Romans 14:5-6: Is the Sabbath optional?

Romans 14:5 says that each person must decide for himself whether to regard one day above another.  This is often interpreted as saying that the Sabbath is optional.  This article argues that the verse 5 must be read within its context, and its context is a dispute in the church about eating meat. It is therefore proposed that the days in verse 5 were days on which some Christians thought one should abstain from eating meat.  These days may include the Sabbath, but verse 5 does not say that the Sabbath is optional; only that eating meat on the Sabbath is optional.

Vegetables only

The first four verses of Romans 14 read that we are allowed to eat all things, but some Christians in Rome, being weak in the faith, believed that Christians should eat vegetables only.  Paul instruct mature Christians not to judge such a person.  Then verses 5 and 6 continue:

Romans 14:5 One person regards one day above another,
another regards every day alike.
Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.
14:6 He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord,
and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God;
and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.

Preliminary Observations

Romans 14:5 and 6 do not use the word “meat”, but the context of the previous verses implies that verse 6 refers to eating meat.

In the first four verses the focus is on eating meat.  Verse 5 shifts the focus to days, but verse 6 shifts the focus back to eating meat.  The statements about days are therefore surrounded by arguments about eating meat.

Verse 6 implies three categories of people:

1.  He who observes the day.
2.  He who eats.
3.  He who eats not.

The KJV adds one more people category, between the first and second, namely “He that regardeth not the day”.  However, the Pulpit Commentary says of this phrase, ‘omit, as ill-supported, as well as unnecessary’.

The word “alike” in Romans 14:5 has been added by the translators.  In the view of some interpreters this word distorts the meaning of the passage, but that word seems to be implied by the alternative, which is to regard “one day above another”.

According to verse 5 it is equally acceptable to regard “one day above another” and to regard “every day alike”.

The Sabbath is Huge.

Many interpreters believe that Paul includes the weekly Sabbath in the “day” in these verses.  From that they conclude that Sabbath observance is optional.  The main purpose of this article is to address this matter.

Blessed and sanctified at creation

The Sabbath is huge in the Old Testament.  The seventh day was sanctified and blessed at creation and included in the Ten Commandments, together with nine other eternal principles, as a Sabbath (day of rest).  The Sabbath was the sign of the covenant Sabbath breaking was the sign of Israel’s unfaithfulness, leading to their captivity into Babylon.  (See Sabbath in the Law of Moses.)

The Sabbath is huge in the gospels.  Christ deliberately sought confrontation with the Jews by healing on the Sabbath. His Sabbath breaking, as viewed by the Pharisees, was one of the main reasons for His crucifixion: “For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God” (John 5:18, see also 9:16). (See Deliberately breaking the Sabbath.)

The Sabbath was huge in the first years of the church, when the church still existed as a Jewish sect and complied with all Jewish laws, including the Sabbath (See Jerusalem Phase of the Early Church).

The Sabbath controversy is still huge today.  The older protestant (reformed) churches adhere to the Sabbath commandment, but now on the first day of the week (Sunday).  But the newer churches view the Sabbath as a ceremonial commandment that has passed away at the Cross.

In contrast, the Sabbath is a non-issue in the New Testament letters. Paul mentioned the Sabbath explicitly only once in his letters, and that in a technical term that refers to the entire system of Jewish holy days.  (See Feasts … New Moons … Sabbaths.) There are only three of perhaps four texts in Paul’s writings that might be relevant to the Sabbath.  This means that the Sabbath, by itself, was not a matter of controversy in the first century.  Either everybody kept the Sabbath, or nobody kept the Sabbath.

Romans 14:5 is one of the few statements by Paul that possibly are relevant to the Sabbath.  It is therefore very important to understand what this verse says about the Sabbath.

Romans does not say that the Sabbath is optional.

For the reasons below it is proposed here that Romans 14:5 does not say that the Sabbath is optional:

First, if Romans 14:5 applies to the Sabbath, then Paul contradicted himself.

