MESSAGE FOR SEPTEMBER 24, 2000 FROM ROMANS 14:13-23
This week, we continue our look into Romans 14. Last week we saw that in this section of the letter which begins in 14:1 and progresses through much of chapter 15, Paul is applying a truth he communicated in chapter 13 to a situation that had arisen in the Roman church. In 13:8 Paul has already said, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law." We all know that we are to love each other but there are times when complicated situations arise when the sincere Christian asks himself, “What does Christian love look like here in this context? If Jesus were here, how would he express love to this brother or sister?” The church at Rome had just such a difficult situation. The church, as we have seen, was a mixture of ethnic groups. The majority was Gentile, but there was a strong minority of Jewish believers who had grown up under the law of Moses. Certain issues had arisen that made knowing how to love those in the other group a difficult task. The situation Paul addresses involves how these two groups were to love each other in areas dealing with the application of Old Testament ceremonial laws.
Many of the Jewish believers had difficulty accepting the idea that you could be a very devout, godly believer and not celebrate many of the holidays of the Jewish calendar. Those same people found it hard to accept that the ceremonial food laws, which they had been under all their lives, were no longer in force. The Gentiles, on the other hand, were more than happy to accept these Christian liberties as it related to food laws and holy days. The Christian Jews who were getting hung up on the food laws Paul calls “weaker” in faith, while he terms the Gentiles, “stronger” in faith. You can imagine that when the time came for eating together in public, (with one group observing Old Testament food laws and the other, not), the stage was set for a genuine quandary within this mixed group. How does the law-observing Jewish believer love the Gentile believer who is eating ham and beans across the table from him and maybe even trying to serve it to him? How does the stronger Gentile brother show love to the Jewish weaker brother at public meals?
We saw in last week’s text that one of Paul’s words to the stronger Gentiles, was “do not look down on” the Jews who were not enjoying all their freedom in Christ from the ceremonial law. On the other side of the coin, Paul’s word to the Jewish believers who were looking down their noses at the less “pious” Gentiles was, stop judging them for not living up to your obsolete food laws. He pointed out that to judge someone else was to try to do God’s job because “all will stand before God’s judgement seat.” He reminds us that our role is servant, not judge and judging others opposes the Lordship of Christ.
Last week, in the first twelve verses of chapter 14, most of the admonition was directed toward these Jewish weaker brothers who were judging the Gentiles. Beginning in verse 13, Paul changes his focus to the stronger brothers. These Gentiles were evidently flaunting their freedom in what they ate and drank at public meals in front of the weaker Jewish believers. He says in verse 13, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way. 14As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. 15If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. 16Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. 17For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men. 19Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall. 22So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”
This is a long text, but when you boil it all down, you can come away with about four main truths. One truth made explicit here is found in verse 14 and that is, No food is unclean in itself. The literal translation is even more broad and says, “nothing is unclean in itself.” He repeats this in verse 20 when he says, “All food is clean” This is nothing more than a restatement of what Jesus says in Mark 7:18. He is locked in debate with the Pharisees over what is clean and unclean and he says, “…nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him “unclean…For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” [Then Mark adds,] (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)” Jesus’ point is that uncleanness comes from the heart and is moral. It is not dietary, related to the stomach. Paul says in another letter about food in 1 Corinthians 10:25, “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
Paul observes that the earth is “clean” because it was created and is owned by God. Therefore all food, as a product of the earth, is clean. These statements Paul makes about food are remarkable coming from a man who had spent much of his adult life as a Pharisee, scrupulously observing all the Jewish food laws. Christ made a huge change in Paul’s in this area. As believers, we have no dietary restrictions from the law. We only have those self-imposed restrictions on food that are necessary for us to be good stewards of our bodies, that will keep us from gluttony and will liberate us to fast when that is appropriate. We are called to place our eating, like everything else, under the Christ’s Lordship, but we have no legal or ceremonial restrictions on food.
