NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (Lesson XVI)
This also can be seen in Peter’s vision while he was lodging in Simon the leather tanners house. When he was praying on the rooftop, “He saw heaven open up and something like a large linen cloth being let down to earth by the four corners. On the cloth were all kinds of four-footed animals and snakes of the earth and birds of the sky. A voice came to him, ‘Get up, Peter, kill something and eat it.’ Peter said, ‘No, Lord! I have never eaten anything that our Law says is unclean.’ The voice said the second time, ‘What God has made clean you must not say is unclean.’ This happened three times. Then the sheet was taken back up to heaven.”1
Perhaps Paul heard Peter tell this story, so he felt free enough to share with the Corinthians: “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without letting it bother your conscience because the earth and everything in it belong to the Lord.2”3 When Paul wrote Timothy, whose father was Greek, Paul had this to say about those going around saying don’t do this and don’t do that, especially eating certain kind of foods: “God gave these things to Christians who know the truth. We are to thank God for them. Everything God made is good. We should not put anything aside if we can take it and thank God for it. It is made holy by the Word of God and prayer.”4
When it comes to Paul’s declaration that nothing that God made for our physical nourishment is to be considered unclean, early church priest and African theologian Novatian (200-258), believes that by his time the eating or abstaining from certain foods and drinks were already something from the past. The way he understood it, these were used as ways to honor what the Creator had to say about it in Jewish legal and ceremonial laws. But since then, Christ the fulfillment of the Law had come and disclosed that all these regulations were meant to teach obedience and discipline. From these things it is plain that all that was intended by the law were returned to their original blessedness now that the Law is complete in Christ, and that we must not revert to the special observances of meats, which observances were ordained for a certain reason, but which evangelical liberty has now replaced with spiritual things. We were now to look to Jesus and His Gospel for directions on such subjects.5
Martin Luther offers what he thinks is the sum total of this chapter: To begin with, the strong should not despise the weak. Furthermore, they should not try to embarrass the weak. Both acts are contrary to Christian love which cares for the weak, does not seek its own, but seeks the edification of the weak.6 Paul, of course, was speaking of the dispute among the Jews and Gentiles in the Church at Rome over certain foods and drinks used for everyday purposes. This is why, says Luther, Paul declares with all certainty that what he is telling them is the truth. He is convinced that there is nothing intrinsically unclean with what they bought in the marketplace. The heathen may have intended to use those things in offerings to their dead gods, but a believer plans to use them to sustain his strength and health to serve the living God who created them.7 Luther cautions, however, that we must not misconstrue this principle to cover all that is done in the world.
Fellow Reformer John Calvin is more succinct in his commentary. He sees Paul anticipating any objections to what he said about the self-imposed restrictions or freedoms that both the weak and strong believers implemented in their efforts to honor God with their holy living. Paul first shows what must be thought of meats and drinks when viewed in and of themselves, then points out how either abstaining or enjoying such things might be viewed as sinning. He declares that no meat is impure to a right and pure conscience and that there is no hindrance to using such meats except by ignorance or health reasons. And, it is only when anyone imagines an impurity in them but still decides to use them that they have sinned against their conscience, not against God.
Then Calvin notes that Paul also adds that regardless of how such meats are viewed as permissible or not permissible, our real concern is that before partaking or abstaining from them, our attention should be on how it will affect our fellow believers. In Paul’s mind, to view the use of God’s bounty with little regard for others is to disregard love. Calvin then believes that Paul intended to establish the liberty given by Christ in opposition to the bondage of the Law so that believers would not think they were still bound to observe those rites from which Christ had set them free. By the exception which Paul has laid down, we learn that there is nothing so pure that it cannot be contaminated by a corrupt conscience. It is by faith and godly living alone which sanctify all things to us. The unbeliever, being polluted within, defiled all things just by their very touch8.9
John Bengel comments on Paul’s declaration of being persuaded on the subject of what is clean and what is unclean. He notes the way in which Paul confirms his opposition to believers living in ignorance and doubt. That instead of stronger believers taking it upon themselves to offer their opinions on such matters, it is best to leave such decisions up what we read in Christ’s Gospel.10 In other words, all, if not most of our opinions are influenced by our earthly ethnicity, and the customs, and manners we grew up practicing and respecting. So when it comes to spiritual matters, the teachings of Christ should take precedence over our inherited biases and prejudices.
