2 than on verse 1, but since our verse begins with a conjunction it makes more sense to at least give a passing examination of that first verse.
Romans is written by Apostle Paul to the Christians gathered in Rome, the seat of the powerful Roman Empire. The church is a mixture of Jewish and Gentile believers and the book reflects Paul balancing the careful tension between what his Jewish audience knows from Torah and what his Gentile audience accepts from secular religion. In both cases, blood sacrifice was familiar and accepted, thus Paul’s odd instruction to present their bodies as living sacrifices would have meant more to them than it does to us. In short, Paul declared them to be holy and acceptable already, and appealed to reason in reminding them that in light of God’s mercy, their body belonged to the Lord, so they should live like it.
This instruction isn’t much different than what he told the Corinthian church when warning them of fornication. He combated the Greek, secular argument that the body and the spirit were separate entities and that it didn’t matter what one did with their body. This attitude allowed them to do whatever they desired since the spirit was secure despite the body. Paul pulled the unprecedented move of linking the two, calling the body the temple of the Holy Spirit, and pitching the union between man and God as being one so powerful that to sin against the body is to sin against the God that lives in that body.
So for Paul, it is reasonable to beseech, or urge, believers to live in a selfless way, in which we make sacrifices here and there of things, that while our bodies may want them, would be an insult to who we are.
This understanding prepares us for Verse 2, where Paul gives contrasting commands of “Do not be,” and “But rather be.” Do not be conformed to the age and do be transformed. Do not be like the system around you, but rather be transformed into something else entirely. In translation it makes perfect sense: Don’t be one thing; be another thing. In Greek, it says something even more profound.
The Greek noun “schema” on which the verb rendered “conform” is based indicates something external rather than internal, unreal rather than solid and lasting: “figure,” or “form.” It’s the word Paul used to the Corinthians when he declared, “The form (schema) of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). Think of the English word, “schematic,” which is something represented in simplified or symbolic form. To conform to the age around them would be to fashion themselves around a thing doomed to destruction.
The word translated “transformed” has as it’s root-noun “morphe,” which is different from the root-noun of “conformed,” and forms an antithesis to it. In such connections it indicates an essential, permanent, and real form. If “schema” is a figure, “morphe” is the real thing; like Morpheus in the Matrix movies, someone or something tangible in a world of illusion, speaking to Neo (Greek for “new,” by the way, as in a new man on the earth). As Neo chooses the red pill, Morpheus declares, “Remember…all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.”
For believers, the life of the transformed is the truth, the only real truth. Everything else is a schematic, an illusion of sorts. The path to transformation is to renew the mind, to fixate it on the image of the One who created us. Paul told the Colossians that they had put off the old man with his deeds, “And have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Colossians 3:9-10). As the image of Christ is brought into focus and greater clarity, we stare into that face as if it is our reflection in a mirror, and the Spirit goes to work to bring about transformation.
“But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
The word Paul uses to describe transformation in both Romans and 2 Corinthians is the same word used by the Gospel writers to describe what happened to Jesus at the mountain of transfiguration. Matthew 17 tells us that Jesus transfigured in front of Peter, James and John, and that his face shown and his raiment changed to pure white. This is not a superficial change, but a metamorphosis. His face and apparel did not take on qualities of light; they changed to reflect on the outside what was Christ’s on the inside. If it had been any other way, Matthew might have used the Greek word schema, to indicate that for a moment, Jesus just looked differently. For Paul to use the same word for transformation, quite literally metamorphosis, he is showing us that we can line our minds up with what God thinks of us, and truly transform from what we are into what we should be. We can have our very own caterpillar to butterfly experience.
And now, armed with knowledge of the Greek, and settled into the wonderful revelation of how powerful transformation can be, let’s explore a bit. Let’s go off the beaten path. Let’s take an educated guess and make an assumption or two.
Paul is the New Testament’s most brilliant and highly educated writer. Schooled in the great universities of his day, he possessed not only a high-level of knowledge concerning traditional Judaism and exposition of Torah, but he was also well-versed in the popular literature of his day, and the wisdom of the Greeks. He had no qualms about using these sources to make greater points in his sermons and writings. On at least three occasions in the New Testament, Paul quoted outside writings, writings that would have been popular and well known, but writings that were decidedly secular and certainly non-Jewish.
To the Athenians in Acts 17:28 he declared, “For we are also his offspring.” Paul turned that “his” into God, and said that man had come from God. But the quote is not original. Paul is quoting the Greek poet Aratus, (B.C. 272), who had written a poem titled Phenomena, comprising the main facts of astronomical and meteorological science as they were known at the time. The line Paul quoted is from the opening prayer to Zeus. Think of that: Paul quoted a prayer to Zeus, and then reimagined it as a theological statement of fact about God!
