As Paul is approaching the end of this epistle he is aware that there is one important problem on which he has not yet touched, namely, that of the relation between the weak and the strong. The strong were those who were able to grasp the significance of Christ’s death for daily living; that is, for eating and drinking, etc., the weak were not.
1. Origin of the problem
God had laid down certain rules with respect to clean versus unclean animals. Only the clean were permitted to be used as food. See Lev. 11:1-45; Deut. 14:3-21. Cf. Dan. 1:8 f.; Tobit 1:10-12; I Macc. 1:62; II Macc. 7: Josephus, Antiq. IV.vi.8.
In connection with his teaching that whatever enters a person from the outside is undefiling, Jesus had pronounced all foods clean (Mark 7:15-19). But if even Peter was slow in taking to heart the full implications of this dominical pronouncement, as Acts 10:9-16; 11:1-18; Gal. 2:11-21 indicate, it is understandable that for other Jewish converts to Christianity the situation became even more difficult.
It has been suggested that in the church of Rome the clash between meat-eaters and abstainers became more explosive when Jews who had been expelled from the capital by Claudius (see p. 18) returned. During their absence the Roman church experienced no difficulty, but with their return to Rome a somewhat strained relation began to develop between the two ethnic groups. Whether this theory is correct cannot now be determined, but it may well be. The view according to which “the strong” consisted of the Gentile portion of the congregation, the majority (see pp. 21-23), while “the weak” consisted of the Jewish portion, seems to be confirmed by 15:7 f. (See on that passage). However, this does not mean that only Gentiles belonged to the strong portion, and only Jews to the weak. A Hebrew of Hebrews was Paul; nevertheless, he included himself among the strong (15:1).
But had not Christ, by his death on the cross, fulfilled and thereby abolished, the Old Testament shadows? And if even the divinely established dietary regulations had lost their validity, was not the same true, in fact more decisively, with respect to all man-made rules that had been embroidered upon them?
True indeed, but this legitimate inference was not drawn by every believer in Christ. Many, especially in Jerusalem and vicinity, but also in Rome and probably elsewhere, held fast to their “traditions.”
Now as long as no saving significance or merit of any kind was ascribed to the perpetuation of such rules and regulations, and no offense was given, such persistence in clinging to the old could be tolerated. The adherents must be treated with love and patience. This was true especially during what might be called “the period of transition.”
However, in mixed communities problems immediately presented themselves. Customs-Gentile versus Jewish-were bound to clash. The fact that the law of ordinances had been nailed to the cross, and along with it all man-made regulations had also become logically extinct, had not become clear to every believer in Christ. And the further and closely related fact that “in Christ” the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile had been broken down, never to be rebuilt, was frequently ignored, as it is even today in certain circles!
2. What the two groups-the strong and the weak-had in common
a. The members of each group must be regarded as genuine believers (Rom. 14:1-4, 6, 10, 13).
b. Each group was critical of the other (14:3, 4, 13).
c. Each group will have to give an account of itself to the Lord (14:11).
3. The points with respect to which the two groups differed:
a. The strong believed that they were permitted to eat anything (meats as well as vegetables); the weak were vegetarians (14:2).
b. The strong regarded every day as being “good.” The weak regarded one day as being better than another (14:5). The emphasis falls on a.
4. Paul’s attitude toward the two groups and his admonitions addressed to the groups and to the congregation in general
a. In at least one important point Paul agrees with the strong, namely, in believing that nothing (no food) is unclean in itself (14:14, 20; 15:1).
b. He admonishes each group not to look down on the other (14:3, 5, 19).
c. He is especially emphatic in denouncing the attitude of some strong people toward the weak (14:14-21), and he admonishes the strong lovingly to bear with the failings of the weak (15:1).
d. He stresses the fact that the matter of eating and drinking is not nearly as important as that of being a citizen of the kingdom of God, for the essence of that kingdom is not “eating and drinking but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17).
e. He admonishes both groups-in fact, the entire congregation-to pursue those things that lead to peace and mutual edification (14:19; 15:2, 3).
f. He points to the example of Christ, who did not please himself, and was willing for our sake, and to the glory of God, to suffer reproach (15:3-6).
g. He summarizes his exhortations by pleading: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, to the glory of God” (15:7). He shows that, in Christ, Jews and Gentiles attain their unity. He states, “Christ has become a servant of ‘the circumcision’ (i.e., of the Jews) for the sake of God’s truth … but the Gentiles glorify God for the sake of (his) mercy, ” quoting passages from the Old Testament to prove what he had just now said with respect to the Gentiles (15:8-12).
h. He closes this section-and in a sense, the entire letter up to this point-with the beautiful prayer-wish, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace, in the exercise of (your) faith, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may overflow with hope” (15:13).
