NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (Lesson XVII)
In the opening of one of his sermons, Charles Spurgeon notes that Mosaic Law attached great importance to meats and drinks while the Christian Gospel attaches none. The Apostle Peter was shown by a vision of a sheet being let down from heaven, not only that all nations were now to receive the Gospel message, but that all kinds of foods were now clean, and that all the prohibitions which had forbidden them to eat such unclean foods for legal purposes, were now once and for all withdrawn. Christians may, if they feel comfortable in doing so, put themselves under restrictions as to these foods for dietary or health purposes. But they should never count them as earning merits with God that will enhance their salvation through Christ.
Spurgeon reminds us that the Apostle Paul clearly said that he came to the conclusion on whether foods were clean or unclean by what the Lord Jesus revealed to him and that there is nothing unclean in and of itself. This means, that individuals on their own can determine anything to be unclean or clean for their use in honoring God. There are some who have decided to use a certain rug to kneel on when they pray. Once their prayers are finished they roll it up and put away so that it is never used for anything else. But for them to insist that every other believer should follow their example is an overreach of what they consider their authority to decide for themselves. This is not a decision related to salvation. Spurgeon says that it is quite possible that Paul was aiming his words at those with easily offended consciences. But Spurgeon feels that Paul could have taken his discussion in another direction.
In fact, Spurgeon suggest that Paul could have easily said something like this: If you are dead with Christ and free from being dictated to by what the world thinks, but now that you are alive through Christ, why would you still want to think like the world? To do so would be the same as taking simple ideas and dogmatizing them into church teachings such as: don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t go here, don’t go there, don’t eat this, don’t eat that, etc. The doctrine of the Final Covenant has expressly laid down that “since everything God created is good, we should not reject any of it but receive it with thanks.”1 Also, look at the common sense practice Paul offered the believers: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be dominated by anything.” In the example offered by Paul, we have full liberty. He felt no need to ban certain things on everyone’s conscience.2
Pentecostal scholar Douglas Moo gives his understanding of what Paul is advocating here. For him, while the strong have the theory right, they must come to grips with how to put it into practice. Although God now pronounces all foods to be kosher, people who have always believed that avoiding certain foods is necessary to maintain their holiness, have had trouble in internalizing this new perspective. They may not be convinced – at least emotionally and psychologically – that they can eat anything. For them, certain foods are still “unclean.”3 So respect their decision and don’t start pushing them to change. God, in His time, through the Holy Spirit, through His Word, and the example of others will bring them around in due season.
It is easy for some Christians to extrapolate this concept on food into other areas such as entertainment, games, music, motion pictures, etc. We can consider those things to fall under the Doctrine of Holiness. But holiness is not what we do to conform ourselves to some teaching demanded by the church. Holiness involves being sanctified in order to give our total dedication to the Lord for His work. For instance, being called into the ministry is a form of holy living. Then whatever the Holy Spirit convinces the person called to do as part of that calling will determine what they pledge themselves to do or not to do. But it is only for themselves.
Jewish writer David Stern gives us his perception from a Jewish perspective on this. He doesn’t see Paul espousing moral relativism4 or situational ethics.5 His remarks have nothing to do with human behavior but with ritual considerations. It is not surprising that Paul, having alluded in the previous verse to Leviticus 19, a chapter full of commandments, about ritual uncleanliness continues with a declaration on that subject. It is, nevertheless, a surprising conclusion for a Jewish scholar, such as himself who sat at the feet of Rabban Gamli’el, to reach. Indeed, he had to be persuaded by Yeshua the Messiah Himself. For the concept of ritual uncleanliness pervades the Jewish Mishnah. In one of its six major divisions, the tractate Taharot (“Ritual Cleanliness”), deals with this as its central topic, as does the Torah (the Pentateuch), especially in Leviticus, chapters 11 through 17.
The First Covenant does not always explain why some things are considered pure and others not. Hygiene is not the main issue. If it were, there would be no reason to exclude Gentiles from the application of these Laws. And the Rabbis do not speculate much on the reasons why. And since the Laws of ritual purity apply only to Jews, the statement that nothing is unclean in itself should suffice to free any Christian Gentile whose conscience still bothers them with regard to such matters. As for Jews, even in Rabbinic Judaism, most of the purity Laws gradually fell into disuse over time.6
Another Jewish scholar has quite a bit to say on this subject. He believes that it is critical to keep in mind that this is all said here by Paul in a historical context. This involves early Gentile converts to Christianity who had little understanding of, or regard for, the customs of the Jews – especially the Synagogue Jews who did not follow Yeshua. Also important to remember when studying this section is the greater context of Paul’s teachings regarding Gentiles coming to faith without having to become Jews first, that means, to learn and abide by all that the Torah has to say, especially about circumcision. Therefore, while Paul will not tell Gentile believers they must act as Jews in all ways, he does teach them the principle of deferring to God’s higher law brought into the world by His Son Yeshua, concerning these First Covenant practices of the Jewish people. They must first be convinced of their freedom in Christ before they can feel free from the legal and ceremonial laws of Judaism.