In Galatians Paul rebukes Christians for observing “days” (Gal. 4:10), but here in Romans he allows each person to decide for himself whether to regard one day above another.  In Galatians some Christians were compelling other Christians to comply with the Law of Moses (Gal. 6:12; 2:14). It is therefore quite possible that the “days and months and seasons and years” in Galatians 4:10 are the Old Testament feasts and special days. The “days” therefore might include the Sabbath.  If the days in Romans 14:5 also include the Sabbath, then it would be rather inconsistent of Paul to reprimand the Galatians for doing the same thing that he allows the Romans to decide about each man for himself.

 Second, Romans 14 is devoid of Jewish elements.
Therefore it does not deal with the Old Testament Laws
.

Nothing is mentioned in Romans 14 that is specifically Jewish.

As shown in a separate article, even the word unclean in verse 14 does not refer to the Old Testament unclean meats.

The main controversy in the chapter is abstinence from meat and wine (14:2, 21).  This is not a controversy over the Law of Moses. The Old Testament permits the eating of meat. Leviticus 11 explains the difference between clean and unclean animals.  It explains what meat is allowed as food.  It does not prohibit the eating of meat. Neither does the Old Testament forbid the drinking of wine. Consequently, the strong man who “has faith that he may eat all things” (Rom 14:2) is not asserting his freedom from the Law of Moses.

If Romans 14 is devoid of Jewish elements, then the days in verse 5 do not relate to the Jewish Laws either.

Third, these were matters of opinion.

The chapter commences with the instruction, “accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions” (14:1).  The current verse indicates that “each person must be fully convinced in his own mind“.  Later in the chapter we read that “to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (14:14) and “the faith which you have, have as your own conviction” (14:22).  These are confirmations that, what is discussed in this chapter, are matters about which the Bible does not give clear guidance.  Therefore the Sabbath could not have been part of the controversy.

Fourth, Paul would not have said each person must decide for himself with respect to something so huge as the Sabbath.

Above it was mentioned how huge the Sabbath was in the Old Testament, in the gospels and in the Early Church.  It is not likely that Paul would leave something, as huge as the Sabbath, as optional. It is simply unthinkable to argue that Paul would have said that each person must decide for himself whether any of the Ten Commandments is still relevant.

In the Epistle to the Galatians, where Paul opposed the Christians who compelled other Christians to adhere to the law of Moses, Paul has nothing good to say about the law.  But in the book which we are currently discussing (Romans) Paul says many positive things about the law.  He describes God’s law as “holy, just and good” (7:12).  He describes himself as “serving the law of God” (7:25). In the closing verses of Romans 13 he links the second table of the Ten Commandments to the great commandment to love one’s neighbor. He explicitly mentions four of the Ten Commandments, namely adultery, murder, stealing and coveting, and then adds, “and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF” (Rom. 13:8-10). After saying these wonderful things about the law, would he then ten verses later describe one of the Ten as optional?

Early Church

The weekly Sabbath was extremely important to the Jews, and since the early church consisted only of Jews, continuing all Jewish practices, the church at first observed the Sabbath. (See Jerusalem Phase of the Early Church.) Paul also, during his life as apostle of God, frequently met with the Jews on the Sabbath (Acts 17:2; 18:4).  The Sabbath therefore was experienced as important in the early church.  For these reasons any change to the Sabbath would have caused a serious controversy. If Paul in Romans 14:5 was advising the church to move away from the Sabbath, he would have said it loudly and clearly. He would not have interjection it as a side issue into a chapter that deals with a dispute over eating meat.

Since we must “abhor (hate) what is evil” (Romans 12:9), we should rather reverse the logic and argue that, when Paul says “each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” with respect to days (Romans 14:5), that such days cannot include something as huge as the Sabbath.

Fifth. these were “days” on which the eating or non-eating of meat was regarded as important.

