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The apostle now proceeds to treat of a question exceedingly delicate and critical, especially in days and places where the saints consisted of any considerable mixture of converts, brought out of systems so opposed as those of Jews and Gentiles. What to the strong in faith is an indifferent matter may trouble the conscience of those who are weak, as the apostle here distinguishes them. The weak were such Christians as were still shackled in conscience by their old Jewish observances, as to days, meats, etc., by distinctions not moral but ceremonial; the strong were those who saw in their death with Christ the end to all such bondage and enjoyed liberty in the Spirit. Carefully must we guard against the offensive misinterpretation that the weak mean those who tampered with evil. Contrariwise so fearful were they of sin that they were needlessly burdened and thus cherished a conscience not tender only, which is of the utmost moment for all, but scrupulous. But they were in no way lax, which is an evil of the greatest magnitude and only exaggerated, not diminished, by increase of knowledge. The weak were really ignorant of the liberty wherewith Christ has set us free, and hence apt to burden themselves continually where they might have found rest for their souls. They knew not that His yoke is easy and His burden light.
The practice to which brethren are called in such matters is mutual forbearance (Rom. 14, Rom. 15:7), all agreeing in doing what they do to the Lord, spite of difference in judgment of what should be done. Room is thus left for growth in knowledge as the word of God opens to our faith, while conscience meanwhile is respected. “Now him that is weak in faith receive, not to decisions of reasonings. One believeth that he may eat all things,68 while he that is weak eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not, and let not him that eateth not judge him that eateth; for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth; but he shall stand, for God is able to make him stand. One esteemeth69 day above day, while another esteemeth70 every day. Let each be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day to [the] Lord regardeth [it], [and he that regardeth not the day to the Lord regardeth [it] not.]71 And he that eateth to [the] Lord eateth, for he thanketh God; and he that eateth not to [the] Lord eateth not and thanketh God. For none of us liveth to himself, and none to himself dieth; for both if we live, to the Lord we live, and if we die, to the Lord we die. Therefore, both whether we live and whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this [end] Christ died and lived,72 that he should rule over both dead and living. And why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou too despise thy brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment-seat of God. For it is written, [As] I live, saith [the] Lord, to me shall bend every knee, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then each of us shall give account about himself to God.” (Ver. 1-12.)
It is obvious that the Gentiles, as having been outside the law, world be least affected by such scruples. But the apostle puts the difference on a ground far deeper and holier than any such accidental and circumstantial distinction after the flesh. A believer whether a Jew or a Greek might freely realize his deliverance from questions of meats or days. Not a few Gentiles in those days knew the law and could not but feel the immeasurable superiority of its institutions as compared with the abominations of the heathen. So we might have difficulty in understanding that those regulations given by the true God through Moses to His people could vanish away, null and void for the Christian. Hence therefore we hear of him that is weak in the faith, as the next chapter opens with the conduct which becomes us who are strong in bearing the infirmities of the weak, the apostle identifying himself of course with such as see earthly restrictions at an end. But while grace alone produces strength in the faith, there is far more behind in the grace which produces it, and what savours more characteristically of Christ. The knowledge of faith is good; the love that is of God, of which Christ was the perfect expression, is still better; and he who has that knowledge is above all called to walk in this love, as indeed every one who is born of God must be. The question of eating and days may concern the least things, but it can only be rightly solved by the deepest truth and the richest grace. Both come through Jesus Christ, and are the portion really of the Christian. But how little Christians appreciated Christianity then, how much less now!
Undoubtedly then he who believed that he may eat all things is far more right in thought than he who makes a point of eating herbs. Still there was no ground in such prejudices or in their absence for making little of the weak and for judging the strong; for there was a double danger of fault — to him who knew his liberty, of despising the scrupulous; to him who was scrupulous, of judging censoriously the free. But such weakness is no more folly than such strength is laxity; even as divine love is always holy while always free. God has received the believer; and this is said emphatically of him who was judged licentious by the weak; as the brethren on the other hand are called to accept, but not to the determination of controversial questions, him that is weak in the faith. How much ignorance the Lord bears with in the most intelligent! “Who art thou that judgest another’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth.” He beautifully adds (in answer doubtless to many a bitter anticipation of what would be the end of their liberty) “and he shall be made to stand; for the Lord is able to make him stand.” For the strong have no strength of their own, but grace will hold them up. Would we wish it otherwise, if it could be? Do we not delight that all is of Him?
