Paul has in the previous chapter addressed a matter that was difficult for the Jew to accept: The need for submission to government. The Jew has certainly had to make numerous changes in his way of thinking as a result of the changes in God’s dealings with the world now under the gospel rather than through the law.
However, Paul, naturally feeling much sympathy for the Jew, also will now give a word of consolation and comfort for those who are struggling to make all the changes of mind that the gospel naturally leads to. There are certain essentials that must be insisted upon, large matters of much weight that must be understood and practiced consistently. But then there are also other matters of not quite so much importance concerning which we ought to give some room for the weak brother to struggle along and come to understanding in time. This is the main focus of the section that follows, and Paul opens it with that express declaration:
But the one weak in faith, receive, not unto disputes of arguments. (14:1)
There are a couple of particular issues that arise in the following discussion as potential matters of dispute that ought not be made matters of strong disagreement. Both of these issues will be matters that the Jew particularly would struggle to accept because of his former manner of life in the Jewish traditions. To some degree, the matters discussed may also be issues for Gentiles who are converted out of heathenism. The central focus, though, as will be indicated by Paul expressly, is on the believing Jew who still has some doubts about certain practices that are contrary to his former customs. Paul has urged the Jew of the need of many large-scale changes in his way of thinking. Now he will allow some helpful and compassionate reprieve for him and urge understanding from those who might not see why the Jew should have such doubts as he does.
The first specific issue of potential difference is that of food regulations:
One, on the one hand, believes to eat all things, but the one being weak eats vegetables. The one who eats, let him not despise the one who does not eat. But the one who does not eat, let him not judge the one who eats, for God received him. You, who are you who judges the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls. But he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (14:2-4)
So, then, we see that the “right” position, that held by the one who is not weak in faith, is that all foods are good to eat. However, not all are strong in faith in this way. There are some whose minds have not yet worked out all the implications of the gospel of faith that has brought them salvation. Paul does not strongly rebuke this one who is weak in faith for his lack of mature understanding, but rather admonishes both the strong and the weak to live in peace about such a matter as this. It is not a large enough issue to cause division and separation.
It is important to understand the nature of this weakness of faith. The brother here who is weak in faith is still rather strong in faith in the large picture. The assumption here most certainly is that both sides of the issue hold firmly to a salvation that is of faith. If the one weak in faith were not understanding that justification was by faith, still clinging to works of the law, then Paul would most certainly strongly reprove such a position as he did early in the book. Likewise if a man here thought that the law was the means of inner renewal and regeneration, not understanding the need of dependence upon the Spirit of God by faith, then Paul would also no doubt bring a strong rebuke.
But the faith in such essential matters is well assumed here; God is the master of both parties; both are Christian brothers. Moreover, this is not a great moral problem that is present in the Roman church, such as we at times find elsewhere in the churches of the New Testament. Whether a person eats certain foods or not is not so big a deal as, say, sexual impurity, stealing, lying, etc. It is not even on the same level as such a matter as submission to governmental authority, which Paul has just discussed. In many ways, the matter of what foods to eat is irrelevant as a question of morality. It is important to understand these factors of the situation in order not to twist or misunderstand what Paul is teaching. But when the situation is as we find it here, then the important advice of Paul is that of loving acceptance and gentle understanding from both sides.
This matter of regulations of diet is then accompanied by another debated issue:
One, on the one hand, judges day from day, but the other judges every day. Let each be assured in his own mind. (14:5)
This issue does not receive as much attention as that of dietary rules, which runs on throughout the chapter, but it serves as a second example to reinforce the basic position. Both issues are vestiges either of the regulations of the Mosaic law itself or of traditions associated with it in the history of Jewish religion. Though the specific details of what is said concerning these matters might sometimes be harder to place, the basic issues are clearly ones that Jews would have dealt with very strongly in their religion: Dietary laws and regulations concerning holy days. For a Jew who was so long trained in a certain practice of these matters, it would not have been an easy thing to consider them as small and irrelevant.
