Pastor David B. Curtis


The Weak and the Strong

Romans 14:01

Delivered 12/02/2012

We come this morning to a new section that runs from 14:1 thru 15:13. As we begin to look at Romans 14 we need to understand that the theme remains the same as in chapters 12 and 13, which is "Love your neighbor as you love yourself":

For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. Romans 12:3 NASB
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; Romans 12:9-10 NASB
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. Romans 13:8 NASB

This theme of love continues into chapter 14 and 15. Romans 14 may be one of the most abused and misused chapters in the Bible. There are preachers and theologians of many different religious persuasions who interpret this chapter as allowing just about any doctrinal position the fertile mind of man can invent.

Most commentators see this section as a call for Christian unity based on understanding Christian liberty. They see this as Paul encouraging these two groups to live in harmony. Most see the problem in this text as this: You've got the strong believers who are totally liberated, they understand their freedom in Christ, and they're enjoying it. On the other hand you have the weak who are still hung up on different things and don't understand these liberties. So the strong are tempted to look down on the weak as legalists--weak people in bondage who hinder the strong from enjoying their liberty. The strong's reaction is to despise that person, to look down on them with the attitude, "Grow up, you baby."

I think that we all realize that believers differ in their preferences and convictions. And because of these differences there is a great potential for conflict and disunity in the church. But I don't think that is what Paul is talking about in this text.

As an example of how varied the different views of this text are let me share with you the view of the book, The Jesus Proposal: A Theological Framework for Maintaining the Unity of the Body of Christ (Siloam Springs, AR: Leafwood Publishers, 2003). Rubel Shelly leaves the impression that Romans 14 applies to differences over "interpretations about the millennium, worship, and church polity." How they get the millennium out of this text is beyond me.

As I said, most see this as a section on Christian liberty and unity, which is certainly a very important subject. Paul was concerned about the issue of unity, he brought it up in every letter he wrote to a Church. But I don't think Paul's emphases here is Christian unity, I think it has more to do with love, the theme of 12 and 13, and evangelism than Christianity unity.

This section, 14:1-15:13 is about two groups who Paul calls the "strong" and the "weak".

Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. Romans 14:1 NASB
Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Romans 15:1 NASB

Do you see the contrast in this section between the strong and the weak? The first thing we have to do to understand this text is to understand who the "weak and strong" are. It is tremendously important that we understand what it means to be weak and strong.

And believe me, this is not an easy task. As you can guess the answers are many and varied.

There is a strong consensus that the "weak" were Christian Jews who still practiced the Law and Jewish customs. Most would also throw in "God-fearing" Gentiles into the "weak" category. They see the "strong" as Christian Gentiles as well as Christian Jews like Paul who have abandoned Jewish practices.

Just to give you some example of the various views; Gagon, "Weak," 64-82, argues that the term refers to Gentile Christians. Käsemann, Romans, 374, thinks that the strong are Gentile believers who think the Jews are over scrupulous. C.K. Barret has maintained that the weak were legalists, proposing that the phrase "weak in faith" attests a failure to grasp the fundamental principle that men are justified and reconciled to God not by vegetarianism, sabbatarianism or teetolalism but by faith alone. In other words, the weak (being weak in faith) regarded their abstentions and observances as good works needed for their salvation.

This is a commonly held view, but if the issue here was legalism, the weak being the legalists, would Paul say:

Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. Romans 14:1 NASB

This weak brother is not like the Judaizers in Galatia who thought that circumcision was essential to securing acceptance with God:

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. Galatians 5:1-3 NASB

"It was for freedom that Christ set us free"-they have been delivered, set free, from the judgment of the law of God, and no longer live under its disciplinary regulations.

Paul goes on to say, "Therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery"-this is a command: "Keep standing firm." Paul is not telling the Galatians to stand fast in holiness, we would expect that. Or to stand fast in righteousness, which we also would expect. But he tells them to stand fast in freedom or liberty. It is liberty that they are to guard and defend. That may seem strange to us, because the church today seems to think that Christians have too much liberty. Believers, we are to fight for our freedom, we are to defend our liberty in Christ!

