Paul says that the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking. This might be a surprise to many Presbyterians given our love of cooking and eating food and for some Presbyterians the love of alcohol. Certainly eating food together is a part of what it means to be a Presbyterian . Yet Paul’s context is decidedly different. For their whole lives, Jewish Christians had been observing certain food laws and many had abstained from wine because of its relationship with pagan idolatry. These traditions were integral to their own religious and cultural identity just as eating food together is integral to our own religious and cultural identity as Presbyterians. These are not sinful traditions, on the one hand, nor are they mandatory for all Christians, on the other hand. Thus we call them things indifferent. They are personal preferences or opinions. It has been suggested that the way some people use the King James Version only is a similar issue. For many people the KJV translation is interwoven into their identity and significance. Use of that English version is part of their own religious and cultural self-image. Depending on your own religious upbringing the same might be true for not drinking alcohol, dancing or playing cards. Christians may do such things. We have the liberty to do such things. Yet for some it is part of their own religious and cultural identity to abstain from such things. They may very well agree that they are allowed to do them, but they don’t because they don’t feel comfortable doing them. Now there are those who do not drink alcohol because they don’t want to lead someone with a physical weakness for drinking to excess to fall by their example. But this isn’t what Paul is describing. In Romans the thought concerns not a physical weakness but a spiritual weakness. Your faith in Jesus Christ gives you the liberty to do a great many such things, but your own personal beliefs may not. Thus Paul says:
You who serve Christ in the Holy Spirit are acceptable to God
and approved by one another.
- The Pharisees acted like the kingdom of God was a matter of eating and drinking rather than righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit and those at the other end of the spectrum did the same. Verse 17, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” is something we can easily imagine Jesus telling the Pharisees – He certainly said similar things. Thus the verse speaks to those who choose to abstain from eating certain foods and drinking wine. Yet this was just as true for those who ate pork and drank wine. They were convinced that nothing is unclean in itself as the Lord Jesus taught and that they had a right to eat all foods. So they were very vocal about these beliefs and constantly worked to convince their fellow believers that they are right. And then when that didn’t go over so well they berated them for being immature. Thus those who considered themselves strong in faith also acted like the kingdom of God was a matter of eating and drinking rather than a matter of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The same is true today when people argue about drinking alcohol in moderation or abstaining from alcohol for religious reasons and issues of dancing and playing cards and Bible translations and other such similar personal preferences and opinions. When the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther wrote about Romans 14 he mentioned the example of whether or not you have an organ as an instrument for public worship. Many think that fighting about such things is serving Christ. They would argue that they are more concerned with the approval of God than the approval of men. But fighting about such things is not serving Christ and certainly not loving your brothers and sisters in Christ. Your beliefs about such things are not more important than your relationships with Christ and one another. (So both those who abstained and those who wanted to convince them to eat and drink the things in question might think that by so doing they were serving Christ, but…)
- Paul tells us that the kingdom of God is a matter of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit and whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. Last Sunday we saw that Paul was saying to genuinely welcome those whom God has welcomed. But not only has God welcomed those who may have different views about these kinds of things, but He accepts them as they are. Indeed, those who are acceptable to God are those who are righteous-by-faith-in-Jesus. You do not become acceptable to God by what you do or do not do , but by faith in Jesus. You do not continue to be acceptable to God by what you do or do not do , but by faith in Jesus. Those who are righteous-by-faith serve Christ in the Holy Spirit . The kingdom of God is a matter of righteousness and peace and joy in the Spirit. By faith you already belong to the kingdom of God. The more that reality characterizes your life the less concerned you will be with trying to win debates about things indifferent. Indeed, the more you are shaped by that reality that you belong to the kingdom of God the more you will walk in love for your sisters and brothers in Christ and win their approval of you. (You who serve Christ in the Holy Spirit are acceptable to God and approved by one another. To go one step further…)
- If you are at peace with one another and with your own conscience then you will be able to work together on behalf of God’s mission.
- Paul wants to see the Christians in Rome working together to help him take the gospel to Spain so he tells them to decide never to put a stumbling block in the way of a brother and to keep their beliefs on these things between self and God but not to violate their own conscience. He says (v.13) not to judge one another and not to put stumbling blocks in the way of a brother. You might imagine a scene where a Jewish Christian was not comfortable eating pork but doesn’t want to be left out and you flaunted your liberty to eat it in front of them and encourage them to join you in so eating. That is not loving. For if they violate their conscience and eat the pork then they have sinned. You have encouraged them to stumble rather than built them up in Christ. So he wants them to resolve not to cause a brother or sister in Christ to stumble. Then Paul says, (v.22a) “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.” Here Paul does not mean your faith in Jesus. He is not saying to keep your faith in Jesus between yourself and God and not tell others about it. He is saying the beliefs that you have – the convictions that you have about such things indifferent – your personal thoughts on these matters – keep those between yourself and God. Paul also says (v.22b), “Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.” He is talking about being at peace with your own conscience. If you feel that eating pork is wrong and go ahead and eat it then you will not have a clear conscience. Such eating is not from faith – for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. Again, Paul is using faith in the same way as above. Thus his point is that if you believe that something like this is wrong and you do it anyway then you sin. Paul understands that if you are conflicted within because you have violated your conscience or if you are conflicted without because you are encouraging others to violate theirs, then you will not be much help to reach the people of Spain. Or to put it positively, if you are at peace with one another and with your own conscience then you will be able to work together on behalf of God’s mission to people like those who live in Spain.
- God is on a mission to reach people who may have a different cultural and religious background than you do. Thus Paul’s admonition to both sides of the debates in his day apply just as much to us today. Again it comes down to love. You can stop walking in love and encourage others to violate their conscience or you can continue to walk in love for the one for whom Christ died. Certainly if Christ paid the ultimate price for your brother on the cross then you can pay a minor price by not insisting on exercising your rights. Just because you have the right to do something does not mean that it is always loving to do that thing. Then again if someone is firm in their conviction that something is wrong and nothing you do is going to lead them to violate their conscience, then there is no reason for you to abstain. The person who is strongly against drinking wine for religious reasons will not suffer if you drink wine in their presence, but those who are wavering and have doubts might be led to sin. But keep your convictions about such things between you and God – you don’t have to convince everyone that you are right – you just need to stay true to your beliefs lest you sin. The more unlike us those that we reach out to, the more important this will become. “So then,” as Paul says (v.19), “let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” Amen and amen.