“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. 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 14:20–23, NASB95)
Chapter 14 of Romans has been about walking in our liberties in the midst of those who struggle with the same. It has been about matters of conscience being laid up alongside matters of love. It has been about not using our liberty in such a way that we walk over someone else who might struggle with that same liberty because of a matter of their own conscience. The context for this has been a consideration of things which God has declared clean and in which we are given varying levels of freedom, but in which believers vary in their own conscience affecting their own individual ability to observe or not observe.
We have read that the priority in our relationships with one another is our love for them in response to our love for God. This, according to Scripture, is the summation of the greatest and the second greatest commandments which are to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, and mind, and soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves. It is about preserving peace and joy in our relationships and not letting them be injured by harshness, judgementalism, and insensitivity.
God put us together into the body of Christ in which we are to build up one another, and being considerate of one another in these things goes a long way in preserving this unity. It is a unity that goes far beyond eating and drinking and days of worship. It goes to the very body of Christ and those who Christ’s sacrifice was given for and who God calls to be his own.
Early on this was largely a matter of either being a Jew or a Gentile (Though there were more distinctions, this will suffice for now). As people trusted Christ for their salvation there grew a tension between the Jewish believers and the non-Jewish believers concerning their merging and how they went about it. The Jews held to much of their ceremonial worship which included their regulations concerning eating, and the Gentiles had no such restrictions. Coming together could be difficult, and there could be pressure to conform to one or the other or maybe even more to remain separate to save the tension.
Peter was set straight on this by God, and in so doing was given an instructive lesson for all of us. In Acts chapter 10 we read of a non-Jewish believer who had come to faith who was given a vision by God (verses 1-8).
“Now there was a man at Caesarea named Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian cohort, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms to the Jewish people and prayed to God continually.” (Acts 10:1–2, NASB95)
In this vision he was instructed to send men to Joppa to retrieve Simon who is called Peter, which he did. At the same time, while they were on their way, God gave Peter a vision also, and along with the vision came a specific instruction which was given three times (There is something about Peter and three times. God is so neat in this).
“On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky.” (Acts 10:9–16, NASB95)
Think of this, as a non-Jewish believer was sending his men to retrieve Peter, God was giving Peter a vision that rocked his dietary world. All that he had believed was unclean to eat, God was now declaring clean because He had cleansed it, and beyond that God was instructing Peter that he no longer had the right to call it unclean. Verse 17 goes on to tell us that Peter was inwardly perplexed, and I can just imagine the confusion. But this confusion did not remain long. In verse 19 and 20 as Peter was pondering the vision, the Holy Spirit spoke to him and told him that these men had been sent by God for him and that he was to go with them. And so he did.
After Cornelius had greeted him, even bowing down to him in reverence, Peter spoke these words which showed the link between the freedom from observing the ceremonial rules concerning eating and even the various days of worship to which the Jewish believers held. God’s work was now seen as bigger. The whole world was now being blessed by the King of the Jews.
“And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean.” (Acts 10:28, NASB95)
God could have thrown out all of these observances, but He didn’t. Rather He granted liberty both to the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers. He granted liberty for the Jewish believers in deciding how to observe what had been such a part of their lives as the chosen people of God, and He granted liberty for the Gentile believers to refrain from taking on these observances and also to abstain from anything which reminded them of their former idolatrous system of worship. These were all things that were placed under this area of conscience before God, and as such as fellow believers they were called to be sensitive to one another in these areas.
Today, we continue to have areas of conscience over which Scripture is largely neutral or maybe cautious. These are areas in which some believers sense they have the freedom before God to partake while others are convinced they need to need to refrain. The biblical priority of love for one another dictates that we be sensitive to these things in our relations with one another. Similarly, we are to be honest between ourselves and God and not indulge in those things which God has made clear to us that we should not indulge. For while it may not be a sin for others, violating our conscience in this way is indeed sin for us.
These have been difficult verses, because it means that there are numerous areas in our lives as we relate to God and one another where we have to walk wisely and sensitively, not on egg shells, but also giving heed to our conscience before God and treating each other as valuable members of the body of Christ.
“The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.” (Romans 14:22)