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Romans 14:1-12 Biblical Commentary:
ROMANS 14:1—15:13: THE CONTEXT
In the early church, Christians often disagreed with each other and created problems for one another. In Romans 14:1—15:13, Paul addresses this issue. First, he deals with differences of opinion regarding rules about food and days (14:1-12). He then asks Christians not to cause one another to stumble (14:13-23). He then tells them to focus on pleasing the other person instead of themselves (15:1-6). Finally, he makes it clear that the Gospel is for Jews and Gentiles alike (15:7-13).
Paul is more concerned about the manner in which we deal with differences than about the fact that we have differences. Christ does not require us to agree on every issue, but he does call us to love one another. In chapters 14-15, Paul provides guidance regarding the actions that loving Christians must take—even when they strongly disagree.
Paul does not mention Jews or Gentiles until the end of this section. To have done so earlier would have further polarized the Jewish and Gentile Christians to whom he was writing, and his goal is to bring them together instead of driving them further apart.
In the twenty-first century, the issues that divide Christians are different from those of the first century, but divided we are. The guidance that Paul gave Roman Christians will serve us well today if we can bring ourselves to hear it. Paul calls us to welcome those with whom we have differences (v. 1)—not to hold one another in contempt or to judge each other (vv. 4, 10). He calls us to recognize our essential connectedness as brothers and sisters in Christ (vv. 10 ff.)—to acknowledge that each of us is accountable to God (v 12)—and to trust God to do his work well.
Given the sharp divide in the church today, particularly over such issues as abortion, it is very difficult to do what Paul calls us to do. It is very difficult not to believe that our position is right and the other is wrong—dreadfully wrong. It is very difficult not to judge other Christians and to hold them in contempt. It is very difficult to welcome Christians from the other side as Christian brothers and sisters—and to accept the possibility that God welcomes them too. It is very difficult to love them. It is very difficult not to demonize those from the other side.
ROMANS 14:1-4. ACCEPT ONE WHO IS WEAK IN FAITH
1Now accept one (Greek: the one—singular) who is weak in faith, but not for disputes over opinions. 2One man has faith (Greek: One man believes—singular) to eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. 3Don’t let him who eats (Greek: the one who eats—singular) despise him who doesn’t (the one who abstains—singular) eat. Don’t let him who doesn’t eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him. 4Who are you who judge another’s servant? To his own lord (Greek: kurios—lord or master) he stands or falls. Yes, he will be made to stand, for God (Greek: ho kurios—the Lord) has power to make him stand.
The NRSV uses plurals to translate singulars throughout this passage to accommodate inclusive language (“their” instead of “his”). This shift from individuals to groups muddies the focus in the sense that it is easier for us to love the neighborhood, everyone (theoretical love)—than to love the neighbor, the particular person (practical love)—especially if our neighbor happens to play the trombone.
“Now accept one (the one—singular) who is weak in faith“ (v. 1a). Paul speaks of the “weak” here, but will not use the word “strong” until 15:1, where he says, “Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” Paul obviously counts himself among the strong, and we know that he does not feel bound to Jewish dietary restrictions. This helps us to identify which positions Paul considers as “weak” and “strong.” This is helpful, because Paul generally avoids endorsing one side or the other here—and “weak” is obviously a negative characterization while “strong” is positive.
The weak are “weak in faith.” In this context, “weak in faith” does not mean not believing in Christ. Instead, Paul is talking about the person whose faith in Christ requires additions—observance of dietary restrictions or other rules.
Paul calls us, not to correct the weak in faith, but to welcome them—to acknowledge them as brothers and sisters in Christ—to include them in our circle of friends. We can help them to become strong, but only through love—logic cannot, by itself win the brother or sister. Logic has power only when it rests on a solid foundation of love.
