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THE BOOK OF ROMANS
Week 32, Chapter 14
Romans chapter 14 requires some explanation before we read this most challenging chapter. We’ve spent significant time over the years talking about context as regards studying God’s Word; and never has context in its broadest sense been more important than in interpreting Romans 14. To sum it up, context doesn’t just mean the immediate or surrounding sentences of the passage we’re interested in. It isn’t limited to the contiguous paragraph or even chapter; it can involve the context of the entire book and at times, especially as concerns Paul, the overall meaning and context of the several Bible books he authored when taken as an entire body of work. However as it relates to our Hebraic heritage approach to studying the New Testament, the Scriptural context must also include the Jewish identity and mindset of the author and often the characters he is writing about, as taken within the Jewish culture where Judaism dominated during the 1st century A.D. That is no easy task and while I think we have covered this broad contextual cultural background thoroughly in the Book of Acts before we began our study of the Book of Romans, I will borrow from some of my teaching of Acts to reiterate some critical points that makes all the difference in extracting proper meaning from these important and inspired words.
One final point and we’ll read Romans 14. One of the best things that ever happened to enhance Bible study was the addition of verse and chapter markings in the Holy Scriptures around 1000 years ago. It gave us a way to more easily communicate what it is we are examining, and it divided up the Bible into more bite-sized chunks for easier mental digestion of its words. At the same time, especially the chapter markings and divisions are one of the worst things that ever happened for Bible study because readers can get the sub-conscious sense of a change in direction, tone, and context each time we end one chapter and begin the next. Or worse, we assume that we can take a chapter as a stand-alone literary unit that is encapsulated and set apart from all that surrounds it. That is, we kind of feel as though a chapter doesn’t have to be very connected to all that came before or will come after it. And as you’ll soon see, the downside of adding chapter markings to the Bible has contributed greatly to the creation of some misguided and wrong-minded commentaries and interpretations of Romans 14. Open your Bibles to Romans chapter 14.
READ ROMANS CHAPTER 14 all
C.E.B. Cranfield says this to preface his commentary on Romans 14:
“What exactly the problem is with which Paul is concerned in this section is not at all easy to decide, and various explanations have been suggested”.
Cranfield then goes on to name and briefly explain what he sees as the 4 most prevalent viewpoints of what Paul is trying to address in Romans 14, and they are all startlingly different. So to be clear: there is no consensus within Christian scholars of what problem Paul is attempting to deal with. This disarray about understanding Romans 14 is because Paul’s problem has as much to do with the Traditions and worldview of Judaism as it does with Christianity; and Lord knows that gentile Christian Bible scholars have tended to avoid knowledge of Judaism and Jewish society in considering what to say especially about New Testament writings. What the issue of Romans 14 mostly centers around is what Paul means by those whose faith is weak versus those whose faith is strong. Paul actually uses the word “weak’, but the word “strong” doesn’t appear; it is merely implied since strong is the expected opposite of weak (at least according to the Western gentile Christian mindset). Interestingly the Apostle to the Gentiles is telling the Roman Believers that they need to accept and embrace those who are “weak” in the faith, with “the faith” meaning a faith in Jesus the Jew as Lord and Savior. But what does he mean by weak? What is a weak faith? Again, what Paul means by this term is why we have so much disagreement about what it is that Paul sees as a problem. The way that various Bible commentators have decided upon what Paul means naturally happens according to their particular predetermined doctrines and beliefs that the commentators already hold about Paul, Jews, and Christianity in general. Thus many assumptions are made and the assumptions are through the eyes of gentile Christians who are steeped primarily in the Western version of institutional Christianity.
From a top level what Paul is dealing with in Romans 14 is inter-personal relationships within the mixed congregation of Jewish and gentile Believers located in the City of Rome. No doubt the instructions are meant to address something Paul must have heard about the goings on among Believers there; but at the same time his admonitions are general enough to apply to Believers everywhere provided we can get a good handle on what it is he’s actually telling us. Here is where context plays its enormous role as we ask ourselves this basic question: what is Paul’s rationale behind the instructions he is giving on how to handle those who are weak in the faith, and thus have different views on certain issues of theology and behavior when compared to the more mature or stronger in the faith? Clearly the rationale is to love your neighbor as yourself; this principle has been front and center in Paul’s teaching and thought since chapter 12. Here’s the thing: recognizing that “love your neighbor” is the foundation of Paul’s thought process is far easier to spot when we disregard those pesky chapter markings. Taking out the chapter markings changes our perspective and allows for an easy, uninterrupted flow of that central tenant of the Godly lifestyle to love your neighbor as yourself. Giving attention to the chapter markings causes us to sub-consciously segregate the “love your neighbor” teaching of Paul as is if it applies only to a specific section of Paul’s letter in chapter 12 from which we have moved on. But there’s more.