In light of these issues that might, but ought not, cause some division between Jewish and Gentile believers, what is Paul’s advice? The first thing Paul does is to establish an important first principle from which he will draw some conclusions in the matter. That first principle is that Christ is the Lord over us:
You, who are you who judges the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls…Let each be assured in his own mind. The one who considers the day, considers it for the Lord. And the one who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God. And the one not eating, to the Lord does not eat, and he gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself and no one dies to himself. For if we should live, we live to the Lord, and if we should die, we die to the Lord. Both if we should live and if we should die, we are the Lord’s. For unto this Christ died and came to life, so that both of the dead and of the living He might be Lord. But you, why do you judge your brother? Or also, you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all be presented to the judgment seat of God, for it has been written, “As I live, says the Lord, that to Me will bow every knee and every tongue will confess to God.” So then, each of us concerning himself will give account to God. (14:4-12)
We are taught, then, that we are not the judges of one another in such matters of small importance as we find here in view. Again, it is important to realize that Paul does not speak this way about all things, but rather in other places he even calls directly upon Christians to judge those within the body. Here, though, in considering matters of the nature we have before us now, Paul affirms that we ought to stop judging one another and leave the matter for each brother himself to address before God, who alone is his master in the end.
The principle that Paul laid down is so important here in understanding how this works: “Let each be assured in his own mind.” According to the understanding that each man has, he must serve Christ as he thinks best. There will inevitably be some difference of thinking among believers, but each man in the end does not answer to his brother beside him, but to Christ above him. And in such cases, my brother’s opinion cannot be my guide for action, but rather, my own belief and persuasion must lead me. I am bound to follow what I believe before God to be right. I will give account to Him and to Him alone. He is the judge of all men.
So then, the first point that Paul draws for us based on this fact is that we ought to stop judging one another over these disputed points. Because Christ is the judge, let me not try to serve as judge over my brother:
No longer, therefore, let us judge one another. Rather, judge this instead, not to set an offense or cause of stumbling to your brother. (14:13)
Here we see the admonition not to judge, but then we see also a second implication that is begun. Because Christ is our Lord, we must be ready to do what is good for His body and His servants. We must take much heed to our actions as they relate to our brothers.
Paul has already asserted to us that our very living and dying is not on our own behalf, but is in service to God, who is Lord and Master over all. He now uses that basic fact as the motivation not to put any stumbling block before our brother that might cause him to fall into sin. He shows to us that the matter of what foods to eat cannot even begin to compare in importance to the question of love and consideration of our Christian brother:
For if because of food your brother is grieved, no longer do you walk according to love. Do not by your food destroy him for whom Christ died…For the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but rather, righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…Do not for the sake of food destroy the work of God…It is good not to eat meat nor drink wine nor in what your brother stumbles. (14:15-21)
Paul makes it plain what is more important here, and that we are very selfish and foolish if we are willing to destroy the peace and unity of God’s kingdom and become an occasion of stumbling to our brother all for the sake of a bit of meat that we desire. This is not service to Christ at all! It is rather to be controlled by our own bellies.
While throughout the passage, Paul does take time to present the truth of the situation concerning the fact that all foods truly are acceptable to eat, yet this is not really his main focus. It is desirable that we all come to one mind and understanding about such matters, and there is indeed a true position about such an issue. However, even though there is some importance in the matter itself, Paul’s greater concern is the love and peace of the body. As he says, the kingdom of God is not about these small matters of eating and drinking, but about much greater and more important, more glorious truths and realities: Righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Let us learn to pursue these things above such lesser matters as our desire for certain foods:
So then, let us pursue the things of peace and the things of edification unto one another. (14:19)
This emphasis has brought us right back to the main idea introduced in chapter 12 of peace and unity and love for one another. Paul never really has left that subject, but has simply taken up a few important particulars of how we must pursue love and peace and unity. Here, it is a matter of loving consideration for the weaker brother who does not have as much understanding of some things as we do. We are called to put his needs before our own wants, to bear with him in his doubts and weaknesses rather than despise him and cause him to stumble by our lack of care. It is self-sacrificial love that Paul calls us to as the means to preserve the peace in the body:
We who are strong ought to bear the weakness of those who are not strong and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor unto that which is good towards edification. (15:1-2)
The good of the body of Christ, the building up of our neighbor, is put in direct contrast to our own desires. If we simply think about ourselves and take heed to our own wants, we will not be serving our neighbor and building him up. Rather, we will end up placing stumbling blocks before him and doing harm to our brother and harm to Christ’s kingdom. We must learn instead to bear with the weaknesses of others and learn to please them wherever we can.
