Romans 14 and the Except Factor
by Edwin M. Cotto
“One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth
every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.”
(Romans 14:5 KJV)
We are not obligated to keep the Sabbath because Romans 14 makes Sabbath keeping optional. Paul specifically said that any food may be eaten and every day may be considered alike, and the words “every day” includes the seventh day. Therefore Christians are allowed to observe any day of their choosing or, if they’d like, no day at all.
THE SHORT ANSWER:
This free-for-all interpretation of Romans 14 is both logically and biblically inconsistent. Imagine if one of those believers stretched Paul’s words in the same fashion and decided to celebrate one of the pagan holidays of that time, while feasting upon things that we would consider both harmful and wholly deplorable? The very thought is absurd! But according to the critic’s interpretation, he is allowed to do that if he so chooses, because after all “let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.”
If you say that it is quite obvious that Paul did not mean it to that extent, that is the point. There are exceptions in what Paul said, and he took it for granted that his readers would know that. Various contextual indicators prove this point. First, in this same chapter Paul tells them that one day they will “all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (verse 10). A few chapters earlier he told them that Jesus will use the Law of God as the standard of judgment on that day (Romans 2:12-13, 16, cf. 21-23). Paul would not tell them that a portion of the Law which will judge them is at the same time a matter of indifference! That is nonsensical.
The second thing is that in Romans Paul is actually calling for the divided church to unite. For example, he said that both Jews and Gentiles are “united” in the likeness of Christ’s death, and therefore both will be united in “the likeness of his resurrection” (Romans 6:5), that they should not “think of himself more highly than he ought to think” (Romans 12:3); that they are united as “one body in Christ” (Romans 12:5), and that they should “receive one another,” be “like-minded toward one another,” that “together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-7 ESV). He even warned them against those who would seek to disrupt this all important unity (Romans 16:17). Now imagine Paul disrupting his line of thought in the middle of his letter and telling them they can now choose whichever day they like to observe! Such a thing would not unify the Roman church because it would mean that each believer would choose any day based on their personal preference. One believer could decide that he wants to assemble on the first day of the week, while another could choose the third day of the week, and still another the seventh day, and so on. And according to the critics, everybody would be right!
Evidently when Paul said “let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” and that “nothing is unclean of itself” he is obviously confining his remarks to that which God has provided for man’s diet, which means also that he is confining his remarks about days to those days which have not been specifically sanctified by God. Thus, let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind regarding common and acceptable food articles, except that which is forbidden, and the common working days (Ezekiel 46:1), except that which is sanctified.
The critic’s excuse using the word “every” in Romans 14:5 fails to examine its contextual use throughout the Bible. While “every” will mean every in its fullest sense, it is necessarily limited by its context. For example, the gospel was preached to every creature under heaven (Romans 10:18, 16:25-26) except those who have yet to hear it. This is the correct rendering because Matthew 24:14 says that the end will end come the gospel is preached throughout the whole world! 1 Peter 2:13-14 says that believers are to obey “every ordinance of man,” except however when those ordinances go against the will of God (Acts 5:29). In Exodus 16 the people were to gather manna “every day” (verse 4) except, of course, the seventh day (verses 26-30), and Noah offered up “every clean animal and every clean bird” upon an altar (Genesis 8:20) but not all of them or we would not have any clean animals today!
Obviously, Romans 14 has to be understood as coming with exceptions. Since the issue of “days” was better known to them than to us, it is difficult today to ascertain what the contention was actually about. More reasonable explanations have arisen, including fasting, feast days, asceticism and foods offered to idols. Collectively the problem may likely have been an issue pertaining to the former practices of new converts. These spiritually weaker brethren found it difficult to cease worrying about what to eat, and when to eat it; ascetic habits previously cultivated which they are now finding hard to break. No matter the issue, Paul is simply trying to teach the stronger brethren to handle the situation prudently in order to stay united and avoid condemnation on the day of judgment. Making it optional to obey God’s Law, or even a portion of it, would not help in either of these two situations.
THE LONG ANSWER:
Scholars are divided as to what exactly Paul meant by the term “days” in Romans 14:5-6. It’s the only moment days are mentioned in a chapter which is mostly dealing with foods. Why, first of all, was it brought up? And what were those days? Few commentators have attempted to answer the first question,(1) while the second has received various answers including feast days, fast days, and, not surprisingly, the Sabbath day.
Since in Romans 14 the apostle Paul does not delve into the issue of days, all have to admit that there is some ambiguity here. It was obviously something known to the Roman Christians at the time but not to us. Thus, any attempt to try and figure out the problem that existed probably won’t answer the question perfectly. For this reason, we will first prove why we believe that “days” does not include the Sabbath, and then conclude with some options which we believe the issue might have involved.
THE EXCEPT FACTOR
It’s true that Romans 14:5-6 says that every individual should choose whatever day they want to observe. The critics assume that the Sabbath is included in the word “day” but this extreme interpretation has various problems. First, if Paul was granting the Romans the option to esteem and observe any day they chose, does that mean that he would have been fine with them choosing to observe the various pagan holidays of that time?(2) Imagine Paul granting the Roman Christians license to observe these days if they wanted to? Even today we have certain holidays such as Halloween in the US, Day of the Dead in Mexico, etc., which Christians would think it unimaginable to observe, and yet, when a Christian decides to go trick-or-treating, other Christians will raise their voice in protest! But, aren’t we at liberty, according to Romans 14, to observe any day we’d like?
The text also allows for the Roman Christian to observe no days at all, “he who observes not the day, to the Lord he does not observe it” (verse 6). Well then, what of Communion? If the critic is correct, the Roman believers to which Paul wrote this letter had the option to not observe it “unto the Lord!” Then, “let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind,” and let one Roman Christian observe Communion on Thursday, and another Roman Christian on Monday, and still another, if he so chose, not observe it at all!
