Feast Days and the Sabbath in Romans 14:5-6

Excerpt from: J.K. McKee’s Torah In the Balance, Volume I: The Validity of the Torah and Its Practical Life Applications, available for purchase here.

“One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.”

Many of today’s Christian laypersons, reading Romans 14, think that they automatically know what the circumstances being addressed are: the Apostle Paul does not consider matters of sacred days or eating to be that important any more. Romans 14:5-6 are quoted to Messianic Believers as an indication that not only are the days one celebrates as holy inconsequential to God, but so is what one eats likewise inconsequential. Messianic Believers can choose to keep Shabbat and the appointed times, and eat kosher, if they want to—but it is thought that these are no longer definite requirements for His people. These are now only matters of conscience that are to be left up to individual choice. Unfortunately, though, rather than letting Messianic Believers keep Shabbat, the appointed times, and a kosher diet without any interference or harassment, Romans 14:5-6 are verses often used to unfairly judge those of us who keep them—quite contrary to the tenor of what(ever) Paul says.

The NIV Study Bible reflects the most common evangelical Christian point of view of what Romans 16:5-6 says, stating, “Some feel that this refers primarily to the Sabbath, but it is probably a reference to all the special days of the OT ceremonial law…The importance of personal conviction in disputable matters of conduct runs through this passage.”[1] From this vantage point, the days a person regards as sacred should be open for interpretation and application. Church tradition has determined that Sunday is an acceptable “Sabbath,” and that Christmas and Easter are acceptable holidays to celebrate in place of the Torah-prescribed holidays. If a person wants to follow the Old Testament in this regard, and not the traditions of today’s Church, he or she is not to be looked down upon, but neither is it to be mandated in any way. It is all a matter of one’s personal value judgments.

If one follows this conclusion to its logical end, however, then observing modern Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter are also totally a matter of conscience, and people can choose to opt out of them if they want, not being mandated in Scripture. They do not have to go to Church on Sunday. Tuesday could be an acceptable Sabbath, independent of either the seventh or first days of the week, and if someone wanted to, Christmas could be celebrated on the Fourth of July, as opposed to December 25. Dates or seasons when religious events are commemorated do not matter, as it is all an issue of choice, as opposed to God’s prescription. Yet it is safe to surmise that many Christians would not want to celebrate Christmas in the middle of the July Summer, much less consider holidays established by Church tradition to be “optional.” They would surely frown on people who do not go to Church on Sunday, choosing to dismiss assembling together as unimportant (cf. Hebrews 10:25).

Romans 14 is one of the most ambiguous chapters of Scripture for not only today’s Messianic Bible teachers, who largely ignore it, but also some of today’s Christian commentators. Everyone can easily agree upon a cursory reading of Romans 14:1-16 that some kind of issue regarding special days and eating is being addressed—but what those things specifically were, and how they divided the Believers in Rome, is something else. It is rightfully agreed that the Apostle Paul was warning the Roman Believers—a mixed group of Jewish and non-Jewish Believers—to not be divided over minor scruples, but that might be about all we know for sure. Romans 14:13 issues the instructive word, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.”

What these things actually involved for the Roman Believers may require a closer reading of Paul’s admonishment than is commonly seen by many who encounter Romans—precisely because “opinions” (Romans 14:1) are being addressed. These opinions may concern the Law of Moses, but not as directly as some may think. C.E.B. Cranfield issues a bit of caution in his Romans commentary, “Some recent commentators have exhibited great confidence in their approach to the interpretation of this section. This we find surprising; for it seems to us to be extremely difficult to decide with certainty what exactly the problem is with which Paul is concerned in this section.”[2] Our examination of Romans 14:5-6 cannot be divorced from the larger context, and most especially the larger themes seen in Paul’s letter. And, it might be a bit hasty to automatically conclude that the Sabbath, appointed times, and dietary laws are being specifically considered—because they are commandments laid forth in God’s Torah, and not “opinions” held by human individuals.