Also back in Romans chapter 12, we read this:
Romans 12:1-5 CJB
CJB Romans 12:1 I exhort you, therefore, brothers, in view of God's mercies, to offer yourselves as a sacrifice, living and set apart for God. This will please him; it is the logical "Temple worship" for you. 2 In other words, do not let yourselves be conformed to the standards of the 'olam hazeh (this present age). Instead, keep letting yourselves be transformed by the renewing of your minds; so that you will know what God wants and will agree that what he wants is good, satisfying and able to succeed.
3 For I am telling every single one of you, through the grace that has been given to me, not to have exaggerated ideas about your own importance. Instead, develop a sober estimate of yourself based on the standard which God has given to each of you, namely, trust.
4 For just as there are many parts that compose one body, but the parts don't all have the same function; 5 so there are many of us, and in union with the Messiah we comprise one body, with each of us belonging to the others.
Paul then goes on to give a list of spiritual gifts of which each Believer can expect to be given at least one. So here to start Romans 14 Paul is continuing with the theme that the Body of Believers is going to be quite diverse except that instead of talking about how different Believers will each receive different gifts and each is a necessary part to help form the entire Body of Believers, now it is that those who are judged as having a weaker faith are also to be included and accepted as-is, without prejudice, into the Believing congregation. Still in line with that same thought, back in Romans 12:3, Paul also speaks of how each Believer needs to soberly measure him or her self against the standard God has imposed upon all Believers; and that standard is trust. CJB Romans 12:3 For I am telling every single one of you, through the grace that has been given to me, not to have exaggerated ideas about your own importance. Instead, develop a sober estimate of yourself based on the standard which God has given to each of you, namely, trust. Thus some Believers will have a great trust, and some a small trust; most will probably fall somewhere in between the two extremes. So in Romans 14:1 Paul uses the term “weak” to denote where certain Believers fall in God’s standard of faith and trust; they are those who are currently in a condition of having only a very small and fragile faith and trust.
So two things must be made very clear before we proceed: first, everyone Paul is talking about is Believers. And second, at this point there is no distinction being made between gentile and Jewish Believers; thus “weak” doesn’t point directly at Jews or directly at gentiles. I can’t emphasize how important this is because many Christian commentaries here make the unwarranted leap that the weak in faith must be the Messianic Jews of the Rome congregation, and so they base all their interpretation and conclusions that follows on that assumption. That is, Christian gentiles are elevated in faith and trust above Messianic Jews.
Paul’s instruction is to not get into pointless arguments with those Believers who are weak in faith; those who are at the low end of the trust scale. Why? Because they can be turned off and rather easily driven away, even if what they are being told is technically theologically correct. To do this to a person who is weak in faith would not be loving your neighbor. As an illustration: infants are valuable family members, but they cannot eat steak just yet because neither do they have teeth to chew it nor stomachs developed enough to digest it. Similarly, those weak in the faith are valuable members of the Body of Christ; however they are not spiritually developed enough, yet, to deal with the more difficult or nuanced aspects of the faith so they have to be handled quite deftly and tenderly so as not to discourage or overwhelm them.
So for a majority of Christians who think that at this point in Romans 14 Paul has created a dividing line of faith (Jews are weak and gentile Believers are strong), then when they read verse 2 they automatically think that what is being said is that those strong in faith can eat any humanly edible thing, while Jews who are weak eat only vegetables so as to keep Kosher. Remember who is speaking: Paul the Jew who has said “Heaven Forbid” numerous times in Romans in response to the straw man’s question of whether the Law of Moses was abolished or had perhaps become irrelevant for gentiles or even all Believers. We must again, then, go forward in proper context. The Jewish Rabbi Paul is speaking of eating in the same terms that he automatically thinks: Kosher. Paul doesn’t think like a gentile because he is a Jew! That is, for a Jew food is NOT just any edible thing; food is defined as only what God has set apart as food for those who worship Him. Therefore many edible things (like Pork or camels) are not food to Paul and to eat “anything” doesn’t mean it in the sense of any edible thing found on planet Earth, without restriction, no matter how weird or disgusting. He means it in the sense of any permissible food as God has listed in the Torah. So for him (from his Jewish viewpoint) the more-or-less opposite of eating “anything” that is Torah permitted is eating only vegetables.