Obviously, Romans 14 has to be read logically, and interpreters must keep in mind that there are exceptions in this chapter. The liberty Paul is granting has its limits and we should expect Paul to exclude that which they should already know are important things to observe. This “except factor” is made all the more apparent in the parallel between days and foods. Note Table 6-1:
|Day observed to the Lord||Food eaten to the Lord|
|Day not observed to the Lord||Food not eaten to the Lord|
The idea regarding foods follows the same logic as that regarding days and requires as much common sense. Is Paul telling them that they now have the option to eat anything? What if one of them chooses to eat that which would be considered both harmful and wholly deplorable? Didn’t Paul just tell them that their bodies should be presented as a “living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God?”(3) The critic will point to verse 14 and say that everything is now fit for food, but if I point him to the dinner table and tell him that he can eat everything there, imagine the absurdity of thinking that I meant also the decorative plant at the center of the table! “Well of course” says the objector, “Paul does not grant permission to eat that which is harmful.” But that is our point, isn’t it? All foods, except those unfit for consumption, are permissible.(4)
Additionally, as we mentioned above, verse 6 tells the Romans that anyone who chooses to observe any day and eat any food does so while giving God thanks. Now imagine one of them interpreting Paul’s words in the same way some anti-sabbatarians do today. He decides to celebrate a pagan holiday and begin eating foods harmful to his body, all the while giving God thanks! Is that sensical? Well according to our critics, his actions are just fine because after all, “let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.”(5)
Evidently when Paul says that “nothing is unclean of itself” he is confining his remarks to that which God has provided for man’s diet,(6) which also means that he is confining his remarks about days to those days which have not been specifically sanctified by God.
THE TERM “EVERY DAY”
Clearly, when Paul says that all days can be considered alike, he is speaking about common days, those which in Ezekiel 46:1 are called the “six working days.” However since verse 5 uses the term “every,” it would seem like there are actually no exceptions. Well, what does a judge do when new evidence is presented to the contrary? He does not discard with the evidence presented previously. Rather he now has to examine the new evidence and see how much it bears upon the facts.
Let’s first think about this logically. When I tell someone that my son goes to school every day, do I not mean every day except the days he has off? Of course. If I say that I have exhausted every possible means to avoid running into someone, do I not mean every available means? Yes, that is exactly what I mean. If someone says, “he gave me every excuse in the book,” does he really expect you to believe he means every known excuse ever invented? Of course not! These statements imply exceptions. “I’ve traveled all over the world” or “I eat everything” or “He knows everything about sports” are other examples. My wife and I are ardent Sabbath-keepers. If I tell her that I think we should work on the lawn every day, I don’t need to explain that I am exempting the seventh day, because I’m taking it for granted that she would already know that!
Now let’s look at some biblical examples:
“Then said the Lord unto Moses, Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a certain rate every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law, or no.”(7)
The Lord tells the people to go out “every day” to collect manna. Every day, of course, except the seventh day!(8) The story of Noah offers a similar example. After the waters subsided, Noah “builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.”(9) But this text does not mean to say that he offered every clean animal with no exceptions!(10) Else we would have no clean animals in existence today. Obviously, by “every” is meant a portion of each kind of animal, not every one of them.
THE USE OF “EVERY” IN GREEK AND THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTEXT
In the Greek scriptures, the word “every” is translated from the Greek word πᾶς and it means every in its fullest sense. For example, in Romans 3:9, “all” (πᾶς) are “under sin.” In Romans 14:10, all (πᾶς) people will definitely stand before the judgement seat of Christ, where “every (πᾶς) idle word that men shall speak, they shall give an account thereof in the day of judgement” (Matthew 13:36). In Romans 10:11-13, whosoever (πᾶς) believes and calls upon the Lord will be saved, and Jesus said that man shall live by “every (πᾶς) word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). The Septuagint likewise uses the word in the same fashion, such as in Deuteronomy 27:26, Joshua 1:14 and 10:28, amongst other places.
On the other hand, πᾶς is necessarily limited by its context, as we often find in English. Right there in the chapter we are discussing, Paul said that “every (πᾶς) knee shall bow to me, and every (πᾶς) tongue shall confess to God” (verse 11), but the immediate context is speaking about human beings, “WE shall all (πᾶς) stand before the judgement seat of Christ” (verse 10). So by “every” Paul does not include unfallen beings such as angels, but earthly human beings. Although we agree that every unfallen being in all the universe has and will once again acknowledge Christ as supreme, in this context Paul is talking about us because we are the ones being warned not to judge our brethren.
In Romans 10:18 and 16:25-26 Paul uses πᾶς to say that the gospel has gone to all the nations of the earth. He uses it the same way in his letter to the Colossians:
“If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every (πᾶς) creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister.”(11)
We know that by “every (πᾶς) creature which is under heaven” he means those who were reached with the gospel, not those who have yet to hear it. And we are certain this is the correct rendering because Jesus said in Matthew 24:14 that when the gospel is preached to every creature “then the end shall come,” which, of course, has not taken place.
In 1 Peter 2:13-14, Peter speaks about obedience to governments saying that believers are to obey “every (πᾶς) ordinance of man.” Yet contextually God’s people are first “servants of God” (verse 16) and should obey him first, even if it means being persecuted for doing so (verses 19, 4:14). In Acts 5:29 Peter said, “we ought to obey God rather than men.” Thus, when he says that we are to obey “every” ordinance of the government, we know he means every ordinance except those which go against our duties towards God. Recall the stories of the three Hebrew boys before Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image and of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, who were willing to be subject to Babylonian and Persian laws until they tried to force them to disobey God’s commandments.
