52. Romans 14:10-18
Not a matter of eating or drinking
In this part of Romans 14, Paul continues his exhortation about weak and strong brothers respecting one another without either harassing or criticizing our brothers for their convictions of conscience. We must not judge our brothers because it is not our job to judge. We each will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and receive our rewards for what we have done.
The question that arises, however, is this: if a believer is already judged in Christ, what judgment is Paul describing?
1 Corinthians 3:10-15 gives us the best glimpse of this future judgment which gelievers will experience:
“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”
As Adventists we didn’t have a clear idea how to understand this passage; in general, we assumed it was talking about gaining our “reward” of eternal life or being condemned and losing eternal life.
We made several errors with this passage as Adventists. First, we essentially ignored verse 15: “If [one’s work] is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” This verse clearly says that the people in question will be saved, even though their works are burned up. They themselves will be saved “as one[s] escaping through the flames”.
In other words, there are some whose works will be burned up, but the consuming fire will not destroy them. They will be saved, but their works will be eternally lost.
Second, we read the word “reward” in verse 14 as meaning “salvation”. Our reward for the good works we did, in other words, would be eternal life. Yet the Bible clearly teaches that salvation is not a reward; it is a gift: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul reiterates this fact in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Wages and rewards are things we earn. A gift is unrelated to our deeds or performance or faithfulness or obedience. A gift is entirely a no-strings-attached bequest to someone who has no reason to deserve it.
The passage in 1 Corinthians 3 tells us that there is a judgment, even for believers, that takes place when we meet Jesus, but this judgment is not about being saved or lost. This judgment is when those who are saved receive their rewards for the things they did as believers. If their works were deeds of faith built on the foundation of Jesus and empowered by the Holy Spirit, they will be rewarded. If their works were their own “good ideas” but not submitted to the Lord Jesus and not built on the foundation of Christ alone, those works will be burned up and will not be rewarded.
2 Corinthians 5:910 further mentions this reward for what we do as Christ-followers: “So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
This passage suggests that we can please the Lord Jesus whether we are at home in our bodies or separated from our bodies by death. It further states that we will receive what is due to us for what we have done while in the body—whether those things are good or bad. Again, this judgment has nothing to do with salvation. It is the judgment for rewards which the saved will experience. This is the judgment when God’s people receive rewards in His kingdom for their faithfulness to submit to His will during their lives.
In 2 Corinthians 4:1-5 Paul writes about the fact that he himself will be judged by the Lord Jesus. He says that what they, the Corinthians, think of him matters very little. In fact, he says, the fact that his own conscience is clear has no eternal significance. What matters is that the Lord judges him, but He will judge nothing “before the appointed time” when “the Lord comes”. Then He “will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.”
Paul further writes to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 2:17-20) that they themselves are “the crown in which [he] will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes”. The people he brought to the Lord Jesus by preaching the gospel will be the crown of glory and victory he will wear. They are the work for which he will be rewarded. “Indeed,” he says, “you are our glory and joy.”
Paul was confident that he could present the Thessalonians to the Lord Jesus with joy, knowing not only that he would be rewarded for his having preached the gospel of life to them, but that they, also, would be rewarded for their own faithfulness.
The judgment which the saved will experience is not a judgment to determine their salvation. Rather, it is a time when Jesus will reward them for their faithfulness to live by faith in Him.
Clean, permissible, or weak?
Paul calls all believers to stop passing judgment on one another and to honor his own conscience. No food, he says, is unclean in itself, but if anyone considers it to be unclean, then for him it is unclean. Given our particular Adventist background, how are we to differentiate between what is clean or unclean for ourselves, and how are we to tell the difference between someone who is merely weak and someone who is advocating false doctrine?
First, the New Testament clearly outlines what is clean and unclean in the new covenant. Marks 7:14-19 records Jesus teaching that nothing that goes into or comes out of a man makes him clean or unclean. Rather, it is what comes out of our heart that makes us unclean. No food is either clean or unclean.
Acts 10:9-15 and 27-28 further records Peter’s vision of the sheet of unclean creatures being lowered from heaven and God telling him to “kill and eat”. Peter was about to be sent to the home of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, who would, with his household, be the first Gentiles to receive the Holy Spirit and become part of the fledgling church. Peter knew the Jewish law that forbade him not only to eat ritually unclean food but also to eat with Gentiles. In the new covenant, this prohibition was suddenly gone; Gentiles and Jews alike were to be part of the church. God lifted the restriction on unclean (Gentile) foods and also on unclean (Gentile) people. Christ-followers were now to freely associate with all people, bearing the news of the Messiah and His finished work. All people were equally clean, and all foods were equally clean.