“but not for disputes over opinions” (v. 1b). A welcome with an agenda is no welcome at all. When a welcome is driven by an agenda, the agenda will dictate what happens next—the agenda will be primary and the welcome secondary. Typically, the person with an agenda welcomes others only as a means to an end. For example, sales people often treat prospects as if they were friends, but lose interest when it becomes clear that no sale will be forthcoming. If we were to welcome a “weak in faith” Christian “but not for disputes over opinions,” (v. 1b) our real concern would be quarreling rather than welcoming. Such a welcome would not express love. It would not draw the other person closer, but would only drive the dividing wedge deeper.
“One man (singular) has faith to eat all things“ (v. 2a). Paul now speaks of Christians who do not observe Jewish dietary laws, because they believe that Christ has freed them from such laws. They understand that salvation depends on Christ alone, and is not enhanced by dietary restrictions. They do not object to eating kosher food, but neither do they object to eating non-kosher food. Presumably, they do not even object to eating meat sacrificed to idols, given that “no idol is anything in the world” (1 Cor. 8:4).
While Paul does not label Christians who eat anything as strong, he contrasts them with those who eat only vegetables, whom he labels as weak (v. 2b). He obviously considers those who eat anything to be the strong in faith in the sense that they rely on Christ alone.
“but he who is weak eats only vegetables” (v. 2b). If we wondered who the weak were, Paul identifies them here. The weak “eats only vegetables,” in deference to Jewish dietary restrictions—even though Jewish law makes provision for eating meat. We can only guess why some Roman Christians eat only vegetables. Perhaps kosher meat is unavailable. Perhaps the only available meat has been sacrificed to idols—an issue in Corinth (1 Corinthians 8), from which Paul writes this epistle.
We must be careful not to equate Gentiles with strong and Jews with weak. Gentiles are often attracted to Judaism by its strong moral component, and Gentile proselytes are often quite devoted to Jewish law. Conversely, some Jews (Paul is one of these) believe that they are no longer bound by Jewish dietary laws, and therefore feel free to eat non-kosher food. Both Jews and Gentiles include both weak and strong among their members.
We must also acknowledge the critical role that dietary laws play for Jews. Not only are Jews bound by Torah law to observe dietary restrictions (Leviticus 11), but their observance of these dietary laws is one of the primary marks of their identity as God’s people. In the 2nd century B.C., the Maccabean response to the Syrian desecration of the temple strengthened Jewish resolve to observe the Torah and to maintain their identity. For people who have observed dietary restrictions all their lives, it would be difficult not to consider them essential.
“Don’t let him (singular) who eats despise him (singular) who doesn’t eat“ (v. 3a). Paul correctly identifies the tendency of both sides. The strong (those who eat) are inclined to despise the weak, and the scrupulous (those who abstain) are inclined to judge the less scrupulous. Instead of commending one behavior or the other (eating or not eating), Paul calls both sides to restrain themselves—to abstain from unfavorable judgments regarding the other side.
“Don’t let him who doesn’t eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him (him)“ (v. 3b). This is the reality that both sides have difficulty seeing. The strong despise the weak, and assume that God does too. The scrupulous judge the less scrupulous, and assume that God does too. Paul’s word that God welcomes people from both sides is surely a surprise to both sides, each of which believes their side to be doing God’s will and the other side to be an offense to God. It was just such self-righteousness that led scribes and Pharisees to plot Jesus’ crucifixion, and self-righteousness has plagued the church throughout its history. Paul calls us to step back and broaden our vision—to get a God’s-eye view. Once we understand that God welcomes people from the other side, it becomes possible to lay aside our prejudices so that we might welcome them too.
“Who are you who judge another’s servant (singular)? To his own lord (kurios—lord or master) he (singular) stands or falls“ (v. 4a). Again, the NRSV changes singulars to plurals for the sake of inclusive language (“their” instead of “his” and “they” instead of “he”).