First of all Judaism did not and does not promote vegetarianism as the proper religious diet. However it is true that the real kosher issues occur mainly as it regards meat. That is, there is not a biblical listing of plant life that must be avoided as food; but there is a biblical listing of animal life that must be avoided as food. So for certain a Jew is highly unlikely to ever become ritually defiled by eating vegetables obtained almost anywhere under most any circumstance. However meat is a much more sensitive issue and it is liable to being either of a prohibited kind of animal flesh or of having been of a permissible kind but mishandled and thus rendered unclean (and the real fear among Diaspora Jews is that if they purchased it from a gentile they wouldn’t know before they ate it if the meat had somehow become rendered unclean).
Second: remember Paul is addressing this to Jews and gentiles who live in Rome. Thus for Jews especially they had to be careful about the meat they bought and ate. Rome was the multi-cultural capital of the Empire and so it was rife with pagan idols and altars. Roman Jews could buy a perfectly permissible kind of meat (beef for instance), but had it possibly been sacrificed to a heathen god? Had it been properly bled? Had the cow itself been properly killed? Had a ritually unclean person perhaps come into contact with the meat? How could they possibly be certain of any of this? If any of these issues came into play then the meat became ritually unclean; but there would in most cases be no outward sign of it for a Jew to be able to tell. Some Jewish Believers apparently had become so consumed with being 100% certain about what they ate that they ate nothing that could possibly have been defiled; they decided to play it safe and eat only vegetables. However other Believers took only reasonable precautions and continued to eat the full diet allotted to Believers according to the Torah, while also understanding as we should that Yeshua is the Living Water and should they accidentally eat something unclean they could depend upon Yeshua to ritually cleanse them. So I think it is fair in this instance to see the weak as those Believing Jews and gentiles who rigidly followed the Torah to the letter, but even more they also applied the strict Jewish laws and customs of Halakhah regarding food that went well above the biblical Torah requirements. And therefore they took no chances, eating only vegetables as a display of their piety.
So what is Paul’s ruling about this situation? He says in verse 3 that the one who eats everything that God places on the menu as food for worshippers should not look down upon the one who is so greatly concerned with not letting anything prohibited or unclean accidentally touch his or her lips…..and vice versa. And in another segment of this principle that gets regularly misconstrued, we read: and the abstainer must not pass judgment on the one who eats anything, because God has accepted him- . Too often this is interpreted as meaning that God now accepts humans eating any edible thing that can be obtained. But that is not what it says or what the point is. Rather it is that the one who eats all the foods and the one who eats only vegetables have both been accepted by God (both are saved Believers), and so especially as Believers one should not pass judgment on the other based upon laxness or rigidness of diet from one another’s perspective. And why is that? Because for one Believer to pass judgment on another Believer violates the principle of “love your neighbor as yourself”.
Verse 5 takes up another contentious issue, and the issue is “days”. Please follow me carefully on this. The CJB begins this verse this way: CJB Romans 14:5 One person considers some days more holy than others… The word “holy” does NOT appear in the Greek text and most English Bible versions don’t have it either. The RSV is more typical of English versions and is more true to the Greek. RSV Romans 14:5 One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind. There is nothing in those words that denote some days as holy and others that aren’t. This is not about “holy” but rather about personally important days. But the typical Christian take on this verse is that Paul has declared all the biblical holy days as abolished; that of course takes direct aim at Sabbath and the 7 Biblical Feasts. Nothing of the kind is said or implied. Paul isn’t referring to biblical holy days or Sabbaths or he would have plainly said so. Rather in the Roman world different days of the week were assigned as more or less important or even dedicated to different gods and goddesses. Even the days of the week were named for gods and goddesses. Apparently there was concern among some Believers in Rome that meeting, or buying, or working, or doing whatever activity on one particular day of the week was better than another day due to some custom and tradition that had arisen. Omens of good luck and bad luck were even assigned to some days, and this sort of superstition went deep into Roman culture and of course affected the local Jewish population.
In order to believe that Paul was abrogating biblical holy days and saying that, for instance, Passover or Sabbath was no more important than any other day of the year or week would require us to take everything else we’ve read of Paul as hypocritical or false or simply error. And it certainly wouldn’t follow the pattern of Jesus Christ who we find at the Temple in Jerusalem for the biblical feasts, teaching in synagogues on Sabbath, and telling others in the Sermon on the Mount that they were most certainly to continue following the Law of Moses if they wanted to be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. In other words, this is a prime example of why we do NOT take Romans chapter 14 as a separate, self contained theological unit in the Bible; but rather it is only a part of a whole and is fully connected to all of Romans…even born out of everything Paul has said to this point in Romans…. and it extends to all the others of Paul’s epistles as well as to the Book of Acts, which spoke a great deal about Paul. Further, Romans 14 carries no more or less theological importance or doctrinal weight and authority as any other chapter in the New Testament. So we certainly can’t take Paul’s words of Romans 14 as essentially overriding Yeshua or even overriding other things he’s said on the same subject in other passages that he’d written. But the good news is that we don’t have any contradiction; the issue for us is to turn off those doctrinal filters in our minds and avoid reading into Romans 14 things that Paul never said nor meant.