In the new covenant, the line of division was no longer ritual or ethnic purity. Now the differences between humans lay in whether or not they were born again, and those who were had to be willing to associate with those who were not in order to witness to them about Jesus.
Paul also wrote to Timothy that “everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5). He also wrote to Titus that the Judaizers were mere “talkers and deceivers” and must be silenced. They were “ruining whole households,” and Titus was to rebuke the people sharply so they would be “sound in the faith” and would pay no attention to Jewish myths. He further said that to the pure, all things are pure, and to the corrupt, nothing is pure. “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good” (Titus 1:10-16).
In this passage from the book of Titus, Paul begins to clarify how to tell the difference between someone who has a weak conscience and someone who is teaching heresy. He clearly says that people who are actively teaching Jewish laws and insisting that certain things are impure are themselves “detestable, disobedient and unfit for anything good.”
A person who is a true believer but has a weak conscience is describes in 1 Corinthians 8:4-13 and 10:27-30. Not everyone knows that idols are nothing at all, and that all food is clean. “Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. 8 But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 8:7-8. Such people are to be treated with deference. If they see us doing what they perceive to be honoring a false god or a false belief, their conscience will be wounded, and we would be leading them into sin by encouraging them to do something they still believe to be wrong—or something to which they still are vulnerable.
Further, if an unbeliever warns us about food or sacrifices to a pagan god, thinking it will be offensive to us because we honor God, we are to refuse to participate in the pagan ritual or observance because of the unbeliever’s conscience. In other words, we never want to confuse an unbeliever and cause him to believe that other gods or beliefs are equal to or interchangeable with Christianity.
If, however, a person is deliberately seeking to teach heresy to others, we must stop them. Ritual laws of clean and unclean have no power to restrain sensual indulgence, Paul says in Colossians 2:20-23. They appear noble and worshipful and self-disciplined, but they have no ability to purify our hearts. When people teach abstinence and ascetic practices in the name of God, we are to stop them.
Sacrificial love is the principle that directs our decisions regarding questions of conscience as we seek to protect the weak in faith. Assuming we are the more spiritually mature, we are to be sensitive to the triggers that confuse new believers. First, we must call them to truth; then, however, we must be willing to abstain from the things they need to abstain from when we are with them. We can’t destroy God’s work of awakening new believers to the finished work of Jesus by eating or worshiping with them in a way that allows them to rationalize clinging to their old habits and observances connected with their previous non-biblical beliefs.
Jesus loved us and gave Himself up for us; so we are to live lives of love and offer ourselves and our “rights” to God for the sake of others’ salvation. Our freedom must be checked if it will lead another person to sin against his conscience. Further, if we see someone observing certain practices or limitations for the sake of Christ, we must be compassionate and kind, even if their behaviors annoy us (Ephesians 4:32; 5:1-2).
Conversely, if we feel offended by a brother’s apparent freedom, we have to remember that he answers to the Lord Jesus, and we are to be compassionate and forgiving, just as Jesus forgave us.
Loving one another as Jesus loved us (John 15:12-13) involves setting aside our comfort and freedom for the sake of nurturing our brother’s faith. We give up our right to drink in front of one who struggles with alcoholism; we give up our “right” to indulge in things our brother feels are worldly if those things would cause him to sin against his own conscience. Ultimately, however, we are not submitting to our brother; we are submitting our decisions and practices to the Lord Jesus for His glory.
Paul’s enduring instruction to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 8:9-13) and to the Romans (14:20) continues to be our standard: we must not become stumbling blocks to the weak. Even if we are able to eat or do things freely, if a new believer struggles with the morality and symbolism of those things, we must refrain while with him—not pretending that we share his compunctions, but that we are willing to make him comfortable so he doesn’t feel the need to do something he’s uncomfortable doing.
When we think about honoring our weaker brothers and our stronger brothers, we can know that Jesus will say to us some day, ““The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
“He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matthew 25:40, 45.
Our guide for settling disputes of conscience between weak and strong brothers is the law of Christ: we remember that what we do for them, we are doing for Jesus Himself. The same love and honor we would show to Jesus is the love and honor He wants us to show each other.