Paul gives no criticism of these weak brothers like he did in Galatians. They cannot be legalists! Paul attacked and condemned legalism.

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? Galatians 4:9 NASB

Legalism is enslavement. If the "weak" were legalist Paul would have blasted them.

Who are the Strong?

It seems pretty clear that they are Christians. Paul includes himself in this category:

Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Romans 15:1 NASB

The word "strong" here is from the Greek dunatos, which means: powerful or capable. Most, if not all, of Paul's exhortations in this section are to the strong. And as we said the "strong" are Christians:

Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. Romans 15:7 NASB

They are to accept the "weak" in the same way that Christ accepted them. If Christ has accepted them they are believers.

Paul doesn't ask the "weak" to change their behavior, but he calls on the "strong" to change their behavior for the sake of the weak:

For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Romans 14:15 NASB

Their "power" seems to lie in their ability to affect the relationship of the "weak" toward Christ. The "strong" seem to be predominantly Gentile Christians. They have no problem eating whatever they want:

One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. Romans 14:2 NASB

The "strong" regard every day alike:

One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. Romans 14:5 NASB

They also drink wine according to 14:21.

I know and am convinced in the Lord Yeshua that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. Romans 14:14 NASB

This verse makes it clear that the issue dividing the "weak" and the "strong" is a Jew/Gentile issue of purity. The word "unclean" is from the Greek koinos which means: common, that is, (literally) shared by all or several, or (ceremonially) profane: - common, defiled, unclean, unholy. Peter uses this word of himself in:

But Peter said, "By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean." Acts 10:14 NASB

Unholy here is koinos. Clearly, Peter indicates he is abiding by the dietary laws of Israel.

So the strong seem to be predominantly Gentiles who have come to faith in Christ without attachment to Jewish Law or customs. They were not God-fearers, proselytes to Judaism. They seem to be Gentiles who had a view of superiority toward Jews before they became Christians. They are Gentile Christians who have no appreciation of the Jewish roots of their faith. These are the same people that Paul addressed in chapter 11:

Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; Romans 11:20 NASB

This group of the "strong" were the opposite of the Judaizers, they were Gentilizers. Who seemed to regard unbelieving Jews as enemies:

From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God's choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; Romans 11:28 NASB

So I see the "strong" as Gentile believers, with some Jewish believers, who have come to faith in Yeshua with none to very little Jewish background. They may even feel that they are replacing the Jews as God's people.

Who are the weak?

If I called you "weak in faith" in Rome in the first century, who would you be? That's a crucial question to understanding what Paul is actually saying. The Greek word used here for "weak" is astheneo [os-then-eh-o] which could mean sick, impotent or feeble, but it also means powerless or without strength (the literal meaning). The question is this: who does Paul consider powerless and without strength?

There are four possibilities. The weak are: 1) Jewish believers, 2) Gentile believers, 3) Jews who do not believe Yeshua is the Messiah or 4) Gentiles unbelievers.

We have already seen that this is a Jew/Gentile issue of purity and Gentiles have no hang ups with food and days so 2 and 4 are out. It really comes down to, are the "weak" Jewish believers or Jewish non-believers. Most Christian theologians have chosen number 1 and see the "weak" as Jewish believers. N.T. Wright says, "It should not be necessary to labor the point that all the people Paul has in mind here are Christians."

With this assumption, it appears as though Paul is instructing Gentile believers to be tolerant of their Jewish brothers and sisters, leading them toward a "stronger" faith that will allow them to put away their Jewish customs like Sabbath and diet.

We must understand that the "weak" are "weak in faith":

Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. Romans 14:1 NASB

The Greek word for "weak" here, is astheneo [os-then-eh-o] could mean sick or impotent or feeble, but it also means powerless or without strength. The "weak" are impotent in faith. The problem is not their opinions, it's not about their liberties, it's about their faith. Paul tells the "strong" not to pass judgment on the opinions of the "weak".