In saying this, Paul is making sure the church knows the apostolic, biblical position on this issue. He doesn’t want anything else he will say later to obscure this truth of our liberty from Old Testament food laws. In making this point so emphatically, he is affirming the Gentiles who were not restricting their eating based on Old Testament law. If you want to appreciate what a blessing this is, then read Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 which contain many, though not all of the Old Testament food restrictions. All of the laws there and other places in the Old Testament are not applicable to New Covenant believers.
A second truth he also states more than once. In verse 14 he says, “If anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.” In verse 23 he gives a summary statement of this truth when he says, “everything that does not come from faith is sin.” The truth could be stated this way, we sin each time we do something we cannot do in faith. If you regard something as a moral norm or absolute (and these Jews felt it was a moral absolute to NOT eat certain foods) then for you to violate that moral absolute is a sin EVEN IF there is NO true moral absolute prohibiting the behavior. When it comes to sin, the issue is not only what is true, but also what your conscience is telling you. And our consciences are not always programmed only by the truth. Some people have defiled, callused consciences that aren’t bothered even by overt sin. Others, like these weaker brothers, have hyper-sensitive consciences that are bothered by things that are patently NOT sin. To violate what your conscience is telling you is sin NOT because our consciences are always right, but because we are called to live by faith and you cannot live by faith if you have a guilty conscience.
We must understand that the principle given here is crucial to all of the Christian life. When Paul says in verse 23, “…everything that does not come from faith is sin.” That is a universally applicable maxim. This isn’t just about Old Testament food laws. The Christian is called to a life of faith. When Paul says, “everything that does not come from faith is sin” he is consistent with the author of Hebrews who says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” Faith is at the very root of what it is to live a life pleasing to God. We are called to do all for the glory of God and the way creatures glorify their Creator is to be humbly dependent upon him. God created us to be dependent upon him. The root sin we saw in chapter one is idolatry, foolishly shaking off our dependency on God and attempting to live apart from Him, choosing to idolatrously depend upon ourselves. As we saw in chapter one, God wants “obedience that comes from faith.” If we do the doctrinally “right thing” (for instance, not following obsolete food laws) but don’t do them with the conviction of faith, we have sinned because we are not depending on God but on our own judgment, independent of conscience.
To illustrate this on a slightly different level, let’s say a Christian firmly believes (for whatever reason) that God is calling them to fast for a day on Wednesday. They are convinced this is the will of God for them. They are sure that is what God wants them to do on Wednesday when they go to bed on Tuesday night. But when they wake up on Wednesday, they catch the smell of bacon cooking in the kitchen and all of the sudden they feel very hungry. So, they eat a hearty breakfast, all the while feeling they were supposed to fast. That person is sinning by eating, EVEN if God didn’t really tell them to fast, because they are violating what they thought was the word of the Lord which is a moral absolute to them.
If you can’t do something without the faith that the Lord has sanctioned or approved it, then don’t do it. To do it is sin because you are going against what for you is a moral absolute. We must behave in a manner consistent with the belief system that has programmed our conscience. Now, part of Christian growth is becoming more and more knowledgeable of the word of God and having our conscience programmed more and more by an accurate understanding of the word of God. That will result in our convictions becoming ever more biblically informed regarding those things we can do and those things we abstain from. This is part of what Paul means in 12:1 by this transformation that comes “through the renewing of our minds.” We sin each time we do something we cannot do in faith.