Food not an issue?
The question for those of us who grew up observing the Old Testament food laws designating clean and unclean foods is, this: how are we to understand the injunction in Romans 14:17 that states the kingdom of God “is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”?
The rules were clear; the entire chapter of Leviticus 11 specified the animals that were considered clean as well as the categories of animals that were not clean. Further, this chapter also explained that a person who touched unclean creatures was himself unclean. Confusingly, the list includes certain creatures such as grasshoppers and katydids that could safely be eaten—but none of us in the first world would think of eating those!
A passage in the Bible describing a much earlier time, Genesis 9:2-4, in fact, contains God’s instructions to Noah after the flood concerning foods: “The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. 3 Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.
“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it.”
As an Adventist, I was not consciously aware of this passage. I understood that God’s original, intended diet was plant foods only, but after the flood He allowed meat—probably, I heard, to shorten human life so the long lives of the patriarchs would not be repeated in the post-flood world. I was not taught and never actually noticed that God specifically gave ALL creatures to mankind for food.
Jesus Himself began dismantling the laws of clean and unclean. In Matthew 5:17 He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” In other words, Jesus wasn’t just bringing in a new government with new expectations. Rather, Jesus Himself IS the reality and fulfillment that all the Old Testament laws and practices foreshadowed.
In Matthew 15:10-11, 17-20, and in Mark 7:14-23 Jesus talked more about the laws of clean and unclean. He clearly said that it is not what goes into the mouth that makes a man clean or unclean, nor is it whether or not that man has eaten with washed or unwashed hands. Rather, He said, it is the wickedness in a person’s heart that makes him unclean, and this wickedness comes out in the forms of evil thoughts, malice, greed, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, and folly not to mention immorality.
In this same passage in Mark, Jesus made an astounding statement, another one I never noticed as an Adventist: “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods 'clean’.” Jesus was preparing his disciples to evangelize a Gentile world. The rigid rules that had separated Jew and Gentile would no longer be necessary; in fact, they would have to be dismantled in order for the Jewish apostles to mingle with and teach the Gentiles. The laws of clean and unclean foods went hand-,in-hand with the laws to keep themselves separate from the unclean Gentiles.
The food laws were not given for “health reasons”; if they had been, God would not have given humanity everything that moved for food after the flood. Further, if the food laws had been about health, Jesus would not have declared all foods clean. Jesus—God in the flesh—would not be ignorant of health issues necessary for humans to know. Yet He lifted the ban on unclean foods.
To emphasize and further instruct the apostles as they began their post-Pentecost work of evangelism, God gave Peter a vision of unclean animals being let down from heaven along with the command, “Kill and eat.” Peter remonstrated, but God insisted, telling him not to call “unclean” what God had called “clean” (see Acts 10:9-16). This vision, the passage explains, applied not only to the obvious meaning of the animals in the vision but also to the Gentiles. Immediately after this vision, Peter received his summons to go to Cornelius’ house, and there he preached the gospel and witnessed the first Gentiles receive the Holy Spirit and become part of the church.
The same lifting of Jewish law was reiterated at the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts 15:19-21 when the apostles sent a letter to the Gentiles believers saying their only requirements as Christ-followers would be to abstain from sexual immorality, from eating blood, strangled animals, and food offered to idols. In order to make it possible for the Gentiles and Jews to eat together without offense, God gave the Gentiles the old Noahic law first given in Genesis 9: all food was acceptable, but they were to refrain from eating blood. The Jews were to give up their compunctions about clean meats, but the Gentiles, for their part in fellowshipping with Jewish converts, had to give up their custom of eating blood.
Colossians 2:16-23 and 1 Timothy 4:1-4 clearly explain that the laws restricting foods are no longer part of God’s requirements for His people. For the Jews those laws were in place as an added safeguard against their fraternizing with the Gentiles and breaking down the boundaries between them. God raised up Israel to produce the Holy Seed who would be the Messiah, and He also illustrated His sovereign choice, love, and salvation through the rituals and ceremonies He gave to Israel. All those rituals and ceremonies pointed to god’s chosen, holy plan and His Messiah. Once Jesus came, those rules lost their meaning.
