Commentary on Romans 14:1-12

Notes (NET Translation)

1 Now receive the one who is weak in the faith, and do not have disputes over differing opinions.

The “weak” are Christians who practice the entire Torah while the “strong” are Christians who do not. In particular, (1) the “strong” eat all kinds of foods while the “weak” eat only vegetables (14:2, 21), (2) the “strong” make no distinction between days while the “weak” value some days more than others (14:5), and (3) the “strong” drink wine while the “weak” abstain (14:21).

Verse 1 is addressed to the “strong”. Paul assumes his Roman audience knows whom he is referring to. That the “strong” are to receive the “weak” implies that the “strong” outnumbered the “weak”. To receive the “weak” means not to merely tolerate them but to treat them as brothers and sisters.

Paul’s description of those who are to be received, “the weak with respect to faith,” obviously carries a pejorative connotation: it is certainly better to be “strong” than to be “weak”! It was probably the “strong” in Rome who described those with whom they disagreed in this way. Yet the phrase is not as negative as it may seem at first sight. Crucial here is the meaning of the word “faith” in this description. Paul uses the language of faith to describe the dispute between the two groups at both the beginning (vv. 1, 2) and end (vv. 22, 23) of chap. 14. The words certainly have some reference to that basic response to God in Christ demanded by the gospel which “faith” and “believe” have denoted throughout Romans. Yet this distinctively Christian notion of faith has (at least implicitly) the person of Jesus Christ as its object: to “believe” is to entrust oneself to a person. Explicitly in v. 2, however, “believe” has the notion “believe that something is legitimate.” Paul is not therefore simply criticizing these people for having a “weak” or inadequate trust in Christ as their Savior and Lord. Rather, he is criticizing them for lack of insight into some of the implications of their faith in Christ. These are Christians who are not able to accept for themselves the truth that their faith in Christ implies liberation from certain OT/Jewish ritual requirements. The “faith” with respect to which these people are “weak,” therefore, is related to their basic faith in Christ but one step removed from it. It involves their individual outworking of Christian faith, their convictions about what that faith allows and prohibits. Paul’s decision to use the pejorative phrase “weak in faith” makes clear where his sympathies lie. We cannot avoid the impression (though his pastoral concerns lead him to keep it implicit) that Paul would hope that a growth in Christ would help those who were “weak” become “strong.”1

It is not the case, though, that the “weak” believed that abstaining from meat and wine and observing certain days were necessary for salvation. There is no hint that they were attempting to impose these requirements on the “strong” for the latter’s salvation. It seems likely that they believed that one would be a stronger or better Christian if one observed their prescriptions. Similar debates exist today. Sabbatarian Christians do not usually argue that those who disagree with them are destined for eternal judgment. They merely contend that such observance is important for living the Christian life.2

The second half of v. 1 probably means that the weak are to be welcomed. One should not use that welcome as an opportunity to lecture them or argue with them about the things they have doubts about.3

2 One person believes in eating everything, but the weak person eats only vegetables.

The “strong” person eats everything because he believes he is no longer required to observe the Jewish dietary laws. The “weak” person probably only eats vegetables because he is worried that the meat sold in the markets is not kosher (e.g., contained blood, sacrificed to idols).

Barrett doubts the Jewish Christians in Rome could not obtain kosher meat since there was a large Jewish population in Rome. Thomas Schreiner provides some possible explanations for such a situation.