Adam Clarke agrees with Bengel but feels that believers must also see another aspect. After having given them this decisive judgment with due respect and concern for the mistaken consciences of weak believers, Paul immediately adds that to those who determine something to be unclean, it is unclean to themselves alone, not everyone else. If they act contrary to their conscience, they will no doubt feel guilty because the Holy Spirit is in charge of their conscience. Anyone who acts in opposition to their conscience in one case may do it again in another, and then even the clear declarations of God’s Word may be considered irrelevant to the situation. This includes the misguided, though well-intentioned, dictates of their conscience on matters which they consider important. They must realize that to others who are better informed, these things are unimportant.11 In other words, stick with your conscience and the things that your spirit and God’s Spirit agree on.
Clarke goes on to say that it is a dangerous thing to play with your conscience, even when you are not sure of the accuracy of what you’re being told. Everything should be studied with guidance. You must be fully convinced so that you do not end up falling for some fad. Things that are taught right should be respected because it is always in reference to what God said, and its foundation is based on respect for what God’s Word. Remember, says Clarke, the person who sins against their conscience in things which everyone else knows to be of little significance, will soon do it in those things in which their salvation is of vital concern. It is a great blessing to have a well-informed conscience; it is a blessing to have a tender conscience; even a sore conscience is infinitely better than no conscience at all.12
Charles Hodge feels that Paul is appealing to the stronger Christian’s sense of good will and patience with those who have not come as far as they have by faith. It is generally accepted that the distinction between clean and unclean meats is no longer valid. So far, the Gentile converts were right. But they should remember, that those who consider the laws of the First Covenant are still binding cannot with a good conscience disregard them. The strong should not, therefore, do anything which might unknowingly lead such persons to violate their own sense of duty to God. Hodge has Paul saying: “I know and am persuaded by (in) the Lord Jesus, namely. this knowledge and persuasion I owe to the Lord Jesus; it is not an opinion founded on my own reasonings, but a knowledge derived from divine revelation. That there is nothing unclean of itself.”
Hodge then points out that the Greek adjective koinos, “rendered unclean” (KJV), relates to things that are commonly used as opposed to things that are holy. Holy means “separated for some special or sacred use.” In that sense, koinos signifies something is unworthy to be used for such purposes.13 But to the person that considers anything to be unclean, it is to them alone unclean. They don’t speak for everyone else. This doesn’t mean that the meat itself is somehow contaminated. The word unclean is used only to designate something that is forbidden by the Law. The simple principle taught here is that it is wrong for any person to violate their own sense of duty. This being the case, those Jewish converts in Rome who believed the distinction between clean and unclean meats was still in force, would be sinning against their conscience should they be persuaded to act contrary to their conscience.14
Frédéric Godet shares his thoughts on what Paul is trying to say here. It was not Paul’s intention to discuss these matters, but yet he could not conceal his convictions. He expresses it in passing as a concession he must make as a strong believer. When he uses the Greek verb eidō, (rendered as “I know” (KJV)), it implies that he has come to a rational, yet spiritual conviction, such as even a Jew, trained in First Covenant theology about true spirituality might reach.
The other Greek verb peithō, (translated as “I am persuaded” (KJV)), goes further. It indicates that this conviction has penetrated to the core of his deepest conscientiousness and set it free from the bonds of confusion. Then the words: “by the Lord Jesus,” remind us that it is He who has put an end to the obligations imposed by the Legal and Ceremonial Laws. The emancipation which faith finds in Him arises not only from His doctrine,15 but above all from the redemption He bought with His sacrifice on the cross. Godet notes that this clause: “in the Lord Jesus,” clearly means that Paul reached the conclusion on what was clean or unclean by being persuaded – peithō. That means, this idea did not just come to him out of the blue, he was persuaded to believe it. We can, therefore, can state with certainty that nothing except being born again in Christ and the persuasiveness of the Gospel as seen the help of the Holy Spirit can give such full liberty to the soul.16
1 Acts of the Apostles 10:11-16
2 Psalms 14:1; 50:12; 89:11
3 1 Corinthians 10:25-26
4 1 Timothy 4:3-5
5 Novatian of Rome: Jewish Foods, Ch. 5
6 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
7 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 201-202
8 See Titus 1:15
9 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 353
11 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 271
12 Clarke: ibid.
13 See Acts of the Apostles 10:14, 28; Mark 7:2
14 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 656
15 See Matthew 15:11
16 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.