Understanding Paul

(Number Four)

Romans 14:14 has been interpreted by some to mean that we need not observe the law of clean and unclean meats, and that it is now permissible to eat anything we wish.  In the previous verses in this Chapter, we saw that Paul addressed the subject of vegetarianism, illustrating that one’s personal preferences in the matter of foods should not be a divisive issue, and that one should not judge others regarding this.  But Paul follows this discussion by explaining that what one eats is based on the law of clean and unclean meats.  This is where Romans 14:14 applies.

Paul wrote:  “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.”  An incorrect translation in this verse has given rise to the notion that it is permissible to eat unclean meats.  The word “unclean,” should be translated “common,” so that if one thinks something is common, to him it is common.  The word translated “unclean” is from the Greek word koinos, meaning “profane,” or “shared by many.”  The correct word for “unclean” is from the Greek word akathartos which means “impure, ceremonially or morally.” Notice particularly Acts 10:13-14, where both words koinos and akathartos are used in the same sentence.  “And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.  But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.”  There is a difference.  But what is that difference?

Meat that had not been properly bled, or meat that came from animals that had been strangled (likely by predators) was forbidden to be eaten by the Israelites, but could be eaten by Gentiles.  This meat was regarded as common.  In addition, the Greek word for “common” means “that which is shared by many.”  In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul addresses meat, regarded as common and shared by many, that had been sacrificed to idols.  He wrote:  “As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.  For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,)  But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him” (vv. 4-6).  But Paul states that not everyone has this knowledge.  “Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled” (v. 7).    Paul then admonishes the Corinthians:  “But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.  For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?  But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.  Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend” (vv. 9-13).

Here Paul is not concerned with the unbelieving Gentiles but with weak Gentile brethren in the church.  Barnes Notes gives a good explanation of the problem:

[Howbeit]  In the previous verses Paul had stated the argument of the Corinthians-that they ALL knew that an idol was nothing; that they worshipped but one God; and that there could be no danger of their falling into idolatry, even should they partake of the meat offered in sacrifice to idols. Here he replies, that though this might be GENERALLY true, yet it was not universally; for that some were ignorant on this subject, and supposed that an idol had a real existence, and that to partake of that meat would be to confirm them in their superstition. The INFERENCE therefore is, that on their account they should abstain; see 1 Cor 8:11-13. [There is not …] There are some who are weak and ignorant; who have still remains of pagan opinions and superstitious feelings. [That knowledge] That there is but one God; and that an idol is nothing.

[For some with conscience of the idol] From conscientious regard to the idol; believing that an idol god has a real existence; and that his favor should be sought, and his wrath be deprecated. It is not to be supposed that converted people would regard idols as the ONLY God; but they might suppose that they were INTERMEDIATE beings, good or bad angels, and that it was proper to seek their favor or avert their wrath. We are to bear in mind that the pagan were exceedingly ignorant; and that their former notions and superstitious feelings about the gods whom their fathers worshipped, and whom they had adored, would not soon leave them even on their conversion to Christianity. This is just one instance, like thousands, in which former erroneous opinions, prejudices, or superstitious views may influence those who are truly converted to God, and greatly mar and disfigure the beauty and symmetry of their religious character.

[Eat it as a thing …] As offered to an idol who was entitled to adoration; or as having a right to their homage. They supposed that some invisible spirit was present with the idol; and that his favor should be sought, or his wrath averted by sacrifice.

[And their conscience being weak] Being unenlightened on this subject; and being too weak to withstand the temptation in such a case. Not having a conscience sufficiently clear and strong to enable them to resist the temptation; to overcome all their former prejudices and superstitious feelings; and to act in an independent manner, as if an idol were nothing. Or their conscience was morbidly sensitive and delicate on this subject, they might be disposed to do right, and yet not have sufficient knowledge to convince them that an idol was nothing, and that they ought not to regard it. [Is defiled] Polluted; contaminated. By thus countenancing idolatry he is led into sin, and contracts guilt that will give him pain when his conscience becomes more enlightened; 1 Cor 8:11,13. From superstitious reverence of the idol, he might think that he was doing right; but the effect would be to lead him to conformity to idol worship that would defile his conscience, pollute his mind, and ultimately produce the deep and painful conviction of guilt. The general reply, therefore, of Paul to the first argument in favor of partaking of the meat offered in sacrifice to idols is, that ALL Christians have not full knowledge on the subject; and that to partake of that might lead them into the sin of idolatry, and corrupt and destroy their souls.