One of the main overarching themes of the Epistle to the Romans is not only for Paul to “promote” his theology and gospel presentation—as he is planning to use Rome as a hub for ministry outreach to Spain (Romans 15:24) and will need the Roman Believers’ support—but for him also to express the necessity for the Jewish and non-Jewish Believers in Rome to all be united. This was in no small part complicated by the Jewish expulsion from Rome by Claudius in 49 C.E. (cf. Acts 18:2), and how the Jewish Believers were now returning to fellowships where they were no longer the dominant group of people and/or the leaders. The clash of cultures created by significant numbers of Greeks and Romans now coming to faith, caused many of them to look down on the Jewish people, who were largely not answering to the gospel as much as the nations at large were. Paul wants to assure these non-Jews that they are dependent on the salvific root of Judaism (Romans 11:17-18), and that they rely more on the Jews than the Jews rely on them. Paul is absolutely concerned about the unity that is required within the ekklēsia, and so he takes it upon himself to discuss issues that divided the Believers in Rome, and/or their sub-assemblies.

One of the main issues that could have been very divisive would have been what to eat at the various fellowship meals, as eating is the main issue addressed in Romans 14:1-16. Was the Apostolic decree being followed, should meat be served (Acts 15:20), which required a degree of kosher to be respected? Did the meat being served have its blood properly removed? Where did the meat come from: a Jewish slaughterhouse or the Roman marketplace? Even if the blood were removed from the meat, some Jewish Believers could have been highly cautious about where the meat was purchased, if the Jewish meat sources were not selling to the Believers.[3] Some Jewish Believers could have easily frowned on any meat “from the Roman market, even if it were acceptable according to Biblical law, and was specially butchered for clients who were Believers.

Paul begins this vignette by contrasting the eating of meat versus only eating vegetables. He states, “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only” (Romans 14:1-2). The issue as first seen here is not that of following the kashrut laws of clean and unclean, but rather of eating just vegetables and/or eating meat. The Torah does not require a person to be a vegetarian, even if there are some restrictions placed on eating meat. Yet those who have the faith to eat all, meat and vegetables, are not to pass judgment upon those who follow a vegetarian diet out of conviction. Philip F. Esler confirms how the scene depicted, is what was being served during Roman fellowship meals:

Paul seemed to be responding to dysfunctional gatherings of the Christ-movement in Rome rather than the total isolation of one group from another. Perhaps we should imagine gatherings in a strong person’s house where there is a meal with meat and vegetables, but the weak will only eat the vegetables and are abused by the strong for doing so.”[4]

The one interesting clue that Paul gives about what is being eaten is, “All things indeed are clean” (Romans 14:20), the Greek term katharos having been employed in the Septuagint to describe those animals considered ritually clean and acceptable for eating (Heb. tahor).[5] Seeing this, it would be most unlikely that the meat served at the fellowship meals fell outside the guidelines of clean and unclean animals of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. But how acceptable would the meat be for some Jewish Believers—with clean meat possibly having to come from Roman sources?

The high point of this instruction is clear: Paul does not want brethren to judge one another (Romans 14:13), as it is a relatively minor issue in comparison to other aspects of faith. But is Paul really discussing the continued validity of the Sabbath, appointed times, and kosher dietary laws, now no longer being necessary for Believers in Yeshua—or is he talking about something else? Many think that the validity of kashrut is the issue, because later Paul will describe how “I know and am convinced in the Lord Yeshua that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (Romans 14:14). Yet there is a significant translation issue with this verse, because the flesh of animals that is declared “unclean” in the Torah is not in view.

Almost all Bible versions read with “unclean” in Romans 14:14. The Hebrew word rendered as “unclean” in the food lists of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 is tamei, employed in direct relation to “ceremonially unclean animals” (HALOT).[6] In the LXX, tamei was rendered by the Greek word akathartos, “impure, unclean,” specifically “of foods” (BDAG).[7] Akathartos does not appear in Romans 14:14, and the rendering of “unclean” is inaccurate. The Greek word that appears instead is koinos, “This word means ‘common’…in the sense of common ownership, property, ideas, etc” (TDNT).[8] Koinos relates “to being of little value because of being common, common, ordinary, profane,” and can concern “that which ordinary people eat, in contrast to those of more refined tastes” (BDAG).[9]

Koinos is employed in the Apocrypha where “swine and unclean animals” (1 Maccabees 1:47) were sacrificed in the Temple precincts. Yet these ktēnē koina, in addition to the swine, were likely Biblically clean animals sacrificed by the Seleucid Greeks, but not at all being tamim or fit for sacrifice in God’s holy place.[10] Although being pagans they did sacrifice pigs, traditional Greco-Roman religion did use Biblically clean, albeit common, animals in their sacrifices as well. Similarly, a Greco-Roman diet would have involved the eating of cattle, sheep, goats, and various fowl, which are listed as “clean” on the food lists of the Torah.