The entire Romans 14 is about Christians judging each other with respect to eating meat.  The statements in verses 5 and 6 that deal with days are surrounded on all sides by arguments about judging one another for eating meat.   Paul wrote extremely context dependent.  If we read one of his sentences out of context, we are in trouble.  To properly understand Paul, we must interpret every sentence in the context of the surrounding sentences.  We must therefore understand the statements about days as part of the discussion of eating meat.  It is therefore proposed that these were “days” that were regarded as special days as far as eating meat was concerned.

The two contrasts support this conclusion.  In verse 2 Paul contrasts the person that eats meat with the one that “eats only vegetables”. Then, in verse 5, he contrasts the man that “esteems one day as better than another” with the man that “esteems all days alike”. In verse 6 he again contrasts the man that eats meat with the one that only eats vegetables.  These contrasts, in close proximity, seem to be parallel. This supports the notion that these were days on which the eating or non-eating of meat was regarded important.

In other words, these verses do not describe four, but only two people groups:

1. The “weak” don’t eat meat on certain days.
2. Mature Christians regard all days alike as far as eating meat is concerned.

As discussed in the article New converts from idolatry viewed meat sacrificed to idols as unholy, the meat-issue probably had something to do with meat offered to idols.  Some Christians who previously were idol-worshipers believed that meat offered to idols is unholy (1 Cor. 8:7-9); not suitable for Christian consumption.

The days in Romans 14:5 might have included the Sabbath, but if they did, then they do not speak to whether the Sabbath must be observed, but to how the Sabbath must be observed.  More specifically, these verse address the issue of eating meat on the Sabbath.

Lastly, if Romans 14:5 applies to the weekly day of worship, and every person therefore may decide for himself on which day to worship, then the church no longer has a weekly day of worship.

The Jews of the Old Testament and all Christians today have a weekly day of public worship. That seems to be good practice and consistent with the establishment of the seven day cycle as part of the creation. Also, Paul himself “customarily” (Acts 17:2) met with “Jews and Greeks” on the Sabbath in the synagogue (Acts 18:4). This does not prove that Paul observed the Sabbath, but the point is that a weekly day of worship was integral to the environment in which Christians found themselves.  Since regarding “one day above another” (14:5) is optional (14:6), it is fair to assume that it is the “weak” that still clung to special days.  The “strong” (15:1) ”regards every day alike“.  If this applies to the weekly day of worship, then the church no longer has a joint weekly day of worship.  Would that be Paul’s intention, seeing what confusion it would cause?

Conclusion

Just like verse 1 will be misunderstood unless it is read in the context of a dispute about eating meat, verse 5 will also be misunderstood unless read in the same context.  The days in 14:5 cannot be separated from eating meat.

Next: Romans 14:7-13

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Galatians 1:13-14

1:13 For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; 1:14 and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.

OVERVIEW

In the New Testament we find many references to the “traditions of the elders“ or “ancestral traditions”. This refers to very extensive and detail laws that were added by the Jewish leaders to the Law of Moses.

One purpose of these traditions was to serve as a wall of protection around the Law of God; to protect against sin. This means that the Jews added stricter laws to force themselves to obey the Law of God. For instance, the Law requires one not to use the name of God in vain, but the traditions stipulate that one should not use the name of God at all.  To refer to God they used terms such as “the name”.

Another purpose was to convert the general principles of the Law of God into very precise rules.  The Sabbath requirements, for instance, were very simply; no work.  But to ensure that they do not work on the Sabbath, the Jews developed a very elaborate and detailed definition of work, consisting of 1521 laws.  These Sabbath laws were so voluminous and complex that only “experts in the law” knew them all.  For instance, any knot which one can untie with one hand is allowed.  A woman may tie up the opening of her blouse, the ribbons of her hair-net and of her girdle, the laces of her shoes or sandals, jugs of wine and oil, and the meat pot.

