Chapter 13 deals mostly with how we as Christians relate to the nonbelieving world, particularly the government. We submit, we honor, we pay our taxes. In our conduct we need to be living like people who know that the Dawn is coming, not like people who live in the darkness. We fulfill the Law by showing real love to our neighbor.
The rest of the book of Romans lays out how we’re supposed to relate to fellow believers. Specifically Paul’s talking about what he calls “disputable matters.” What’s this referring to?
Let’s start out by distinguishing this from in-disputable matters. This is not talking about essentials of the faith, such as the nature and work of Christ, the Resurrection, the fact of his Return, the authority of Scripture, the reality of Heaven and Hell, salvation by grace thru faith, etc. If someone claims to be a Christian and disputes any of these, there’s a major problem.
For example, the main point of the book of Galatians is to confront any perversions of the Good News about how we're reconciled with God. Paul called down (or at least declared) a curse on anyone—man or angel—who dared to present another message. In another letter he made it clear that a belief in the physical resurrection of Christ is absolutely essential to our faith.
He’s not talking about essentials in today's passage. So what examples does he provide of nonessentials?
Apparently there were disputes in the church at Rome over 1) Food and 2) Sacred days. Jews who became believers in Jesus (or Yeshua as they would’ve called him) came out of a background in which they were expected to keep the O.T. dietary restrictions and holy days. Now that they’re believers, it would’ve been difficult for them to just abandon the traditions of their fathers. Also there’d be Gentile believers who'd worshipped idols before they received Christ. Now they worshipped the one true God of the Bible and had abandoned their idols, as they should have. But there was an thorny question: It was common for pagans to “offer” up an animal to one of their “gods,” then sell the meat in the open marketplace. Would it be right for a believer to buy the meat and eat it? Were they participating in idolatry when they did this?
And of course the Jews kept several holidays throughout the year, including the Sabbath which they were expected to observe every week. Now that all of us are under the New Covenant, do we still need to keep the Sabbath? The religious holidays and festivals?
When Paul is talking about the “weak” here, he’s referring to less mature believers. To a “weak” Christian who hasn’t known Christ all that long, these were weighty issues. If they ate whatever was available in the market and didn’t observe the Sabbath, they felt like they were sinning against their Lord.
When Paul is talking about the “strong,” (in another passage), he’s talking about more mature believers (in which he groups himself). These know that under the New Covenant we’re free to eat whatever we like, that there’s no such thing as “unclean” food (as far as God is concerned) anymore. They also know that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with buying meat that’s been offered to idols and eating it. They also know that under the New Covenant we’re under no obligation to observe Jewish holidays (including the Sabbath). Of course, this applies to Jew and Gentile alike.
So now that we have the background, how do we apply this? We’ll get into more detail tomorrow. But first and foremost, the first step we need to take is to be careful about what God’s word actually says. That means you read it (all of it) on a regular basis. If he’s made something a categorical sin (like adultery), then he’s made it explicit in his word. Sorry to be repeating myself, but one of my favorite aphorisms comes from Alistair Begg: “The main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things.” Before we delve into the less important, let’s be sure to focus on what’s most important, in fact “as of first importance”: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” This sort of thing we all agree on, and we must.
Lord Jesus, may I never ever ever get over who you are and what you’ve done. . .for me. Everything else is just trivia compared to that.
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