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The Weak and the Strong May 19, 2011

Posted by flashbuzzer in Books, Christianity.
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Here are my thoughts on Romans 14:1-15:13.

Summary: Paul begins by instructing the Gentile believers in Rome to take their Jewish brothers to themselves – although they had weak convictions about the truth – without judging their opinions. These Jewish believers refused to eat meat that may have been sacrificed to idols, as they regarded it as unclean, while their Gentile brothers had no such reservations. Paul instructs all of them to focus on preserving their communion as brothers in Christ, since God has recognized all of them as Christians and has allowed them to enter His kingdom. They should not condemn each other in this case, as only their master – God – can either acquit them or condemn them, and He has both the power and the desire to acquit them. At that time, these Jewish believers also observed certain days as religious holidays, while the Gentiles did not; Paul instructs all of them to act according to their internal convictions, and not based on the actions of others. Indeed, both groups are acting in accordance with what they perceive to be God’s will; note that they are responsible to Jesus Christ, who died and rose again to save them and to be their Lord. Now, in both life and death, true believers act according to God’s will and for His glory; thus, they cannot be condemned for their actions – which are not as constrained as one might think. Paul then asks the Jewish believers why they judge their Gentile brothers, and he asks the Gentile believers why they look down on their Jewish brothers; they need to remember that God will judge all of them in the end, and so they should not usurp His role in that regard. To support his assertion of God’s role in this regard, he quotes from Isaiah, where God swears by Himself that all people will recognize His authority over them. Now he commands all of them to stop judging each other and resolve to not place obstacles in their brother’s way. It should be noted that based on divine revelation, Paul knows that no food is inherently impure – but it should not be eaten by those who regard it as impure. Moreover, if the Gentile believers wound the consciences of their Jewish brothers by their eating habits, then they have broken the second greatest commandment; thus, they should avoid leading them on the path to destruction – especially since Christ loved them enough to die for them. In fact, both groups should not use their liberty in Christ to cause the Gospel to be besmirched. The kingdom of the Messiah does not consist in external things; instead, it consists of the righteousness of faith, peace between God and man – and between believers – and the joy of salvation. Those who feel and act according to these virtues, under the authority of Christ, will be regarded by God as true believers and will receive the favor of men. Given the preceding discussion, Paul commands his readers to act in a way that promotes peace and allows believers to edify each other. Although the Gentile believers were firmly convinced that no meat was inherently impure, Paul commands them to keep their convictions private and to exercise them in a way that pleases God, as this would lead to His blessings. This is essential, since those who were unsure if God had allowed them to eat certain items – and ate them anyway – would be sinning, as they would be disregarding what they perceived to be God’s authority in this regard.

Now those believers who possessed faith in the Christian doctrines of

  • the inherent cleanness of all kinds of food
  • the abolishment of the Mosaic law

should tolerate the errors and faults of their brothers who lacked this faith – instead of pleasing themselves. A stronger believer should aim to help their weaker brother in their spiritual walk. Paul then quotes from the Psalms to show that even Christ did not please himself; He was so zealous for the glory of the Father that He regarded insults directed at the Father to be aimed at Himself. Indeed, the entire Old Testament, in some sense, shows us the character of Christ in this regard; moreover, it is a source of endurance and consolation for believers to sustain them in the midst of trials. Now Paul prays that God, who is the author of the Old Testament, will grant them Christian feelings of harmony. In this way they would be able to effectively and properly glorify God the Father. Therefore, believers should take each other to themselves, just as Christ took them to Himself, so that God may be glorified. To show that Christ had accepted believers to Himself, Paul notes that Christ:

  • had been sent to minister to the Jews in order to fulfill God’s promises to the Jewish fathers
  • had caused the Gentiles to praise God for His mercy in accepting them into His kingdom.