However, although the traditions were intended to prevent sin, they eventually served to separate man from God:

The traditions did this by putting the focus on outward behavior, ignoring what goes on in the heart. This focus on outward behavior shifts the focus away from God to self.  This firstly destroys love for God, and with that is destroyed love for fellow men, leading people to judge each other harshly on the basis of the laws which they themselves added.

The focus on outward behavior furthermore leads people to trust in themselves, in contrast to the “faith” which Paul wrote about, which is trust in God.

The many and minute, absurd, vexing and senseless traditions, combined with the merciless policing by the Pharisees, transformed the day of rest, which was supposed to be the best day of the week, into an unbearable burden; a cruel master under which men were groaning; the worst day of the week. These burdensome requirements reflected the character of selfish and arbitrary men, rather than the character of the loving heavenly Father, and represented God as giving laws which were impossible for men to obey. They led the people to look upon God as a tyrant, and to think that the observance of the Sabbath made men hard-hearted and cruel.

TRADITIONS

When people correctly understand that they continually fail to keep the Law of God, but erroneously believe that they must earn redemption by their works, they will always invent a multitude of additional laws to force themselves to obey God’s law. However, these added rules inevitable only govern outward behavior, ignoring what goes on in the heart.  This focus on outward behavior shifts the focus away from God to self. It destroys love for God, and with that is destroyed love for fellow men, leading people to judge each other harshly on the basis of the laws which they themselves added.

This also happened in Judaism. One of the oldest requirements in the Mishnah is to build a fence around the Law of Moses. This means that the Jews had to develop rules and regulations as a wall of protection against sin (noncompliance with the Law of God).  Over their long history they added thousands of rules, which collectively became known as the “traditions of the elders”.  For instance, the Law requires one not to use the name of God in vain, but the traditions stipulate that one should not use the name of God at all, but rather to use the term “the name” instead.

By the time of the New Testament these traditions were regarded as very important, for instance:

…the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders … and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.“ (Mark 7:3-4)

The Pharisees asked Christ: “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread” (Matthew 15:2; cf. Mark 7:5).

Paul described himself, before his conversion, as follows:

I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Gal 1:14).

But Christ condemned the “traditions of the elders” (Mark 7:3) as worthless “precepts of men” (Mark 7:1-13) that conflicted with “the commandment of God”.  To the Jews He said:

Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?  … by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (Matthew 15:3, 6)

You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘this people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me, but in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” (Mat. 15:7-9)

Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.  You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. … thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down.” (Mark 7:7-9, 13)

Christ’s point is extremely important. The traditions were intended to prevent sin (to prevent breaking the Law of Moses), but eventually served to separate man from God.   There are a number of reasons for this:

Firstly, as is explained by the first paragraph of this section, these added rules inevitable only govern outward behavior, ignoring what goes on in the heart. This focus on outward behavior shifts the focus away from God to self.  This destroys love. Outwardly they complied with the law, but “their heart is far away from me” (Mat. 15:7-9).  They could make a list of things that they must do and things they must avoid, and at the end of the day they could say, like the Pharisee, “God, I thank Thee that I am not as the rest of men, rapacious, unrighteous, adulterers … I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all things–as many as I possess”, but this Pharisee was not “declared righteous” (Luke 18:11-14).

Secondly, as evidenced by the prayer of this Pharisee, a consequence of the traditions was that the Jews judged each other harshly. As soon as Adam and Eve sinned, they began to accuse each other. Unless man is controlled by the grace of Christ, this is what human nature inevitably does. Since the Father “has given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22), the person that tries to judge the motives of others is trying to do something which only the Son of God should do.

Thirdly, people that are controlled by an accusing spirit are not satisfied with pointing out what they think is a defect in their brother. They would go further and compel their brother by force to comply with their ideas of what is right. This is what the Jews did in the days of Christ. Christ never compelled people; He draws people to Him with His love for them. A person that seeks to compel people by force thereby proves that he or she does not have the power of Christ, which is the power of love.

