Alfred Place Baptist Church

14:1-6 The duties of the strong

Romans 14:1-6 “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.”

There was a problem in the church at Rome revolving around a group of men and women who thought it was sinful to eat meat, and also that it was necessary to keep certain days as more ‘sacred’ than other days (maybe these would be the days of those feasts when Jews would go to Jerusalem. They could have been the Jewish Sabbaths, the seventh day of the week, which this group of people kept as a ‘sacred’ day – in addition to the Lord’s Day). This group seems to have been promoting this ‘Days and Diet’ Christian Lifestyle in the congregation, and there must have been a growing resentment at their activities. It could have led to a church split hadn’t Paul written these counsels.

He begins by addressing those who were promoting ‘Days and Diet’ and he plainly tells them that their faith is weak. It is interesting to note that Paul uses the adjective ‘weak’ just twice in these opening verses and then once in the opening verse of the next chapter. He doesn’t keep on saying, “You’re weak . . . weak . . . weak.” No, he uses the epithet sparingly, but he does use it. This was the spiritual weakness – to condemn something that God does not condemn, and to promote something that God does not promote. Their attitude was “Eating meat? Horrors! Not keeping the seventh day of the week? Horrors!” Only those who are weak in the faith can think like that, and that’s what Paul tells the whole congregation from the start. You can imagine when this letter was first read out by an elder to the Sunday morning congregation in Rome that there would be glances directed at the ‘Days and Diet’ block in the church.

In other words such moral convictions – some for vegetarianism and others against it – are not equally valid options which Christians are free to take one side on, to hold or reject, like, for example, a difference of opinion as to what is the better psalm, Psalm 23 or Psalm 100, or whether to start the morning service at 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock. There is no ‘weak’ position or ‘strong’ position concerning ‘disputable matters’ like those. You can make good points for the one and for the other, but if you say “Christians must observe as sacred the seventh day of the week” and “Christians must never eat pork” then you are to be considered weak in faith. Paul wants you to change your mind and become strong in faith about such disputable matters.

There are four pieces of advice Paul gives to those promoting ‘Days and Diet’;

ONE. Please understand that there is nothing unclean of itself.

TWO. Many of you aren’t able to change easily from being vegetarian to meat eating.

THREE. You who are into ‘Days and Diet’ must not impose your views on others in the church.

FOUR. You are not to be censorious in your criticism of those who don’t agree with you.

Those are the guidelines for the weak in faith, but then Paul also has guidelines for those who are strong, and again it is interesting that he calls them ‘strong’ in just one place, in the opening verse of chapter fifteen. He doesn’t bolster their egos by saying, “You are my strong supporters . . . good old strong . . . strong backbone of the church, etc.” Paul is concerned not to polarize the church any more than the present divisions have effected. So what does he say to the strong? In all his counsels Paul is briefly negative and powerfully positive.

1. DON’T MAKE MATTERS WORSE BY INCREASING THE DIVISION, BUT ACCEPT THE WEAK IN FAITH.

“Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters” (v.1). He is pleading with the strong not to be stirring up strife with the ‘Days and Diet’ people. The strong already have the apostle Paul on their side. They have Spirit-breathed Scripture on their side. They have the truth on their side. They have the church elders on their side. Surely that’s enough. Notice that Paul isn’t exhorting the strong to call a church meeting and explain more fully what the church’s official position is on ‘Days and Diet’, and then the preacher will preach a series of six sermons on the importance of not being weak, everyone will be mailed copies of the messages and this clause will be added to the church constitution, and then the elders will start visiting every member who is weak in faith. That sort of thing is overkill. We call it today ‘heavy shepherding.’ That response would only make matters worse; it would fan the flames of resentment and make the weak in faith drown in self-pity. It could result in a church split. Remember there is just one Christian congregation in Rome. They didn’t have the luxury of denominations where they could find a group which believed the same things they believed. There was no Christian consumerism in Rome; “I like a church which has more ritual . . . more contemporary music . . . more conservative.” No, there was just one church in the whole city, and in that congregation every effort had to be made to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace. So heavy shepherding was not the way ahead. Let me use this illustration, you are screwing a coat rack into the wall and you’ve got it nice and tight. You have to resist the temptation to give the screws another couple of turns or you’ll split the wood. The apostle has taught very clearly what the truth on eating meat and keeping sacred days is. The congregation knows the New Testament teaching. Then that is it. Don’t rub it in. You strong boys, don’t fan the flames of dissension.

