As I noted in my last post, this series has been sparked in part due to Cris Putnam’s posts dealing with the Sabbath on his Logos Apologia blog. My introductory post was edited pretty heavily around answering his arguments. This one is less so, mostly because the article I wrote a half-decade ago pretty much covers what I would want to say today.
When I was younger, I once made a tongue-in-cheek argument to a couple of friends that based on this passage, I could prove that I had the greatest faith of all if I could just come up with a meal that broke every kosher commandment all at once. Ah, the foolishness of youth!
In dealing with this passage, we really have to subdivide it into two separate issues, both of which are under the umbrella of unity in the Body of the Messiah—which is really what Paul is dealing with. In fact, the subject of unity between the Redeemed from every sort of background is the very reason he wrote Romans. Therefore, even if Paul was calling those who kept the Torah “weak”—and we will see shortly that he was not—he still commands the “strong” not to judge them, but rather, “let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (v. 13, NKJV).
Let us then deal with this passage in this light. First, does Paul call those keeping kosher “weak”? Let us read what he says:
Kosher vs. Vegetarianism
Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. (vv. 1-4, NKJV)
The key phrase is in bold above. Note the nature of the issue: Paul does not call one weak who “eats only certain kinds of meat,” but says that of the vegetarian, one who eats no meat at all!
Now let us be clear about something: One who simply prefers vegetables to meat as a matter of taste, or who takes on a vegetarian diet for health reasons, or even one who avoids meat because of a soft spot for animals is not being called weak in their faith here—indeed, none of those reasons has anything to do with one’s faith. Rather, though Paul does not here spell it out for us, the issue is tied to the issue of eating things sacrificed to idols.
Remember that one of the main injunctions that the new Gentile believers were held to was to avoid eating meat sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:20 & 29, 21:25; 1 Co. 10:20f). This apparently led to a debate over whether one had to investigate the origin of every piece of meat sold in the market, much of which may have come from the pagan temples. Since constantly worrying about the origin of meat would have made the impression that the Christians were afraid of the pagan gods getting some power over them through food, Paul gave the following guidelines on how to deal with meat:
So, as for eating food sacrificed to idols, we “know” that, as you say, “An idol has no real existence in the world, and there is only one God.” For even if there are so–called “gods,” either in heaven or on earth––as in fact there are “gods” and “lords” galore––yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom all things come and for whom we exist; and one Lord, Yeshua the Messiah, through whom were created all things and through whom we have our being.
But not everyone has this knowledge. Moreover, some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat food which has been sacrificed to them, they think of it as really affected by the idol; and their consciences, being weak, are thus defiled. Now food will not improve our relationship with God––we will be neither poorer if we abstain nor richer if we eat. However watch out that your mastery of the situation does not become a stumbling block to the weak. You have this “knowledge”; but suppose someone with a weak conscience sees you sitting, eating a meal in the temple of an idol. Won’t he be built up wrongly to eat this food which has been sacrificed to idols? Thus by your “knowledge” this weak person is destroyed, this brother for whom the Messiah died; and so, when you sin against the brothers by wounding their conscience when it is weak, you are sinning against the Messiah! To sum up, if food will be a snare for my brother, I will never eat meat again, lest I cause my brother to sin. (1 Co. 8:4-13, CJB)
That is to say, they were not to worry about investigating the background of every piece of meat, whether bought at the market or offered at a pagan friends’ table, but if they were told that the meat had in fact been sacrificed to an idol, they were to abstain—not because the meat had any power over them, but so as to provide a witness that they had completely separated from the pagan gods, both to the pagans and to the Jews! Indeed, Paul states that he would rather not eat meat ever again than to cause his brother to sin (skandalιsu, literally, to trip or cause to stumble).
Apparently, there were those in the Roman fellowship who rejected eating any meat at all on the basis that it might have been sacrificed to an idol (if they had not received Paul’s letters to the Corinthians) or to avoid causing others to stumble. If the first was the case, then Paul was calling their faith “weak” because they were taking an unnecessary precaution and treating the meat as if it truly had power over them. If the latter was the case, then he is not truly calling them weak, but is referring to the perception that they are weak by their brothers.
Whichever is the case, two points are key:
- The issue is not avoiding certain kinds of meat out of a desire to obey a mitzvot (command) from God, but on creating a “fence around the Torah” by avoiding meat altogether.
- Whether he truly regards those so doing as weak or not, Paul commands that they are not to be despised (i.e., looked down on, rejected) on the basis of their practice! Therefore, even if he was addressing the issue of kosher—which he is most certainly not—a “normal” Christian is forbidden to harass or look down on the Messianic who believes that it is right and appropriate to avoid pork (14:20-15:2).
Every Day Alike?