Fourthly, the Jews developed the traditions because they believed that one must earn your salvation by your own effort. This means that you put you hope and trust in yourself. In contrast Paul argued that man is justified by “faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 2:16).  This is faith and trust in God.   This type of “faith” knows that we are unable to meet God’s infinite standards, and throws itself at His feet, trusting His mercy, like the tax collector in Christ’s story, who “was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13).  “This man went to his house justified” (Luke 18:14).

To conclude, some say you will neglect the law if you go with the love stuff, but the truth is that you neglect the law by making it detailed and exacting.

SABBATH TRADITIONS

Amos (c. 750 BC), writing before the Babylonian exile, reported how Jews yearned for the end of the Sabbath so that they can continue to buy and sell. They stood at the gate of the city, waiting for the sun to set, saying:

When will the new moon be over, So that we may sell grain, And the sabbath, that we may open the wheat market, To make the bushel smaller and the shekel bigger, And to cheat with dishonest scales” (Amos 8:5).

It was shown above that God used the Sabbath as test of Israel’s obedience.  After their return from exile the Jews realized that they were exiled to Babylon because of their lack of faith, as reflected by their unfaithful Sabbath observance (Jer. 17:21-27; Neh. 13:17-18). The Sabbath requirements were very simply; no work.  But to ensure that they do not work on the Sabbath, the Jews, over centuries, developed a very elaborate and detailed definition of work. Thirty-nine main categories of work consisting of 1521 different laws on Sabbath observance were developed (E. Lohse fn. 5, p. 12; cf. Mishnah, Shabbath 7, 2; Moore, II, p. 28).  These Sabbath laws were so voluminous and complex that only “experts in the law” knew them all.  The Talmud, which is available on internet, makes for interesting reading.  As a tiny example, with respect to knots, it stipulates (simplified):

Tying or untying camel-drivers’ knots and sailors’ knots are not allowed. Any knot which one can untie with one hand is allowed.  A woman may tie up the opening of her blouse, the ribbons of her hair-net and of her girdle, the laces of her shoes or sandals, jugs of wine and oil, and the meat pot. One may tie [a rope] in front of an animal, that it should not go out.  A bucket [over a well] may be tied with a fascia, but not with a cord.

As another example, a man may spit on the ground, but he was not allowed to cover the spit with ground, because that would be plowing. One was not even allowed to light a candle on the Sabbath.

Since the Bible does not define work, one author described these extensive Sabbath traditions as a mountain (of laws) hanging on a hair (the prescripts of Scriptures). The purpose was to ensure the faithful observance of the seventh day Sabbath, which was intended to be a day of rest and liberation. But the traditions perverted the Sabbath into a day of strictly prescribed idleness; a long list of things one is not allowed to do.  The many and minute, absurd, vexing and senseless restrictions, combined with the merciless policing by the Pharisees, transformed the day of rest into an unbearable burden; a cruel master under which men were groaning.  The Sabbath was exalted above human needs.  It no longer was a delight or a day to enjoy, but a burden.  Resting became hard work.  The scribes and Pharisees made it an intolerable burden to which the people were made slaves:

… they (the scribes and the Pharisees) bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. (Mat 23:4)

These burdensome requirements reflected the character of selfish and arbitrary men, rather than the character of the loving heavenly Father. The traditions represented God as giving laws which were impossible for men to obey. They led the people to look upon God as a tyrant, and to think that the observance of the Sabbath, as He required it, made men hard-hearted and cruel.  The sin with the most unfortunate results is the cold, critical, unforgiving spirit that characterizes the Pharisees. When a religion is devoid of love, the sunshine of Jesus’ presence is not there. Zeal for God’s kingdom and hard work cannot compensate for such a critical spirit.

TRADITIONS IN THE CHURCH

Since the church at first consisted only of Jews, and existed as a sect of Judaism, these traditions spilled over into the early church.  In the letter to Titus Paul instructed him to “not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men” (1:14).  It is necessary to read the statements in the New Testament, with respect to the law and the Sabbath, against this background.

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