There is a famous episode of the series Fawlty Towers in which Basil Fawlty has a party of Germans staying in his hotel and he can’t refrain from raising the subject of the Second World War and the Allied victory over the Nazis. “We won the war! We beat the Germans!” He is utterly obsessed with it, reducing his guests to tears and anger. That is Paul’s concern here that the strong will now take a superior attitude to the Days and Diet group and at every opportunity pass judgment on them and put them down. The congregation is not a debating chamber. The chief purpose of this church is not argument. It is certainly not a law court where we put Days and Diet people into the dock, interrogating them, asking them how they’re progressing in eating meat, and whether they’re being weaned from their extra days. None of that. It is detrimental to the fellowship of the church to constantly be debating about men’s consciences and behaviour in these disputable areas. Life is too short. The congregation in Rome had huge problems, persecutions, hunger, poverty, slave abuse, multitudes all around them with questions about the faith. What was wild Nero going to do next? The city was in ruins after a great fire and there was a huge building programme which had halted for lack of money. Nero had looted the temples and there was much unrest. Would they turn on Christians and make them a scapegoat? At such times the church cannot afford to announce an open season for one-upmanship and arguments. Don’t fan the flames of dissension.

So, positively, what were the strong to do? Accept the weak in faith! But Paul makes it very personal, “Accept him.” You know that Daniel your fellow believer has some of these scruples, then don’t go picking fights with him, or gloat over his weakness, rather accept him and pray together and evangelize together and get involved in the church’s ministry of mercy together. That is the positive exhortation. Let me tell you of three places in the New Testament where this exact word ‘accept’ is found. In each case it casts light on how we are to accept one another in the Christian church.

i] The first case is in Paul’s letter to Philemon. You know the circumstances of this letter. Philemon is a fairly wealthy Christian and one of his slaves named Onesimus had absconded. While he was gone on walkabout he had been witnessed to and been converted, in fact he’s been helping the apostle Paul in prison. Now Paul sends him back to face the music. Running away from your master was a capital offense, but Paul pleads for Onesimus and asks Philemon to take him back, not only as a servant but as a brother. So Paul says, “welcome him as you would welcome me” (v.17). That is the word we have in our text, ‘receive.’ How would you welcome one of the greatest men this world has seen to your home? How would you receive the apostle Paul? He has seen the risen Christ; he has written this letter; he has been caught up to the third heaven; he has been greatly blessed in his evangelism and church planting. Paul the apostle is coming to your house. You give up your bedroom; you bake your best dishes; you paint the middle room; you make subtle inquiries of people where he has stayed on other visits whether he has any dietary foibles; you send the kids to their grandmother’s home for the weekend because nothing must spoil this visit of Paul. So welcome this runaway slave as you would welcome the great apostle. Welcome the weak brother into your life as someone you are privileged to have as your own friend.

ii] The next instance of this word is found at the end of the voyage of Paul in the boat sailing to Rome. There is a terrible storm and the boat breaks up on the rocks around Malta, and everyone grabs a piece of driftwood and throws himself or herself into the sea. Every single passenger, the sailors, the soldiers guarding the prisoners and the prisoners themselves are all saved. They crawl out of the surf on the beach and there to receive them (that is where we come across this word again) are the people of Malta, helping them, supporting them, pulling them to safety, doing everything they can to preserve their lives. Not one of these Maltese is tut-tutting, “ . . . bit silly wasn’t it, taking a voyage in the winter. You were risking it weren’t you?” No one is criticizing; no one is arguing; everyone is welcoming them, thrilled that they are all alive. Incredible! Unheard of! So you strong Christians are to receive the weak as those saved from being drowned in the lake of fire. They are brands plucked from the burning and how delighted you are to have them with you.

iii] The other instance of this word is found on the lips of our Lord when he talks about having to leave his disciples but wanting them to trust him; “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (Jn. 14:1-3). What is going to happen at the end of the world? Will Jesus come and chastise us for being weak, and for not doing everything exactly as he told us? Will he start to argue with us? No. He will take us unto himself. And that is the word we find here. Strong Christians, receive to yourselves weak Christians.

So we the strong are being urged not to ignore those people in the congregation who don’t have exactly the same beliefs as ourselves. Receive and welcome them into our homes and circle of acquaintances, and into our fellowship and into our heart. It means loving them with a genuine love. You dare not concentrate on your little circle of strong Christians with whom you see eye to eye on everything. It must not be like that. You receive the awkward, the brand new lamb, the backslider, the socially inept, the poor, the muddled, the illiterate, the painfully shy, the one whose life has been damaged by his past. We all have some thing of that in us. So don’t make matters worse by fanning the flames of dissension.