Notice first that those who are weak in faith don't eat meat and don't drink wine:

One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. Romans 14:2 NASB

The weak person eats only vegetables. But we must see that the practice of the weak--is not sin, but is actually God-exalting behavior. The practices of the weak are faith-driven practices. Paul does not accuse the weak of sinning. They are acting from faith. Weak faith. And faith is a God-centered, God-exalting frame of heart.

He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. Romans 14:6 NASB

The observance of days and abstinence of the "weak" is a God-exalting behavior! The one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. The "weak" refrains from eating certain things, "for the Lord" and he gives "thanks to God." So they have faith in God but it is weak. So this weak brother is acting on faith and he is God-centered and he is overflowing with thanks to God.

One commentator writes, "Now that's rather interesting because the Jews have no scruples whatsoever about drinking wine." Well I guess you could say that they have no problem eating meat either. Jews eat meat. Certain meats were forbidden but not all meats.

But we must remember we are talking here about Jews in Rome. There is a long tradition in the Diaspora cities of Jews refusing to eat meat that might have been offered to idols, or been improperly butchered. The refusal to drink wine with Gentiles is also consistent with Jewish practice, when it is feared that the wine was associated with libations and thus with idiolatry. Do you remember Daniels stand on this when in Babylonian captivity?

But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king's choice food or with the wine which he drank; so he sought permission from the commander of the officials that he might not defile himself. Daniel 1:8 NASB

What was it that Daniel ate in captivity? Vegetables and water (1:12).

The "weak" were certainly Jews but were they Christians? I don't think so. Mark Nanos, in his book, The Mystery of Romans, The Jewish Context of Paul's Letter, argues that the "weak" in Romans are not believers in the Messiah. They are those Jews who have not yet embraced the truth about Yeshua. They are Torah-observant (which is why they maintain dietary laws and Sabbath) but they have not yet been convinced that Yeshua is God's anointed. Therefore, Paul instructs Gentile believers (the strong) to live in such a way that they cause no offense to their as-yet-unconvinced Jewish brothers and sisters. In other words, while it is possible that Gentile believers in the Messiah could claim they do not have to live according to Torah (since they are not Jews), Paul tells them that they must live as "righteous Gentiles" so they will demonstrate that they serve the One true God, Yahweh. So as to convince their Jewish colleagues that they really are part of the people of God. Let me just say that I am greatly indebted to Nanos he has opened my eyes in many areas.

Paul wants to alter the behavior of the "strong" so that the "weak" are not provoked to speak evil of their "good thing":

Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; Romans 14:16 NASB

The "good thing" here is not their freedom, it is their new position as fellow citizens in the Kingdom of God. They now share in the "root of the olive tree", they are partakers of the Abrahamic covenant. They are not to let this "good thing" be spoken of as evil because of their failure to adhere to the standards of "righteous Gentiles".

Nanos writes, "Christians Gentiles in Rome were meeting in the context of the synagogue community(s) and beginning to question their obligation to practice, as applicable to themselves, the halakhah heretofore developed in Diaspora Judaism for 'righteous gentiles.' ...This would have led the Jewish community(s) to reject the claims of the Christian gentiles as equal co-participants in the promised salvation-'blasphemy' rather that 'approval' would have been the unmistakable result. And this would have caused the further 'stumbling' of the Jewish community over the gospel"( The Mystery of Romans. p 25-26)

Halakhah [haw-lak-ha] literally means walking. It denotes rules of behavior in rabbinic Judaism and is a frequent idiom in the Bible as well for discussing proper behavior:

"The LORD will establish you as a holy people to Himself, as He swore to you, if you keep the commandments of the LORD your God and walk in His ways. Deuteronomy 28:9 NASB

Walk here is the Hebrew halak [ha-lak].

