I believe that in chapters 12 through 14 of Romans what we have is Paul addressing some practical considerations for how the church is to show love towards one another. It is one thing to say that you should love one another, and that you should love your neighbor, and you should even love your enemies. But it is another thing to work out how we do that in real life. In each of these aspects of love, Paul is explaining the way love is worked out in the church and through the church. Even in chapter 13, when Paul dealt with the church’s submission to governing authorities, the ultimate issue is still love, even sacrificial love towards others.
In chapter 14 then Paul is addressing how some practical considerations in the way the church acts in love towards one another. In the historical context, there were some problems that presented themselves in the church which threatened to destroy their unity, to cause strife between various factions, and to ultimately cause the church to not to love as it should.
The two major ethnic distinctions in the church in Rome were the Jews and the Gentiles. It seems that for a while the Jews had been expelled from the capital of Rome by Claudius, and in their absence the Gentiles in the church had become comfortable in living out their freedoms in Christ without having to consider the Jews tradition. But at the time of this writing, the Jews had come back to Rome and were active again in the church. This was a transitionary time in the church when Jewish conversion to Christianity was happening, but they were used to certain regulations in Judaism in regards to worshipping God, and it was difficult for them to forsake some of those things such as certain foods and certain holidays that had been a standard of their lives for so long.
So Paul writes this section with this conflict in mind between the Jews and the Gentiles in the church. It was important for them to be unified and act in love towards one another and this aspect of traditions and culture from their past threatened the church from within. Now it might be easy for us to disregard such a passage today because we don’t have most of these particular issues in the church anymore, at least not to the degree that they did. But nevertheless, we can learn certain principles which should be applicable to other areas in our lives, which are important if we are going to get along with each other and be able to act in unity as the body of Christ.
In this passage it would seem that in a general way Paul classifies the Jew as the weak brother, and the Gentile as the strong brother. The weak brother, or the Jew, was still convicted by his conscience about holy days and certain foods and drink. The stronger brother, the Gentile, embraced freedom in regards to food and drink and holy days. The result was that each group looked with disdain upon the other group.
So Paul admonishes them in vs 1, to “accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.” Last time when we looked at the first section following this opening verse, we saw that there were four reasons he gave why they should accept the weak, or accept the strong. First, because the Lord accepts us, 2, because the Lord sustains us, 3, because the Lord is sovereign to each of us, and 4th, because the Lord alone is the judge, not us.
Then starting in vs 13 Paul makes the point that rather than judge one another, we are to edify one another. We are to build up one another. Not only are we to accept each other in the sense that we tolerate our differences, but we are to do that which constructively edifies each other, strengthening and building up each other. There will be differences in spiritual maturity among Christians in the church. There will be various ethnic traditions and cultures that exist in the church among it’s members. There will be members of the church which have different convictions and standards which are different from others. Not sinful issues, not issues which the Bible clearly states are sin, but attitudes and behaviors and convictions which are non-moral, but nevertheless important to each person. And what Paul is saying is that we are not to tear down one another over such things, but build one another up. Looking out for what the other person needs rather than flexing my liberty at the expense of everyone else.
Paul’s concern, as we come to verse 13 and all the way through the section, is not encourage the strong to stand up for their rights and exercise their liberty. His point is not to have the strong flaunting their liberty, defining and demanding their rights, but it is to teach the strong to restrain their liberty for love’s sake.
And the key to the whole section is found in vs 15, where Paul says if you exercise your liberty and your brother is hurt, you are not walking in love. The point there is really the point of the whole passage. What you want to do is be sure that your conduct in the exercise of your liberty is not unloving, is not insensitive to other believers. If we can just boil this down to a principle, we would say that the objective of Christian living in the church, the goal of a strong believer is to conduct himself in love toward a weaker brother.
In that regard, Paul shows us six ways in which we can avoid offending and build up each other. The first one is in verse 13 which is, “not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.” The picture here is of a brother or a sister walking through their Christian life and somebody putting an obstacle in their path to cause them to fall. We don’t want to be the source of stopping them in their onward progress, causing them to trip up and fall.
In 1 Cor. 8:9 Paul says, “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” What may not be an issue for you, might be an issue for someone else. But the fact that you, as a strong Christian, are doing a certain thing that is a real temptation or a problem for the weak one, may be all the incentive that they need to do the same thing, and in so doing, cause them to fall back into sin. I can tell you from years of experience that weak Christians look to other Christians who they may think are mature, as an example of how they are to act. I’ve seen many young or weak Christians stop coming to Bible study, for example, because so and so, the strong Christian, stopped coming to Bible study. Leaders lead by example, and the weaker ones will follow your example.
