NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (Lesson XXIV)
Other early church writers see the “work of God” in different ways. For instance, after Ambrosiaster states that mankind is the “work of God” by creation, that his renewal through regeneration is also “God’s handiwork,” so also is food “God’s work” as well. But mankind was not made for food; food was made for mankind, which is very different!1 And Pelagius comments that the “work of God” means, “a human being, created by God.” Paul repeats what he said above in verse 14, so no one would think that he is condemning God’s creation. When it comes to food, what is clean in itself is clean, it only becomes unclean if someone else takes offense that it is being used by a fellow believer.2 And Oecumenius, eleventh century Bishop of Krikka (now Trikala, Greece), hears Paul saying this to those who will not relent in consideration of a weak brother or sister: “God did the work for them on the cross, but now you are destroying it.”3
14:21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else that hurts the faith of your brother or sister.
There are those today who rightfully seek advice on things that they are not sure is the right thing to do. As long as they keep receiving negative or ambivalent responses from those they ask, they should not stop seeking an acceptable answer. However, there are others who want what they are doing to be right, and they will go from one person to another until finally, they find someone who agrees with them. To those who give uncertain and foggy advice to seekers, these verses are a bitter pill. But when it comes to gauging and guarding one’s rules of conduct based on their conscience, a good rule to follow is this: If your heart says “yes,” but your mind says “No,” don’t do it. If your heart says “No” but your minds says “Yes,” don’t do it. Only when both heart and mind agree should you pray and proceed.
The whole purpose behind what Paul has been saying is that every Christian should be cautious and mindful of what they say or do, no one wants to cause a young or weak believer to stumble. After all, those were the instructions given to Moses and taught by the Scribes and Rabbis during the First Covenant period. Nevertheless, in the final book of the First Covenant, we find a sad commentary on the priesthood of Levi: “‘You have turned aside from the true way. You have made many fall by your teaching. You have sinned against My agreement with Levi,’ says the Lord of All.”4 So we can see that it was time for God to prepare His Son to bring the Word, but it would take some 400 years, just like the Hebrew’s captivity in Egypt, before a second Moses could come and lead them out of spiritual bondage.5
However, even after Yeshua came and taught His disciples for some three years, there were those who still insisted on doing things their way. For instance, although Jesus had foretold that He would suffer and die but be raised to life again, when He began to instruct His disciples on His soon crucifixion Peter pulled our Lord to the side and scolded Him for thinking such thoughts. Jesus turned to Peter and said: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are standing in My way. You are not thinking how God thinks. You are thinking how human’s think.”6 The term “Satan” used here can be employed in two ways. One, in reference to an adversary who opposes someone’s purpose or intention, of which the prince of evil spirits, the devil, is the chief. Or two, someone whose opposition or interference is “Satan-like.” Thayer, in his Greek lexicon, says that Jesus used the term Satan here to imply that Peter was acting Satan-like. So I think it goes without saying, that to act in the same manner as Peter did is not very Christ-like.
In fact, Jesus said that such Satan-like actions were so offensive to God that once you find out what’s causing it, get rid of it.7 And later on, Jesus said that anyone who doesn’t modify or get rid of what causes others to miss the mark and go astray, it would be better for them if someone tied a large millstone around their neck and dropped them into deep water.8 No wonder then that Paul prayed this for the Philippians: “That your love may more and more overflow in fullness of knowledge and depth of discernment, so that you will be able to determine what is best and thus be pure and without blame for the Day of the Messiah, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Yeshua the Messiah — to the glory and praise of God.”9
Yet, Paul knew that making such adjustments in attitude, actions, and motivation did not come easy. Just like the writer of Hebrews so clearly explained: “All discipline, while it is happening, does indeed seem painful, not enjoyable; but for those who have been trained by it, it later produces its peaceful fruit, which is righteousness. So, strengthen your drooping arms, and steady your tottering knees;10 and make a level path for your feet;11 so that what has been injured will not get wrenched out of joint but rather will be healed.”12 It is a known fact that it has been proven over and over again down through both human and church history that any person who is unwilling to learn and be disciplined will never grow into their full potential. As Paul told young Timothy: “Growing strong in body is all right but growing in God-like living is more important. It will not only help you in this life now but in the next life also.”13
Early church scholar Origen makes the point that eating meat and drinking wine should not become matters of such great concern that they cause fractions to form. They may be discussed, but never debated. Even wicked people, says Origen, may abstain from these things, and some idol worshipers, in fact, did so for reasons which have nothing to do with faith. Likewise, quite a few heretics in Origen’s day promoted similar practices. The only reason abstinence of this kind is good is because of health reasons or that it may help to avoid offending a brother or sister.14
Then Ambrosiaster notes that although the issue here involved only meat, Paul adds drink as well in order to nurture those who abstain from both of these things so that they will not be hurt by those who eat and drink on the grounds that they are comfortable doing so. Paul gives those who have trouble accepting the other person’s behavior by telling them to only make decisions about themselves and put an end to a small disagreement which can develop into a large dispute. Maybe this will bring them peace of mind. No one should be against making any of these options into law. What God created for our use in sustaining us physically involves voluntary usage. There is no necessity to imposed anything on anybody in one way or the other.15
Chrysostom spoke on this same subject. He contends that if we force someone to do what they are uncomfortable in doing they will be immediately embarrassed and turn around and condemn us. Not only that, but they will be more convinced than ever to stick with their original decision to abstain. But if we seriously considered their stance as valid for them, then they will love us and will not suspect us of trying to teach them something that goes against their conscience. Afterward, we will discover that we have been given the opportunity of sowing in them more spiritually enlightened views. But once they start despising us, we have closed that door of opportunity for no reason other than our pride. We should not compel them but go slow for their sake. Not whether or not they consider food or drink as clean or unclean, but because we might become offensive in our efforts. Doing this may cause them to love us all the more.16 And Constantius adds the historical note that in this passage Paul not only praises one’s choice in abstaining from certain meat and wine but much warns us even more that we must abstain from food and drink that the ungodly advertised as part of their lifestyle so as not to cause our brother or sister to stumble.17
Martin Luther notes, that it is not the first time the Apostle Paul has referred to a believer being as “a work of God.” In his letter to the Corinthians, he asks: “Are you not my work in the Lord?”18 Paul also likens the believer as being the Temple of God’s Spirit. He also told the Corinthians: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you yourselves are that temple.”19 Luther then says: To destroy the work of God for food means not only to insult God but also to fight against God by tearing down what He has built up.20 And one thing Paul didn’t want for some believers in Rome to do was be at war with God.