2. DON’T LOOK DOWN ON THE WEAK IN FAITH BUT ACCEPT HIM.

“The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not . . . for God has accepted him” (v.3). It is easy to despise a person with weak faith when you catch him resolutely walking past the roasted pig turning on the spirit as a cook is pouring hot fat over it. What a delicious odour! “‘That is pathetic,’ you say to your wife, ‘turning up his nose at delicious food like that. What an anorak!” Don’t look down at him. He and his family have never ever eaten pork, not in all the generations of their family. Don’t look down on him – he’s a son of God! He’s come a long journey to acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth, whom his Jewish chief priests and Sanhedrin handed over to the Gentiles to crucify, was in fact the Son of God, the anointed Messiah, the one God promised would bruise the serpent’s head. Isn’t it wonderful that he and many other Jews in the congregation have confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord. It is nothing that he still can’t stomach pork. That is nothing at all. Do not look down at him. That is the negative, and then there are the wonderful positives;

i] Accept him for God has accepted him.

“God has accepted him,” (v.3). You apply for a job and you ask someone very well known to write a reference for you. Your friend is a businessman who owns an airline, or a chain of daily newspapers, or a satellite television network, or a Hollywood studio. He is a household name and he writes in the most glowing terms in his testimonial to you, how he appreciates you and your talents and how he admires you. “I wish he were working for me,” he actually writes, “I could commend him to any company to do any job.” When your future employer reads these glowing endorsements from such a famous and respected man his eyes pop out. This international figure knows you and would welcome you in to the heart of his empire. Wow!

Now multiply by infinity; Almighty God has accepted this Christian with all his hang-ups about days and his refusal to eat meat. God says, “He is my son and heir and I love him. Nothing will ever part him from my love. He is going to be mine for ever and ever. I have prepared a place for him in glory with me. He is coming to live in my mansions close beside me for ever.” God has accepted this man, but you can’t? What sort of Christian are you? One who has higher standards than God? No. Someone whose heart is hard, and whose spirit is mean. Be like God and accept the man weak in faith.

ii] Accept him because he behaves as he does for his Lord.

“Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls” (v.4). I am driving into Aberystwyth on a barely used country lane and I come across a white van parked in a lay-by full of men playing cards and reading newspapers. They look shifty seeing me but they don’t recognize me and soon they are calling at one another again and laughing. They are supposed to be working on a project, but they have left two hours early and they are just filling in time before they clock off. Too bad. That is theft, but what can I say to them? I’m not their boss; I don’t know them. They answer to someone else, not me.

A Christian answers to his own Master; he doesn’t answer to me. Here is a believer called Joe (this is a true story) and he is working for a career soldier in charge of his house and grounds. The soldier is on active service far away and his wife is bored and fancies this young man. She is always hanging around and letting him know she’s available. But Joe says to her, “My master is your husband and he trusts me. You are forbidden fruit. More than that I have another Master whom I have to serve. I stand or fall to him. I cannot do such great wickedness and defy my Master.”

The Christian serves his Master. The ‘Days and Diet’ men and women are also serving their Master. They refrain from meat as their service to the Lord. They keep special days of fasting and meditation and study and prayer to their Lord. Yes, it is mistaken, but it is sincere and God-centred. They’re not doing it for the church, or for one another, they are doing it for the glory of the Lord. They answer to their Lord. Don’t interfere. It is none of your business. There is a transaction going on between them and the Saviour. The Lord we serve is able to make us stand. In Egypt he helped Joseph stand under colossal pressure from Potiphar’s wife. If Hollywood made a film of that event the whole pressure from the makers and the audience would be on one thing, when are they going to do it. No one stands self-denying and pure and faithful and holy in a Hollywood film. The reason is that they have no one who can make them stand, but you and I as believers do. We have someone with us who is able to keep us from falling. We have someone who during our temptations can make a way of escape that we can bear it. That is our great Master. What would have happened if Joseph and Potiphar’s wife had done it? Potiphar would have come home, found his wife pregnant and killed both her and Joseph very slowly. But Joseph’s master was able to make Joseph stand. Thank God he did or we wouldn’t have had the saving of the Seed of the woman in a time of famine which is what Joseph did.

