Summary: In Romans 14, the apostle deals with an issue about food and days that stems from Christian Freedom. When discussing this matter, Paul points us to our identity in Christ, and how that impacts this issue and these debates.
How we see and define ourselves is one of the most important things in our lives. Our perception of ourselves can affect a variety of things. It can impact how we think about ourselves. It also impacts how we can feel about ourselves. If you think you are important, you will feel important. On the other hand, if you feel that you are useless, you will feel useless and bad about yourself. Our self-perception can affect our thoughts, which in turn, can affect our feelings.
Our perception of ourselves also can impact how we interact with each other too. For example, if you think highly of yourself, you might begin to think that you might be better than others, and then treat them accordingly because of that. Paul picks up on these truths in Romans 14. The Christians in Rome were having problems in how they interacted with each, and Paul puts his finger on why that is. He knows the solution to the problems and quarrels: their identity in Christ. The Romans have not focused on that. But before we can talk about the solution, we need to know what exactly is the problem. What is the issue?
The Christians in Rome were a diverse group of believers. These Roman congregations were made up of two entirely different groups of people. They consisted of Jewish converts who grew up with the Law, and traditions of the Old Testament. They also consisted of Gentiles, non-Jews. The ethnic ratio of these churches is unknown but it is thought that there are more Gentiles since the Jews had been expelled from Rome just a few years prior to the writing of Romans. But when you have Jewish converts with Gentile ones, a common question and problem always arises: what do you do with the Old Testament food laws and feast days? The Jewish converts grew up with those traditions and rules while the Gentiles did not.
The Old Testament had prescribed the dos and don’ts for food in places like Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. In those chapters, we see what is okay for the Israelites to eat, and what is not okay for them to eat. The people were not allowed to eat unclean animals like camel, eagles, reptiles, certain insects, mice, and rabbits. Not too bad so far, right? But this list also included other foods like shrimp, lobster, oysters, and crab. They could not eat pork either. So no sausage, ham, pork chops, pepperoni, or America’s current favorite food, bacon! They also could not eat blood, so no medium to rare steaks. They could eat clean animals like fish, oxen, sheep, goats, cows, and deer though. Along with this, the Old Testament also prescribed special feasts and days for the people to follow and observe as well.
With the coming of Jesus, we have a wrench thrown into these things. Colossians 2:16-17 says, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” This is like a long distance couple cherishing a photo of each other while they are apart. Once they are married and together, they don’t devote the same attention and time to that photo. Why is that? It is because they have the person. Why focus on the photo?
Jesus fulfills these laws and feasts. He has declared all foods to be clean. The laws and festivals pointed to Him and find their fulfillment in Him. Why have the photo, when you have the person? All believers are free from the food restrictions of the Old Testament, and do not need to do the festivals and feasts. On the other hand, they are also free to continue to abide by them as well.
In the Christian congregations at Rome, some believers still kept these things. Others did not. The “weak,” those who don’t realize or understand their full freedom in Jesus, still continued to abide by these things. These believers were cautious with these food laws, and just ate vegetables to avoid the difficulty of eating unclean food. They still kept certain days and feasts. But can you blame them from a human standpoint?
If you were a Jew, you kept those things your whole life, and you avoided certain foods altogether. How challenging would it be to eat some of those forbidden foods, or to not celebrate some of those holidays? To some extent, I can relate. My wife bought some almond butter, which has the same consistency, smell, look, and taste of peanut butter. She wanted me to know the joys of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with stuff that wouldn’t kill me. Even though I could eat it, mentally, I couldn’t. It was weird to eat something I was forbidden to eat, even though it was fine. I waited for my lips to tingle and my throat to swell with each bite. It didn’t, but I still did not feel comfortable eating it. It was the same for these people. That freedom was a lot to get used to.