The LITV renders koinos properly with “common,” noting the careful nuances communicated in Paul’s instruction to the Roman Believers:

“I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing by itself is common; except to the one deeming anything to be common, it is common” (Romans 14:14, LITV).

Common food,” possibly served at some of the fellowship meals, would not be the same asunclean ‘food’” (which itself is an oxymoron as God does not consider “unclean food” to be food). “Common food” would include those things that are Biblically clean, but perhaps were considered inedible by a highly conservative sector of Jewish Believers in Rome.[11] Paul instructs the “strong” Roman Believers that they are not to put any of the “weak” Roman Believers down for abstaining from such meat at fellowship gatherings. We can safely assume, especially given the orientation of meat as prescribed by the Apostolic decree, that the meat was that of Biblically-clean animals, yet something has arisen because certain people are not going to eat the meat. If the meat were butchered properly with the blood removed, but if it came from a Roman meat source, the “weak” could have chosen not to eat it. Paul instructs how they are not to be looked down upon, because they hold to such a conviction.

Paul’s discussion here concerns “disputable matters” (Romans 14:1, NIV). Unless we are prepared to discount Paul’s previous word about Believers upholding God’s Torah in Messiah (Romans 3:31), this would involve issues for which there was no definite Biblical solution, unlike the flesh of animals that was definitively declared “unclean” in the Torah (tamei/akathartos). Noting that opinions or disputable matters is the issue (Romans 14:1),[12] Stern comments, “Where Scripture gives a clear word, personal opinion must give way. But where the Word of God is subject to various possible interpretations, let each be persuaded in his own mind.”[13] Romans 14 discusses such halachic opinions between conservative Jewish Believers and the more moderate non-Jewish Believers. Hegg further concludes,

This in itself should…put to rest the notion that Paul is discussing issues of Sabbath and kosher food laws, for though in our times these might be considered matters of ‘opinion,’ they surely could not have been so construed in Paul’s day. What must fall under the category of ‘opinions’ are those things for which both sides could equally be considered righteous and worthy.”[14]

What a person eats—especially at fellowship meals—is ultimately not as important as being united in the love and hope of the gospel. We are to be identified as changed people by the work of the Lord within us. In this light, eating is a relatively minor matter, even if all of the food available to be eaten is clean or “kosher, because there are other things that are far more important in the Kingdom of God. Paul says, “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). “Drinking” is also added to the mix here, and it is notable that we consider how the Torah includes no general prohibition on consuming alcohol as a part of normal life. Many, however, could easily have held to the opinion that drinking alcohol was not for them.

Paul himself would have had no problem eating any of the “common” food served at the Roman fellowship meals, but he strongly warned against those who considered themselves “strong,” who looked down upon the “weak,” who would not eat their meat out of personal conviction. Such unnecessary judgment could only cause problems for the ekklēsia.

Within this discussion of eating (Romans 14:1-2 and 14-17), as Moo indicates, “Paul interrupts his theological argument to cite another point,”[15] and so he discusses the secondary issue of sacred days, to show the supposed “strong” why they should not be looking down upon those they considered “weak.” But does his discussion about eating meat get interrupted with the statements about sacred days in v. 3 or v. 4, or even v. 5? Paul’s instruction simply details how there is to be no judgment taking place between the Believers in Rome:

“The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:3-4).

The issue that I would like to raise is whether vs. 3-4 are a continuation of the remarks made in vs. 1-2, or if they help to introduce the statements about sacred days in vs. 5-6. V. 3 employs the participles esthiōn and mē esthiōn, referring to the “eater” and “non-eater.” Is this referring to a person who eats all, and one who does not eat all at the fellowship meals—or a person who eats, versus one who does not eat or fasts? Does this relate to the actions described in vs. 1-2 preceding about meals involving meat and vegetables, or the actions following in vs. 5-6 about sacred days and eating/not eating?

Paul wants the non-Jewish Believers in Rome to be very sensitive to some distinct Jewish needs. Vs. 1-2 lay out the general principle of not looking down on those who do not eat everything at the fellowship meals. Vs. 3-4, however, raise the stakes on looking down on some of the sensitivities of these Jewish Believers. These are people who are convicted in their hearts that what they are doing is right before the Lord. While both are to respect the others’ opinion, Paul specifically wants the non-Jewish Believers to know, “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” (Romans 14:4, NIV). All are certainly servants of the Lord, but only to the Lord are individuals ultimately accountable for their opinions—not flawed human beings.