As for the last few words of verse 5 that says that the important thing about “days” is for each person to be convinced in his own mind, let’s understand what this does NOT mean; it doesn’t mean that a free-for-all concerning God’s appointed times has just been announced. First this isn’t about biblical holy days, and second the concept is that the issue of “days” should not be contentious among Believers. If one Believer wants to hold Mondays aside as a day that portends the best day to go buy food or even maybe to pray, but another Believer thinks that Mondays ought to be avoided for some superstitious or cultural reason, so what? Let each be convinced in his own mind and leave it there. It’s not worth a fight between Believers since “days” has nothing to do with the Laws of God, and all such arguments do is sow needless discord. And such differences of opinion and preference certainly ought not to split the congregation.
Let’s look at verses 6 and 7. Paul says that a person who observes a special day honors the Lord, and a person who eats any permitted food honors the Lord, and so does the person who only eats vegetables also honor the Lord. In the context of these passages all of these different people are Believers and which ever preference they choose they honor the Lord. Does that mean that simply “choosing” is what honors God? No. What Paul is getting at is that Believers pray and thank God every day. Whether it is a “special” day in the eyes of some Believers, or just any day; whether a person partakes of all the permissible foods or greatly restricts himself only to vegetables, a blessing over the day and the food is ALWAYS said as part of Jewish tradition in Jewish culture. So for the Believer God is part of every equation, and He is always glorified in prayer no matter which of these situations and preferences are chosen. And as concerns inter-personal relationships, for Believers the Lord is a partner in every relationship among Believers because we all share the same Holy Spirit of God. Whether in death or in life, Believers share a relationship with God and with one another in Spirit. And since life does not end at the grave it is indeed a theological truth that, especially as Believers, we belong to God both during this present life and in our life after death. Relationships don’t end upon our death.
Paul’s conclusion is that we are so bonded together as Believers…whether we are of strong faith or of weak faith….and regardless of our personal preferences regarding eating or special days….that we have no business in judging one another about any of these things. In fact, we have no business in criticizing or looking down on one another at all. After all, we are all going to be judged at some point anyway by God Himself. And then Paul quotes Isaiah 45:23. Remember that because in Paul’s day there were no verse numbers and chapter divisions, then the protocol was that a short section of Scripture would be quoted rather than the entire passage from which it came. So the intent is that the reader or listener would call to mind not only those few words but also the words that preceded and succeeded them. I won’t read all of Isaiah 45 but I will read from verse 21b to the end.
READ ISAIAH 45:21b – end
Notice two things: first is that this passage is all about justice and God being the judge of everyone; no one will escape judgment and He is the One who is Judge. But second, just so we don’t think that God has elevated gentiles above Jews, or that one group has been left out, or that Paul is talking about interpersonal relationships regarding gentile Christians but not Jewish Believers, note the final few words of Isaiah 45: “but all the descendants of Israel will find justice and glory in Adonai”. Here is yet another point of connection between gentile Believers and Jewish Believers that makes us equal in God’s eyes: all followers of Yeshua become part of spiritual Israel. It is we who will find justice and glory in God, so there is no need for us to judge one another in this life. Every Believer, says Paul in verse 12, will have to give an account of ourselves to God and at that time He will hand out justice and judgment as He deems fit. The good news is that as Believers we will not be condemned because Yeshua was condemned in our stead.
Verse 13 is a midrash on Leviticus 19:14. That makes sense because Paul has used “love your neighbor” from Leviticus 19 as his theme and rationale for his instructions to the Roman Believers since Romans chapter 12. In Leviticus 19:14 we read: 14 "'Do not speak a curse against a deaf person or place an obstacle in the way of a blind person; rather, fear your God; I am ADONAI.