A servant is answerable to his/her master and not to anyone else. The person who has a quarrel with a servant will do well to address that to the master rather than to the servant, because the servant who is doing the master’s will is free (in most situations) to ignore everyone other than the master. Also, the master knows the servant, making it possible for him to temper your input and to act fairly. The principle of addressing concerns to the master does not apply in situations where there is no conflict. It would also be offensive never to address a servant or subordinate directly, as if he/she were not in the room.
The bystander who passes judgment on the servant risks offending, not just the servant, but the master as well. That was the case in Paul’s day, and the principle still applies today in any well-structured organization. It also applies in the church, where the master is God. By despising or judging our Christian brother or sister, we risk incurring God’s wrath—God’s judgment (see Matthew 7:1; Luke 6:37).
“Yes, he (singular) will be made to stand (histemi), for God (ho kurios—the Lord) has power to make him (singular) stand” (v. 4b). In this context, histemi means to stand as opposed to falling.
Not only is it possible that the Lord might uphold both weak and strong, but Paul says that God will actually do that. God will vindicate people from both sides of the fence. The person in jeopardy is not the person from the other side of the fence, but is instead the person who is guilty of passing judgment on the master’s servant (v. 4a).
ROMANS 14:5-6. ONE ESTEEMS ONE DAY. ANOTHER ESTEEMS EVERY DAY
5One man esteems one day as more important. Another esteems every day alike. Let each man be fully assured in his own mind. 6He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks. He who doesn’t eat, to the Lord he doesn’t eat, and gives God thanks.
“One man esteems one day as more important. Another esteems every day alike” (v. 5a). We are not sure which days are in question here—probably Jewish feast days or the Sabbath. Regardless of the particular days, the issue is similar to the eating vs. not eating controversy that Paul addressed in verses 2-3. Some have one opinion regarding the observance of special days, and others have a different opinion. The problem is not the difference of opinions, but is instead the judgmental attitudes that we develop toward Christians on the other side of the fence.
Again, it is important to understand the importance of Sabbath and holy day observance to Jewish Christians in Rome. Just as the observance of dietary restrictions is a mark of the faithful Jew, so also is observance of the Sabbath and holy days. Such observance is a part of the Jewish identity, and it would be very difficult for people who have practiced it throughout their lives to discontinue it. To discontinue would feel unfaithful. Even if someone were to tell these people that Christ has freed us from such observance, they would be inclined to say, “But what harm can it do? Why not continue?”
But the other side would answer, “Observing the sabbath and Jewish dietary laws obscures the simple equation that faith in Christ brings about salvation. Those unnecessary additions take the focus off Christ and his work.”
And so the less scrupulous are tempted to despise the more scrupulous—and the more scrupulous are tempted to judge the less scrupulous.
“Let each man be fully assured in his own mind” (v. 5b). Rather than siding with those on one side of the fence, Paul calls both sides to consider carefully what is required and to live with conviction. In the following verses, he will ask us to temper our convictions with charity, but first he asks us to have convictions. He expects us to live in accord with our convictions, but to have charity toward those whose convictions differ from ours.
It would be easy to misunderstand “Let each man be fully assured in his own mind” (v. 5b) as endorsing, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere”—a popular belief in many quarters, but one fraught with peril. Hitler clearly illustrates that peril. Hitler was completely sincere, but his beliefs resulted in the deaths of millions. Sincerity is necessary but insufficient—it does matter what we believe. Paul does not endorse every sincere-but-murderous opinion, but instead calls us to live by our convictions. Soon, Paul will tell us that those who fail to live by their convictions “is condemned…, because it isn’t of faith; and whatever is not of faith is sin” (v. 23).
We must note that Paul writes, “Let each man be fully assured in his own mind” (v. 5b) to Christians whose beliefs have been shaped by their relationship with Christ. While differences might divide them, their common faith binds them. Paul’s words would not have the same effect if addressed to people with no Christian faith.
“He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks. He who doesn’t eat, to the Lord he doesn’t eat, and gives God thanks” (v. 6). Paul accepts as faithful both those who do and those who don’t observe days or food restrictions. It is clear, however, that he is speaking only of Christians who intend to honor God by their actions and who live their lives in thankful dependence on God.
