The word of the day is “poured.” In today’s reading of Philippians 2:17-23, St. Paul returns to the thought of his impending trial. It is certain that he will have to appear in court. It is uncertain what the outcome will be. In the event of his execution, he writes, “Yes, and if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (vs. 17).
Like St. Ignatius, Paul compares his potential death to a sacrificial offering. More exactly, it is a “drink offering,” “a libation.” In his martyrdom, his blood would be poured out like an offering of wine or other liquid to the deity.
Libations in the Old Testament
To explain, we need not refer to the pagan Graeco-Roman’s practice of libations to their gods. Paul was doubtless familiar with them. But drink offerings are also prescribed in the worship of the People of God. The word Paul uses in our reading for “libation” is a form of the same verb that the Septuagint (Old Testament) uses in Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers (e.g. Ex 25:25; Numbers 4:7) (Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint, 562).
In Exodus, God instructs Moses to construct the Table of Shewbread out of the same wood as the Ark. He was to place golden dishes and utensils on the sacred table, including cups or pitchers for the drink offerings (Ex. 25:29-30). The priests were to set out twelve loaves of the finest flour on the table “continually before the Lord.” On the Sabbath, the priests ate the loaves and put out fresh new ones.
The drink offerings of “half a hin (sic) of wine” on the table were to accompany the priestly sacrifices, whether oxen, rams, or goats (Numbers 15:1-12). These sacrifices were to be “sweet-smelling oblations” to the Lord.
Note that the “drink offering” was to be poured over the sacrifice. With this in mind, we can understand that the “sacrifice” mentioned in our reading is not Paul’s. It is the congregation’s. The Philippians are to offer the “leitourgia,” the “liturgy” of the public offering of the worship of God (vs. 17). Should Paul be martyred, he wants his death to be a kind of ritual affirmation of his beloved congregation’s “liturgy” (vs. 17).
Paul’s Martyrdom a Libation
In Romans, Paul exhorts the believers to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). The service that Paul refers to here is the worship required by the Levitical law of the Old Testament (Strong’s 2999, 149) (Leviticus 22:17-25). But now, it is not the sacrifice of dead animals but of living persons. They are the live offering who consciously dedicate themselves to the Lord in faith (vs. 17).
The thought is that Paul’s martyrdom will complete the self-offering of the faithful. It will perfect the worship of believers who dedicate their entire lives to the service of God. Should he die for Christ, Paul will be glad. He will have accomplished his purpose of preaching the Gospel. The apostle will have brought many to faith in Christ and the “working out” of their salvation. And so, he will rejoice in the Lord as he hopes his beloved congregation will do.
We say that we “go to church to worship.” Yet, if our “liturgy” is the conscious service of our whole life to God, then can we say we “go to work to worship”? Or we “go to our home to worship”? Or we “go to the grocery store or to the beach to worship”? Where is the place or occasion where and when what we say and do should not be dedicated to God in worship?