I recently received an inquiry about Romans Chapter 14. The Christian community has long interpreted these verses in such a way so as to justify eating anything man wants to place in his mouth and re-define as “food.” The problem is that such an interpretation puts meaning into the text rather than drawing it out, which results in an interpretation that would have been totally foreign to Paul. Before we look at this section of Scripture there are 4 Key Presuppositions we need to make clear so that we keep these interpretive rules in mind as we seek to understand Paul’s meaning as well as the application of this text for our own day.
KEY PRESUPPOSITIONAL RULES:
1. God’s Word defines all terms and meaning of everything in the Universe always and forever.
2. Man’s ideas and opinions or viewpoints and convictions under God’s Kingdom Laws can vary within the framework of God’s definition of everything. i.e. Romans 14 gives the example of two acceptable eating options: eating only vegetables or eating meat and vegetables (in terms of meat considered “food” as defined by God – see Rule #1).
3. If man’s opinions, thoughts, ideas, definition of terms etc. ever directly conflict with God’s eternal Word, man is always wrong and is holding to the wrong opinion in that area regarding a definition of terms or ideas or whatever the case may be. This results in man holding to a sinful opinion or false definition of a term or idea that can result in man walking in and promoting sin inadvertently. (i.e. God defines “food” in Gen 1, Lev 11 & Duet 14 and Paul uses the term “food” based on God’s definition of “food”)
4. Man can sin without breaking a specific law or statute by choosing to fulfill a fleshly desire that is within his legal ability to fulfill, BUT doing so in such a way, time, or manner that would cause offense (“offense” being defined by Paul in Romans 14 as causing contempt or treating a brother as unacceptable or defiled before God when that brother is not, based solely on an OPINION or personal conviction within the framework of God’s Law that he or she holds but that also allows for more than one opinion to be held on the matter. (i.e. eating vegetables only or eating meat God gave for “food” since both options are acceptable under God’s Kingdom Rules.)
With these basic and foundational presuppositions in mind, read through the following verses (below) and note the following key words: weak in faith, opinions, eat all things vs. eat only vegetables, contempt = judge. Also, what word is used for “unclean” in 14:14 and what other Greek term is used in Scripture for “unclean” but not used here? Why did Paul choose this word over the other option and how would that have changed the meaning of what Paul is saying? Continue defining the following terms: food, hurt, destroy, evil, acceptable to God, then compare the word for clean (see root) used in 14:20 vs the other option available in Greek and compare with their opposites in 14:14 for unclean. Then compare what you find on the terms clean and unclean with Acts 10 (Peter’s vision). Define these terms according to Scripture. See how Paul uses them and connects them throughout the passage. Also, how does Jew and Gentile, and Israel and the Nations both compare in this verse in similar and different ways? How is Paul defining these 4 different terms that at times overlap? Does the sense of each change in the quotes from the Tanakh vs. the context in Romans by Paul to his audience? If the audience is a mix of Jew and Gentile (non-Jew), and Israel is God’s people vs. the Nations …is the term gentile being used in a different sense in different contexts here and how does this impact our understanding of Paul’s quotes and the meaning of the passage overall? Finally, compare 15:16 with Paul’s previous statement in Romans 12:1-2. How does this connection play into the teaching as a whole?
Romans 13:14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.
Romans 14:1 Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.
Romans 14:2 One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only.
Romans 14:3 The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.
Romans 14:4 Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
Romans 14:5 One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.
Romans 14:6 He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.
Romans 14:7 For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself;
Romans 14:8 for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.
Romans 14:9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
Romans 14:10 But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.
Romans 14:11 For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall give praise to God.”
Romans 14:12 So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.
Romans 14:13 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.
Romans 14:14 I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
Romans 14:15 For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died.
Romans 14:16 Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil;
Romans 14:17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Romans 14:18 For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.
Romans 14:19 So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.
Romans 14:20 Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense.
Romans 14:21 It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.
Romans 14:22 The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.
Romans 14:23 But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.
Romans 15:1 Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves.
Romans 15:2 Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification.
Romans 15:3 For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.”
Romans 15:4 For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
Romans 15:5 Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus,
Romans 15:6 so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Romans 15:7 Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.
Romans 15:8 For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers,
Romans 15:9 and for the Gentiles(Nations) to glorify God for His mercy; as it is written, “Therefore I will give praise to You among the Gentiles(Nations), And I will sing to Your name.”
Romans 15:10 Again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles(Nations), with His people.”
Romans 15:11 And again, “Praise the Lord all you Gentiles(Nations), And let all the peoples(Gentiles/Nations) praise Him.”
Romans 15:12 Again Isaiah says, “There shall come the root of Jesse, And He who arises to rule over the Gentiles(Nations), In Him shall the Gentiles(nations) hope.”
Romans 15:13 Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 15:14 And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another.
Romans 15:15 But I have written very boldly to you on some points so as to remind you again, because of the grace that was given me from God,
Romans 15:16 to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles(Nations), ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles(Nations) may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
At the end of the day Paul appears to be seeking to make peace between Jewish and non-Jewish believers who are holding each other in contempt for various ungodly reasons and prejudices (likely along Jewish and Gentile lines and traditions just as we see today). This is manifesting here in the example of those who eat meat and those who choose to eat only vegetables (we are clearly missing some of the greater context with regard to the nuances of the issue but we can still get a general idea drawing on human nature). Both acts (eating vegetables only or eating clean meat) are acceptable under the Torah of God or God’s Kingdom rules for righteous living, yet there seems to be a divide between the people in which both those who eat meat and those who don’t eat meat are condemning each other as unacceptable to God.
Those who eat only vegetables accuse those who eat meat of defilement or being unacceptable to God through defilement, and those who eat (clean) meat look down on those who do not as weak and lacking faith, thus they too are considered unacceptable to God. Paul says both are acceptable to God, but the attitudes and actions of the people are turning eating (something acceptable to do) sinful because of the “judgment” as in “contempt” each is showing the other. Paul concludes by noting that nothing in terms of “food” (as defined by God) is or can become “unclean” as in “defiled” in and of itself (because God has declared it clean and good for food and God’s Word always stands above man’s, thus not even clean meat sacrificed to an idol can “in reality” make something God declared clean; defiled). However, to the one whose conscience is defiled, to eat, even something God declared clean without faith, believing something has been defiled and has become unclean, is sin, not because it in reality has become unclean, but because the conscience of the person is seared. There are many assumptions we can make in terms of various applications of this truth, but this truth is clear and underlying none-the-less.
There are two Greek words for “clean” used frequently in the Apostolic Scriptures, and they have their equivalent opposites in terms of coming from the same root in “unclean.” One of these roots for clean and unclean is defined in terms of ritual cleanness and uncleanness as in defilement, while the other is clean and unclean as declared by God. These terms have vastly different functions and nuances that must be understood and such terms can easily confuse people reading in English alone, and cause modern readers in particular to interpret passages like that above falsely. In the end, God’s Word stands forever. We must endeavor to always keep this truth in mind as we seek to understand the difficult passages and nuances of interpretation demonstrated by Paul.
I hope you’ll spend some time digging deeper into this passage so that you can come to understand the truth of God more deeply and in so doing give glory to the Almighty for His unending wisdom and faithfulness to every Word He speaks.
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