We’re still in that part of Romans where Paul is instructing us on what it means to live the heavenly, Sprit-filled life. I’m calling it the heavenly life because through faith in Christ we’re been delivered from this present evil age and we’ve been raised with Christ to sit with him in the heavenly realms. That’s where we now belong. And I’m calling it the Spirit-filled life, because instead of being conformed to this present evil age, we’re to be transformed by the renewal of our minds by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. And the Holy Spirit works in us from the inside out, making us more and more willing and able to do God’s will here on earth as it’s done in heaven.
In chapter 14 Paul turns to address the very important subject of how the strong and the weak in the church are to treat one another and regard one another. And you’ll see that he continues to address this subject throughout chapter 14 and right up to verse 13 of chapter 15. And this long section can be divided into three shorter sections. Firstly, there’s verses 1 to 12 of chapter 14 where Paul instructs the weak and the strong not to condemn one another. Secondly, there’s verses 13 to 23 of chapter 14 where Paul instructs believers not to cause one another to stumble. And thirdly, there’s verses 1 to 13 of chapter 15 where Paul reminds us of the example of Christ to teach us to put other people first. And today we’ll spend our time on the first of these three sections: verses 1 to 12 of chapter 14.
Introduction to the passage
And by way of introduction, you’ll see that Paul contrasts the weak and the strong: so, in verse 1 of chapter 14, he refers to ‘him whose faith is weak’; and in verse 1 of chapter 15, he refers to ‘we who are strong’. By referring to ‘we who are strong’, it’s clear that Paul sides with those who are strong. However, it’s important to add that when Paul refers to those whose faith is weak, he probably doesn’t mean that their faith in Christ is weak. He’s not saying that they barely believe and they’re about to fall away. He doesn’t mean that; but perhaps he means that this kind of person has a weak understanding of the implications of the faith for how we live. He or she hasn’t fully grasped — as Paul will go on to say — that the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking. Or perhaps he means this person’s conscience is weak and tender and so, they feel guilty about things which don’t really matter. In any case, he’s not suggesting that this kind of person barely believes or that their faith in Christ is feeble.
Paul also mentions at least three points of contention or disagreement in the church in Rome. Firstly, there’s the issue of what they can or cannot eat. So, according to verse 2 of chapter 14, one man’s faith allows him to eat everything; but another man eats only vegetables. Secondly, there’s the issue of holy days. So, according to verse 5, one man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. And thirdly, there seems to be the issue of wine which Paul mentions in verse 21. I say ‘there seems to be the issue of wine’, because Paul doesn’t say much about it here. But we assume it must have been a point of contention since he brings it up in verse 21.
Why had these things become contentious? Well, it’s not clear. One commentary I have lists six possible explanations for why some of the believers in Rome insisted on these things. For instance: They might have Gentile believers who thought this way because they were brought up under pagan religious ideas which they can’t shake. Or they might have been Jewish believers who thought this way because they were brought up with the law of Moses and can’t shake it. Or they might have been concerned that the meat and drink sold in the market was used previously for pagan worship. That was the problem in Corinth; so perhaps the same problem existed in Rome. These explanations and others have been offered, but I think it’s best to say that we cannot be certain why some of the believers in Rome were insisting on these things. And, in one sense, it doesn’t matter, because the main point Paul wants to make here is that, when it comes to these points of contention, we’re not to condemn one another.
And, of course, we should note that they were disagreeing over disputable matters. That’s the expression Paul uses in verse 1. Another translation uses this word ‘opinions’. So, he’s referring to matters of opinion, where we don’t have a clear command from the Lord. If it was a matter of obedience to the Lord, Paul would insist on obedience to the Lord. But God has not commanded us to abstain from meat. And, apart from Sundays, God has not commanded us to regard any other day as holy. And God has not commanded us to abstain from wine. Clearly some believers in Rome thought it was good to abstain from meat and wine and to observe holy days. Clearly other believers in Rome thought that since God hasn’t commanded us to abstain from meat and wine, then we won’t; and God hasn’t commanded us to observe holy days (apart from Sundays); so we won’t. Some said this; some said that. Well, says Paul, instead of condemning one another, accept one another.
And the final thing to say by way of introduction is that we should notice that it’s not clear whether everyone who abstained from meat also observed holy days and also abstained from wine. There may have been one group who abstained from meat; another group who abstained from wine; and another group who observed holy days. In other words, there may been been more than one kind of weak believer in the church in Rome. They weren’t necessarily all the same.
Having said all that, let’s try to make our way through the passage.
