The break between chapters 13 and 14 marks the beginning of the last major section of Romans, but we need to be careful not to make the break too sharp. It seems abrupt, and in a way it is, but chapters 14 and 15 continue to develop points and themes from earlier in the letter. In particular, chapters 12 and 13 aren’t just abstract teaching about Christian behavior; though they do apply generally to every part of life, they’ve also been intended to lay some specific groundwork for what comes next.
We’ve said all the way along that Paul is particularly concerned for the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the church; that’s why he lays out his argument in a way that stresses the continuity between God’s work in the church and his past work in national Israel. That’s also why Paul puts so much time and effort into, first, arguing that Jews and Gentiles now come to God on exactly equal footing, in exactly the same way—through Jesus Christ—and, second, showing that this doesn’t contradict anything God said through the Law and the Prophets, but in fact fulfills them. His concern is theological, but good theology is practical: bad theology on the part of both Jewish and Gentile Christians has led to quarrels and division in the body of Christ, and needs correcting.
The root of the matter appears to have been, as you would expect, disagreement over keeping the Jewish law. On the one hand, you have Jewish Christians who do believe that they are saved by Christ alone, but also believe that they need to continue to keep the Old Testament law as law in order to live the kind of holy and pure life God requires. On the other stand Gentile Christians, many of whom never kept the law before, who see no need whatsoever to do so now, given that their salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. This wouldn’t need to be a problem, except that each group is convinced that they are right and the other group needs to change, and is bad for refusing to change; as a result you get quarrels, name-calling, accusations, put-downs, and all the other things that make up the political ads I talked about last week.
In this case, the Gentile group despises the Jewish group as weak in faith for continuing to cling to the law of Moses, while the Jewish group is condemning the Gentile group as unrighteous—as not even caring enough to be righteous—for refusing to keep the law. Paul is not going to let this continue. Whatever else either side may have right or wrong, their attitude toward each other is absolutely sinful and inappropriate.
He makes this argument even though he clearly agrees with the Gentile Christians that their Jewish brothers and sisters are indeed showing weakness in their faith. They couldn’t be sure that the meat was kosher, and both it and the wine might have been offered to idols before being sold, so—just vegetables and water for them, just like Daniel and his friends. There were many religious days to keep—besides the major feast and fast days, many Jews would set aside a day each week to fast and pray. Is any of this necessary? No; but how does that give the Gentiles any right to pass judgment? Or again, what makes the Jews in the church think theyhave any right to judge?
There are a couple issues here. One, neither group is sinning. Both have put their faith in Christ alone; both are accepted by God. Paul would like to see the Jewish Christians grow stronger in their faith, to the point where they no longer feel the need to keep the law—where they can trust their freedom in Christ—but this is nothing for which they deserve to be berated or treated with disdain. On the other hand, they don’t have the right to claim their weakness as righteousness, much less to judge anyone else by that standard.
Two, both groups’ focus is wrong. Was it inappropriate for the strong Christians to recognize the weakness in faith of some of the Jewish Christians? No. Was it wrong for the weak to be concerned about the way some of the Gentile Christians were living? In part, but maybe not in whole. We’re called to build each other up in faith, not to ignore the issues in one another’s lives. But. Remember what Paul’s been talking about—don’t think more of yourself than you ought to, honor one another above yourselves, love one another. Put aside the works of darkness, including dissension and jealousy; don’t try to make yourself superior to one another.
When we see weakness or sin in the life of a fellow Christian, if we can do anything to encourage and guide them and help them grow, we have a responsibility to do what we can; but even when that means exercising discipline, as parents or as leaders, that doesn’t give us the right to pass judgment. Judgment comes down from above, and we don’t stand that way before each other; we come from beside one another, down on our knees, humbly seeking to serve. The right to judge is God’s alone, because only the master has the right to judge his servant, and there is only one master: God.
It’s no accident that this discussion in chapter 14 comes immediately after the commands in chapter 13 to walk in the day and stop planning out ways to satisfy the desires of the flesh; that’s a lot of what the dispute here is about. OK, so you don’t need the law to be saved—but isn’t it the best way to make sure you’re living the way God wants you to live? It seems like the most obvious one; but as Paul has already said, it doesn’t work. The law doesn’t address what’s really wrong with us, and if we believe we need to keep it in order to be righteous, we tend to end up becoming convinced that we’re righteous because we’re keeping it—and thus that anyone who isn’t keeping it with us, isn’t righteous. To whatever extent we put our trust in law, we’re putting our trust in ourselves rather than in Christ; that weakens our faith, and it makes us judgmental.
Instead, rather than focusing on controlling our behavior—and thus on controlling the behavior of others—we need to focus on the inputs: where are we spending our time, physically and mentally? Where are we turning our attention? Paul has said this multiple times in various ways: we need to set our minds on the Spirit of God, and the things of the Spirit, and thus open ourselves up for him to renew our minds, to change us from the inside out. We need to recognize that we’re in a spiritual battle, which means we can’t fight it with weapons of the world—and law is one of those.
Here, by the way, is where we get to the change in the sermon title. I didn’t realize this until late in the week, but the translation “armor of light” is an odd one: the word in verse 12 isn’t the word for armor. Depending on context, it either means “instruments” or “weapons.” I guess they get “armor” from the clothing imagery in verse 14. But this isn’t just a passive thing; it’s not just about protecting ourselves. We are to take the light to the darkness—to actively go after the darkness with the light.
We should attack the sin in our own lives with the light of God; and we should attack the sin in the lives of those around us, and in our culture, the same way: not with anger, judgment, condemnation, and bitterness, but with love, grace, joy, hope, and peace. To be sure, people may not want the light shining into their lives, and they may respond with hostility; but our intent must never be to tear someone else down or to punish them, but only to build them up, to help them grow and heal.