People often use 1 Timothy 4 to excuse themselves of being able to eat anything they’d like, but here πᾶς is also used with exceptions:
“For every (πᾶς) creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.”(12)
Note the final clause, “it is sanctified,” not just by prayer, but also by “the word of God.” The Word forbids the eating of certain creatures,(13) and thus Paul means every creature, except those forbidden by the Bible, should be received with thanksgiving.
In all three of these examples the word “every” or πᾶς came with exceptions. Incidentally, when Genesis 8:20, which we quoted earlier, said that Noah sacrificed “every” clean animal, the Septuagint uses πᾶς there as well.(14) Conclusively the gospel has been preached to “every creature” except those who have yet to be reached, we must obey every law of the government except those which go against our duties towards God, and we are permitted to eat of any food except those expressly forbidden by the Word of God.(15) Considering the evidence presented, it is not convincing to merely say that “every” must embraces all days without exceptions and despite the context.(16) One needs to examine the context where the word is used to determine how to properly understand it. As we proceed through this chapter you will encounter additional reasons in the context of Romans 14 as to why this chapter limits “every” to mean only those days which are common.
THE LAW WILL BE THE STANDARD OF JUDGEMENT
An important contextual reason why Romans 14 does not make Sabbath keeping optional is because God’s Law, of which the Sabbath forms a part, will be used to judge the believers. To explain, the context tells us that the believers were judging themselves based on particular preferences regarding foods and days, all the while forgetting that that will “all stand before the judgement seat of Christ.”(31) But, how will they be judged? What standard will be used and when will this take place? One need not go far to get the answer. Back in chapter 2, Paul said:
“For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law (for not the hearers of the law are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified.”(32)
And when will this take place? “in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.”(33) On that last day, when all stand before Christ for judgement, those who do not know the law of God will perish without it. However, those who know it will be judged by it! Since in verse 17 Paul is referencing a few of the Ten Commandments, we know that the Decalogue will be the standard by which man will be judged. James 2:10-12 tells us the same thing about the Decalogue, “so speak and so do, as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.”(34) In those things, therefore, which the Law of God does not speak particularly, one man’s opinion regarding certain days are as good as another man’s opinion.(35)
THE STRONG KEEP THE SABBATH
A close examination of the weak vs. strong motif further reveals that the Sabbath does not form a part of the “days” to which Paul was referring to, and that days must be those considered common by the people.
In the immediate context we find a parallel between verses 2, 5 and 6 which suggests that the “weak” are those who “eat only vegetables,” “esteem one day above another,” and “observe the day to the Lord.” By contrast, the “strong” (with which Paul identifies himself in Romans 15:1) are those who do not observe any days.(17) Note Table 6-2:
|THE STRONG||THE WEAK|
|Verse 2: “eats all things”||Verse 2: “he who is weak eats only vegetables”|
|Verse 5: “every day alike”||Verse 5: “one person esteems one day above another”|
|Verse 6: “he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it”||Verse 6: “he who observes the day, observes it to the Lord”|
What’s interesting here is that Paul actually did esteem and observe “one day above another” when he kept the Sabbath day.(18) Evidently, he could not be speaking about the Sabbath in these texts or else he would be identifying himself as one of the ones who were “weak in the faith.”(19) Thus, although it is the “weak” who observe the days, those “days” cannot include the Sabbath. It is actually Paul, the Sabbath keeper, who is “strong.”
An attempt to rebut this by saying that Paul identified himself with the weak in 1 Corinthians 9:22 will not work. First, Romans 15:1 unambiguously calls Paul “strong.” There is no way to change that into “weak.” Second, Romans 14:2 says that the one who eats only vegetables “is” weak, while in 1 Cor. 9:22 Paul says he is “as” the weak. Clearly, Paul is talking about sympathizing with people in order to reach them with the gospel, rather than being exactly like them. And third, verse 21 of 1 Cor. 9 says that Paul did not consider himself as “without law to God” further indicating that he did keep the fourth commandment.
PAUL’S CALL FOR UNITY PRECLUDES OPTIONAL SABBATH KEEPING
A brief look at the history behind the letter of Romans gives us another reason why the Sabbath is not included in those “days.” The letter to the Romans was written somewhere between circa 57 or 58.(20) Though no one really knows exactly when the church began in Rome, we know that it was a healthy mixture of both Jewish and Gentile believers. In AD 49 the emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome, forcing even Jewish believers to leave the city. Acts 18:1-2 tells us that Paul encountered two of those Jewish believers at Corinth where they “had recently come from Italy” because “Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome.” By the time Paul wrote his letter these believers, Aquila and his wife Pricilla, were back in Rome (Romans 16:3) indicating that they had returned to Rome along with the rest of the Jews. Historically the Jews must have begun their return to Rome no earlier than AD 54 when Claudius died and his decree lapsed.(21)
While the Jewish believers were away, the message of Jesus continued in Rome and the number of Gentile believers increased. A professor by the name of James C. Walters outlines three major effects this edict would have had upon the Jewish Christians. First, “when Jewish Christians began returning five years later, they would have encountered house churches composed of more Gentiles than Jews.”(22) By this time the Gentile converts would have been conducting their meetings without Jewish input.