Jesus fulfilled all those shadows and became the One God’s people were to cling to instead of the shadow laws. Colossians 2:16-23 explains that although the rigid laws of clean meats appear wise, they actually have no power to limit sensual indulgence. Since we have died with Christ, Paul asks, why are we still submitting to rules that tell us not to touch, taste, or handle? They are meaningless and powerless!
Even more forcefully in 1 Timothy 4:1-4, Paul declares that the rules which forbid certain foods are doctrines of demons. “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer,” he says.
In order for us as New Covenant Christians to understand the role of the food laws that so defined our past, we have to embrace Jesus as the true and only fulfillment of those laws. He is the reality to which they pointed. In Him we are hidden, our lives having been released to Him. We no longer set ourselves apart by ceremonial foods and observances. Instead, we are set apart by the literal blood of Jesus and the indwelling of our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
Righteousness, Peace, and Joy
After his discussion about not judging a brother on the basis of eating, drinking, or holy days, and after admonishing Christ-followers to protect the faith of the weak and to protect one’s own conscience before the Lord, Paul ends this passage with these words: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.”
What does it mean to serve God by means of righteousness, peace, and joy, and how is this sort of service distinct from observing lifestyle regulations?
Isaiah linked these qualities in 32:17: “The fruit of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever.”
Paul includes “righteousness” as a characteristic of the kingdom of God, as one of the components of truly serving Him. We have learned that true righteousness is something God accounts to us, not something we achieve. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says that Jesus became our sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. In Romans 5:4 Paul explains further that when a person “does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
Righteousness, then, is something God credits to us when we trust Him and believe in Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. Submitting to Jesus results in His covering us with His righteousness.
If we think of Isaiah’s text in 32:17 through the lens of knowing Christ’s imputed righteousness, we understand that when we submit our wills and hearts to Jesus, He counts us righteous, and that transformation that comes as a result of being counted righteous in Jesus fills us with peace and joy.
This peace and joy, however, are not merely a feeling of relief from having been unforgiven. They are the result of the fact that God’s own Spirit indwells us when we believe in Jesus (Ephesians 1:13-14), and righteousness, peace, and joy are planted in our hearts by the Spirit of God Himself (Galatians 6:22-23). The result of living by the Spirit is that we are no longer bound to our sinful desires and our shrewish self-protection. Rather, He grows in us “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
Moreover, believing in Jesus and being counted righteous results in our having peace with God. No longer are we separated from Him by our sin; no longer are we objects of wrath (Ephesians 2:3), but we have peace with Him and have “gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-3).
The peace and the righteousness we have when we are born of the Spirit are not only practical realities lived out in our hearts and lives; they are legal positions we have before God. In His eyes, we are perfect with the perfection of Jesus, and we are at peace with Him even though we still sin. No longer does our sin define us, however. We are defined by God’s legal declaration of our being righteous and at peace with Him. Because He has given us access to Himself and has acquitted us of sin because of Jesus’ blood, He now can allow us into His presence. He can indwell us and make us alive and eternally connected to Him, Now, He places in our hearts the subjective experience of peace and joy and righteousness. He allows us to feel at a personal level what He already knows about us eternally.
Paul further explains that now that we have died to Christ—and are now the inheritors of His peace, joy, and righteousness—we are not to continue to live as though we still belonged to the world. We are to stop submitting to the world’s rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch” (Colossians 2:20-23). These rules appear wise and appear to reign in physical lust, but in reality they have no ability to restrain “sensual indulgence”.
Now, as the born-again children of God, we are His “chosen people”. We are to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” We must bear with and forgive each other, putting on love which binds us with each other in unity. We are to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts because we have been called to peace. We are to be thankful, letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly as we sing and praise God (Colossians 3:12-17).
Now, equipped with the life of the Holy Spirit bringing us to spiritual life in Christ, we are to flee the lusts of youth and pursue “righteousness faith, love and peace” (2 Timothy 2:22-26). We must not quarrel but be kind to everyone, gently instructing those who oppose us, not resenting but teaching them God’s will.
Now, as born-again Christ-followers, everything that we used to value is mere garbage compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. For His sake we lose everything we valued, even our identity and often the relationships we valued. In Jesus, however, we have His righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. Being found in Christ is of far greater value than all the things we lose for His sake (Philippians 3:7-9).