John Calvin sees Paul listing three things in a particular order: those that cause a believer’s faith to weaken; those that cause them to stumble, and those that cause them to fall. Calvin explains that have one’s faith weaken is less disruptive than when one stumbles, and to stumble is less critical than a fall. A believer may be said to have weakened in faith whose conscience wavers with doubt. When a believer stumbles it is because their conscience is overcome by some great perplexity. And when a believer falls it is because they have become alienated from their original faith.21 Therefore, being inconsiderate to a less mature believer by eating foods that go against their conscience can be a stumbling-block, and that stumbling-block can then become a fall that seriously injures the believer’s faith. We must note here that such foods have nothing to do with dieting or to procure better health, but are thought of as spiritually offensive to the teachings in God’s Word.
Adam Clarke sees the stumbling-block and fall as hindering the progress of an immature believer coming to a fuller understanding of the Gospel. It isn’t so much that the more mature believer has done anything wrong by eating foods they approve of, as it is wrong to knowingly become offensive to the less informed believer. Clarke is convinced that the believer who either eats contrary to their own conscience or causes themselves much grief and possibly stumbling by doing something that does their conscience harm, no matter how lawful a thing may be in itself, will not be a valid alibi. Not only will their conduct be displeasing to them but will not please God.22 The Jews found all of their restrictions on food and drink in the First Covenant and later on in the Mishnah. There are very few, if any, found in the Final Covenant.23
Robert Haldane agrees with Luther in saying that the believer is called a “work of God,” the same way that a believer is referred to as a Temple of the Holy Spirit.24 But Haldane also points out that Jesus said: “This is the work of God: that you believe in the One He has sent.”25 However, Haldane doesn’t want anyone mistaking the term “work” here to mean “faith.” As Haldane reckons, faith is not good works, but it is something that God requires after a person has accepted salvation by faith.26
Albert Barnes also has some notes on the, “work of God” being the construction of a believer’s faith. In his mind, the work of God is what God does, and especially refers to His work here in raising up His Church. As such, Christians are regarded especially as the “work of God,” as God renews their heart and makes them what they have become. That’s why they are called God‘s “Temple,”27 and His “handiwork” accomplished through Christ Jesus that result in all the works and charitable giving being done in His name.28 Because of this, they are designated “a new creation;”29 The meaning is this: Do not conduct yourself with regard to the distinction of clean or unclean foods in any way that may cause a brother or sister to violate their conscience. That might impair or ruin the work of faith which God is carrying on in their souls. Therefore, this expression of being God’s work, does not refer to a person as being the work of God, but to their “living right” that God, by His Spirit, makes possible in their hearts and minds.30
John Stott also weighs in on the “work of God.” He agrees that the work of God could mean the individual believer, but in this context it seems to refer to the Christian community. “Surely” says Paul, “we shouldn’t wish to undo God’s work for the sake of a plate of meat!31 Already three times Paul has used a little irony to expose the incompatibility of valuing food above peace; the health of one’s stomach above the health of the Christian community. Now he stresses a fourth irony: Are you strong believers really prepared to cause distress to a brother or sister because of what you eat? Are you willing to risk damaging them spiritually by your eating, to prize your eating and drinking above God’s kingdom? Are you willing to demolish God’s work for the sake of food that is eaten and then eliminated just to prove that you are “right?”32 There must have been some red faces among the strong as they listened to Paul’s letter being read in the assembly at Rome. His gentle sarcasm exposed their out-of-line perspective. They would have to re-value their values, give up insisting on their liberties at the expense of the welfare of others, and put the cross and the kingdom first.33
1 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Oecumenius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Malachi 2:8
5 Deuteronomy 18:15-19; Hebrews 3:1-6
6 Matthew 16:23
7 Matthew 18:7-10
8 Luke 17:1-2
9 Philippians 1:9-11 – Complete Jewish Bible
10 Isaiah 35:3
11 Proverbs 4:26
12 Hebrews 12:12-13 – Complete Jewish Bible
13 1 Timothy 4:8
14 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
15 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 26
17 [Pseudo-]Constantius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 1 Corinthians 9:1
19 1 Corinthians 3:17
20 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 206
21 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
22 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 274
23 See Acts of the Apostles 10:9-16; cf. Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:14-16
24 1 Corinthians 6:19
25 John 6:29
26 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 606
27 1 Corinthians 3:9
28 Ephesians 2:10
29 2 Corinthians 5:17
30 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
31 Romans 14:20a, J. B. Phillips New Testament
32 Cf. 1 Corinthians 8:8
33 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.