Jesus warned of a severe punishment for those that put a stumbling block in front of others. He calls the others little ones, but He could just as easily say weak ones. He’s not just talking about children, but about people who are weak or young in the faith. He said in Mat 18:6-7 “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of [its] stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!” So we need to make a serious commitment that we will never do anything which could be a stumbling block to others who are weaker in that area.
Next, Paul says not only are we not to cause our brother to stumble, but secondly, we are not to grieve our brother. vs 14,15 “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. 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.”
Now Paul is talking about food here. We need to make that clear. He is not giving us permission to arbitrarily decide what is sinful or not. He is talking about food, which in itself is not sinful. But certain foods were originally prescribed by God in the Mosaic law as either clean or unclean. However, in the NT all foods were declared clean and available for food. Last week I told you the story of Peter on the rooftop and how he saw a vision with all sorts of animals coming down out of heaven in a sheet. And the Lord said, “Arise Peter kill and eat.” And Peter answered, “Not so Lord, for I have never eaten anything unclean.” And the Lord said, ““What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.”
Also we have the testimony of Paul in 1 Tim. 4:4 “Everything God created is excellent and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” So Paul says in our text that no food is unclean in itself. But if your conscience tells you that it’s unclean, and then you eat it because your stronger brother encourages you, or you follow his example, then your conscience will be hurt. And the stronger brother who encouraged you to go against your conscience has not acted in love.
The Lord wants us to have a clear conscience. You never want to train anybody to violate conscience. We looked at that last week. You don’t want to learn to violate your conscience. By following your instruction or your example, he does what he believes is wrong and then has to live with the remorse and the guilt of his conscience. He not only forfeits the peace and joy of his Christian walk but he also risks searing his conscience which is a tool that the Holy Spirit uses to lead us and guide us in righteousness. So we don’t want to do something which may cause a brother to grieve his conscience.
The third point is also in vs 15, “Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died.” Don’t make him stumble, don’t grieve him, and by all means, don’t destroy him over something like food. Christ was willing to die for that person. Shouldn’t you be willing to limit your liberty to keep from destroying someone? Sin is a destroyer. And it doesn’t have to be some major sin that causes destruction. I’ve seen someone’s Christian walk destroyed over what seemed to be a trivial issue to me. But obviously it wasn’t a trivial matter to them. Once they took a step in a particular direction, the next steps followed in quick succession. Once you go against your conscience in one area, you’re more easily tempted in other areas and you no longer seem to have the spiritual resistance to stop the downhill slide.
Fourthly, don’t allow your liberty to cause you to forfeit your testimony. It is possible to so abuse our liberty among ourselves that we create such conflict between the weak and the strong that the world in general is turned off to Christianity because of what they see.
Vs 16, “Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil, for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Paul is talking about the world watching the church. When a church falls, or has a falling out of it’s people, the world is watching and using that as an excuse to reject the gospel. It’s important that if necessary we set aside our liberties for the sake of our testimony to a watching world.
The Jews were accused of causing the world to blaspheme God because of the way they conducted themselves in the world. And I’m afraid that the majority of Christians are guilty of the same kind of thing. So that the world says they have no use for church, in fact, they would prefer hell over church, because the church is so full of hypocrites. Why do they say that? Because we are too consumed with our rights, our liberties, our freedoms, and in so doing we ruin so many that are hurt by our actions.
Furthermore, Paul says that the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. In other words, the evidence of your Christianity is not found in a strict list of do’s and don’ts. The evidence of our salvation is not food and drink. Fighting over non-essential, non-moral convictions is all too common in the church and probably a key reason so many people reject the gospel. I’ve seen churches split over things like the Sunday School budget or the color of the cushions on the pews.
The Kingdom is not about what we do or don’t do as Christians. The Kingdom is righteousness and peace and joy in Christ. Righteousness means I live in such a way as to honor God, and peace means I live in harmony with my brother. And joy comes to the one who is right with God and at peace with his brother. Joy is knowing God, experiencing forgiveness, grace and mercy and love. And that kind of environment is created a by self-sacrificing love that does not exercise its liberty at the expense of offending somebody else.
Peter confirms this principle in 1Peter 2:15-16 “For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but [use it] as bond slaves of God.” Our actions, by the limitation of our freedoms, by the avoidance of all things unseemly, serves to shut the mouths of our critics.
Back to vs18 of our text in Romans 14, “For he who in this [way] serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” Our love for others, which is evidenced by our willingness to sacrifice our liberty for the sake of others, is actually serving Christ, and it brings approval from men. Isn’t that what Romans 12:1 and 2 says? “Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” God is pleased when we sacrificially restrict our freedom for the sake of serving others in the church. And such sacrificial service also finds approval from men.
