Romans 14 talks about fasting, not the Sabbath
Continuing our study on Sabbath proof texts, another one I get quoted often is Romans 14:5-6, saying it doesn’t matter what day we worship on. However, if we look at the entire context of the chapter, we will see that Paul is actually talking about food and fasting. How do we know? We need to look no further than the end of the chapter:
19Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.
22So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
The word “EAT” appears 15 times in this chapter alone. The word Sabbath does not. So for some Christians to use this passage to prove the Sabbath was abrogated simply baffles reason.
So lets take a look at the passage that is used as proof of Paul saying it doesn’t matter what day we worship:
Romans 14 (NKJV)
1 Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things.2 For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. 3 Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him.
4 Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.
Paul is writing to both Jewish and Gentile converts at Rome. He advised them to accept those who were weak in the faith (Verse 1) and to not dispute with them over insignificant matters, nor sit in judgment of them. Some of these newly converted Gentiles, being weak in the faith (or newly converted, and possibly zealous in keeping their newfound teachings), refused to eat meats. The reason they did not eat meat is explained in 1 Corinthians 8. Most meat available for purchase at the market had been previously offered to idols at pagan temples. The newly converted having learned about abstaining from unclean foods, would not have eaten them, but seeing others eat of such meats would have been stumbling blocks for them, and would have judged the others for eating them.
5One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.
What is the above passage talking about? There are two clues, Paul mentions a parallel with food and days. One can observe a day and eat to the Lord. One can also not observe a day and not eat, and do it to the Lord as well. Where else in the Bible can we find a connection with abstinence from food and observing days? Check this out:
5 Is it a fast that I have chosen,
A day for a man to afflict his soul?
Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush,
And to spread out sackcloth and ashes?
Would you call this a fast,
And an acceptable day to the LORD? (Isaiah 58:5)
12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ (Luke 18:12)
14 Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?” (Matt 9:14)
We can see, Paul is clearly talking about fasting. Note, not only were there weak converts who avoided eating meat offered to idols, but there were others who customarily abstained from eating foods outright. They fasted on certain particular days.
Still, others refused to practice a fast or abstain from foods, but esteems every day in the same way! Verse 6 makes it clear, he who fasts, observes the Lord, he who doesn’t fast, ALSO observes the Lord. Paul wanted to make it clear that whether you fasted or not, it was okay, and that we shouldn’t judge each other when or if we did it. Jesus taught us that fasting is something that is done without making it obvious to others (Matt. 6:16). It is a personal matter, between an individual and God.
The meat of this chapter, Romans 14 (pun intended) was the matter of abstinence on particular days—upon which days many voluntarily abstained from certain foods. It did not involve whether or not to keep pagan holidays or God’s Holy Days. He didn’t want the strong in faith to be “stumbling blocks’ by judging the each other, as in Verse 13.
If Paul taught his Gentile converts to regard Sabbath keeping as a personal matter, as some Christians try to imply by quoting this verse, the Jewish-Christians readily would have attacked him for setting aside the Sabbath law, as they did regarding circumcision (Acts 21:21). The fact that there is no hint of any such controversy in the New Testament indicates that Paul never discouraged Sabbath keeping or encouraged Sunday keeping instead.
So Romans 14 is about Paul’s refusal to deliberate on private matters such as fasting on certain days of the week, because he recognizes that spiritual exercises can be performed in different ways and at different times by different people. The important thing for Paul is to
“pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.” (Rom 14:19-20).