Second, “the edict to expel Jews also would have pushed the returning non-Christian Jewish community and the already-present house churches to self-define in relation to one another. Before the edict, the ruling Romans would have viewed Christians as a subset of Judaism—the churches, after all, were socialized like Jewish groups. But after the edict and the changing socialization of the groups into Gentile-ish communities, the process of viewing Jews and Christians as separate groups would have sped up.”(23) The fact that it was Christians and not Jews who were persecuted seven years later under Nero proves that by then this process of self-identification was complete. Professor James goes on to say that “Paul’s letter arrived while this process of changing self-identification was taking place. Jewish Christians coming back to Rome had to struggle with the question of whether they were primarily Jewish or whether they were primarily Christian…”
And third, “upon their return to Rome, Jewish Christians would have been placed in the awkward situation of having to assimilate into groups that felt rather foreign to them. This is a reverse of what would have happened before Claudius’s edict; at that time Gentiles would have had to adapt to Jewish customs to fit in. Surely, when the Jewish Christians showed up again in the now mostly-Gentile churches, tensions would have emerged over who was in charge and how Christians were supposed to relate to all-things-Jewish.”(24)
With the historical setting in mind we should expect Paul’s letter to try and unify the Jews with the Gentile believers. Is there any internal evidence of this? Yes! In Romans 2:11 he says that God plays no favoritism between the two groups. At 3:9 we read that both are guilty of sin while the solution is the same for both (verse 22). To Paul, both are children of Abraham (4:1) and both may be justified along with Abraham so long as they both “believe” (4:9-12, 16-17). In Romans 6:5 he says that both groups are “united” in the likeness of Christ’s death, and therefore both will be united in “the likeness of his resurrection.” God seeks to save both the Jews and the Gentiles (9:24), and in 10:12 God invites them both to call upon him. There were tensions and disagreements between them at this time (2:1, 17-24, 14:1-23), which fits perfectly with the historical setting we read above, but he warns them “not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think” (12:3). He emphasizes that though they are many, yet they are united as “one body in Christ” (12:5). He tells them to be kind towards one another, to be equally minded, and to receive even the weakest of those among them, though they may disagree on some minor points (12:10, 16, 14:1). Paul repeats this call for unity, telling them again to “receive one another” and to be “like-minded toward one another” that “together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:5-7 ESV). In the very chapter we are discussing he concludes by calling them to maintain peace amongst themselves, “Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (Romans 14:19). And finally, he warns them against those who would seek to disrupt this all important unity and directly tells them to “avoid” such people (16:17).
But if there is one thing that Paul uses to unite them more than anything, is the fact that God has provided justification through faith for both groups. As Paul Barnett puts it:
“Paul wrote to the still-separated faith community of Jews and Gentiles in Rome to promote their unity in Christ based on justification by faith… Paul may have perceived Jewish salvation as inextricably connected with the ongoing fellowship and unity of the Jews with the Gentiles. For if Jewish believers became permanently separated from Gentile believers, this would probably mean their eventual absorption back into Judaism.”(26)
Thus the evidence points to the fact that Paul’s main goal was to unite the two classes of believers as one church. We would not expect, therefore, anything from the words of the apostle, something that could potentially destroy this endeavor. But this is exactly what the critics have done in their interpretation of Romans 14.
OPTIONAL SABBATH KEEPING WOULD DESTROY THIS UNITY
The current position of most critics is that Paul is offering the Roman Christians the option to individually choose whether they want to observe the Sabbath or not.(27) It is true that verse 5 calls them to be “fully convinced in their own mind” in regards to days, but interpreting “days” to mean Sabbath would prove to be a major factor in trying to unify the Jews with the Gentiles because personal preferences would have led individuals to choose whichever day they’d like to observe, if any. This is no minor issue. In fact, Hebrews 10:24-25 implies a negative connotation with dire consequences when believers do not assemble together because assembling helps in the edification of the church.(28) Consequently, applying the days to the Sabbath defeats the purpose of the entire letter. Such a thing would not unify the Roman church because it would mean that one believer could decide to assemble on the first day of the week, while another could choose the third day of the week, and still another the seventh day, and so on. And according to the critics, everybody would be right!(29)
How much more reasonable, therefore, that these believers already worshiped together on the same day and that Paul merely took it for granted that they would understand him to be excluding the Sabbath. After all, the New Testament is abundantly clear that Jewish and Gentile believers worshiped together on the Sabbath day.(30) In this case, the option would be to esteem and observe any common day of their choosing, apart from the day which they would already know is sacred.
FURTHER CONTEXTUAL EVIDENCE
Roman’s positive remarks regarding the Law prove that chapter 14 would not treat it with indifference.(36) For example, Romans 3:31 says that faith does not “make void the law” but rather that faith will actually “establish the law.” One can hardly imagine that in one location, Paul would tell the Romans that their faith would not make void the law, while at another location tell them that keeping it is a matter of indifference! Even briefly analyzing the surrounding context of this text will help remove the idea that commandment keeping (in this case the fourth commandment) is optional.
While addressing the hypocrisy of the national Jews in chapter 2, and pointing out who the real Jews are (verses 17-29), Paul levels the playing field in chapter 3 by proving quite convincingly that all, both Jew and Gentiles, are guilty of sin (verses 9-19). He concludes that portion by saying in verse 20 that as a result, no one can make themselves right before God through their own efforts.
But if the law cannot justify, then what purpose does it serve? It serves as the identifier of sin, “for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” Although no one is justified by the deeds of the law, yet the law remains as the thing that points out what is wrong. It is a witness to the fact that I am a sinner, and that I can only be justified by faith.
It is a witness to another fact as well; that we have obtained the righteousness of the law through faith!
“But now, the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the law and the prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”(37)
Notice that while righteousness was revealed apart from the law, yet the law is still present to serve as a witness to the fact! How can the law do that? Because the law is righteousness,(38) therefore, it truly can be a witness of righteousness and sin. In a court of law, a witness testifies to the facts of the crime he witnessed took place. He will also be a witness to the verdict. Paul tells us that since we are all guilty, it is only faith in the judge that can justify us, and the law is the witness to that fact.
If the law is a witness to our faith, why would faith do away with the law? What sense would there be in removing the witness? Paul sees this logic as well, so he concludes, “Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary” he says, “we establish the law” (3:31)! And then he provides two patriarchal examples which indirectly shows that obedience to God’s Law followed right after being justified by faith:
“What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”(39)
The story is found in Genesis 15:1-6.(40) And yet we are told that Abraham, “obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.”(Genesis 25:26). Evidently, receiving righteousness through faith instead of works, does not at the same time negate obedience. In fact, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). Obedience should follow as a natural impulse from the one who is appreciative of the grace he has been shown.