Paul said in 1Cor. 9:19-22 “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.” That’s the goal, the furtherance of the gospel, that I would not do anything to hinder someone from coming to the saving knowledge of the gospel. If we truly loved our neighbor, we would do everything possible to see them come to salvation, even sacrificing our freedom or our liberty for their sake.
Then in verse 19 of our text, he says, “Therefore, let us pursue the things which lead to peace and the building up of one another.” Let us pursue two things; one, the things that make for peace. You know what leads to peace? A desire to see my brother’s needs met, thats more important than having my rights protected. That takes humility. It takes a sacrificial love for one another.
And secondly, we are to pursue the things which build each other up. So I consider doing whatever it takes to build them up, not to satisfy my ego, or to exercise my rights, or to fill my appetite. But I want to see them strengthened. I want to see them edified, even more than I want edification for myself. In 1 Corinthians 14:12 Paul says, “So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.” Rather than exercising your liberty which may cause them to stumble or be hurt, or to be destroyed, or which may cause a loss of testimony, seek to build them up.
Fifth, don’t tear down the work of God. Vs. 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.”
When you cause a brother to be offended, you’re tearing down the work of God. Food is symbolic of any discretionary thing that you might think you have a right to do. It can apply to many things besides food. But here he has the idea of the offending the Jew with food that wasn’t kosher or offending a Gentile with food that had been offered to idols. But food is symbolic of anything that might cause offense. Don’t let your liberty destroy the work of God.
That person in church you think is weak, who is hung up on legalism, who is offended by what you’re doing is a work of God. Ephesians 2:10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.” God is at work in every Christian, even the weaker brother is a work of God. it is the work of God you’re tearing down for the sake of enjoying your liberty.
Verse 20 reminds us all food is clean. All things refers to food, that’s evident from the rest of the sentence. But it can apply to anything that is not sin in and of itself. Things that are not immoral are clean, they are permissible for us. But it can become sin for us if we eat and it causes the weaker brother to be offended. We have caused him to stumble, and to cause a stumbling block to others is sinful.
So he says in verse 21, “it’s good neither to eat meat, nor drink wine, nor anything by which thy brother stumbles.” None of those things may be sinful in themselves, but when I do something which causes my brother to stumble it is sin. And so I must avoid it. Notice also that now the apostle identifies wine as the source of the problem with drinking. He is not saying wine is sinful, but it becomes sinful when it causes someone else to stumble. Your weaker brother may have come out of alcoholism. And you should be willing to restrict your liberty for the sake of a brother. I read a statistic the other day which said that 14.4 million people in America has a drinking disorder. You may think you’re ok, but you need to consider others.
I remember not long after I quit drinking my wife and I were invited over to dinner at the pastor’s house of a church we were attending. And they served wine with dinner. It was a temptation for me. After all, the pastor was drinking and offered me some. But I am the type of person that isn’t going to drink a glass once in a blue moon and that’s it. I’ll drink that glass, and then I’ll take the bottle. Thank God I haven’t had a sip of alcohol in over 25 years. And I didn’t fall that night either, but I shudder to think what my life might be like today if I had decided that night I would just have one little drink. “It’s better neither to eat meat, nor drink wine, nor anything by which thy brother stumbles.”
Then the last point, don’t flaunt your liberty. Do you have faith that you can eat or drink or do something that you see as Christian liberty? Great! Just keep it to yourself before God. Vs22 “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.” I used to misunderstand that verse. I used to think it meant that whatever I approved of, whatever my convictions were, that was fine. As long as I am happy. Different strokes for different folks.
But it doesn’t mean that. It means my convictions are between me and God. I don’t insist on my freedoms at the expense of others. Paul says, “You should keep between God and yourself that conviction that you have.” And then he adds, “Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.” Meaning; inwardly happy is that person, the strong believer, who avoids bringing God’s judgment upon himself by insisting on the exercise of his freedom at the expense of harming a weaker believer.
Let your liberty be between you and God. That’s vertical. But horizontally only allow yourself freedom which does not offend your brother, does not put a stumbling block in front of another person.
On the other hand, verse 23, “He that doubts,” that’s a weak Christian, “he’s going to be condemned if he eats,” his conscience is going to condemn him, because he doesn’t believe he should eat. “And whatever is not of faith to him is sin.” So, to the weak Christians, don’t try to emulate the strong until you have come to understand your freedom or you’ll be condemned by your own conscience. Don’t go against your conscience.
The bottom line is that we are to love one another with a sacrificial love. And when we serve one another and build up one another in the church we are serving God. He is pleased. That is our acceptable service to God. And it also commends us to men. The watching world sees that Christians are different. They will know we are Christians by our love. Love does no wrong to a brother. Let us love one another as Christ loved the church, and laid down his life for her.
That’s the law of God. Love your neighbor as yourself. And I will just conclude with a quote from Paul in another passage, 1Cor. 10:23-24 “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.”