Asserting that both the “weak” and “strong” will answer to the same God for their convictions or opinions, Paul issues his instruction about sacred days:

“One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God” (Romans 14:5-6).

The Lord is honored by those who consider certain days special, and those who consider all days alike. The eater (esthiōn) thanks Him, and the non-eater (mē esthiōn) thanks Him.[16] So, a majority of commentators extrapolate this and conclude that the Sabbath, appointed times, and dietary laws are now, at most, just a matter of choice (for Jewish Believers in Yeshua).[17] It is asserted that God accepts those who keep these Torah rituals, but He also accepts those who do not. We should probably pause here for a moment and take a look at two commentators who hold to this view, should any evangelical Christian reading this have ever looked down upon a Messianic Jew or a Messianic non-Jew, who is convicted of the Lord that these practices are indeed for today:

Douglas J. Moo: “The believer who sets aside certain days…or who observes the Sabbath, does so because he or she sincerely believes this honors the Lord. Similarly, both the believer who eats anything without discrimination and the believer who refuses to eat certain things ‘gives thanks’ to God at their mealtimes and are motivated in their respective practices by a desire to glorify the Lord.”[18]

Ben Witherington III: “The attitude expressed here is much like that expressed by John Wesley and others: in essentials unity, in non-essentials one thinks and lets think, all in all things charity and love. While Paul believes in persuasion and in imperatives, he also believes in allowing people the freedom to make up their minds on a host of things, so long as it is within the realm of what could reasonably be said to be in accord with the will of God…”[19]

While neither one of these theologians thinks that keeping the seventh-day Sabbath or dietary laws is necessary for today—I do not think that they would look down with resentment or harsh judgment toward those who do. They would consider it an issue of personal choice and preference, and hopefully wish Messianics the best in their trying to honor the Lord. This does not mean that there are not Christians who look down with disdain at Messianics, because there are. And, much of this is reciprocated with some disdain toward Christians on the Messianic end, which is equally wrong and reprehensible, and needs to be remedied by Messianics who encourage their fellow Believers to change via a positive testimony.

The challenge we have to consider is what Romans 14:5-6 meant to the Romans. While it is easy to just jump ahead and automatically conclude that the Sabbath, appointed times, and kosher are being discussed—this may be a little too convenient. While a Jewish orientation of things being eaten and sacred days is certain, it concerns matters of disputable halachah. N.T. Wright, one of today’s leading Pauline scholars, points out how “It is interesting…that he does not refer to the sabbath explicitly.”[20] Moo also has to indicate how “Whether the specific point at issue was the observance of the great Jewish festivals, regular days of fasting, or the Sabbath is difficult to say.”[21] Indeed, there is no mention at all of the word “Sabbath” (Grk. sabbaton) in the Epistle to the Romans, much less in ch 14! James R. Edwards makes a valid observation, stating, “Paul leaves day undefined, perhaps out of deference to the arguing parties. It may refer to Jewish fast days (Monday, Thursday).”[22]

Are the days that some Jewish Believers might regard as being a bit “more sacred than another” (Romans 14:5, NIV) some kind of fast days? Both observing special days and eating or not eating, are tied together, which means that fast days are definitely within the window of possibilities. V. 6 compares and contrasts the eater (esthiōn) and the non-eater (mē esthiōn), which could easily be viewed as one who eats on a day considered very special to some people, where those people do not eat, or fast:

“The one minding the day, he minds it to the Lord. And the one not minding the day, he does not mind it to the Lord. The one eating, he eats to the Lord; for he gives thanks to God. And the one not eating, he does not eat to the Lord, and gives thanks to God” (Romans 14:6, LITV).”

Hegg summarizes how “Paul…kept the Sabbath (Acts 17:2) and walked strictly according to the Torah (Acts 21:24)….[I]t is unthinkable that with such a passing statement Paul could abolish a Torah commandment that was one of the central issues in his day. And all without even the slightest hint or backlash! If Paul had taught that the Sabbath was no longer viable, this would have been added to the offenses his opponents listed against him…”[23]

So indeed, if some kind of optional fast days are the issue in Romans 14:5-6, as both Hegg[24] and I conclude, they would have been some serious opinions and convictions for which any non-Jewish Believer in Rome would have needed to be highly sensitive to his or her fellow Jewish Believers. When considering what they could have included, these fast days would have been far more serious to consider than the vegetables and/or meat served at fellowship meals.