ROMANS 14:7-9. NONE OF US LIVES TO HIMSELF
7 For none of us lives to himself, and none dies to himself. 8For if we live, we live to the Lord. Or if we die, we die to the Lord. If therefore we live or die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ died, rose, and lived again, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
“For none of us lives to himself, and none dies to himself” (v. 7). We live our lives in relationship to other people. We begin life totally dependent on other people—our parents, as well as those who grow our food or provide our water or give us medical care. As we mature, we continue to be dependent on other people, but others also become dependent on us. What we say or do affects them, and what they say or do affects us. It is therefore vitally important for us to respect our interdependence.
By the grace of God, we also live in relationship to God. While this is a great privilege, it also obligates us to try to live as God would have us to live. In this instance, Paul tells us, God wants us to welcome Christian brothers and sisters who differ with us (v. 1).
“For if we live, we live to the Lord. Or if we die, we die to the Lord. If therefore we live or die, we are the Lord’s” (v. 8). Paul expressed a similar sentiment in his letter to the Philippians: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). In both life and death, we belong to the Lord. Life gives us opportunity to serve the Lord, and death will bring us home to the Lord.
“For to this end Christ died, rose, and lived again, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (v. 9). Having established that it is not proper to “pass judgment on servants of another,” (v. 4), Paul now establishes that Christ is Lord over all—both living and dead. If it is not proper to pass judgment on the servants of another—and if Christ is Lord of all—then it follows (as Paul will point out in vv. 10-12) that we have no right to pass judgment on one another.
ROMANS 14:10-12. WHY DO YOU JUDGE YOUR BROTHER?
10But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. 11For it is written,
“‘As I live,’ says the Lord, ‘to me every knee will bow.
Every tongue will confess (Greek: exomologesetai—acknowledge, confess) to God.'”
12So then each one of us will give account of himself to God.
“But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (v. 10). The contrast is between lesser and greater—the judgment we render vs. the judgment God renders. Paul makes this contrast to highlight the arrogance involved in our judging other Christians. Paul stands our opinions alongside the judgment seat of God to let us see how inconsequential our judgments really are—how little they count. When we stand in line on Judgment Day, we will be too conscious of our own faults to worry about our sister’s faults. We would do well to adopt that heavenly perspective now—to deal with the log in our own eye instead of complaining about the speck in our brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5).
We should not lose sight of the fact that Paul speaks of our fellow Christians as brothers and sisters. They are not casual acquaintances— here today and gone tomorrow. They are members of our Christian family, and will be for eternity. We should be doing what we can to honor that relationship instead of criticizing and judging.
“For it is written, ‘As I live,’ says the Lord, ‘to me every knee will bow. Every tongue will confess (exomologesetai—acknowledge, confess) to God'” (v. 11). Paul quotes Isaiah 45:32, with minor modifications. The idea is that everyone—even those who fail to acknowledge the Lord now—will find themselves on their knees on Judgment Day.
“So then each one of us will give account of himself to God” (v. 12). Paul’s phrase, “each one of us,” singles us out as individuals—makes our accountability personal. One by one we will file before the judgment seat to hear God’s verdict.
Some Christians feel that they have nothing to worry about, because they have Christ as Savior. Christ is, indeed, our only hope, but some who think of him as Savior will be badly surprised. Jesus warned:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven;
but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Many will tell me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord,
didn’t we prophesy in your name,
in your name cast out demons,
and in your name do many mighty works?’
Then I will tell them, ‘I never knew you.
Depart from me, you who work iniquity'” (Matthew 7:21-23).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible: The Letter to the Romans, revised edition (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Dunn, James D. G., Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 9-16, Vol. 38B (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)
Morris, Leon, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1988)
Mounce, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Romans, (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995)
Wright, N. Thomas, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
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