That same Master is the one whom the weak in faith dedicate their lives to, praying, “We eat vegetables only – for your glory. We keep special days – for your glory.” How wonderful. Who are we to belittle such godliness? There are Christians who sing metrical psalms exclusively for their Master, and who are we to speak contemptuously of them? They are behaving as they do for the Lord. There are Christians who dress up in pseudo-army uniforms and call themselves a “Salvation Army’ and we don’t poke fun at them. They do it for their Lord and so we accept them.

iii] Accept him because he is your brother.

Theology interweaves ethics in all the sections of moral exhortation in the New Testament. They are interdependent – believing the truth demands a change of life. The apostles will appeal to the highest theology to underline the importance of simple Christian duties. Paul is appealing here to the doctrine of adoption, that is, to as many as received Jesus Christ into their lives God has given the right to be called the sons of God. So the Christian church can sing, “We are family; my brother and my sister and me.” So Paul begins to emphasize the fact of brotherhood, and how he underlines it in this section. Listen! Verse ten, “You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother?” Verse thirteen, “Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” Verse fifteen, “If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.” Verse twenty-one, “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.”

I came from the same womb as my brother and was nourished at the same breast. I slept in the same bed as my brother and ate at the same table. We call the same people Dad and Mum. They provided for us and protected us. They loved us equally. There is nothing I can do to end this relationship. I can’t divorce my brother. He will never become my ex-brother or my former brother. We will be brothers for ever. When we were growing up then at the end of every afternoon we returned to the same house and shared the same rooms. We are brothers.

All Christians are in the same family of faith and the same household of God. We are heirs of God and joint heirs of Christ. Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us to call us the sons of God. My Father made the universe; my Father owns the cattle on the thousand hills, and my Father supplies all our needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. My Father, because he loves me, chastens me when I persistently defy him. We all are going to the same Father, and thanking him for his goodness, and confessing our wrongdoing, and seeking his help to overcome these cold loveless hearts of ours. We are family. That meant nothing to Joseph’s brothers. They thought they would kill Joseph, and then they realized they could make money out of him and so they sold their own kid brother into slavery in Egypt. They broke their father’s heart. What wretched brothers! Don’t be like them. Love your brother as yourself. Love your weak brother. Love your brother with a pernickety conscience, and so don’t keep on raising issues that divide you. Grandparents get so irritated when they see brothers arguing with one another and accusing one another and provoking one another constantly. Come on! Grow up! You are brothers! Those of us who never had brothers or sisters are so envious of you, and yet you can behave like that! What does God feel when he sees his blessed children behaving so badly to one another? What is that smile of disdainful contempt on a brother’s face? What is that frown of dismissal showing to a brother? How it grieves his Spirit. Accept the weak in faith because he is your brother.

iv] Accept him because you both have to stand at God’s judgment throne.

Where does it say this? In verse ten, “Why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat”. He must answer to God for his behaviour, but so must you. All of us must stand before God’s judgment throne – very soon. It is an awesome and a troubling phrase. It is not alone in the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 5:10 we are told, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due to him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” Someone says, “Do you mean that after we die we have to see our whole life reviewed and all our actions judged? What a terrible prospect!”

What can we say about that? Let us remember that when we stand before Jesus Christ in the great day then we will at that moment be like him; we shall already have seen the Lord Christ as he is. Our bodies were once sown in the grave in weakness and shame but in that great day they will have been raised in glory and honour. We shall all be changed at the last trumpet, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, into the image of the Son of God. The work of our salvation will be drawing to its consummation and the new heavens and the new earth lie before us. We are meeting an utterly magnificent God, one who knows everything about us. That is his glory, that he has seen all the things we have done in the body, both good and bad. Our wills will be brought into perfect conformity to his. Whatever judgment he makes will be perfect in our eyes. Whatever he glories in we will glory in too. Whatever he condemns will also meet our condemnation. For every bad word and deed which we have done full atonement will have been made by Jesus Christ. There will be no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus. This Judge who knows what everything deserves is the Saviour who has died for us. So there will be immeasurable grandeur in that great day. It will be a day of vindication for his people. There will be the martyrs and all who suffered scorn for Jesus’ sake, but in that day they will receive a crown of righteousness.

However, there is also awesome sobriety at this truth that then we will receive from God for all the things done in the body. We will bring this thought to bear on our consciences and it will help us do battle with remaining sin. Paul wants those in the Roman congregation who are strong in faith to pause and think before they belittle a brother in Christ who is for example a vegetarian, “I am going to have to give an account on the day of judgment for my loveless impatience with this brother.” You recall how this was one way in which our Lord Jesus Christ sought to help his twelve disciples to gain victory over sin. He spoke to them about hell. He said to them, “Remember Lot’s wife,” and he told them of the day of judgment when he would be like a shepherd and separate the sheep from the goats. So he is saying to the strong in faith in Rome, “Remember the day of judgment when you are going to be held accountable for your words and deeds before you pronounce judgment on other people.” So don’t ever look down on the weak brother but keep accepting him all your life, when he is very irritating, even then keep accepting him.