The only Biblical time God’s people are explicitly commanded to fast is on Yom Kippur. Leviticus 23:27 specifies, “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls.” It is clearly identified in Acts 27:9 as “the fast.” However, other than references in the Scriptures to Yom Kippur, there is not very much more that the Bible has to say about fasting—even though fasting can be a very beneficial spiritual procedure. Fasting on certain days are often times when each individual must be convinced in his or her own mind. Fasting is often a matter solely of individual choice and spiritual conviction, from which one can clearly benefit.

The tradition of “Monday and Thursday are set aside for public fasts” (t.Ta’anit 2:4)[25] was established in Second Temple Judaism, because fasting was largely prohibited for the Sabbath and festivals (b.Eruvin 41a). The more likely, more serious days of fasting to be considered, though, were some fixed fast days established by the Jews who returned from the Babylonian exile, established to remember important events in Jewish history. Jacob Milgrom summarizes,

“Fixed fast days are first mentioned by the post-Exilic prophet Zechariah who proclaims the word of the Lord thus: ‘The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh and the fast of the tenth…’ (Zech. 8:19; cf. 7:3, 5). Jewish tradition has it that these fasts commemorate the critical events which culminated in the destruction of the Temple: the tenth of Tevet (the tenth month), the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem; the 17th of Tammuz (the fourth month), the breaching of the walls; the ninth of Av (the fifth month), when the Temple was destroyed; and the third of Tishri (the seventh month), when Gedaliah, the Babylonian-appointed governor of Judah, was assassinated” (EJ).[26]

If these are the days remembered by the one who does not eat in Romans 14:6, then the sensitivity that the “strong” would have to demonstrate toward the “weak” is definitely intensified. Keeping these fasts would be something that was entirely optional as far as one’s faith practice was concerned. Yet remembering the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, by fasting and entreating the Lord for such events never to happen again, are worthy things to reflect upon—still largely observed in Judaism today. They may not be required, per se, but no mature Believer would ever in his or her right mind look with disdain upon others who are convicted that these times are worthy moments to abstain from food and pray before God. They are high convictions deserving of respect.

Viewing the sacred days of Romans 14:5-6 as fast days observed by many of the Jewish Believers in Rome, the Apostle Paul was very clear on how these things are done as unto the Lord. His instruction is quite clear to those who would look down with any disdain on those who would treat these times as being serious:

“For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Messiah died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, ‘AS I LIVE, SAYS THE LORD, EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW TO ME, AND EVERY TONGUE SHALL GIVE PRAISE TO GOD’ [Isaiah 45:23]. So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.”

Paul is much more serious about the issue of those who observe certain days as sacred, not choosing to eat on them—than over what the Roman Believers eat or do not eat at their fellowship meals, mentioning how we both live and die for the Lord. Many of the Jewish Believers in Rome would have considered fast days like the Ninth of Av, for example, to be very important times of spiritual intercession and prayer, so that great catastrophe never befell the Jewish people again. The non-Jewish Believers, perhaps not having that close a connection to the Temple in Jerusalem, should certainly have not frowned upon them remembering the destruction of the First Temple via a fast, as they too were a part of the community of Israel. They may have not felt the compulsion to fast themselves, but if they were mature Believers they would have understood its importance. (Evangelical Christians today are certainly very sensitive to Jews and Messianic Jews who observe the Ninth of Av, even if they do not similarly fast.)

And so if the non-Jewish Believers in Rome would not look down on their fellow Jewish Believers for remembering some of these extra fast days—why would they criticize any Jewish Believers for not necessarily eating the meat available at some of their fellowship gatherings? What one chooses to eat, especially if food is being passed around at a table, or is laid out in a buffet, is entirely one’s personal preference. If you are not going to judge a brother or sister for a major matter, why would you judge a brother or sister on a much smaller matter? If a non-Jewish Believer chooses to be unfair to a Jewish Believer over what is eaten at a fellowship meal, what could that communicate to the same Jewish Believer’s other actions of faith? The Apostle Paul says,

“Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another” (Romans 14:13, NRSV).

