Paul’s Message in Romans 14
In Romans 14, the apostle Paul gives a message to the new convert who has a limited understanding of the Christian principles. This new convert wants to be saved and is willing to do anything he believes that is asked of him. But due to his limited Christian knowledge and experience (Hebrews 5:11 to 6:2), he tries to confirm his salvation by observing specific rules that are in reality not binding upon him. He is troubled and puzzled when he sees other mature believers do not practice his scruples.
Paul’s statements in Romans 14 have been wrongly interpreted by some: to downgrade a vegetarian diet, to erase the distinction between clean and unclean meats, and to remove all distinction between days, thus abolishing the seventh-day Sabbath of God’s law (Exodus 20:8-11). The context of the whole chapter shows that Paul is not teaching any of above interpretations but is rather dealing with some problems that afflicted the early believers.
Some Issues in the Early Church
The early church was dealing with different problems that caused misunderstandings between the members such dealing with diet (Romans 14: 2), and the observance of certain days (Romans 14: 5, 6). The apostle deals with the very same issue of the strong and the weak brother regarding diet and the propriety of eating foods sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8. In ancient heathen ceremonies, it was common for the priests to sell the animal sacrifices that were offered to idols in the food market. Paul informs the Corinthian Christians (Jewish and Gentiles) that it is not wrong to eat meats that are sacrificed to idols because an idol is nothing in God’s eyes.
However, Paul adds, due to the different spiritual maturities, all could not with a free conscience eat such foods. For this reason, Paul admonishes those without scruples relating to these foods not to put a stumbling block in another member’s path by eating these meats (Romans 14:13). His instruction is in line with the decision of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). So, some believers, in good conscious, fearing to place a stumbling block in the path of the new converts, abstained from eating meats. They restricted themselves to a vegetarian diet (Romans 14:2).
Thus, we can conclude that Paul is not writing about clean or unclean meats (Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14). He is not teaching that the believer who has strong faith can eat anything without paying attention of its effect upon health. For the apostle had already taught in Romans 12:1, that the genuine Christian will do everything to make his body holy and acceptable to God as a living sacrifice (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Bible Commentators and Romans 14
Early Jewish converts didn’t fully understand that the ceremonial law was fulfilled in Christ (Colossians 2:14–16) and that it was from that point on no longer binding. But the early believers were not asked to immediately stop celebrating the annual Jewish feasts and all ceremonial services. Paul himself observed some of the feasts even after he became a Christian (Acts 18:21). And though Paul taught that circumcision was nothing (1 Corinthians 7:19), he had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3) and carried out a vow according to that Old Testament law (Acts 21:20–27).
During these times, it seemed right to permit the different segments of the Jewish ceremonial law to slowly disintegrate as the mind and conscience became enlightened. Thus, it was natural among Jewish Christians to ask such questions regarding the propriety of observing certain “days”—Jewish holy days, that were related to their yearly feasts (Leviticus 23:1–44; Colossians 2:14–17).
It becomes obvious that Paul, in Romans 14, did not downgrade a vegetarian diet, or abolish the distinction between clean and unclean meats, or abolish the seventh-day Sabbath of God’s law (Romans 3:31). Notable Bible Commentators such as Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, in their comment on Romans 14:5, 6, affirm that Paul didn’t abolish the seventh-day Sabbath:
“From this passage about the observance of days, Alford unhappily infers that such language could not have been used if the sabbath-law had been in force under the Gospel in any form. Certainly it could not, if the sabbath were merely one of the Jewish festival days; but it will not do to take this for granted merely because it was observed under the Mosaic economy. And certainly if the sabbath was more ancient than Judaism; if, even under Judaism, it was enshrined amongst the eternal sanctities of the Decalogue, uttered, as no other parts of Judaism were, amidst the terrors of Sinai; and if the Lawgiver Himself said of it when on earth, ‘The Son of man is LORD EVEN OF THE SABBATH DAY’ (see Mark 2:28)—it will be hard to show that the apostle must have meant it to be ranked by his readers amongst those vanished Jewish festival days, which only ‘weakness’ could imagine to be still in force—a weakness which those who had more light ought, out of love, merely to bear with.”
In His service,