Paul uses David as a second example:
“Just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, And whose sins are covered; Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin.”(41)
David himself understood that justification was based on faith alone, and yet no one can read Psalm 119 without noting his high regard for God’s laws. For both these patriarchs, faith did not “make void the law.” Quite the contrary, they established the law.
Because the purpose of our chapter is a focus on Romans 14, we will discuss other portions of Romans in upcoming chapters. We think, however, that this will suffice in showing that this letter actually promotes obedience to the law, and could not at the same time grant people the option to keep it.
MEANING OF THE DAYS ROMANS 14
Based on the evidence presented so far, we have good reason to believe that the Sabbath is not under consideration in Romans 14. What then are those “days” in verses 5 and 6? Four options have been suggested; fasting, asceticism, feast keeping and foods offered to idols. Let’s look at each of these now:
It has been proposed by some commentators that Paul is talking about Jewish feast days, such as Passover, Unleavened Bread, Tabernacles, New Moons, etc. It seems to me that much of this is guessed upon the text, probably because of the presence of Jewish converts in the Roman Church and the relation between “foods” and “days.” Perhaps the best support of this theory would be comparing Romans 14 with Paul’s admonition to not “judge” folks over the keeping of Jewish holy days in Colossians 2. In this sense we probably do have, at least, a linguistic connection.
Though this explanation seems plausible, it has a few weaknesses. The parallel we noted before between verses 2, 5 and 6 shows that Paul was among the “strong” who considered “every day alike” and yet, not only did Paul keep the Sabbath, he also kept the feast days.(42)It is not likely that he would tell a congregation which included Jews that the feast days are a matter of indifference while he also kept them and while likely they kept them also. Moreover, the overemphasis on foods instead of the days implies that the issue probably didn’t have anything to do with the keeping of feast days. The argument was mostly about what to eat, and many of these brethren(43)ate only vegetables. As far as I know, no Jewish feast required the eating of only vegetables.
One of the most common explanations is that of fasting. This is suggested by the close proximity of “foods” with “days.” There is evidence that there wasn’t actually a consensus as to when to fast. Luke 5:33 and Matthew 9:14 seem to suggest that the disciples of John and some Pharisees fasted frequently, while Luke 18:12 says that other Pharisees fasted just twice a week. Zechariah 7:5, 8:19 speaks about fastings taking place somewhere in the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth month. It seems to have been a matter of opinion as to when to fast. It may be that this is the reason why Romans 14:5 speaks of days which “man” esteems, not of days which “God” esteems.
Disputes over when to fast is present also in a document of the second century:
“And let not your fastings be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and the fifth day of the week; but do ye keep your fast on the fourth and on the preparation (the sixth) day.”(44)
If fasting was the dispute which the Roman Christians were having, the issue obviously continued in the church years later. To Paul this is a matter that does not need to be disputed, and agitating it seems to have led certain individuals to a more serious matter, that of judging one another.
While this interpretation is possible, it too is not perfect. First, verse 6 says that a man can esteem “every day alike.” The word “alike” is missing in the Greek text and was supplied by the translators. But either way, if this was about fasting, were there people fasting “every day?” Hardly.
Second, those who abstained from foods did in fact eat vegetables (verse 2) whereas fasting usually entails abstaining from all foods. Our modern dictionary however does say that fasting can also mean abstaining from some foods,(45) and if this was the understanding in those days as well, then the problem is resolved.(46)
A good explanation is that Paul was probably addressing the issue of asceticism.(47) We get a hint of asceticism in verse 1 where Paul calls on the church to receive the brother who is weak “in the faith….” The practice of avoiding foods for spiritual reasons is indeed historically linked to certain pagan religions. The Britannica identifies a few of these ascetic cults as follows:
“In ancient Greek religion, rejection of meat appeared particularly among the Orphics, a mystical, vegetarian cult; in the cult of Dionysus, the orgiastic god of wine; and among the Pythagoreans, a mystical, numerological cult.” (48)
Recall that the Roman church is composed of both Jews and Greek, each of which had some form of asceticism. Although Judaism remained mostly non-ascetic (except for when they practiced fasting) there was a peripheral Jewish sect called the Essene who were known for their ascetic lifestyles.(49)
Verse 2 says, “For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables.” Could it be that some of these converts found it difficult to discontinue some of their previous ascetic habits? Could it be that some of them incorporated perhaps a mild form of it into their Christian experience? What if their practice of eating purely vegetables on certain days of the week was a previously held ascetic practice they found it hard to relinquish, and yet Paul did not think it something worth arguing over? We’ve all been there. I have heard of former Jews who, although they are now Christians, find it difficult to cease performing certain Jewish customs. We wouldn’t find many of these things wrong in and of themselves. Why then should the Roman Christians argue over such scruples?
FOODS OFFERED TO IDOLS
Finally, one of the best explanations is that Paul was addressing the use of foods offered to idols, and a comparison of the details outlined in 1 Corinthians 8 lends credibility to this interpretation. Two important points link Romans 14 with 1 Corinthains 8. The first link is that Paul was actually writing his letter from the city of Corinth,(50) where the issue of foods offered to idols arose about a year before. The issue must have been fresh in his mind and seeing that something similar arose in the Roman church, he took advantage of the moment and addressed them as well.
