Through the letter to the Romans – Part 19. The talk around the fireplace

Or maybe the dinner table… Paul has been spending all this time “getting us on the same page”.  In chapter 12 and the beginning of 13 he has circled back to our lives as children of God. And, to me, what he just said there is all in the category of what we “ought to do”. This is our duty. But knowing our duty and doing it, cheerfully, are two different things. The only motivation that works is love.

Romans 13:8-10 Owe no one anything, unless to love one another: for he that loves another has fulfilled the law. For, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not lust; and if there be any other commandment, it is summed up in this word, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love works no ill to its neighbour; love therefore [is the] whole law.

It’s fascinating how Paul begins this thought: “Owe no one anything…” As SK points out, this is referring to the duties I mentioned earlier: If someone deserves honor, give it to them; if taxes, taxes. In other words, don’t delay in doing your duty. But, when it comes to love, that is a duty that you never stop owing.

In other words, any time I do something good for you, something loving, I cannot, in the back of my mind, count it as a duty fulfilled in the sense that now you are in my debt. No, I am still in your debt. And as long as I love you, I shall ever be in your debt. This is the only way to obey Jesus’ admonition in the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 5:43-48 Ye have heard that it has been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy. But *I* say unto you, Love your enemies, [bless those who curse you,] do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who [insult you and] persecute you, that ye may be [the] sons of your Father who is in [the] heavens; for he makes his sun rise on evil and good, and sends rain on just and unjust.

     For if ye should love those who love you, what reward have ye? Do not also the tax-gatherers the same? And if ye should salute your brethren only, what do ye extraordinary? Do not also the Gentiles the same? Be *ye* therefore perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Being in a constant debt of love is the only way to love without seeking to be loved in return.

And that is what the law of God is all about: love therefore [is the] whole law. (Again, one of SK’s favorite passages.) This is exactly what Jesus reminded us of when He told us the greatest commandment is Love God above all, and the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.

We have been called to live in Love. That is the way Jesus lived and that is how He accomplished what the Father sent Him to do. So, if we want to do what we have been called to do we need to imitate Him, especially, His sense of urgency.

photo of sunrise through trees

Romans 13:11-14 This also, knowing the time, that it is already time that *we* should be aroused out of sleep; for now [is] our salvation nearer than when we believed.  The night is far spent, and the day is near; let us cast away therefore the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. As in the day, let us walk becomingly; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and lasciviousness, not in strife and emulation. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not take forethought for the flesh to [fulfil its] lusts.

Just as He told us back in Chapter 8, Paul ends this exhortation to walk the Christian life with the reminder that following the Spirit means rejecting the pull of the flesh.

Now Paul can deal directly with the conflict in the Church.

The work of Love in self-sacrifice

Romans 14:1-4 Now him that is weak in the faith receive, not to [the] determining of questions of reasoning. One man is assured that he may eat all things; but the weak eats herbs. Let not him that eats make little of him that eats not; and let not him that eats not judge him that eats: for God has received him. Who art *thou* that judgest the servant of another? to his own master he stands or falls. And he shall be made to stand; for the Lord is able to make him stand.

I think it is interesting how Paul introduces the next subject: Without telling them who is “weak” and who is “strong” in the faith, he says: receive the weak brother, unconditionally, not based on whether or not you can resolve these disputable matters. He is not denying that there will be differences of opinions and he is not denying that one way of thinking is more correct than another; he is saying, all that is of second importance to our Lord’s commandment to love one another.

Note that the same Paul that is saying this, is the Paul that unequivocally and severely would rebuke out and out heresy. There is no contradiction here. Paul was a clear thinker, willing and able to use the capacity to reason that God gave him to distinguish between essential truths and disputable matters

Evidently, there were people in this Church that said they could eat all things but others would only eat vegetables. As I mentioned in my Introduction, to cast this as a meat-eater vs. vegetarian controversy would be an anachronism. The most likely explanation to this scenario is what we see in 1 Corinthians chapter 8.

1 Corinthians 8:4-13 —concerning then the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that an idol [is] nothing in [the] world, and that there [is] no other God save one. For and if indeed there are [those] called gods, whether in heaven or on earth, (as there are gods many, and lords many,) yet to us [there is] one God, the Father, of whom all things, and *we* for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom [are] all things, and *we* by him.

     But knowledge [is] not in all: but some, with conscience of the idol, until now eat as of a thing sacrificed to idols; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But meat does not commend us to God; neither if we should not eat do we come short; nor if we should eat have we an advantage.

     But see lest anywise this your right [to eat] itself be a stumbling-block to the weak. For if any one see thee, who hast knowledge, sitting at table in an idol-house, shall not his conscience, he being weak, be emboldened to eat the things sacrificed to the idol? and the weak [one], the brother for whose sake Christ died, will perish through thy knowledge.

     Now, thus sinning against the brethren, and wounding their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore if meat be a fall-trap to my brother, I will eat no flesh for ever, that I may not be a fall-trap to my brother.

I cite this whole passage because it is almost identical to what Paul is about to tell the Romans. Even to the calling “weak” the ones who fear contamination from meat sacrificed to idols. At first it might seem harsh or untactful to take sides in the argument and call some of these Christians “weak”.  But to Paul this is an important point. Because to “fear” something in the world to the point that we lose our confidence in the freedom Christ has purchased for us, sets a dangerous precedent. He already said it, we have not inherited a spirit of fear:

Romans 8:14-15 For ye have not received a spirit of bondage again for fear, but ye have received a spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.