To further support the latter claim, Paul quotes from the Psalms, where David states that he will acknowledge God among many Gentiles who will be giving thanks to Him. Also, Paul quotes from Deuteronomy, where the Gentiles are exhorted to join the Jews in praising God. In addition, Paul quotes from Isaiah, where it is stated that the Messiah would rule over both Jews and Gentiles – and they would all trust in Him. Paul concludes by praying that God, who is the source of this saving trust, would fill his Jewish and Gentile readers with joy and peace with God – and peace among themselves – and that the Holy Spirit would cause them to become stronger and more joyful as they abide in this saving trust.

Thoughts: I have always been intrigued by the circumstances surrounding Paul’s instructions in this passage. Were disputes over the eating of meat a pervasive issue in the early church, or were they confined to the body of believers in Rome? Hodge offers some insights in this regard:

The most probable explanation is that they were a scrupulous group of Jewish Christians, perhaps from among the Essenes, who were more strict and abstemious than the Mosaic ceremonial required. Asceticism, as a form of self-righteousness, was one of the earliest, most extensive, and persistent heresies in the church. But there is nothing inconsistent with the assumption that the weak brothers referred to here were scrupulous Jewish Christians. Josephus says that some of the Jews at Rome lived exclusively on fruit, out of fear of eating something unclean.

From this note, and drawing on our understanding of the various Jewish-Gentile conflicts that persisted in the early church, it is safe to say that issues such as the purity (or lack thereof) of certain foods and the necessity of celebrating various religious holidays caused conflicts in locations other than the church in Rome. It is likely that any of the early congregations that included Jewish believers who still harbored strong feelings for the Mosaic law would find these issues bubbling to the surface at some point. Paul’s target audience, then, extended beyond the Roman city limits.

One of the main points of this passage is that for disputable matters, a believer should act according to their conscience. Moreover, if a believer goes against their conscience in this regard, they have sinned. This caused me to wonder, “doesn’t this blur the boundary between sin and righteousness? Couldn’t I declare an action such as gambling or online gaming to be a ‘disputable matter,’ and then act according to my ‘freed’ conscience? I wouldn’t be sinful in that case, right?” While Hodge does not directly address this point, his commentary on verses 18 and 19 is telling:

These spiritual graces constitute the essential part of religion. The person who experiences and exercises these virtues is regarded by God as a true Christian and must commend himself as such to the consciences of his fellow-men…’Since Christian love, the example of Christ, the comparative insignificance of the matters in dispute, the honor of the truth, the nature of real religion all conspire to urge us to mutual forbearance, let us endeavor to promote peace and mutual edification.’

Therefore, a good litmus test for determining if we are overstepping the boundary between sin and righteousness when defining a “disputable matter” is to honestly consider whether the action in question 1) does not hinder the progress of righteousness, peace and joy or 2) actually facilitates an indulgence in the vices in Galatians 5:19-21. If the former is true, the action in question is a legitimate “disputable matter;” otherwise, the believer must cease this activity as it would damage their relations with fellow believers – and their relationship with God.

Another of Paul’s main points in this passage is that it is permissible for believers to be stronger – that is, they have a better understanding of their true freedom in Christ – than other believers with respect to “disputable matters.” In his commentary on verse 22, Hodge weighs in as follows:

…and the second is that this faith or firm conviction is not to be renounced but retained, for it is founded on the truth…Being right in itself, it is to be piously and not ostentatiously paraded and employed…Therefore the faith about which the apostle has spoken is a great blessing. It is a source of great happiness to be sure that what we do is right, and therefore the firm conviction which some Christians had attained was not to be undervalued or renounced.

After reading this, I thought, “how can stronger believers help weaker believers overcome their incorrect perceptions and prejudices? Stronger believers should not allow weaker believers to persist in their errors, right?” Based on this passage, we see the second question can be answered in the affirmative – yet stronger believers need to counsel their weaker brothers in a way that glorifies God. Some weaker believers may be easily persuaded of their faults; others may be more obstinate in their views, requiring much prayer, counsel, and forbearance on the part of the stronger believers.

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Comments»

1. padiofarty - May 19, 2011

Try Professor W.H.C Frend on the historical emergence of the primitive “christians” – misplaced term in my opinion other than to indicate the roots of christianity.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article558285.ece


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