The second link is that there are various linguistic connections between Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. Both speak about the eating of foods,(51) both speak about spiritually weak,(52) and both warn against placing a stumbling block in front of your brethren.(53) Overall, both chapters share the same concern of seeking to avoid offending the consciously weaker brother. Romans 14:15, 21 and 1 Cor. 8:12-13 speak directly against this, warning against injuring your fellow believer with your opinions and acts regarding foods. In essence the messages are pretty much the same, and 1 Corinthians 8 would then bring to light further details that could help us understand his concern back in Romans 14. Notice a few verses in 1 Cor. 8:
“Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse. But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak.”(54)
Note that the words “their conscience, being weak, is defiled” helps explain what it means to be “weak” in Romans 14:1. They are weak “in the faith,” that is, their minds are not spiritually mature enough to grasp the concept that there are no spiritual connections between eating foods offered to idols and sin. The one in sin, actually, is the stronger brother who does not take the weaker brother’s sensibilities into account (verse 12). The solution is the same here as in Romans 14, basically, “don’t do anything to offend your spiritually weaker brother even if you don’t agree with him on this point.”
It is important to note that there are some differences though. Romans 14 lacks the actual mention of idols while 1 Cor. 8 does not mention days. But one could look at these as complementary instead. What one chapter did not mention, the other supplies and completes the picture. Did Paganism require that certain days be observed and that on those days the people were to either abstain or subsist from certain foods? If so, then likely these weaker brethren, now former pagans, found it difficult to cease worrying about what to eat, and when to eat it; habits previously cultivated which they are now finding hard to break.
As we have seen, the evidence is strong that Sabbath-keeping could not form a part of the “days” in Romans 14. First, critics do not take into account the obvious exceptions in this chapter. To them, it’s a free-for-all ideology that Paul is advancing. Keep whatever day you’d like, if any, and eat whatever you want, not considering the consequences that would lead to. Not only would it not unify the Roman church (as they would choose any day of their liking, especially any previously cultivated habits), it could lead to unhealthful practices, directly contradicting his admonition only 2 chapters earlier to “present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). A lack of studying the phrase “every day” has led them to further cement this interpretation.
Second, the critics failed to study deep into the context of both chapter 14 and the rest of Romans. If chapter 14 says that we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and chapter 2 tells us that the Law, which contains the fourth commandment, will be the standard in that judgment, how could Paul be telling the Roman believers that keeping a portion of the law is now optional? What sense is there in judging us by a standard which we have the option of whether we want to keep or not? Additionally, the overall message of Romans is the holiness of the law, our lack of keeping it, the solution of receiving the law’s righteousness without any works of our doing, and Paul’s efforts to unite both classes under this grand truth. None of this does away with the law, which includes the Sabbath, for the man justified without the deeds of the law will “establish the law” (Romans 3:31). Moreover, telling them that they can individually choose to observe “any day alike” would cause disunity, not unity, because each would choose to assemble on whatever day of their liking, especially if they were previously used to gathering on a certain day.(55)
Finally, while many insist, despite the evidence, that Paul is discarding with the Sabbath as an optional institution, these same people do not consider the likelier options, that of fasting, asceticism, feast keeping and foods offered to idols. Although it is difficult to ascertain the exact issue that the Romans were dealing with in regards to “foods” and “days,” one thing we are sure of, the evidence is overwhelming that Sabbath-keeping is not, and could not, be the issue that Paul was trying to help the Roman believers deal with. The honest reader who considers the facts previously presented will arrive at the same conclusion.
1) For example, D.R. De Lacey in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day (page 182) assumes that the issue of differing days may have arisen and resolved previously in the Roman church. In which case, Paul probably brought up the issue of days to tell them to deal with meat just as they dealt with days. While this may be the explanation, it is, to be honest, based on an assumption. There is no evidence that the discussion over observances of days had arisen early in the Roman church. But even if there was, this does not answer what exactly those days were.
2) Heathen gentiles observed various special festivals such as Saturnalia and Maiuma. See https://www.britannica.com/topic/Saturnalia-Roman-festival and https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/maiumas, respectively. There was also such a thing as good and bad luck days, and evil months. See: Andrews Bible Study, NKJV commentary on Galatians 4:10, page 1538.
3) See Romans 12:1. Obviously, Paul is not suggesting that the spiritually strong Christian can now eat anything regardless of its effects upon the body. In Romans 12:1, 1 Corinthians 10:31 and Colosians 3:17 Paul regards it as an act of worship to live healthy whenever possible. John also connected spirituality with good health, “beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers.” (3 John 2).
4) “There is a strange idea prevalent” writes E. J. Waggener, “to the effect that things that were at one time unfit for food are perfectly wholesome now. Many people seem to think that even unclean beasts are made clean by the gospel. They forget that Christ purifies men, not beasts and reptiles.”(The Gospel in Paul’s Great Letter, page 208). According to this theory, certain foods that are universally held as wholly unfit for diet now become permissible by the apostle. But are we permitted to subsist of that which will bring harm to our bodily temples? How far has man gone in eating that which the majority would consider wholly deplorable, such as human flesh? And is unclean meat, which was unhealthy before the cross, now magically clean after the cross?
5) The Advent Review of 1855 brings out a separate observation regarding this point that I thought it was a good idea to share here: “Romans 14 does not mention the Sabbath. But the objector infers that the expression ‘every day alike’ (verse 5) embraces the seventh-day Sabbath. So we might infer from the phrase ‘him that eateth’ (verse 3), that a portion of the Christian church in Paul’s days lived without eating.” See: Collected Writings of James White (Adventist Pioneer Writings) v. 2 of 2, page 701. Evidently, the logic goes both ways.
6) It is beyond the scope of this book to exegete in detail the meaning behind Paul’s use of the words “unclean” and “foods.” Suffice it to say that the Greek word used for “unclean” is not the same word translated unclean in Greek Septuagint of Old Testament, where God speaks about animals that are unclean for man’s diet. Coupling this with the fact that Paul is also talking drinks (verses 17 and 21) grants evidence that most likely Paul is speaking about foods that are being considered by some people as impure or ceremonially unclean.
7) Exodus 16:4.
8) Ibid, verses 26-30.
