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bible-wornThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Romans 14:20-23

20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.[a] 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.[b]

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Last week’s reading concerned Paul’s advice to stronger Christians about serving certain foods to weaker converts in case the latter had a pang of conscience and perhaps lost their faith as a result.

John MacArthur explains it in the context of that era (emphases mine):

In 1 Corinthians … chapter 8 and verse 10, we have a very similar passage. Paul writing to the Corinthians, verse 8 says, “Food commends us not to God, neither if we eat are we the better, neither if we eat not are we the worse.” The whole issue here is meat offered to idols. As I mentioned earlier, a person would come to worship a pagan idol, put the meat on the altar. The priest would eat some of the meat, take the meat he didn’t need to eat, go back out the door of the temple and sell it on the marketplace. Some person comes along, buys it because it’s cheaper than anywhere else, serves it for dinner to a new Gentile convert who’s just come out of that pagan religion. He sits down, he says, “Hey, this is great meat, where did you buy it?” “Well, I bought it at the butcher shop of the temple of Diana.” And he is plunged into devastation, almost gags on the meat because all that does is remind him of all the vile orgiastic worship that went on in that pagan system, and he sees that meat as having been offered to an idol, tainted with the demonic reality that once was a portion of his life. He is greatly offended.

Now the real issue of meat is no issue at all. Meat is not the issue. It doesn’t matter to God if we eat it. It doesn’t matter to God if we don’t eat it. We’re no better if we do; we’re no better if we don’t. It’s a non-issue; but not to that person. So he says in verse 9, “Take heed, lest by any means this liberty of yours” you’re free to eat it “will become a stumbling block to them that are weak, for if any man see thee who hast knowledge “you’re a strong believer, you understand your freedom “sitting at the table in the idol’s temple,” and there may have been even a freedom to…, they may have had a snack bar in the back of the idol’s temple for all I know, “shall not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?”

So, he says, “Hey, he can do that, so I’ll go over to the idol temple and have a snack.” And through that act, the weaker brother is devastated for whom Christ died. And he adds that line there, the same line in Romans chapter 14. It’s simply to point up that Christ went to great lengths to save this individual, how can you treat one whom Christ died to save with indifference? The implication here is if Christ loved that person enough to die for them, you ought to love them enough to be cautious about how you exercise your liberty in front of them. So, it’s the same issue there

Don’t devastate your brother. Don’t plunge them into deep spiritual loss. “Stumbling” seems to mean a sort of momentary stumble, a momentary fall. “Grieving” is the grief over a guilty conscience. But this one is a devastating thing, where the person very likely could be plunged right back into the whole milieu of pagan worship.

Therefore, Paul says that we are not to destroy God’s work (verse 20). God brought that person to believe that Christ is Lord, so we are not to destroy that person’s faith by serving something that goes against his beliefs, right or wrong. Present day examples include Seventh-Day Adventists — vegetarians — and Christians who do not eat pork because they view pigs as unclean. Those are strong personal beliefs and it would be inhospitable for us to offend our guests.

As such, Paul says that we should not eat meat or drink things that would offend our weaker brothers and sisters (verse 21). This is because we are united in the love we have for Christ and for each other. We need to continue building up our mutual faith, without food or drink standing in the way.

MacArthur tells us:

So, Paul says then, build up your brother, build him up in love. How? By not causing him to stumble, not causing him to grieve, and not causing him to be devastated by falling into sin because you’ve exercised your liberty in front of him and he cannot experience that without sin and a guilty conscience.

Paul advises stronger Christians to keep their beliefs about freedom to choose what to eat and drink to themselves in case they offend a weaker Christian (verse 22). We should be above reproach in that regard and not cause weaker guests of ours to feel forced to consume something they find offensive or dangerous (e.g. alcohol).

Paul concludes by saying that if we force our guests to eat or drink something that offends them, then we have sinned against them and God (verse 23).

Matthew Henry offers this commentary:

Paul had faith in these things: I am persuaded that there is nothing unclean of itself; but he had it to himself, so as not to use his liberty to the offence of others. How happy were it for the church if those that have a clearness in disputable things would be satisfied to have it to themselves before God, and not impose those things upon others, and make them terms of communions, than which nothing is more opposite to Christian liberty, nor more destructive both to the peace of churches and the peace of consciences. That healing method is not the less excellent for being common: in things necessary let there be unity, things unnecessary let there be liberty, and in both let there be charity, then all will be well quickly.–Have it to thyself before God. The end of such knowledge is that, being satisfied in our liberty, we may have a conscience void of offence towards God, and let that content us. That is the true comfort which we have before God. Those are right indeed that are so in God’s sight.

MacArthur says this is about setting our minds on higher — heavenly — things:

We want to fight about so many silly things and people who want to maintain their freedom don’t care what anyone else says and as a result of that, we miss the whole point of the kingdom. The kingdom is not meat and drink, the kingdom is not the things that you can do or not do, the discretionary things. The kingdom is — watch this one — righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Frankly, in those three elements you have a comprehensive summary of the Christian life. You want to know what the Christian life is all about? You want to know what it’s like to be in the kingdom? First of all, it’s righteousness. The issue is righteous living, righteous living, holy living, a holy, obedient, God-honoring life conformed to God’s wonderful will. You see, my concern is not liberty, my concern is holiness. My concern is not my right to eat, my right to drink, my right to do this and do that and do the other thing, my concern is righteousness, holiness, integrity. And that’s what the watching world is looking for, that I might be filled with the fruits of righteousness, that I might have on the breastplate of righteousness, practical godliness.

Secondly, peace; the kingdom is all about demonstrating the tranquil relationships between people and God and people and people. It is our loving caring. It is our oneness. It is the tranquility of our relationships that have such a profound testimony. It is when the fruit of the Spirit, love, joy, peace, is manifest that the watching world sees something that they would like to possess. The essence of the kingdom is not our freedom to do this and do that and offend if we wish. The essence is holy living and tranquil relations with fellow believers. And righteousness means I seek to honor God, and peace means I seek to have harmony with my brother.

And then joy, joy comes to one who is right with God and at peace with his brother. Wouldn’t you say? Joy is the personal joy of knowing God, experiencing forgiveness, grace and mercy and love. It is the blessed, happy life of salvation, which rejoices in everything.

What we want the watching world to see is people who are righteous, people who are at peace and people whose lives are filled with joy. And that kind of environment is created by self-sacrificing love that does not necessarily exercise its liberty no matter how it offends somebody else. And what I’m saying to you is a message to the strong believers because most of you would fit into that category, to say this, we must move down to the weak brother and sister and honor and respect that weakness until we can by love nurture it to strength. And so there are things we are perfectly free to do that we choose not to do in order that we might demonstrate to a watching world that the kingdom is not a celebration of our rights, but it is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. And when the world sees our lives marked by righteousness, when they see a person with real integrity, a person with real honesty, a person who speaks the truth, who is good and fair and just and virtuous, that is a loud testimony to the reality of Christianity because even in the fallenness of man there is enough of the imago Dei, the image of God residual in that mind to long for that which is unattainable to them. And when the world sees relationships of peace, it is so utterly foreign to them. Can you understand that? Because they live in a world of chaos. And when the world sees deep profound joy in the Holy Spirit, a settled happiness, they see the real heart of kingdom living. And that is the attractiveness that can bring them to Christ.

The theme of building each other up in our shared love of Christ continues next time.

Next time — Romans 15:1-3

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