Poured Out for Others

The Meaning of a Sacrificial Life

Leviticus is the book where many Bible-reading plans go to die. Those who begin well in Genesis and Exodus find themselves, like the people of Israel, stumbling through the wilderness in Leviticus and Numbers, desperate to find their way to the story of David or the letters of Paul. For many, they stumble because they haven’t been taught the ABCs of the sacrificial system. The instructions about arranging animal parts, sprinkling blood, and bodily emissions are incomprehensible until they learn the basic grammar of the Levitical world.

Once we’ve grasped some of the basics, however, we find that we’re not only able to read Leviticus with more understanding; we’re also able to see depths in the rest of Scripture, including Paul’s letters, that were hidden before. Consider the following sentences, tucked away in his exhortation to the Philippians to do all that they do without grumbling or complaining:

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. (Philippians 2:17–18)

The language here is Levitical and layered. We are invited to consider the Christian life, and ministry to others, through the lens of Leviticus. Paul assumes that his readers would be familiar with the various sacrifices and offerings, and therefore able to comprehend the aim of his ministry and the aim of their lives.

All of Me to All of You

Paul references two offerings — the drink offering and the sacrificial offering (literally, “the sacrifice and service of your faith”). The latter is most likely a reference to the ascension offering, sometimes called “the whole burnt offering.”

“Every Christian is now a living ascension offering, daily presenting ourselves to God through faith in Christ.”

The whole burnt offering is the baseline offering in the Old Testament, in which the worshiper lays hands on the unblemished animal so that the spotless animal now represents the sinful worshiper. The animal is killed, its blood drained and then sprinkled on the altar by the priest. After this, the priest arranges the dismembered body parts on the altar, with a particular focus on the head and the fat portions. Finally, the priest burns up the whole animal so that the animal, as the representative of the worshiper, ascends to God in the smoke as a pleasing aroma.

This offering is a fitting image of total surrender, of our heartfelt desire to draw near to the living and holy God despite our sinfulness. In it, the worshiper confesses, in essence, “All of me to all of you, O God.” Paul draws out this element of the sacrificial system in Romans 12:1–2:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

In the new covenant, rather than offering an animal through fire and smoke, we offer ourselves — our bodies and our minds — as our spiritual service and worship to God. We present the members of our bodies to God as his instruments, and we submit our minds and hearts to the truth of his word. And as Paul makes clear in Philippians, we do all of this by faith. Every Christian is now a living ascension offering, daily presenting ourselves to God through faith in Christ.

And, of course, the deepest reason that we are now able to make this spiritual offering of our bodies and minds is that Christ has fulfilled the Levitical sacrificial system by offering himself on the cross. Christ entered the heavenly holy place, “not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). Christ offered a better sacrifice than bulls and goats, putting away sin once for all by the sacrifice of himself (Hebrews 9:26). We offer ourselves totally to God only on the basis of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.

Poured Out for Their Sacrifice

Remember, however, that Philippians 2 mentions a second offering with which the apostle identifies both himself and his ministry: “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering . . .” Again, with the ABCs of Leviticus in hand, we recall that alongside the primary ascension offering were also secondary offerings such as the tribute or grain offering, representing the works and labor of the worshiper. If the ascension offering is the main course, the tribute offering is the side dish.

In the book of Numbers, we learn that once Israel entered the Promised Land, they were to offer not only grain offerings but also drink offerings. They were to pour out wine on the altar, along with the grain. And here’s a crucial point: according to Numbers 15, every ascension offering made in the Promised Land was to be accompanied by a grain offering and a drink offering. Every cheeseburger came with fries and a drink.

So, what does that have to do with Philippians? Paul says that each of the Philippians is being offered as a living sacrifice, as an ascension offering. And his labor for their joy and faith is the drink offering on the side. He’s being poured out so that they can be offered up. And so, he’s willing to be poured out, all the way to the bottom, that is, to death.

Isn’t this a wonderful, biblical, Levitical picture of the church and the Christian life? We are all called to offer ourselves wholly to God. “All of me to all of you, O God, because of Jesus.” Total surrender. Each of us is an ascension offering, daily giving ourselves to God, renewing our minds by his truth, and presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice. This is our spiritual worship.

Following the apostle’s example, though, each of us is also called to be a drink offering for others. We’re called to be poured out as a glorifying accompaniment to their lives of sacrificial service. Like Paul, we labor and run and work and give so that others can be pure and blameless for the day of Christ. We pour ourselves out so that they can offer themselves up.

Offering One Another to God

This Levitical background shapes our vision of the Christian life and ministry to others. For instance, consider how this vision of Christian service reorients our labor to shepherd our children. To begin, we are not fundamentally asking them to offer their obedience to us; we’re aiming at a living sacrifice and service to God by faith. When we exhort them to not grumble and complain, but instead to offer cheerful, happy, and full obedience, we are calling them to gladly say, “All of me for all of you, O God, through Jesus Christ your Son.”

Or consider how it shapes our prayers. When Paul says that he is being poured out as a drink offering, this includes the prayers that he offered for the Philippians at the beginning of his letter.

It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9–11)

Abounding love, growing discernment, wise approval of what is good and right in any circumstance — this is a Godward life. If God answers this prayer, these people will be pure and blameless, living sacrifices filled with his righteousness, and fully pleasing to him. And behind such a Godward life of spiritual worship lie the prayers and labors of the apostle, graciously assisting and serving the full and complete offering of God’s people to God.

And all of this is done with joy. When Paul pours himself out in prayer and service, even unto death, he does so with indomitable joy. And he invites the Philippians to join him in that joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

For Paul, living is Christ, dying is gain, and therefore, his labor for the progress and joy of the Philippians’ faith is a deeply happy one. He gladly spends and is spent for their souls, pouring himself out as a drink offering, to help bring them nearer to God. Through his written words, he still does the same for us. And now we share in the joy of pouring out ourselves for others.