And in case that seems like a heavy burden for us to bear, we are reminded of the far greater burden that Christ bore on our behalf, how He took our weaknesses upon Himself in a much grander scale than the small matters that we are asked to bear:
For even Christ did not please Himself, but rather, just as it is written, “The revilings of those reviling you fell upon Me.” (15:3)
We are told that we must learn from the example of Christ, the example of what has been written in past times concerning Him. There is a great lesson of sacrificial service laid before us in the sufferings of Christ, and we must become imitators of that example. If we could learn this love and service to one another, then we might indeed fulfill the purpose for which God has called us. Paul’s expressed hope and prayer reveals what that purpose is:
But may the God of steadfastness and encouragement give to you to think the same thing among one another according to Christ Jesus, so that in one mind, in one mouth, you might glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (15:5-6)
What is the end purpose and goal that Paul desires for the Roman Christians? He longs to see them in loving unity and harmony bringing praise and glory to God. If there be dissension and judging one against the other over minor matters, this does not bring glory to God. But when we love one another and seek out the good of the other, serving Christ and our brother before ourselves, then we can indeed bring glory to God, which is the purpose of all.
And so Paul will close the whole of his practical admonitions to the Romans with this goal in mind, that of glorifying God. And once again, his thought is not separated from the question of how the Jew and the Gentile are to do this together under the gospel. In fact, this is the central focus of his concluding remarks here before turning to close the letter as a whole with his personal plans and word of goodbye to the church. He has already come to a very fitting close of the discussion itself concerning foods and the principle of serving others before ourselves. But he is not quite done, for he wishes the final impression of all upon his readers to be the picture of the Jew and the Gentile together in praise and worship to God. The example of Christ’s service is thus taken up in terms of service towards both the Jews and the Gentiles:
Therefore, receive one another, just as also Christ received us unto the glory of God. For I say Christ to have become a servant of the circumcision for the sake of the truth of God in order to confirm the promises of the Fathers, but towards the Gentiles for the sake of mercy to glorify God. (15:7-9)
Christ took upon Himself the weaknesses of all men. This was true as He served both the Jew and the Gentile. In both cases He had to bear many things on our behalf. Paul’s language here indicates more clearly that he has been thinking about issues that might separate Jew and Gentile throughout this passage. If Christ was willing to serve the Jews in the context of circumcision and all such laws that they were under, so also ought Gentiles be patient with many things unnecessary in themselves in order to serve others. Christ received the Jews; so also ought the Gentiles receive them.
And if Christ was willing to serve the Gentiles for the sake of mercy and bringing about the glory of God, so also ought Jews to receive them into the body of the kingdom of God. The two groups must come together and be, as Paul said, of one mind and one mouth in bringing glory to God. This was the desire of Christ and the end goal of His service both to Jew and Gentile. He laid down His life so that He might bring all men together into one mind and heart to serve, love, and glorify God the Father. This is the great goal of the gospel from start to finish. Christ is redeeming all mankind and making possible the bringing of them all into the kingdom of God, where all men will join together in loud praise to the Father. This is the end of the matter, and this glorious picture of Jew and Gentile united together in worship of their one Lord is seen to be the final note on which concludes Paul’s teaching here:
Just as it has been written, “Because of this, I will confess You among the Gentiles, and in Your name I will sing.” And again it says, “Rejoice, Gentiles, with His people.” And again, “Praise the Lord, all the Gentiles, and let all peoples praise Him.” And again Isaiah says, “There will be the root of Jessie and the one arising to rule the Gentiles. Upon Him the Gentiles will hope.” (15:9-12)
What a glorious picture, which is the focus of the gospel from start to finish. It has always been God’s purpose to bring all the Gentiles, that is, all the nations of the world, to join His people the Jews in worshiping Him. Paul has shown this great mystery in rich fullness in this book. I hope that we do not miss his central point, even among so many other glorious truths that serve that main point. A universal gospel that brings all men together in salvation is Paul’s view of the gospel, and it is a glorious view indeed. There is no larger or grander picture to paint or imagine. Paul has now done all he can to inspire in us the true praise and worship to God that is due Him. The universal gospel has been presented in its fullness.
All that remains for Paul to do is to speak on a personal level to the Romans concerning his own immediate circumstances and plans, especially those that relate to the Christians there at Rome. These concluding remarks make up the rest of the book. We will see even in these that his mind is much on the same theme as has dominated his thought throughout the presentation of the gospel truths. His mind and heart are full of this most important of truths, and he is not likely to leave them off.