To the Jews a "righteous Gentile" was one living by the "Seven Laws of Noah" or, "Noahide Code." This code is a set of moral imperatives that, according to the Talmud, were given by God as a binding set of laws for the "children of Noah"--that is all of mankind. According to religious Judaism, any non-Jew who lives according to these laws is regarded as a "righteous Gentile," and is assured of a place in the world to come (Olam Haba), the final reward of the righteous. And were welcomed in the synagogue in the first century.

Now you may be thinking, But Paul calls the weak "brothers," both to himself, and to the "strong" in 14:10,13, and 15. So how could they be unsaved Jews? Could an unsaved Jew be called a brother to a Christian? Paul clearly regards non-Christian Jews as his brothers:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, Romans 9:3-4 NASB

The question is does Paul regard non-Christian Jews as "brothers" to the "strong" in Rome who are primarily Gentiles? Paul did not see faith in Yeshua as break with Israel and his fellow Jews. Jews were the historical community of the One God. Thus to be a Christians would have made one a "brother" to all Jews, prior to A.D. 70, whether they were Christians or not. We saw this link with the illustration of the olive tree in chapter 11.

do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. Romans 11:18 NASB

"The root supports you"--the grafted shoot is sharing the same rising sap as the remaining original branches. The Gentiles are totally dependent on the covenant which God entered into with Abraham and the promises made to him. Faith in Christ is the link with the promises made to Abraham. Faith unites us to the nourishing root of the olive tree--the promises of God.

The Jewish root supports you, not the other way around. Being a Christian means becoming a true Jew. Being a Christian means finding your ancestry in Abraham and his offspring. In the Bible the olive tree is a picture of God's people. Israel is God's olive tree. So I think that Paul uses "brother" here to refer to unsaved Jews, prior to A.D. 70. In Hebrews 3:1 Barnabas calls his audience "holy brethren." Why call them "holy" if "brethren" designates a Christian? All Christians are holy!

To help us understand who the "weak in faith" are we need to look at how Paul uses this phrase elsewhere. The only other time it is used is in Romans 4:

Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah's womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. Therefore IT WAS ALSO CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS. Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Yeshua our Lord from the dead, He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification. Romans 4:19-25 NASB

We learn from this that being weak in faith, for Paul, had nothing to do with Torah-observance but rather a doubt in God's ability to give life to the dead. Just as Abraham was strong for believing that Isaac would be born from a dead womb, the Romans are strong for believing that Yeshua was raised from a dead corpse. The strong are believers, the weak unbelievers, by definition.

Paul is a Torah-observant Jew who desperately wants his Jewish brothers to see who Yeshua is-the Jewish Messiah. So Paul asks Gentiles to live as "righteous Gentiles" so that the Jews might come see the truth in Christ. The "strong" (those who know Yeshua as the Messiah) are responsible for the salvation of the "weak" (those who have yet to accept Yeshua as the Messiah) by the way that they live.

Remember what we have learned so far about the situation at Rome. I suggested to you that in Rome the church met in a synagogue. Both Jews and Gentiles meet in the synagogue to worship Yahweh.

In Rome, Jew and Gentiles are meeting in the synagogue and Gentiles are being tempted to consider unbelieving Jews excluded from God's purposes. So Paul tells the Gentiles:

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. Romans 11:17-18 NASB

They were being arrogant toward the unbelieving Jews. This is the main point of this section, it is a warning to Gentiles about the dangers of pride. At the heart of his concern is that the Gentile believers were beginning to look at the unbelieving Jews in the synagogue with disdain, because they rejected and crucified the Messiah.

In Chapters 12-15 it seems that Paul is specifically addressing the Gentile believers. He wants them to treat the non-believing Jews in the synagogue with love that they may be won to Christ. Remember what Paul said in:

I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous. Now if their transgression is riches for the world and their failure is riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their fulfillment be! But I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify my ministry, if somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them. Romans 11:11-14 NASB

So in Yahweh's eternal purpose the rejection of the Gospel by the Jews works to the salvation of the Gentiles, but it doesn't end there. He goes on to say, "To make them jealous"--the "them" is Israel. So the unbelief of Israel is ordained to promote the salvation of the Gentiles, which in turn promotes Jewish jealousy, which leads to their salvation. Paul says, "If somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow countrymen and save some of them." This is Paul's purpose to save some of his countrymen, those who were part of the remnant:

In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God's gracious choice. Romans 11:5 NASB

Paul knew that within national Israel was a remnant who would come to trust Yeshua as their messiah. That's is who he is reaching out to.

