In Romans 14, Paul draws on 2 examples to show how “strong” believers should live with “weak” believers. These are the issues of eating meat (Romans 14:2), and holy day observance (Romans 14:5). Why did Paul single out these 2 issues? Surely there were other areas of freedom that the believers of Rome were abusing. It is probable these 2 issues were the ones causing the most ruckus. Perhaps a little background information is needed.
THE MACCABEAN REVOLT
During the years following the death of Alexander the Great, the empire he had amassed experienced a number of changes. It ultimately came under the control of the Seleucids and Antiochus III. This included the land of Judea. Antiochus wanted to Hellenize the Jewish community. His goal was to remove anything that would define the Jews as a separate people from the Greek community.
Through many programs and government sanctioned requirements, the hatred of the Greeks rose to a fever pitch among the devout Jews. But the tipping point came when Antiochus sent some of his officers to the town of Modiin to lay down his tyranny and enact the oppressive laws that he had enforced. He was met by a local Jewish country priest named Mattathias.
Mattathias was ordered to fulfil his duty to the state and be the first to sacrifice an animal to an altar of an idol. He refused to do so, and then killed another Jew who stepped forward to perform the sacrifice in his place. This began what is now known as the Maccabean Revolt.
CLEANSING THE TEMPLE
Mattathias was killed only a year into the revolt and his son Judah took over the leadership position. Between 167 and 160 B.C., the Jewish people fought the far superior Seleucid armies of Antiochus III. Even with a superior sized army, Antiochus severely underestimated the severity of the rebellion and the size and strength of the Jewish armies. It took some time, but the Jewish people overcame the massive difference in manpower to secure an almost impossible victory over the Seleucid Empire and over Antiochus.
After this defeat, Antiochus’ army was devastated. The next battle was much shorter. It happened as the Jewish army showed up at the gate of the Holy City. The Seleucid army had lost hope and was easily ran out of the city. When Judah and his brothers went to the Temple, he saw the destruction and defilement that Antiochus caused upon it and was overwhelmed by grief (I Maccabees 4:36-40). After months of work clearing and cleaning, the Temple was finally rededicated to God (on Dec. 25th, 160 B.C. – this is also the reason for Hanukkah).
EATING MEAT AND HOLY DAYS
Because the devout Jews were so opposed to the Hellenization of their culture and the attempted annihilation of their religion, they instituted a test to ensure loyalty to traditional Judaism. These tests included keeping the Sabbath observances and refraining from eating meat that had not been prepared under kosher guidelines. These became the tests of “Jewishness” and was seen as a badge of loyalty to the nation.
As the church began to develop in the early 1st century, it is easy to see why the Jewish believers were having a difficult time letting go of these cultural requirements. This was their identity. This is what distinguished them as the Chosen people of God.
WHEN FREEDOM DESTROYS
As the church continues to grow in the 21st century, many believers still have a difficult time letting go of cultural influences. Those that have not grasped the full extent of the freedom which they have been given are considered “weak in the faith”. This does not mean they have a weak faith, only that they have not understood the depth of their salvation yet. Those who understand their freedoms are considered “strong in the faith”
As strong believers, Paul warns us to be careful how we exercise our freedoms. We are never to engage in the freedoms we have in Christ “just because we can“. There is ALWAYS more at stake! We are to be considerate of our brothers and sisters in Christ and abstain from our freedoms if it will be damaging to one of them.
In the context of Romans 14, the subject is food, but we could easily substitute the word freedom to make the point. Paul’s warning is clear:
If because of [your freedom] your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your [freedom] him for whom Christ died (v.15)
When we barrel ahead with our freedoms, “because we can,” without regard for our brothers and sisters in Christ, Paul says that we are no longer walking in love. When we are not walking according to love we run the risk of damaging someone’s faith. If Christ died for that someone (and He did), we should take extra care to not destroy their faith.
If Paul’s warning is not clear enough, he repeats in verse 20: “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of [freedom]. You and I must forgo our freedom for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Their growth in the faith is more important than exercising our freedoms!