3. DON’T OFFEND THE WEAK IN FAITH BECAUSE THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN DIFFERENCES ABOUT DIET AND DAYS.

What is Christianity all about? Food? Days? Religious arguments? No. It is about righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. We have to judge a church in the light of that, not attend a church because of its music programme, or because there is so much for the young people, or because a crowd attend it, or the orator who speaks there, or because you get healthy and wealthy through going to that church. None of those things. This is a church where King Jesus reigns, and wherever he reigns you discover three things, righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.

i] Righteousness, that is, the daily life of Jesus Christ. He went about doing good, fulfilling all righteousness. This world has seen a man as righteous as God, he was full of love. He even loved his enemies; when they crucified him he prayed for those who lifted the sledgehammer and drove the nails through his hands and feet. How beautiful the life of righteousness is, and it is our passion to live like that. Blessed are those – and those only – who hunger and thirst for it. More righteousness give me! Lord, let me sit under the ministry which most delivers me from unrighteousness and which most encourages my transformation from one degree of righteousness to another, thus bringing glory and honour to God.

ii] Peace, that is, a righteous God who is yet at peace with us, reconciled to us through the cross of Christ. A sin-hating God at peace through the atonement of the Lamb of God. That peace I enter through trusting in Jesus Christ. Therefore being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. And to all who are justified God gives his peace, a peace that passes all understanding keeping our hearts and minds day by day as we trust in the Saviour. The fruit of the Spirit is this peace.

iii] Joy in the Holy Spirit, which is also the fruit of the Spirit. It is not worked-up ersatz kind of joy, manufactured by skillful manipulators of men, created by moods and music. This is joy that comes down from the presence of God and is created and sustained by the Holy Spirit. It is joy in Jesus Christ because God has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world, that he has taken frail flesh and died on the cross bearing away our sin. It is joy in his triumph over the grave on the third day rising from the dead. He lives in the power of an endless life. He is coming again to judge the world. The Holy Ghost gives every Christian joy in this reality, and so we rejoice in the Lord always. This is what Christianity is all about, not eating and drinking but righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. So what are the consequences of this?

i] Make every effort to do what leads to peace (v.19).

You are raising an issue in the church. Does it lead to righteousness being strengthened, peace deepened and joy in the Holy Spirit? Pursue that with all your might. If not then why make a fuss about food? What are your priorities? So what if there are people in the church who are keeping sacred days – so what? Why be troubled by the vegetarians? You are free to ignore them. You must say I am seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. My life is aiming at that and when we all do that then peace comes in the congregation.

ii] Don’t destroy the work of God for the sake of food (v.20).

The whole strategy of the apostle Paul’s missionary journeys was to go further and further from Jerusalem to Asia Minor and to Greece and finally to Rome the capital of the empire and the gateway to Europe. Now in Rome this church has been planted. It is a mighty congregation. It is able to receive these 16 chapters and understand the gospel Paul is teaching them. What a church, and you are going to destroy it by fighting over Days and Diets? What are your values? What part in your life does the Great Commission have? The gospel is being preached and lived here in the shadow of Nero’s palace and there are people from there present in your services week by week but you just want to fight over Days and Diets. Don’t destroy the work of God for the sake of food.

iii] Don’t use your liberty to cause your brother to fall (v.21).

In other words, don’t invite a vegetarian family around for a meal and suddenly place in front of them all a plate of meat and start cajoling them to take it, quoting the apostle Paul as saying that he was fully convinced that no food was unclean in itself. “Eat up! It’s my wife’s best cooking and we bought the most tasty and expensive shoulder of meat from the butcher. She was up early this morning preparing this meal for you. It is delicious. You will really enjoy it once you take the first mouthful you will never have these hang-ups with eating meat again. Come on!”

You are at liberty to eat that meat, but your guests are not. If they submit to your pressure and try to eat it without being biblically persuaded that it is all right to do so then they are going to have a fearful conscience subsequently. They will feel that they have fallen into a sin against God, and you have caused this. Please don’t abuse your liberty like that. Remember all I have told you about how you as strong believers are to behave towards the weak and make every effort to live for righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost not living for straightening everyone out about Days and Diets.

24th September 2006 GEOFF THOMAS