In speaking next of a day regarded above a day the apostle enlarges. Giving up idols the Gentiles saw nothing in one day more than another. The Jew was naturally disposed to cling to old religions associations. But in this the Lord’s day is in no way included; for it rests on the highest sanction of the risen Lord (John 20:19, 20), confirmed by the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven (Acts 20:7; Cor. 16:2; Rev. 1:10), and is no open matter as to which each is to be fully assured in his own mind. For a Christian not to regard the Lord’s day would be a direct dishonour put on His own special meeting with His disciples on that day, an open slight to that witness of grace and of the new creation (as the sabbath was of the old creation and of law). Only we must bear in mind that, while some lower the ground on which the Lord’s day is observed by reducing it to the mere practice or authority of the church, others unwittingly foist into Christianity what properly belongs to man and Israel. But the Christian is not a mere son of Adam or Israel. He is called out from both into an incomparably higher relationship. He is dead and risen with Christ; and to this change the Lord’s day is not the least striking testimony. On it the Lord proclaimed His brethren set in the same place with His God and Father as Himself risen from the dead. To confound the Lord’s day with the sabbath is to confound the gospel with the law, the Christian with the Jew, Christ with Adam. The very absence of a formal enactment in its case is admirably consistent with its nature as contrasted with that day which sanctified from the beginning, entered so prominently into God’s dealings with Israel as to be a sign between Him and them.
Were the Lord in view then, it would be seen that the eater eats to Him, for he gives God thanks, and the abstainer abstains to Him and gives God thanks. The truth is that we belong to Him, not to ourselves, either in life or in death. Living or dying, it is to Him: whether one or the other therefore, we are His and this grounded on His dying and living (i.e. in resurrection), the grand doctrine of this epistle and the basis of Christianity. Thus is He Lord of all, dead and living. Hence one must be aware of meddling with His rights. “Why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou too despise thy brother?” We are forgetting our place and His, in thus turning either to the right or to the left.
“For we shall all stand before the judgment-seat of God.” To this end is cited Isaiah 45:24: every knee shall bow to me and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us concerning himself shall give account to God.” How incongruous for one to judge, for another to despise! We shall each give an account, and this about ourselves and none else. To bring in Christ truly is the due settlement of every question. To Him all bow that believe, as all unbelievers must bow in that day when He shall judge the quick and dead. The believer comes not into judgment, but shall be manifested there and give account. When those who believe not give account, it is judgment for them, and hence necessarily condemnation; for as they confess no Saviour, so they can no longer hide their sins. What David deprecated by the Spirit (Psalm 143:2), we are assured by our Lord Jesus, will not be our lot. (John 5:24.) Nor does the believer need judgment to vindicate Jesus; the unbeliever does because he refuses His grace. Thus admirably perfect are the ways of God with both, in everyone and in everything glorifying Himself by Jesus Christ our Lord.
From the account we shall render to God each concerning himself, the apostle draws the conclusion, “Let us not then judge one another any more, but judge this rather, not to put a stumbling-block or an occasion of fall before one’s brother” (ver. 13): a principle as true for the strong as for the weak; for though the weak were the more prone to judge, the strong to despise, both are called to make this their determination, if they would not be an occasion of stumbling or offence, whether in act or thought.
Not but that the apostle had a judgment as to these questions. He was clear as to the Lord’s mind, but be would not insist upon this at first, being more careful that the affections should be right, than merely to lay down an accurate judgment; and in truth it is thus only that soundness in determining all questions can be arrived at. Wrong feelings falsify the judgment, as on the other hand, if the eye be single, the whole body shall be full of light. When Christ is the object, the path will be unmistakably clear. Hence we need One to guard our hearts, and One only can, and He has called us to liberty, but we need to watch that this liberty be never perverted to license for ourselves any more than to slight others. Love is the bond of perfectness. Here the apostle says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing [is] unclean of itself; except to him that reckoneth anything to be unclean, to him [it is] unclean.” It is no question now of meats, in which they who walked were not profited. It is a good thing that the heart be established with grace. The Lord Jesus is also the truth, and has put everything in the light of God. But conscience must be heeded, and the strong must be careful not to weaken or wound another’s conscience, whatever be his own conviction. “For if because of meat thy brother is grieved, thou walkest no longer according to love.” But love is the energy of the divine nature in which the Spirit guides, not in self-will. “Destroy not him with thy meat for whom Christ died.” The Holy Spirit speaks according to the tendency of our conduct. Anything that would stumble another tends to destroy. What a misjudgment to insist upon liberty as to meat so as to nullify the value of Christ’s death as far as we can! Grace may, and no doubt does, deliver, but our misuse of liberty remains no less guilty in the sight of God. “Let not then your good be evil spoken of, for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” This is a weighty practical truth, and we need, especially if we have knowledge, to guard against pressing anything beyond those who are but ill-instructed. It was not so that Christ walked and that God dealt with our own souls. And now that Christ has revealed God, it is of the deepest consequence that we insist only on what is grace and what makes for edification.