Dunn may be correct in suggesting that the Romans shut down the Jewish slaughterhouses in A.D. 49 to secure the expulsion of the Jews from Rome. Thus meat that was properly slaughtered may have been difficult to acquire even ten years later. In any case, Dunn comments rightly that our knowledge of which foods were prohibited is limited. Cranfield may be right in suggesting that such meat was even harder for Jewish Christians to get. Jewish Christians may have been discriminated against by other Jews in Rome, making the acquisition of clean meat difficult. By contrast, Cranfield suggests that the reference to abstaining from wine may simply be hypothetical. Although this is certainly a possibility, it seems more likely that some Jewish Christians in Rome abstained from wine and meat altogether. The OT nowhere forbids these two commodities, yet there is significant evidence that Jews abstained from both meat and wine in order to remain clean. Daniel and his friends ate only vegetables and water instead of the meat and wine of the king in order to preserve their purity (Dan. 1:8, 10, 12, 16). Abstention from meat is attested in the case of certain priests, who consumed only figs and nuts (Josephus, Life 3 §§ 13–14). Judith also abstained from eating the wine and food of the Gentiles (Jdt. 12:1–2). Similarly Esther is portrayed as abstaining from the king’s wine (Add. Esth. 14:17 LXX; cf. also Tob. 1:10–12; T. Reub. 1.10; T. Judah 15.4; T. Isaac 4.5–6; 2 Macc. 5:27; 4 Macc. 1:34; 4:26; Jos. As. 7.1; 8.5; 1QS 5.16–18; m. ʿAbod. Zar. 2.3–4; 4.8–12).4

It is crucial to note that Paul omits the verb “believe” (πιστεύει, pisteuei) in reference to the “weak” in verse 2. The “strong” are exercising faith (πιστεύει) in eating everything. Paul refuses to use this verb in the case of the “weak” but simply says that they ἐσθίει (esthiei, eat) vegetables. The abstention from meat on the part of the “weak” was tolerable, but it was not a manifestation of “faith” or “trust.” Thus the “weak” were grieved if other believers ate such food (v. 15), and they felt it was wrong if they consumed it (v. 21). As Paul notes in verse 23, the “weak” could not eat the proscribed food in faith. The faith spoken of here is the trust in God that is a prominent theme in Paul’s letters. Paul insists here that no one should do anything if it does not stem from conviction, for everything done apart from faith is sin. Since the “weak” could not eat certain foods in faith and trust, they should abstain. Nonetheless, their inability to consume such foods was an indication of the weakness of their faith.5

3 The one who eats everything must not despise the one who does not, and the one who abstains must not judge the one who eats everything, for God has accepted him.

Paul’s choice of verbs to describe the attitudes of each group is no doubt deliberate. “Despise” connotes a disdainful, condescending judgment, an attitude that we can well imagine the “strong” majority, who prided themselves on their enlightened, “liberal,” perspective, taking toward those whom they considered to be foolishly “hung up” on the trivia of a bygone era. The “weak,” Paul suggests, responded in kind, considering themselves to be the “righteous remnant” who alone upheld true standards of piety and righteousness and who were “standing in judgment” over those who fell beneath these standards.6

Paul tells [the “weak”] not to condemn those who eat everything, ‘for God has accepted them’; and God had accepted them without their having to observe food taboos. Just as Paul exhorted the ‘strong’ to accept the ‘weak’ without passing judgment in 14:1, so here he exhorts the ‘weak’ not to pass judgment upon the ‘strong’ because God has ‘accepted’ them. The verb translated ‘accepted’ here (also used in 14:1; 14:3; 15:7 [2x]) is one that carries, in these sorts of contexts, the basic meaning ‘to extend a welcome, receive into one’s home or circle of acquaintances’. Acceptance of one believer by another is mandatory in the light of the fact that God himself has accepted them both. This point the apostle reiterates a little later: ‘Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you’ (15:7).7

4 Who are you to pass judgment on another’s servant? Before his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

Paul continues to address the “weak”.

Paul uses an unusual word for ‘servant’ here, the basic meaning of which is ‘a member of the household’, and then, specifically, a ‘domestic slave’. To criticize someone else’s servant was inadmissible, and in the case of a guest, a violation of hospitality rules in the ancient world.

Servants are responsible to their own masters and to no one else, and it is before their own masters that they stand or fall. When the ‘weak’ judge the ‘strong’, they are not simply judging a fellow believer, but one who is the Lord’s servant.8

The use of “stand” and “fall” metaphorically elsewhere and the application of the terms here to the relationship of slave to master suggest that they refer to approval/disapproval; we may compare the English “stand in favor with”/”fall out of favor with.” It is the Lord, not the fellow Christian, whom the believer must please and who will ultimately determine the acceptability of the believer and his or her conduct.9

The “strong’s” approval from the Lord is not attained by following the Jewish dietary laws but by the power of the Lord’s grace.