A third truth Paul implies here is: Influencing a person to consistently violate a moral absolute can spiritually destroy them. What was happening in the Romans situation was the stronger brothers would eat with the weaker brothers and the stronger would evidently flaunt their freedom in Christ and eat food and drink wine that the weaker brothers would not feel right about consuming. Yet, the fact that the stronger brothers were eating and drinking, influenced the weaker brothers to violate their consciences and go right on ahead. This was hypocrisy for them—they were acting like they were free in this area, but they weren’t and they were in fact violating their consciences. And Paul uses some very strong words to describe what this hypocrisy was doing to the weaker brothers. In verse 15a he says it “distresses” or more literally “grieves” them. In the second half of 15 he says, “Do not by your eating destroy your brother…” Verse 13 forbids putting a “stumbling block” in the way of the weaker brother and in verse 21 he warns against “doing anything else that will cause your brother to fall.” In verse 20 he says literally, “Do not tear down the work of God” speaking of the brother’s faith. Finally, in verse 23 Paul says the weaker brother is “condemned if he eats…”
Those words are strong words which, when they are used elsewhere in the New Testament, consistently speak of eternal judgment. Paul is making a powerful point here that if we are doing things to cause others to consistently violate their consciences, we are being used as an agent of spiritual destruction in their lives. He is not saying that people can lose their salvation because when Paul speaks of a “brother” he is speaking of outward appearances. If the person is truly a brother (and only God knows those who are truly his) God will spare that person. But we must not take away from the force of Paul’s argument here. Members of this and every church will go to hell and be held accountable for their sin, but we dare not be part of that process by which they are destroyed! And we can be a part of that process if we are acting in a manner to embolden people to violate their consciences. If you’re a stronger brother and feel freedom in a certain area a fellow believer does not, don’t EVER communicate to them, “Come on, what’s the big deal—you’re free to do this as a Christian.” That, according to Paul is a good way to spiritually destroy that person. The stronger brothers in Rome were guilty of this and Paul informs them in no uncertain terms just exactly what are the possible consequences of their actions. He emphasizes the importance of these weaker brothers by calling them in verse 15, “your brother for whom Christ died.” Influencing a person to consistently violate a moral absolute can spiritually destroy them.
A fourth truth is seen in verse 17 and we can’t do any better than Paul did so we will simply repeat his words. That is, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” This is Paul’s implicit cry to the church to “keep the main thing the main thing.” The main thing is not about enjoying our freedom in Christ to the fullest where things like food and drink are concerned. Righteousness, or fulfilling the law by loving others in not causing them to stumble--Peace, making every effort in our relationships (verse 19) “to do what leads to peace and mutual edification”--Joy, doing what will bring joy to brothers instead of a guilty conscience. Those are some of the main things in the kingdom of God. For a brother to be so concerned about having their Christian liberty curbed (as the stronger brothers were), but thinking nothing about causing their weaker brothers to stumble was, to use Jesus’ words, “straining at gnats and swallowing a camel.”
The stronger brothers were ignoring a crucial matter of love, but were concerned about a lesser matter, preserving their Christian liberty relating to Old Testament food laws. They had allowed their zeal for a lesser matter to blind them to the importance of a crucial issue, fulfilling the law by loving their weaker brothers. And Paul makes clear what loving these weaker brothers looked like for these stronger brothers in verse 20-21. “…it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.” For this situation that meant that the Gentiles could eat and drink whatever they wanted to in the privacy of their own homes. But when it came to eating in public settings where the weaker brothers would be there, they would, out of love for them, refrain from eating and drinking anything that would cause the weaker ones to stumble by flaunting their freedom. Paul was not putting the Gentiles under the Old Testament law here. He was letting them know what the law of love would have them do in this situation.
As we said last week, even though this precise situation will probably not ever occur here in our church, the principles Paul articulates here for living in community with people who are different than us are important for us to apply. Let’s make three applications. First, The final court governing our behavior should be a conscience informed by the word of God and no other factor. People are different and very few believers have precisely the same value systems, agreeing completely on all the non-essential issues. What movies to rent, what programs to watch, what books to read, how much, if any wine to drink, just how much time should be spent in daily prayer and bible study, Sabbath issues. There is much in the Scriptures to help us here and many so called Christians are sinning in these areas in the name of grace, but it must be said there is room for differences of opinion on issues like these. The word Paul gives us here is that our decisions should never go against conscience and our consciences should be saturated with the truth of Scripture.