The reader will observe how “the kingdom of God” is used here, not so much dispensationally as morally. Indeed it is so where the phrase occurs in Matthew, who alone also uses the well-known formula “the kingdom of heaven.” Only the latter phrase invariably occurs in a dispensational sense, and means that state of things where the heavens rule now that Jesus is cast out from the earth; first, while He is hid in God; secondly, when He comes again in the clouds of heaven with power and glory. But the kingdom of God might be said to be already there, already come upon them, when He, by the Spirit of God, cast out demons. The kingdom of heaven, contrariwise, could not be said to have come till He went on high. Thus the kingdom of God might be used where the kingdom of heaven occurs but also as here where it could not be. The apostle insists that the kingdom of God cannot be lowered to that which perishes with the using; it is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, the inward spirit and practical power of the Christian. “For he that in this serves Christ [is] acceptable to God and approved of men.” It is walking in the Spirit, in short, the true guard against fulfilling any lust of the flesh. “Against righteousness and peace and joy there is no law.” “Let us therefore pursue the things of peace and the things of mutual edification.” God Himself is the God of peace, and the Lord is Himself the Lord of peace who gives us peace continually in every way. Knowledge puffs up, love alone builds up. And as He builds His church infallibly upon the rock, the confession of His own name, so we, by the godly use of His name, are called to build up one another. We can understand therefore how impressively the apostle again urges, “Do not for the sake of meat undo the work of God.” “All things indeed [are] clean.” This is freely allowed to the strong, but “it is evil to the man that eateth with stumbling.” This is the danger for the weak, and love would lead the strong to consider the weak, assuredly not to help the enemy against them. “[It is] right not to eat meat nor to drink wine [nor anything] in which thy brother stumbleth or is offended or is weak.” (Ver. 21.) There might be various degrees of danger; but the only thing that becomes the saint in this is to seek his brother’s good. “Hast thou faith? have [it] to thyself before God: blessed he that judgeth not himself in what he alloweth.” To be strong in faith then is right: only it should be conjoined with the energy of love for those who are weak, guarding against all boast also in that which is received by grace from God. “But he that doubteth is condemned if he eat, because [it is] not of faith; but whatever [is] not of faith is sin:” a maxim often strained in ancient and modern times to pronounce upon unbelievers and the worthlessness of every act in their lives. But this is clearly not in question here; rather is it a matter between Christians, some of whom saw their liberty, others being still in bondage. It is a great favour to enjoy the liberty of Christ in the smallest matters of every-day life; but he who has entered into this is so much the more bound to consider the believer who is still hampered with doubts as to this or that. To imitate liberty without believing its ground would be to endanger the work of God. Grace respects the conscience of him that doubts, and instead of trifling with scruples would rather seek to lead into the due application of Christ to the case by faith: without it all is vain or worse. “Whatever is not of faith is sin.”
68 Calvin’s criticism on the clause clearly demonstrates his own incompetence for questions of this sort. “In diversa lectione quid sequitus fuerit Erasmus, non video. Mutilam enim sententiam reddidit, quum plena sit in verbis Pauli; et pro articulo relativo improprie posuit: Alius quidem credit. Nec illud asperum aut coactum videri debet, quod infinitivum pro imperativo accipio; quoniam ista loquendi formula Paulo usitatissima est.” There is no difference of reading here; and Erasmus is as right as Calvin is wrong. “Qui credit vescatur quibusvis” is a version so unfaithful that even Beza must needs agree substantially with Erasmus against his leader. The Vulgate (“credit se manducare”) is an instance that what seems most literal may be erroneous and absurd.
69 Literally, “judgeth.” The word means originally to pick or choose, hence to decide, sentence, prefer, or even condemn.
71 The bracketed clause does not appear in A B C D E F G, besides cursives, Vulg., Cop., Aeth., with various Greek and Latin fathers,
72 The common reading has no serious support of manuscripts. There is much discrepancy in the copies; but the best text is what I have here translated.