5 One person regards one day holier than other days, and another regards them all alike. Each must be fully convinced in his own mind.

The Sabbath and the Jewish festival days are probably the holy days in question (Gal 4:10; Col 2:16). Paul recognizes that Christians may have different deeply held convictions and, in this case, he allows believers to have different practices.

Paul responded to the Galatian believers’ observance of days quite differently because in their case it was not a matter of indifference. He despaired of them when they were ‘observing special days and months and seasons and years’ (Gal 4:10) because they regarded it as a necessary addition to their faith in Christ if they were to be acceptable to God. The issue in 14:5-6 is quite different. Here it is not a salvation issue. Paul regards it essentially as a matter of indifference and therefore does not try to correct them. He is content to let the Roman believers adopt different attitudes to the observance of sacred days.10

6 The one who observes the day does it for the Lord. The one who eats, eats for the Lord because he gives thanks to God, and the one who abstains from eating abstains for the Lord, and he gives thanks to God.

Different practices can be expressions of devotion to the Lord.

7 For none of us lives for himself and none dies for himself.

The words “live” and “die” may be used to say that everything a Christian does is for the Lord.

8 If we live, we live for the Lord; if we die, we die for the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.

To live for the Lord means to carry out all our actions with a view to what glorifies the Lord.

But what does it mean to “die to the Lord”? A few interpreters think that Paul might be using “die” in a spiritual sense, as in Rom. 6:3–6. But nothing in the context would suggest such a nuance. Paul must be referring to physical death. In this regard, he probably has in mind the fact that the circumstances of the believer’s death, as of his life, are determined not by his will or in consideration of his own interests, but are wholly in the hands of the Lord, who sets the time for death in accordance with his own interests and purposes. The last sentence of the verse summarizes: “Therefore whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” The change in grammatical construction (from “to the Lord” to “of the Lord”) broadens the idea: not only does the believer live and die “in the Lord’s interests”; in both life and death he or she also belongs to the Lord. The union with the Lord Christ, with all its benefits, that the believer enjoys in this life will continue after death with, indeed, an even fuller measure of blessing (cf. 8:18, 31–39).11

9 For this reason Christ died and returned to life, so that he may be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

It is Christ’s death and resurrection together that establish his lordship over all people, including especially here Christians, whether they are living or dead. In teaching that Christ’s redemptive work established his lordship, Paul is not of course denying that Christ has eternally exercised lordship. But, as usual, Paul’s focus is on that unique exercise of “kingdom” power and rule that were established only through Christ’s death and resurrection and the appropriation of the benefits of those acts by individual persons in faith.12

10 But you who eat vegetables only — why do you judge your brother or sister? And you who eat everything — why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

The “weak” judge the “strong” and the “strong” despise the “weak”. Yet both the “strong” and the “weak” are brothers and sisters in Christ. God is to be the judge.

Paul may be warning the believers that they stand in danger of suffering God’s judgment for their sinful criticism of one another. But, in light of vv. 7–9, we think it more likely that he is reminding them that it is God, and not other Christians, to whom each believer is answerable. In “judging” and “despising” others, therefore, they are arrogating to themselves a prerogative that is God’s only.13

11 For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will give praise to God.”

The quotation appears to be a combination of Isa 49:18 and 45:23. It confirms that God alone is the judge of all people. The verb exomologeo probably means “acknowledge”/”confess” instead of “praise”.

The “bowing” (κάμψει, kampsei) and “confessing” (ἐξομολογήσεται, exomologēsetai) indicate submission to and acknowledgment of God’s lordship. The term ἐξομολογήσεται does not refer to confession of sins.14

12 Therefore, each of us will give an account of himself to God.

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Moo 1996, 835–836 
  2. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13809-13813 
  3. Witherington III 2004, 334 
  4. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13733-13745 
  5. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13814-13822 
  6. Moo 1996, 838 
  7. Kruse 2014, 512-513 
  8. Kruse 2014, 513 
  9. Moo 1996, 840–841 
  10. Kruse 2014, 516 
  11. Moo 1996, 844–845 
  12. Moo 1996, 846 
  13. Moo 1996, 846–847 
  14. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 13973-13975 
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