Harsh judgment of other people, by putting unnecessary stumbling blocks in front of others, is somewhat tantamount to appropriating a job that only God Himself has. The Lord is the only One who can fairly judge a person, so the so-called “strong” judging the presumed “weak” in Rome needed to stop. What Paul described as dividing them were disputable opinions (Romans 14:1), to which each person will individually answer before Him.

Paul returns to the original issue, after making some points by talking about sacred days and not eating/fasting, and states what his opinion is on what is eaten in the fellowship meals:

“I know and am convinced in the Lord Yeshua that nothing is [common/koinos] in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be [common/koinos], to him it is [common/koinos]. For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Messiah died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:14-17).

The Apostle Paul himself was not going to have a problem with what the Roman Believers might serve him when he comes to visit at their fellowship meals. If the Apostolic decree was being followed (Acts 15:20), even if the meat they served was from Roman sources—being “common”—such a status of being “common” is a disputable opinion. Yet Paul is very clear to emphasize to the Romans: those who eat such meat are not to use it as a tool to ruin other Believers. Yeshua the Messiah died for the so-called “weak” Believers, who eat vegetarian, as much as He did everyone else, who might (arrogantly) consider themselves “strong.” The Roman Believers needed to understand how “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17) are what are to make God’s people different—far more than food. When this is the proper emphasis, than the people that God has made us to be can be realized:

“For he who in this way serves Messiah is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:18-19).

In closing up this vignette over the fellowship meals in Rome, Paul instructs,

“Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles” (Romans 14:20-21).

Paul affirms that whatever was being served at the fellowship meals among the Roman Believers was clean (katharos) by Biblical standards, but a person who uses the food with the intention of being an offense—because it might be “common” to some—commits evil. Rather than being an offense, it might be better to just not eat meat, drink wine, or make a huge issue out of something small, but large enough to cause another to stumble. Understanding the more conservative dietary opinions of some of the Jewish Believers in Rome, and the required sensitivity that the non-Jewish Believers should have had toward fast days, should enable these “strong” to restrict themselves in disputable matters should the situation require it. The issues are just not big enough to require any (more) significant divisions in the ekklēsia. In the words of James D.G. Dunn,

“Paul lays out the principle of self-restricted liberty in the most far-reaching terms: what applies to eating meat and drinking wine applies also to anything which causes a fellow believer to stumble and fall on his or her own pathway of discipleship.”[27]

There were Jewish Believers in Rome, having returned after the expulsion of Claudius, who were going to have to get used to themselves being the minority. The non-Jewish Believers were not to complicate this due to disputable issues.

In the closing words of Romans 14, Paul finishes this instruction with a reminder on the individual’s responsibility over the disputable matters of eating common meat, and sacred days of fasting:

“The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:22-23).

When we decide to consider the background issues behind the whole of Romans 14, is it really about things like the Sabbath, appointed times, and even the kosher dietary laws now being issues of personal choice? Or, does it concern unnecessary divisions the Roman Believers were having at fellowship meals, and how if some Jewish Believers who fast on certain days were not to be criticized over their severity—why would anyone criticize some of them over the much more minor issue of not eating “common” meat? Too many of today’s Christian readers of Romans 14 forget that a mixed grouping of Jewish and non-Jewish Believers, in First Century Rome, is being addressed. They also forget that the religious and social climate of that ancient time and setting is not the same as today.

The contemporary application, can very much be seen in the spiritual and social dynamics of today’s Messianic congregations. There are many Messianic Believers who are hyper-sensitive about the type of meat they eat. They will not eat clean meat unless it has a Rabbinical seal of approval on it, whereas at many Messianic congregations or homes more common meat from the local supermarket is served during fellowship times. This is the meat of Biblically clean animals, where the blood has been drained and soaked out with saltwater. But, the opinion of some is that it is too common, and that they will instead eat around. These are largely the same Messianic Believers who will be more prone to observe the many extra-Biblical fast days of Orthodox Jewish tradition, being convicted that it is helpful in their relationship with God.