Verses 1 to 3
In verses 1 to 4, Paul tells the members of the church in Rome to accept the one whose faith is weak. This implies that those whose faith was weak were in the minority. Most of the members did not abstain from meat. And so, Paul writes to the dominant group in the church and insists that they must accept the minority group who abstain from meat.
And in verse 3, he makes clear that this works both ways. So, the one who eats everything must not look down with contempt on the one who abstains. And the one who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does. Neither side is to condemn the other.
And it happens so easily, doesn’t it? In the church, we’re always looking down on one another; or we’re judging one another; or we’re condemning one another. We make judgments about who the serious Christians are; and who the committed Christians are; and who the wishy-washy Christians are. But very often, very often, the criteria we use has nothing to do with keeping God’s law, but with all the little rules we make up ourselves. And instead of being controlled by God’s word, we are controlled by our own opinions or by the opinions of other people who say this practice is wrong and that practice is wrong, when God has said nothing to forbid these things. Well, says Paul — in fact, it’s God the Holy Spirit who is speaking to us through the Apostle Paul — ‘Don’t look down on one another and don’t condemn one another.’
Why not? Well, look at the end of verse 3:
for God has accepted him.
If God has accepted my fellow believer into his family, who am I to condemn him?
Verses 4 to 9
And that leads us into verses 4 to 9 where Paul explains that we have no business judging one another, because my fellow believer is not my servant; he’s Christ’s servant.
So, look at verse 4. Paul asks:
Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.
If this person you’re condemning was your servant, then you’d have the right to condemn him for doing something that displeases you. However, he’s not your servant; he’s the servant of the Lord. So, in a sense, it’s none of your business what he does; he’s answerable to the Lord and not to you.
In verse 5, Paul introduces the second point of contention: the observance of holy or special days. As I’ve said before: presumably he’s not referring to the Sabbath, because we’re commanded to keep the Sabbath holy; so, he’s thinking about other holy days. And Paul explains that the one who regards one day as special, does it to the Lord. In other words, he does it out of regard to the Lord. In the same way, those who eat meat, do it to the Lord. But those who don’t eat meat, also do it to the Lord. Both the one who eats meat, and the one who doesn’t eat meat, give thanks to God when they eat. So, believers might disagree over these matters and whether to abstain or not or whether to observe holy days or not. They might disagree with one another. Nevertheless, they have this in common: whatever they do, they’re doing it for the Lord and for his glory.
And Paul continues in verse 8: if we live or if we die — and by mentioning life and death, he’s being as comprehensive as possible — so, everything we do from our birth to our death, we do it to the Lord, out of regard for him. And we do this, says Paul, because we belong to him. By his death on the cross to pay for our sins and by his resurrection afterwards, the Lord Jesus has become the Lord of his people. And again Paul is being as comprehensive as he can be, because he says that Christ is the Lord of the living and the dead. He’s the Lord of all his people: those who are alive and those who are dead; those who abstain and those who don’t. And so, since he’s the Lord of all his people, since he’s the Lord of every single one of his people, who are you to judge your fellow believer?
Verses 10 to 12
And that takes us to verses 10 to 12. Why do you judge your fellow believer? Why do you look down on your fellow believer? Don’t you realise that you’re not the judge? And don’t you realise that one day, you will be judged by the one who is the judge.
This is Paul’s point in verses 10 to 12. And it’s a reminder to us that the Bible teaches that even believers will have to face the judgment. Christ is coming to judge all people everywhere, the living and the dead. On that day, everyone — including believers — will have to give an account of our thoughts, words and deeds. The good news, of course, is that on that day, despite our many sins, believers will be acquitted and declared innocent for the sake of Christ who has paid for all our sins. But we’ll still stand before the judgment seat of God to give an account of ourselves to him. And so, whenever we’re tempted to judge one another and whenever we’re tempted to look down on one another, we ought to remember that we’re not the judge. You’re not the judge. I’m not the judge. We’re the ones who will be judged. So, let’s stop passing judgment on one another.
Paul has more things to say about this subject, but that’s as far as we’ll go today. However, do you see? Paul is still explaining to us how to live the heavenly, Spirit-filled life. He’s saying to us: Think about your fellow believers the way your Father in heaven thinks about them. He’s accepted them. Think about your fellow believers the way Jesus Christ in heaven thinks about them. He’s welcomed them. In heaven, we won’t be walking around, judging one another and looking down at one another. In heaven, we’ll love one another. And so, since we’ve been raised with Christ to the heavenly realms, since that’s where we now belong, let’s love one another now as God in Christ has loved us.