One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. (Rom. 14:5-6, NKJV)
The first thing to notice on Paul’s teaching here is what is missing: That’s right, he does not call the one who “esteems one day above another” “weak.” Some assume that he thinks them weak on the basis of parallelism, but as every word in Scripture means something, we should not note that Paul very deliberately leaves out the word. Indeed, it would be most inconsistent with Paul’s life and teachings if he thought those who observed God’s Mo’edim (Appointed Times/Feasts) to be weak by doing so. After all, he
- hurried to be in Jerusalem by Shavuot (Pentecost), a pilgrimage feast (Acts 20:16);
- commanded the Corinthians to “keep the Feast” of Passover, “For our Pesach lamb, the Messiah, has been sacrificed” (1 Co. 5:7, 8);
- observed the Sabbath with prayer and worship (cf. Acts 16:13).
- told the Colossians not to let anyone “pass judgment on you in connection with eating and drinking, or in regard to a Jewish festival or New Moon or Sabbath. These are a shadow of things that are coming, but the body is of the Messiah” (Col. 2:16-17).
And finally, if it is true that Paul wrote the book of Hebrews (as early Church tradition has it), he actually states flat out that we are to rest from our works on the seventh day as God did from His (Heb. 4:1-11). Indeed, he could hardly have rejected the charge that he was teaching Jews to disobey the Torah if he hadn’t (Acts 21:20ff).
No, it is clear that to interpolate that Paul thought that those who observed the Lord’s Appointed Times into this text is to miss the point.
The Crisis That Raised the Issue
So if Paul believed that one should continue to keep the Feasts, why then does he here make it optional? To answer that question, we need to look at the circumstances particular to the Roman church: At some point during the reign of Claudius (41-54 CE) the Jews were expelled from Rome (cf. Acts 18:2f); according to Suetonius, a Roman historian (“Life of Claudius,” chapter 25), this was because they were “were constantly exciting tumults under their leader, Chrestus.” Many historians and commentators consider it likely that “Chrestus” is an accidental misspelling of Christos, or Christ, and that the tumults arising were due to conflict between believers, both Jew and Gentile, and the non-believing Jews. Regardless of whether this was the case or not, the Jews, both Messianic and not, were expelled from Rome.
This begs the question: How did the Romans identify the Jews for legal purposes? It is unlikely that they would have tracked down genealogical records. It is far more likely that the Jews were simply identified as anyone who identified with the Jewish synagogue, kept the Jewish Feasts instead of the pagan holidays, observed Sabbath, etc. This provides the key to understanding Paul’s teaching here, since those Christians who remained in Rome would have been Gentiles who were not keeping those days, at least not openly enough to be noticed. Remember that many early Christians were slaves, who did not get to have a day off apart from the pagan holidays; even most freemen could not take a day off without risking their jobs (and starvation).
Now keep in mind what the sudden loss of the Jewish community meant to those early Christians. Suddenly, they had no Scriptures, except perhaps a few epistles that were in circulation. They also lost their teachers and even their places of worship. Further, if they tried to keep the Sabbaths and the Feasts, they too risked expulsion—and unlike the Jews, they did not have a larger community outside of Rome to provide support and aid in re-establishing themselves—or worse in the case of slaves. So what did they do? They carried on as best they could, trying to treat every day as holy, and remembering that they were saved by their trust in the Son of God, not by keeping the Torah correctly.
When the Jews were allowed to return, there was doubtless tension between the Jewish and Gentile believers. It is that tension which Paul is attempting to defuse in his letter. Chapters 1-3 make the point that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), so no one has room to boast. Chapters 4-5 builds the idea of salvation by faith rather than works, while chapters 6-7 counterbalance this by explaining that God’s grace is no license to sin. Chapter 8 brings these two thoughts together in a reminder that whose who are in the Messiah are in God’s hands, and He is committed to conform us “into the image of His Son” (v. 29).
Chapters 9-11 deal with the issue of Israel ’s corporate rejection of the Messiah, and what that means for her prophetic promises. Paul answer is that Israel was hardened so that the Gentiles might be saved, and the Gentiles are being saved that Israel might be provoked to jealousy and likewise be saved. His conclusion is that, “all Israel will be saved, as it is written,” not because of their own merits, but because of God’s irrevocable promises to their fathers (11:25-29). From there, Paul in the last chapters calls on each to use the gifts that God has given him or her in love, to respect those in authority, and most of all not to divide over grey areas.
The entire purpose of Romans is to promote brotherhood in the Body of Yeshua, and that is the context into which Romans 14 must be read.
Even today, there is a continuing debate within Messianic Judaism as to whether Gentile believers should keep the Appointed Times that the Eternal One gave to Israel . On the one side are those who believe that the Sabbath and the Feasts were given to Israel —which is to say, the Jewish people—particularly as a sign of the Lord’s covenant with them, and generally encourage Gentile Christians to remain in their Sunday churches and keep the nominal Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter. On the other side are those who believe that God’s Appointed Times are for everyone grafted into Israel through Israel ’s King. At one time, I identified more heavily with the latter. These days, while I argue for the ongoing nature of Hashem’s Appointed Times in the New Covenant, I’m less concerned with whether anyone agrees with me with whether their opposition is voiced in a way that creates a stumbling block for my Jewish brothers and sisters.
What we should all carry away from Romans 14 is not a discouragement against keeping the Torah, but a discouragement from despising each other over honest differences in opinion on matters of practice within the faith of the Messiah Yeshua.