What then? What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened; Romans 11:7 NASB

Here we have the chosen remnant and the hardened. Paul was reaching out for the chosen in the nation. Speaking to the Gentiles Paul says:

You will say then, "Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in." Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; Romans 11:19-20 NASB

Some Jews were broken off because of unbelief. But of these broken off, unbelieving Jews Paul says:

And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. Romans 11:23 NASB

The unbelieving Jews can be grafted back in to the olive tree if they trust in Yeshua as the Messiah. These unbelieving Jews are the "weak" of Romans 14-15.

For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree? Romans 11:24 NASB

He is talking about the remnant that can be grafted in again.

From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but from the standpoint of God's choice they are beloved for the sake of the fathers; Romans 11:28 NASB

Who are enemies for your sake? This refers to the remnant that have not yet believed the Gospel. It is the unbelieving Jews that they are in close contact with at the synagogue. They are the branches that can be grafted in again. From God's choice they are beloved. So they must be part of the remnant who have not yet believed in Christ.

so these also now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. Romans 11:31 NASB

"These" is the elect remnant that have not yet come to faith in Yeshua, but they will be shown mercy. These are the unbelieving Jews that are in the synagogue worshiping with the believers. And the Gentiles are to love them that they may be won to Christ.

In Romans 14-15 Paul is calling the Gentiles to live righteously so as not to cause the unbelieving Jews to stumble. What exactly did it mean for the Gentiles to live righteously? We have the answer to this in Acts 15. The decision of the Jerusalem Counci was that the Gospel, for Jew or Gentile, was salvation as a gift of God's grace, through faith alone, faith in the person and work of Yeshua as the Messiah who bore one's sins and judgment so that they could be pronounced righteous in God's sight and have eternal life in the Kingdom of God. Those who taught otherwise did not have the approval of the church in Jerusalem.

James, after having said we have freedom from the Law, we don't have to be circumcised, either to become a member of the covenant company or to be saved, introduces a few things that these people should do when they are in the midst of Jewish people in synagogue worship:

but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. Acts 15:20 NASB

This as a reference to the Noachide Laws. This is halakhah [haw-lak-ha] and according to religious Judaism, any non-Jew who lives according to these laws is regarded as a "righteous Gentile" and accepted in the synagogue.

The "weak in faith" in Rome were non-Christian Judeans, weak because they lacked faith in Yeshua as the Messiah, not because they followed the law. Paul wanted the Gentile Christians in Rome to accommodate the weak and "not please themselves" (Rom. 15:1), as a means of attracting them to Christianity.

If these unbelieving Jews were part of the elect remnant why does it matter how the believers treated them. If they are elect they will be saved. Right?

In Titus chapter 2 Paul is talking to the believers about righteous living and in verse 10 he says:

not pilfering, but showing all good faith so that they will adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect. Titus 2:10 NASB

The word "adorn" here mans to "decorate, or make attractive." The way you live can do one of two things; you can blaspheme the doctrine of God our savior, the gospel, by your life or you can adorn the doctrine of God. We can actually add to the beauty of the gospel by our lives, by our daily conduct.

Do you understand the importance of that? Your life either makes the gospel attractive or repulsive. That is a sobering thought. We often fail to realize how crucial to the purpose of God is the behavior of His people.

"Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:16 NASB

The "good works" of your life should cause men to glorify God. This is what Paul wanted to see happening in Rome. He wanted an environment of love and humility where the unsaved Jews would be attracted to Yeshua and the promised Messiah.

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