To his friend Titus, Paul used the quote “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons,” and then added, “This testimony is true” (Titus 1:12-13). This line is from Epimenides of Gnossus, in Crete. He lived 600 years B.C., and was considered to be a secular prophet and even divine. Plato called him “a divine man.” Paul obviously knew the poem, and didn’t shy away from quoting it, though its author was the equivalent of a shaman today. Not exactly Sunday morning sermon literature if you know what I mean.
What should we take from this? Maybe nothing, other than the fact that Paul used what he knew in order to make greater points of theology. He didn’t avoid using secular literature if it could serve a greater purpose. It may be too much to assume he would quote movies and music from today if he was here, but I don’t think so. At least I hope my previous reference to The Matrix would have his blessing.
I propose that Paul’s double usage of “morphe,” once to the Corinthians, and once to the Romans, two churches chalk full of Gentile believers, was to lean into a story from their culture to speak to a greater theological point. We make this educated guess based upon his propensity to use secular literature elsewhere and his knowledge of both his audience and their understanding. From this, let’s make our assumption.
Paul is a contemporary of the disciples of Jesus, meaning that while we may not be sure of his age, we can almost guarantee that he was alive during the time of Christ. Jesus lived from around 4 B.C. to about 30 A.D., and his life saw the end of the reign of Caesar Augustus and most of the reign of Caesar Tiberius. His life also overlapped that of the major Roman poet Ovid, who died in his late 50’s around 18 AD. A decade before his death, Ovid wrote a fifteen book mythological narrative titled The Metamorphoses. Literally translated Transformations, this epic work is about various transformations within Greek and Roman mythological literature. Its span is enormous, covering the creation of the world, the flood story and on into the life of the Caesars, concluding in praise of Augustus.
One of the The Metamorphoses most famous stories is that of the attempted rape of Daphne by the god Apollo. Daphne was the daughter of the river god Peneus, and she was the object of Apollo’s lust because he had been shot in the heart by Cupid’s arrow. Be careful not to dismiss these myths as so much mumbo jumbo. These stories helped explain supernatural things to the natural world. They were myths, but they weren’t useless.
The ancient world saw the power of the river. It’s turns and flows, its life-giving and life-taking capabilities. The river was a source of life. It isn’t stagnant, like a pool, and need not be dug and covered, like a well. It is a gift of God, or for the Greeks, the gods. Jesus stood on the Great Feast Day and declared that if anyone drank of him, out of his belly would flow rivers of living water. There’s a reason he doesn’t say that if you drink of him, out of your belly would flow a glass of water.
Apollo chases Daphne, and we pick up the story:
Her beauty was enhanced by flight. But the chase drew to an end, for the youthful god would not longer waste his time in coaxing words, and, urged on by love, he pursued at utmost speed. Just as when a Gallic hound has seen a hare in an open plain, and seeks his prey on flying feet, but the hare, safety; he, just about to fasten on her, now, even now, thinks he has her, and grazes her very heels with his outstretched muzzle; but she knows not whether or not she be already caught, and barely escapes from those sharp fangs and leaves behind the jaws just closing on her: so ran the god and maid, he sped by hope and she by fear. But he ran the more swiftly, borne on the wings of love, gave her no time to rest, hung over her fleeing shoulders and breathed on the hair that streamed over her neck. Now was her strength all gone, and, pale with fear and utterly overcome by the toil of her swift flight, seeing the waters of her father’s river near, she cried: “O father, help! If your waters hold divinity, change and destroy this beauty by which I pleased o’er well.” Scarce had she thus prayed when a down-dragging numbness seized her limbs, and her soft sides were begirt with thin bark. Her hair was changed to leaves, her arms to branches. Her feet, but now so swift, grew fast in sluggish roots, and her head was now but a tree’s top. Her gleaming beauty alone remained.
I propose that Paul had heard this myth, and possibly had even read Ovid. A contemporary of Ovid, and a student of Greek literature, he would have at least known the overarching themes of The Metamorphoses. Armed with the literature of his own heritage, the Hebrews, Paul knew that Psalms 1 declared a godly man to be “like a tree planted by the rivers of water” (Psalms 1:3). Daphne had fled to the image of her parent and found protection there. Her father, the river, had transformed her into a tree, and planted her beside the waters. Apollo, god of the sun, could do nothing to her in that state, but bless her with his rays. That which had been out to destroy her in her schema could do nothing to her in her morphe.
Maybe none of this is the case. Perhaps Paul simply chose a word from Greek language that he thought best articulated his point. But maybe, he chose a word that ran deep into the consciousness of his audience; a word that spoke of fleeing from accusers and finding transformation in the face of your creator; a word that said it is possible to become something else, something more stable, something with roots, something with heritage, something real. A word that made you feel like a son or a daughter to a father of great power, and that made you believe that you were one call of faith away from transforming into his image. A word that honored both the creator and the creation; that transcended the natural world and that helped to prove what is that good, and acceptable and perfect will of God.
Grace to you.