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul wrote: “What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing?  But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils.  Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.  Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? are we stronger than he?” (vv. 19-22).

Then notice particularly verse 25.  “Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake.”  The shambles were public meat markets.  Meat that had been sacrificed to idols was regularly sold to retailers who in turn sold it to the public.  This is why Paul admonishes:  “If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.  But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof:  Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other. . .” (vv. 27-29).  Who is the other?  Answer:  Any weak brother who is present.  Paul adds:  “Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God:  Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved” (v. 32-33).

A comparison would be if a true Christian found himself in the presence of Christians who believe it is a sin to drink.  The Bible does not condemn the drinking of alcoholic beverages, but it does condemn drunkenness.  For more information please read our website article entitled, “Is It a Sin to Drink?”  It would certainly be offensive or improper to drink alcohol in the presence of these folks.  At the least it would turn them away from a willingness to consider the true Bible teaching on the subject, or possibly even make them despise a sinner like you.

Paul gives excellent advice regarding meat sacrificed to idols.  “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not” (1 Cor. 10:23).  Again, this text has been misinterpreted to mean that everything we may choose to do is lawful and that obedience to the Law of God is not seriously considered.  Does this text mean we may kill, commit adultery, or murder?  “No” would be the resounding answer!  But when it comes to the fourth and seventh commandments there would be no opposition whatsoever, as these two commandments are vilified by modern theologians.  What is overlooked is what James wrote:  “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.  For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law” (Jas. 2:10-11).  Remember, sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4).

So what did Paul mean when he wrote:  “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.”  The answer should be obvious:  The text means that all things that are lawful are not always expedient. How do we know this?  The answer:  By what we have read in this Chapter and in Chapter eight.  It is not expedient to bring up the issue of meat sacrificed to idols in the presence of weak brethren.  While it is perfectly lawful to eat such meat, there are times when this is not expedient, that is, not advisable.  This text in no way gives license to do what one wishes.

In 1 Corinthians 3, a text that needs explanation begins in verse 11, which reads:

For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.  Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;   Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.  If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.  If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire. (vv.  11-15)

Christ is the foundation of all truth and righteousness.  No man can assume that station.  One may build upon this foundation of Christ, but because man is a free moral agent, he can build with either substantial or faulty materials — materials such as gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or stubble.  This analogy is symbolic of building holy, righteous character.  In real life, gold and silver, when heated to an elevated degree, are made purer and can even become transparent. The same principle applies spiritually.  This is why Paul states:  “Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.” V. 13)

Man is being spiritually tested in the cauldron of trial and error, being judged on the character he builds.  Character is the ability to discern right from wrong and then to always choose the right in opposition to the wrong.   But character requires a standard by which to judge.  What is that standard?   Christ said:  “He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day.” (John 12:38)  James forewarned:  “So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty” (Jas. 2:12).  This law — the Ten Commandments  — was given to free man, to give him liberty from the evil that lurks in every mind and heart, and to deliver him from the consequences of sin.  For Christ said:  “. . . That which cometh out of the man, that defileth the man.  For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness:  All these evil things come from within, and defile the man”  (Mark 7:20-23).

One who attempts to build character with inferior materials will suffer loss (1 Cor. 3:15), but the man who builds with superior materials will receive a reward (v. 14).  “Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is” (v. 13).  This fire is the fiery trial of faith spoken of by Peter.  Peter wrote:  “Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations:  That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7).  The reward for success is the honor and glory that results from righteousness.  “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. . .” (Matt. 13:43).

James emphasizes the importance of overcoming temptations: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations;   Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.  But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing. . . . Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him” (Jas 1:2-4, 12).  “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you:  But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.” (1 Pet. 4:12-13).  “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:  Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world” (1 Pet. 5:8-9).

But what did Paul mean, “If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15)? The text does not say such a person is lost.  Rather it says he will suffer loss, yet be saved through fire.  Loss of what?  If he will be saved through fire, as the text states, then the loss will be that of status.  Remember, David said he would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness (Ps. 84:10).  The Laodiceans are admonished:  “I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent” (Rev. 3:18-19).  What is the clear inference?  If one fails to build the necessary character when given the opportunity, he will then be forced to do so through tribulation.  Some will produce a hundredfold, some sixty, but some only thirty (Matt. 13:8, 23).