5. Similarities and differences between Paul’s teaching (with respect to diets and days), a. in Romans, and b. in other epistles
There are resemblances and there are also differences between that which Paul says about this subject here in Romans, on the one hand, and what, on the other hand, he says about it in I Corinthians, Galatians, and Colossians; differences not in doctrine but in approach and style.
a. Romans and I Corinthians
Both here in Romans and in I Cor. 8:1-13; 10:14-33 Paul teaches that the church-and of course also believers individually-should treat with consideration and tenderness those who are weak; that is, who are, or seem to be, unable to grasp the significance of Christ’s death on the cross for daily life. The strong and the weak should treat each other with kindness.
“Let not him who eats look down on him who does not, and let not him who does not eat judge him who does, for God has accepted him” (Rom. 14:3). “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (I Cor. 8:9).
In the Corinthian passages Paul speaks about food that had been offered to idols (I Cor. 10:20, 28). This feature is not mentioned in Romans, though it may be implied. Also, in Romans (14:5 f.) there is a reference to the observance of special days. This item is absent from I Corinthians.
b. Romans and Galatians
Also between what Paul says here in Rom. 14:1-15:13 and what he says in Gal. 4:10, 11 there is a resemblance. In both letters reference is made to the observance of certain special days. But the manner in which the apostle refers to these days differs widely in these two epistles. In Galatians the reference is to sabbath-days, days of the new moon, festival seasons belonging to the Jewish cycle, and either (1) the sabbath and jubilee years, or (2) the New Year (Rosh Hashana) on the first day of the month Tishri. Paul is saying that strict observance of such days and festivals has nothing whatever to do with securing divine favor. As a foundation upon which to build one’s hope of being justified in the sight of God such observance is merely a superstition. It is utterly futile, nothing but sinking sand. Paul, as it were, shakes his head in utter disgust when he reflects on the fact that rigid, painstaking adherence to the Mosaic law regarding stated days was actually being substituted for simple faith in Jesus Christ. He even states, “I am afraid about you, lest somehow I have labored among you in vain” (Gal. 4:11).
Here, in Rom. 14:5, Paul simply says, “One person regards one day as being better than another; another regards every day as being good. Let each one be fully convinced in his own mind.” The sharply critical and denunciatory style that characterizes the Galatian passages is completely absent from Romans, the reason being that by the weak brothers in Rome the observance of certain days was not viewed as having anything to do with obtaining salvation. So in Rom. 14:1, 5, 19; 15:1, 7 the apostle expresses himself in a very gentle and subdued manner.
c. Romans and Colossians
There are also similarities and differences between Rom. 14:1-15:13 and Colossians. In Col. 2:16, 17 Paul writes, “Therefore allow no one to pass judgment on you by what you eat or drink, or with respect to a (religious) festival or a New Moon celebration or a sabbath day.” And in 2:20, 21 he asks, “If with Christ you died to the rudiments [or: basic principles] of the world, why, as though you were still living in the world [or: as though you still belonged to the world], do you submit to its regulations ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’ “?
It is clear that here, in Colossians, Paul again sharply rebukes those whom he addresses, the reason now being that these people were giving heed to false teachers who were telling them, “Faith in Christ will not give you fulness of knowledge, wisdom, power, salvation. Therefore you must follow our rules concerning days and diets.” At bottom this was an attack on the supremacy and all-sufficiency of Christ, “in whom all the fulness of the godhead dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9).
As has been indicated, the treatment of the same general theme-days and diets-in Romans differs sharply, since the weak ones addressed in this epistle did not attach any saving significance to their eating, drinking, and abstaining, and to their observance of certain special days.
Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953-2001). Vol. 12-13: New Testament commentary : Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Accompanying biblical text is author’s translation. New Testament Commentary (452). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.