9) Genesis 8:20.
10) See Leviticus 11 for the mention of clean animals’ centuries after Noah.
11) Colossians 1:23.
12) 1 Timothy 4:4-5.
13) Leviticus 11 documents various animals which were forbidden to be eaten. Critics who think these law’s have been abolished cannot answer why God will still find it offensive to eat swine on the day of judgment. See Isaiah 66:17.
14) The Greek word for “every” (πᾶς) is Strong’s #G3956, the exact same word used in Genesis 8:20.
15) There are various other examples when πᾶς includes exceptions (See: Matt. 24:9, Mark 1:37, 1 Cor. 10:25, 27, Matt. 19:29, 1 Cor. 4:17, 2 Cor. 4:2, Eph. 5:24.) but it should not be surprising to our critics that a word can be used in this manner. Do they not claim, and rightly so, that the word “forever” or “owlam” (Heb. עוֹלָם) does not always mean an unending period of time? Certain O.T. texts that use the word “forever” translate it from the Hebrew word עוֹלָם (owlam). Adventists often quote these texts when they speak of the Law as binding “forever” such as Psalm 119:44. Here, David says he will keep God’s law “owlam” but we know he means only while he is alive. Nevertheless, we know that owlam can at other times literally mean “unending time” such as in Deut. 34:40, where God says he will live forever. The issue is that these words are often not interpreted in their proper context. Without delving into the perpetuity of the Law (this will be for another chapter) the point is that critics should not argue against the exception clause of πᾶς while they argue for the exception clause of עוֹלָם because that would only render them inconsistent in their arguments.
16) It is true that the word “except” is not in Romans 14, but then again, neither is the word “sabbath.” The evidence presented however proves that Paul does have exceptions in mind.
17) The “weak” and the “strong” however are not based on ethnicity. It seems that either Jew or Gentile can fall under either of these two categories.
18) Acts 13:14, 42-43, 16:13, 17:2, 18:4, 25:8, 10, 26:5, 28:17.
19) One of the authors of From Sabbath to Lord’s Day (page 182) sees this parallelism as well, sees that Paul is among the “strong” and admits that Paul was a Sabbath keeper. But then he says that the Sabbath is included in the “days.” It didn’t occur to him that Paul cannot esteem “every day alike” while at the same time esteeming the seventh day. That would not make any sense.
23) Ibid, para, 3. Emphasis is mine.
24) Ibid, para. 4. Emphasis is mine.
25) Ibid, para. 6. Emphasis is mine.
26) Barnett, Paul “Jesus and the rise of early Christianity: A History of New Testament times” page 370.
27) Elce Lauriston in his book “The Sabbath: What you need to know” comments on Romans 14:5-6 saying, “This essentially makes the observance of days in New Testament faith a matter of personal conviction… there is liberty to observe a day and also liberty to not observe any day in honor of the Lord, and liberty to regard them all the same” (page 65). D.R. De Lacey in “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day” says that in Romans 14:5, “Paul allows that the keeping of such days is purely a matter of individual conscience” (chap. 6, page 182). These individuals have, unfortunately, not considered how inharmonic this interpretation is to the overall context of Romans.
28) An example of this is seen in the changing of the day of worship from the 15th day of the seventh month (feast of Tabernacles), to the 15th day of the eight month by Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12. Although this was not what initially caused the separation of Israel from Judah, it did help solidify it. Another example of this is in what actually took place in history. Jewish and Gentile christians did worship together for many years until various factors began to separate them, including the introduction of Sunday keeping.
29) Imagine for a moment we applied the critic’s logic to everyday life. Let us tell everyone in the church that they have the option to choose when to observe Communion. When will they arrive? Some on one day, others on another day, depending on their preference or availability. Would such a thing help unite employees in a company? Will telling them to come to the meeting on whatever day they chose serve the purpose intended by the company owner?
30) See Acts 13:42-44, 15:21, 18:4. There is historical evidence of this as well, such as the so-called “Birkat Haminim.” In the documentary “The Seventh Day,” narrator Hal Holbrook says, “About 95 or 100 AD, a change was made in the synagogue service. The middle part of the service is known as the standing prayer, the amidah or the ‘eighteen benedictions’ consisting of eighteen short prayers of blessings of God, thanksgiving blessings. All eighteen are recited on weekdays, on Sabbaths only seven. But at this time an additional one was added. It’s known in Hebrew as the ‘birkat haminim,’ the ‘Blessings concerning the Heretics,’ but it’s not really a blessing. [it read] ‘For the apostates let there be no hope. And let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days. Let the noẓerim and the minim be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant” To sniff out anyone suspected of being a heretic of any sort, especially a believer in Yeshua as the Christ, everyone was expected to either recite the prayer or agree with it by saying “amen.” If someone was caught refusing to say the prayer, they were asked to repeat it. Since believers in Jesus would never curse their fellow brethren, this method was often successful in rooting out the so-called “heretics.” Jewish scriptures testify of the existence of this prayer: “Let our rabbis teach us: one who passes before the ark [i.e., serves as precentor for the ‘amidah] and errs by not mentioning the birkat haminim–from whence do we know that we make him repeat the prayer? That is what the rabbis taught: One who passes before the ark and errs in any or all of the blessings, we do not make him repeat the prayer. But if he errs in the birkat haminim, we make him repeat and recite it against his will. And why do we make him repeat it? We are concerned lest he is a min, for if he has some aspect of minut, he will curse himself and the congregation will answer ‘amen.’” (See: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/1268?editor=1). The existence of this ancient curse is also testified by numerous church fathers. In “The Holy Communion: Four Visitation Addresses, 1891” author John Wordsworth explains, “Elsewhere St. Jerome speaks of christians being cursed three times a day in the synagogue under the name of Nazarenes in Isaiam, volumes 18, 19.” The existence of this curse provides strong evidence that believers in Jesus were still worshiping on the Sabbath day alongside their Jewish brethren. For more on this, see: From Sabbath to Sunday: A historical investigation of the Rise of Sunday Observance in Early Christianity, page 158.