The issue here is not one of “kosher Laws” or the “Sabbath” being done away with. The context is the issue of the code of conduct taught in Jewish Synagogues on certain issues and how Gentiles following Yeshua do not practice them, yet they must respect their Jewish brethren who do. There is no question of whether or not a pig is kosher, or the Sabbath was the day God set aside for His people. Those things are clearly spelled out in God’s Torah, and Paul did not teach against God’s Torah.”
The writer then goes on to say that the real issue here is Jewish customs of not sharing meat (and perhaps wine) with Gentiles, and also the honoring of certain days. There was a specific Law code of the Roman Jewish Synagogue community on this subject at that time. How these converted Jews decided to “live out their faith” as Christians were not only a “personal choice,” but it was only binding on them. As Paul teaches in this chapter, Yeshua also taught that what we bind on earth (as Torah for ourselves), is respected in heaven. For example, according to the Torah, cows are kosher. However, if the blood of this animal is not disposed of in a certain manner then the cow is considered spiritually unclean, and to knowingly eat it would be a sin. As the Jews had no way of knowing how Gentiles dealt with how they drained blood when slaughtering a cow, their Law code was to not eat of the meat of Gentiles at all. That means although the Jew considered the cow as clean according to Torah (and Yeshua), yet to anyone who decides to make it unclean to themselves as part of their Law code it indeed becomes unclean to them.7
14:15-16 If you injure the faith of your brother or sister because of something you eat, you are not really following the way of love. Don’t destroy anyone’s faith by eating something they think is wrong. Christ died for them. Don’t allow what is good for you to become something they say is evil.
While Paul is certainly giving everyone the choice of deciding what to eat or drink based on the Holy Spirit’s conviction of their conscience, he tells them that they bear a special responsibility to make sure it does not offend other believer’s consciences. Paul had good reason to warn his fellow leaders in the Church because of what God told the leaders of Israel through the prophet Ezekiel: “You have made My good people sad because of your lies whom I did not want to hurt. But you have helped the sinful man so that he does not turn from his sinful way and save his life. So you will no longer have any worthless visions and produce false interpretations of the future. I will save My people from your hands. And then you will know that I am the Lord.”8 Paul was unequivocal about what he thought of being responsible for someone else falling away from the faith: “When you sin against a weak Christian by making him do what is wrong, you sin against Christ. So then, if eating meat makes my Christian brother trip and fall, I will never eat it again. I do not want to make my Christian brother sin.”9
For Paul, helping others was a lot more important than helping oneself. He told the Galatians: “Christian brethren, you were chosen to be free. Be careful that you do not please your old selves by sinning because you are free. Live this free life by loving and helping others.”10 He shared the same thoughts with the Philippians: “Keep expressing the same love. Be as one in thoughts and actions. Nothing should be done because of pride or thinking about yourself. Think of other people as more important than yourself. Do not always be thinking about your own plans only. Look out for each other’s interests and not just for your own.”11 As he told the Corinthians: “You may make the weak Christian fall into sin by what you have done. Remember, he is a Christian brother for whom Christ died.”12
1 1 Timothy 4:4
2 Charles H. Spurgeon: Sermon: “The Clean and the Unclean,” Text: Leviticus 11:2, 3
3 Douglas J. Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Moral relativism is the idea that there is no universal or absolute set of moral principles. It’s a version of morality that advocates that a person can make up rules of their own, and those who follow it ask, “Why should I be their judge?”
5 Situation ethics is one’s position that moral decision making is contextual or dependent on a set of circumstances. In other words, what may be wrong in one circumstance, might be allowed under a different set of circumstances. That’s because there is no absolute moral code of what’s right and what’s wrong. It all depends on the situation.
6 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Ezekiel 13:22-23
9 1 Corinthians 8:12-13; cf. 13:1-7
10 Galatians 5:13
11 Philippians 2:2-4
12 1 Corinthians 8:11