We should never make a decision as to what is morally right for us on the basis of what other people are doing and this is a huge problem in the church today. Just because so and so thinks its alright to celebrate this holiday or read this set of books or watch this movie, that does not make it right for us. Parents face this challenge virtually every day and we better make sure we are making decisions about what is right for our kids based on our consciences which are guided by OUR understanding of the word. Paul’s word is to be heeded and it is this, if it feels wrong to us then it IS wrong for us even if our feelings are not biblically informed the way they should be. We must never violate our consciences and if it seems like we are much more restrictive than most others in our social circle, then so be it. Better to live with a clean conscience and be thought a prude than to violate our conscience and be destroyed.
If we live our lives in violation of our consciences it can bring spiritual self destruction—this is no small issue. When we stand before God at the judgment having lived our lives following the crowd and violating our consciences, we will not be free to blame other people. Frankly, when we allow other people to dictate what is right or wrong for us, it might be because we are just being lazy. Often the problem is we just don’t feel like spending time in the word thinking through the biblical witness on the correctness of engaging in a particular practice. We just don’t want to spend the time doing the study or spending the time in prayer trying to find where God is on the issue and that laziness can be spiritually lethal according to Paul. We must live by faith and that means doing what we think the will of the Lord is with as much conviction as possible. This not only goes for what we allow into our lives, but also, how much time we need to spend with God daily. Just because someone on Christian radio says they can meet God 30 minutes a day, doesn’t mean that is what he is calling you to. Find out what he is calling you to and then live out the obedience that comes from faith.
A second application is live in Christian liberty that is informed by the word. Verse 22 says, “Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” I think what Paul means here is you are blessed when there is no conflict on a given issue between what you feel in your heart and what you think in your head. For instance, in your head you don’t think there is anything wrong with coffee or caffeinated beverages, but every time you have a cup of coffee, you feel guilty. That brings conflict and can bring sin. Paul is saying, you are blessed if what you think agrees with what you feel. In other words, enjoy your Christian liberty and if you aren’t sure what you feel in your heart about a certain activity or behavior, get hold of God and find whatever level of freedom he will give you. Then, live it out to the fullest for His glory. Christian liberty and the joy that comes from it is primarily for God’s glory, not just our pleasure. As we enjoy certain foods, activities, media outlets, whatever, we should give praise to God for not only the blessing, but for the freedom of conscience to enjoy it to the fullest. Christians should be lovers of life—enjoying what they are free to enjoy to the very fullest for the glory of God. Our liberty enables us to live that way and worship the Lord for the many blessings He has given us to freely enjoy. This is the joy of the kingdom—receiving a blessing from God without guilt and praising Him for it.
A final application is this: keep the main thing the main thing and the main thing is sacrificial love for God and others for His glory. The stronger brothers were called by Paul to actually set aside their liberty for the sake of love. This was a sacrifice. We must understand that when God places us in the body of Christ, we, as Paul says in chapter 13, owe our brothers and sisters a debt of love. It costs us something and when we love each other, we will be willing to pay out that debt as long as we need to and to reach deeply into our pockets. Being in genuine, biblical Christian community means I am committed to no longer think first about what is best or most comfortable for me. It’s about what is best for others, living “in submission to one another.” It’s about “considering others as better than ourselves.” Love always costs us something because whenever we truly love someone, we are choosing to willingly give part of ourselves to them. Christ tells us the mark of the Christian is to be willing to lay down our lives for one another. This is a radical thing, but it’s one of the main things.
This call to love each other is not just about being nice or pleasant to one another on Sunday mornings. It is nothing less than a call for us to be willing to lay it all down for each other, counting others as better than ourselves. For the stronger Gentiles, the love of Christ dictated to them what foods they would eat in public gatherings, imagine that! Do we even have an idea of what this call to love each other is? May God give us a hunger to give and receive this love from each other and may He do this miracle among us for His glory.
Page last modified on 1/1/2002
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