31) Romans 14:10. By “all” Paul means every single human being that ever existed and he proves this in verse 11 using an Old Testament text, “For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” (Isaiah 45:23). See also 2 Cor. 5:10.
32) Romans 2:12-13, cf. Psalm 32:1-2.
33) Ibid, verse 16.
34) Ibid, verses 21-23.
35) This means, moreover, that we must proclaim the importance of the Sabbath and the Law in preparation for the day when everyone will be judged by it.
36) Whereas in Romans 14:5-6 Paul is lax regarding a person’s decision whether to observe days or not, Galatians 4:8-11 speaks negatively regarding such observances. How do the critics account for this apparent contradiction? The solution is not in saying that Paul desired to be “all things to all men” as Robert Brinsmead put it, because even in this state Paul still considered himself to be “not without law to God, but under the law to Christ”(1 Corinthians 9:21). Besides, Paul is not being a hypocrite, he simply met the various kinds of people at their level, while maintaining his own faithfulness to the truth. Brinsmead also argues that Paul is being lax in Romans 14 because the Roman converts were used to Sabbath keeping since “it was a part of their heritage,” and that “it might not even be safe for a Jewish Christian to repudiate his customs and violate inbred sensitivities.”(Sabbatarianism Re-Examined, chap. 6.). The problem is that Romans was also written to Gentile converts, who had no Sabbatarian heritage, and chapter 14 is not specifically addressed to the Jewish believers but to both Jewish and Gentile believers, since it seeks to promote unity between them both. However a contextual understanding of each passage solves the problem. While Romans 14 is not speaking about Sabbath keeping. Galatians is talking about past pagan holidays and Jewish ceremonial laws. See my chapter on Galatians for more details.
37) Romans 2:21-23.
38) In Romans 8:4 he speaks of “the righteousness of the law.” In Romans 9:31 he speaks of “the law of righteousness” and in Romans 10:5 he speaks of the righteousness “which is in the law.” It was well known by the Jews that God’s commandments “are righteousness” (Deut. 6:25, Psalm 119:142, 172).
39) Romans 4:1-4.
40) The next verse reads, “I am the Lord who brought you out of the land of Ur.” Scholars have noted the parallel between verse 7 and Exodus 20:2. After taking Abraham out of his land, he evidently gave him commandments which he obeyed (Genesis 26:5). The Israelites too, after being removed from Egypt, were given commandments. Moreover, saving Abraham was an act of God which he did not earn, and saving the Israelites from Egypt was also an unmerited act of God. Evidently, God saves man freely, but expects them to be obedient to him thereafter.
41) Romans 4:6-8.
42) See: Acts 18:21, 25:8, 10, 26:5, 28:17.
43) Since the Roman church was a mixture of both Jews and Gentiles, and since chapter 14 is addressing them both, it is hard to determine who were the ones that ate only vegetables and who were the ones who observed days. It’s likely that somehow both groups fell into the category of either weak or strong.
44) Didache 8:1-2. See: http://wesley.nnu.edu/sermons-essays-books/noncanonical-literature/the-didache-or-teaching-of-the-apostles
45) See: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fast
46) There is also evidence that fasting from some foods was practiced. The online Virtual Jewish Library says, “On some occasions, the fast was not a total one, but people refrained only from meat, wine, anointment with oil, and other pleasures (Cowley, Aramaic, no. 30; Dan. 10:3; Test. Patr., Reu. 1:10; Judah 15:4; iv Ezra 9:24; as well as generally in talmudic literature and in that of the Middle Ages).” We can see that this is at least how they interpret Bible passages such as Daniel 10:3. See: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/fasting-and-fast-days
47) Google defines “ascetic” as: “characterized by or suggesting the practice of severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.”
48) See: Encyclopedia Britannica “Asceticism” (https://www.britannica.com/topic/asceticism).
49) See: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Essene.
50) In their commentary on the letter of Romans, blueletterbible.com offers compelling reasons why Romans was written from Corinth: “Paul mentions three people that help to identify the letter’s composition with Corinth: Phoebe (16:1), Gaius (16:23), and Erastus (16:23). He sent Phoebe of Cenchrea to the church in Rome as the bearer of the epistle. With her being from Cenchrea, she would have had ties to Corinth because Cenchrea is the port city for Corinth. There was a Gaius referenced in 1 Cor 1:14 as one who lived in Corinth and many have identified him as the Titius Justus in Acts 18:7. Erastus was the city’s treasurer (or director of public works) and in Corinth an inscription was discovered that refers to an Erastus as the city aedile (i.e., an official in charge of public works, etc.), which some have corresponded to Paul’s reference to him. (quotes Douglas J. Moo. The Epistle to the Romans. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996). pp. 935 f.).”
51) Rom. 14:2-3, 6, 14-17, 20-23, cf. 1 Cor. 8:2, 7-8, 10, 13.
52) Rom. 14:1-2, 21, cf. 1 Cor. 8:7, 9, 10-12.
53) Rom. 14:13, 21, cf. 1 Cor. 8:9.
54) 1 Corinthians 8:4-9. It’s important to keep the context in mind. When he says in verse 8, “for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse” remember he is talking about eating foods offered to idols (see verses 1, 7). Therefore, “neither if we eat” foods offered to idols, “are we the better, nor if we do not eat” foods offered to idols, “are we the worse.” It cannot be that he means anything else because we certainly are worse off if we do not eat!
55) Critics also like to use Romans 14 to say that “every day is the Sabbath.” But not only does it not say that, in verse 6 does not even grant that the person who regards “every day alike” does so “to the Lord.”