Serving God by means of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit means giving up all our attachments—even our attachments to noble disciplines—in favor of giving all our energy to Jesus. Anything we do with the idea that we can improve our spirituality will fail. When we are alive with the Holy Spirit, He instructs us Himself as to what He wants us to do. He lets us know if there’s something we need to surrender, to let go of and allow His power to come into that lace in our hearts instead of having it filled with our thinking and effort and discipline.
The Holy Spirit Himself teaches us and disciplines us. When we live in surrender we begin to experience the freedom and joy of Jesus in deep, profound, and powerful ways. We will never be the same again, and our lives become a means of bringing Jesus into the world. As we surrender our rights and desires to Him—including our tight control on the exercise of our spiritual disciplines—God shows us what He wants us to do and know.
God is calling you to integrity and surrender. He wants to convict you of the ways you are not acting in good conscience. He also wants you to act in confidence and from conviction, not from a sense of false guilt.
One of the foundational things God is calling you to acknowledge is the true nature of the religious organization of your past. Adventism was founded on a lie, and it teaches a false gospel. You cannot assume that Adventists are fellow believers. They well may be people who need to hear the true gospel and be called to integrity themselves.
You cannot excuse an Adventist’s conviction regarding the seventh-day Sabbath to be a matter of “good conscience” that you must honor. God will clarify to you whether or not to respect the day when you’re with an Adventist, but Romans 14 cannot be used to excuse their attachment to the day. They need to be called to surrender to Jesus rather than to be excused on the basis of Romans 14.
Ask God to teach you the truth and to show you the areas in your life you need to surrender. Ask Him to show you how to live in righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit. Ask Him to show you what you need to know, to teach you what you need to learn, and to have the courage to change what you need to change.
God is faithful. He will teach you and convict you of truth, and He will give you His love to cover sin, to resist criticizing your brothers in Christ.
He will give you contentment to live for Him, surrendering your rights and desires for His purpose.
Paul continues his exhortation not to judge one another on disputable matters. In this passages he makes two points: we do not act in love if we harass a person for his decisions based upon his own conscience, and we also must not allow what we consider good to be spoken of as evil. This teaching follows his point that each of us answers directly to the Lord, and it is not ours to judge the motives of our brothers.
1. In verse 10 Paul addresses both weak Christians (don’t judge your brother) and strong Christians (don’t look down on your brother) because we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. If we are judged in Christ at the cross, what is this judgment seat to which Paul refers?
2 Corinthians 5:10
1 Corinthians 3:10-15
1 Corinthians 4:5
1 Thessalonians 2:19-20
2. Paul commands his readers to stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, he places the burden on the strong Christian not to put any “stumbling block or obstacle” in the path of another brother. Further, he boldly asserts that, contrary to centuries of Jewish tradition, “no food [or nothing] is unclean in itself.” Rather, if someone considers something to be sin, it is sin for him. As Christ-followers, how are we to decide if something is unclean or clean, permissible or not permissible, and how are we to differentiate between people of weak conscience and people advocating false teaching?
1 Corinthians 8:4-13
1 Corinthians 10:27-30
Acts 10:9-15, 27-28
1 Timothy 4:4
3. Paul juxtaposes two apparently opposing commands. First he says not to distress or destroy a brother by eating something troubling to him. Then he says not to allow anyone to call evil something you consider good. What guide do we use to settle disputes of conscience so as to protect and nurture the weak in faith?
1 Corinthians 8:9-13
Matthew 25:40, 45
4. Verse 17 states that the kingdom of God “is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” How are we to understand this clear statement in view of the strict food laws in the Old Testament?
Matthew 15:11, 17-20
1 Timothy 4:1-4)
5. How does one serve God by means of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit—and how is this distinct from observing regulations regarding eating, drinking, and lifestyle?
2 Timothy 2:22-26
6. This passage is speaking about not judging disputable matters in one’s “brothers”. For many of us, our disputes are with people who are still in the religious organization of our past. How do you determine whether or not you are dealing with a “brother” or with an unbeliever?
7. In what areas are you privately critical of your brothers or sisters in Christ?
8. In what areas is God asking you to take a stand of integrity and conscience, not allowing another’s criticism or personal desires to manipulate you into conformity?
9. Ask God to reveal the areas of your life where you are not acting from a good conscience. Ask Him to show you what is true and to mature you in the Holy Spirit. Ask Him to teach you the truth and to show you how to serve Him in righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit instead of in scrutiny of behaviors. Ask Him to give you love that covers sin.
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