Likewise, the writer of Hebrews tells us Jesus took away the power that held us enslaved through the fear of death:

 Hebrews 2:14-15 … that through death he might annul him who has the might of death, that is, the devil; and might set free all those who through fear of death through the whole of their life were subject to bondage.

photo of forearm with bible verse "fear not"

So, Paul told Timothy “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control.” And, of course, David said, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” Fear is one of the major weapons of the enemy, and Paul will always remind us to stand against it.

Nevertheless, we are not all the same. Some in the Church may be “weak” in this regard. Well, the Holy Spirit will help them in due time. That is His job. It is not our job to judge them, or berate them, or disdain them. But more important than not judging them is the work of Love: Don’t even risk causing them to stumble. We are clearly called to sacrifice our freedom (in this case the freedom to eat meat) in deference to the weaker brother, that seeing us do that, could himself stumble. And if anyone’s reaction to that command is, ‘that’s not fair”, I am sure Paul would say, ‘Do you think Jesus going to the cross for your sins was fair?’

The disputable matters

Now, I mentioned in my Introduction that Jewish Christians would be the most likely candidates for getting worried about eating meat sacrificed to idols. After all, they had all sorts of dietary laws. But then you would think, because of those very same dietary laws, they surely had devised reliable work-arounds. They had lived already for centuries among Gentiles. So, didn’t they already have their own Kosher “supply chain”? Why would this come up now?

I don’t think it would.

I don’t think it would be a problem for them because they had figured out how to deal with this issue over centuries: they simply would not eat meat that had not been prepared according to their strict and precise rules. BUT what about their fellow Gentile Christians, with whom they are supposed to be united as a body? Aren’t they defiling themselves when they partake of the table of an idol? And in so doing, aren’t they defiling the body of Christ?

So, indeed, it makes sense that there were problems at Rome, divisions drawn along Gentile versus Jewish lines. On this point, the strict Mosaic-law-abiding Jewish Christians had a strong argument: ‘There is only One God, why are you risking your soul by messing around with demons in disguise?’ But their arguments did not stop there.

Remember the Council of Jerusalem? (Maybe a couple of years before Paul wrote the letter to the Romans.)

Acts 15:24-29 Inasmuch as we have heard that some who went out from amongst us have troubled you by words, upsetting your souls, [saying that ye must be circumcised and keep the law]; to whom we gave no commandment; it seemed good to us, having arrived at a common judgment, to send chosen men to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have given up their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves also will tell you by word [of mouth] the same things.

     For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: to abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what is strangled, and from fornication; keeping yourselves from which ye will do well. Farewell.

So, it certainly could be the Jewish believers who had the problem with their fellow Christians eating meat sacrificed to idols. But it could also be some of the Gentile believers because of that direct instruction they were given to abstain from things sacrificed to idols. We really don’t know. It could be both. But the next verses that talk about a similar disagreement about holidays, certainly points to a disagreement that I can only see arising along Gentile versus Jewish lines.

Romans 14:5-7 One man esteems day more than day; another esteems every day [alike]. Let each be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regards the day, regards it to [the] Lord. And he that eats, eats to [the] Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he that does not eat, [it is] to [the] Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. For none of us lives to himself, and none dies to himself.

As I mentioned in the Introduction, it’s hard to conceive of a Gentile believer wanting to keep (esteem) holidays associated with the very gods he had forsaken. But the consensus is that, in the early Church, the Jewish Christians continued their patterns of worship after conversion; going to synagogue on the Sabbath, and then gathering with fellow Christians on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). We can certainly expect that the Jewish Christians that precipitated the Council of Jerusalem continued to observe all the holidays of their traditions.

But the typical Gentile Christian would not think those holidays and their associated rites mattered. Why Should they? They had had their eyes opened to the vacuousness of the rites their former gods demanded.

Put yourself in their shoes

footprints on sand

As I try to put myself in their respective shoes it almost seems inevitable that disagreements would arise. Jewish and Gentile believers were drawn to the plan of salvation of the Messiah from opposite sides of knowledge. (Go back to 1 Corinthians 8 and read from verse 1… “knowledge puffs up”.)

The Jewish brothers knew the Law inside and out; they came to the Messiah through it, through faith. And, therefore, the Law colored the way they looked at everything, even in their new found understanding of God’s Plan. They could rightly prize the wisdom and knowledge of their heritage.

The Gentile brothers, particularly the Greeks, also prized knowledge and logic; but in the society of their day that knowledge was anything but self-consistent. There were gods everywhere and all sorts of ways of interpreting what was the Truth. Philosophers could argue opposing viewpoints all day long in Athens with no one ever concluding what the final answer was. Furthermore, there was little motivation to come to the strict conclusion that such a thing as Truth undeniable did exist. After all, four hundred years earlier, Socrates, a champion of the Truth, had been condemned to death precisely for “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state”.

It was out of this relativistic mess (much like our society today) that Greek believers had been set free by the message of Christ. We would expect that they too would look at their new life through lenses colored by their experience. And to those that saw the plethora of gods, and their multitude of religious rules, as the reason they had been blinded and enslaved by sin, freedom in Christ could very well lead them to be ever suspicious of religious rules. They knew full well the danger of “human knowledge”.

Out of these two, God chose to make “a new man” (Ephesians 2:15).

But who is right…? Paul’s answer is: You are wasting energy on something that doesn’t matter to God! We are supposed to be living our lives for Him and to Him; not getting our togas all in knot over what we eat or the calendar we keep.

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