The circumstances, that Romans 14 really does describe, are encountered in today’s Messianic congregations all the time. How are we to handle them? Like Paul, I would eat at someone’s table where “common,” albeit Biblically clean meat, was being served, without any problem. As a teacher and spiritual mentor to many, just like Paul who served the Lord (cf. Romans 14:14a), I do not have the luxury of staying secluded to myself, in a protected environment where everything has to be certified “kosher”; I have to interact with the world at large. Yet I would be sensitive to the needs of those who are more cautious with what meat they eat. I would not at all look down upon certain Messianics who would not eat meat without a Rabbinical seal of approval, any more than I would look down upon them for not eating on various extra-Biblical fast days. I would pray that in their level of observance that they be blessed for their honoring of the Lord, and that I not unnecessarily offend them for their convictions.[28]

Many of today’s evangelical Christians will be unable to consider this perspective of Romans 14. This is partially because resting on the Sabbath (much less observing the appointed times) has lost most of the significance it had for previous generations, including that of my parents—even if those previous generations of Christians kept a rigid “Sunday Sabbath.” But most significantly, it is because the Christian Church of the Twenty-First Century is not the mixed body of Jewish and non-Jewish Believers as the ekklēsia of the First Century. Yet, Romans 14 does speak profoundly to the circumstances that many of today’s Messianic congregations must work through—and so we must take important notice of Paul’s word to the Romans, and not be unnecessarily divided over what are ultimately disputable matters. We must learn to uphold the Torah’s instruction in Messiah (Romans 3:31), but similarly give grace to those who hold to different applications of it in terms of things like eating and fast days.[29]

In our efforts to keep Shabbat, the appointed times, and dietary laws—let us also not find ourselves unfairly judging our Christian brothers and sisters who do not keep them at present. Let us invite them to participate in them with us—as we are surely remembering these things as unto the Lord! Let us welcome them into our homes and congregations to experience His blessings!

 

Endnotes:

[1] Kenneth L. Barker, ed., et. al., NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 1768.

[2] C.E.B. Cranfield, International Critical Commentary: Romans 9-16 (London: T&T Clark, 1979), 690.

[3] Consult Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Historical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), pp 334-345, for a summary of the different options.

[4] Philip F. Esler, Conflict and Identity in Romans: The Social Setting of Paul’s Letter (Minneapolis: Augsberg Fortress, 2003), 350.

[5] Genesis 7:2-3, 8; 8:20; Leviticus 4:12; 6:11; 7:19; Ezra 6:20; cf. Moo, Romans, 860 fn#63.

[6] HALOT, 1:376.

[7] BDAG, 34.

[8] F. Hauck, “koinós,” in TDNT, 447.

[9] BDAG, 552.

[10] I.e., Exodus 12:5; Leviticus 1:3, 10; 3:1, 6, 9, etc.

[11] Such “common food” today would be Biblically clean meats, but meats that would probably not have a Rabbinical stamp of approval on them.

[12] “Grk. dialogismos; “content of reasoning or conclusion reached through use of reason, thought, opinion, reasoning, design” (BDAG, 232).

[13] Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, pp 434-435.

[14] Tim Hegg, Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Volume 2: Chapters 9-16 (Tacoma, WA: TorahResource, 2007), 408.

[15] Moo, Romans, 841.

[16] Note how the NIV adds “meat” to v. 6: “He who eats meat, eats to the Lord.” However, kreas only appears later in v. 21.

[17] F.F. Bruce, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), pp 231-232; James D.G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 9-16, Vol 38b (Dallas: Word Books, 1988), pp 804-807; Moo, Romans, pp 841-843.

[18] Moo, Romans, 843.

[19] Witherington, Romans, 336.

[20] N.T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in NIB, 10:736.

[21] Moo, Romans, 842.

He does, however, conclude “we would expect that the Sabbath, at least, would be involved.”

[22] James R. Edwards, “Romans,” in New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 2030.

John Reumann similarly notes how this could be “the sabbath or holy days for fasting or feasting” (“Romans,” in James D.G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson, eds., Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003], 1308), indicating the range of possibilities in the sacred days mentioned.

[23] Tim Hegg, It is Often Said, 2 vols. (Littleton, CO: First Fruits of Zion, 2003), 1:18.

[24] Hegg, Romans Vol. 2, pp 416-417.

[25] Jacob Neusner, ed., The Tosefta: Translated from the Hebrew With a New Introduction, 2 vols. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 1:625.

[26] Jacob Milgrom, “Fasting and Fast Days,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica. MS Windows 9x. Brooklyn: Judaica Multimedia (Israel) Ltd, 1997.

[27] Dunn, Romans 9-16, 833.

[28] For a further discussion, consult J.K. McKee’s article “How Do We Properly Keep Kosher?

[29] For a further examination, consult J.K. McKee’s article “The Message of Romans.”

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