At first it might be hard to see why Paul would use this particular verse as his basis for what he has to say in Romans 14:13 until we realize that in Judaism of his day the term “blind” was used metaphorically for a person who didn’t know or follow the Torah. So “blind” typically meant the educationally unlearned; in Jewish society all education was religious education. This, then, relates to the opening verse of Romans 14 when Paul speaks about the weak in faith. So we get a bit of an insight into Rav Sha’ul’s meaning of “weak” by seeing that from his Jewish worldview the root cause for being “weak in faith” is a lack of knowledge of Torah. So who is it that wields the stumbling block thrown in front of the weak? It can only be the strong in faith. Paul does not want the strong in faith to put a stumbling block in the path of the weak in faith so in this case the strong in faith refer to those Believers who are more learned in God’s Torah, and are thus more stringently Torah observant. Therefore Believers who have studied and practiced Torah (which would be mostly Jews) are not to be prideful, arrogant, or hurtful to those Believers who are “blind” (that is they don’t know Torah likely because they are mostly gentiles). I realize that you have probably never heard a Bible commentator speak about this passage in this way before; but that is because we are exposing Paul’s intrinsic Jewishness and remembering that this man is a self-proclaimed Pharisee of Pharisees and extremely learned in Torah having attended one of the most prestigious religious schools in Jerusalem. Paul is not writing as though he is in the shoes of a 21st century Western, English speaking Christian so we must put away our Evangelical Christian filters. Rather to dig down and extract his intended meaning, we must put ourselves into his sandals; the shoes of this 1st century Greek and Hebrew speaking, learned Jewish Rabbi. And when we do, revelation pops out!
But now we hit one of the most challenging yet significant verses in this chapter: verse 14. We won’t be able to complete discussing it in this lesson. Here Paul says that Yeshua Himself has persuaded Paul of something and, says the CJB (and the majority of other translations), it is that nothing of itself is unclean. But if a person considers something unclean, then to him it is unclean. Here is where we need to go back to our Acts chapter 10 lesson about Peter’s vision of the animals coming down from Heaven in a 4 cornered sheet of cloth. Like in Acts chapter 10, it is the typical Christian assumption that Paul says kosher eating has been abolished along with the concept of clean and unclean. Let’s park here awhile because there are a few stereotypes and assumptions that need to be dealt with so that we can properly interpret Paul’s words. We’re going to get technical, but there is no other way to explain the issue without doing so. Besides, if you like a good mystery you’ll like where we’re going with this.
First I’ll whet your appetite by telling you that the 3 times that English Bibles insert the word “unclean” in Romans14:14 are all typical but questionable translations. The Greek word is koinos and in all other usage in the Bible it means common or ordinary; not unclean. The Greek word for unclean is akathartos but akathartos does not appear in Romans 14:14. These two words koinos and akathartos are, however, used side by side as separate and different adjectives in Acts 10:14 as further proof that they cannot possibly be synonyms and it is further proof that translators have had much trouble trying to figure out how to present the meaning of this word. The CJB, for instance, translates this verse in Acts as follows: CJB Acts 10:14 But Kefa said, "No, sir! Absolutely not! I have never eaten food that was unclean or treif." In this verse David Stern is translating koinos to unclean (the rather standard Christian translation) and akathartos to treif. We’ll only find the translation to Treif in the CJB as it is actually a Yiddish derivative from a Hebrew word that means torn…that is, it speaks of prey that was torn (attacked and killed) by a wild animal. Any meat animal that has been killed by a wild animal may not be consumed; therefore in a kind of slang, treif indicates something that can’t be eaten by followers of the God of Israel because the rules of Judaism don’t allow it (whatever that reason might be).
But the KJV has translated that same verse this way: KJV Acts 10:14 But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. This seems to be more correct and it accords with the actual literal translations of koinos and akathartos. So even before we try to understand what the word common means in this context of diet, it does not seem to precisely mean ritually unclean because there is an entirely separate word for unclean in the Greek language: akathartos. So why are verses containing the word koinos (common) usually translated in English to unclean? I suspect it is because it works to reinforce long held Christian stereotypes and doctrines that allow us to manipulate the meaning of the key word (koinos) in this verse, and therefore change the key meaning of this verse in Romans 14:14 from a discussion of common to unclean. Let me say it again: it is doubtful that the term “ritually unclean” appears in this verse; rather, Paul used the word common and Christian translators have nearly universally decided to change it to unclean to better fit with a doctrinal agenda that claims that Yeshua and Paul together abolished the biblical dietary laws.
So what does the term common mean as it applies to food? The reality is that within the Torah itself there is no status of edible things called common so we are left with a bit of a head-scratcher. Rather the Torah describes food in terms of prohibited and permitted food items and in another and different set of rules that includes food, but it extends to other matters as well, there are the clean and unclean categories. But, again, the term “common” is not a term used to describe food in the Torah. Rather we only find it used that way in the New Testament. Why? I believe it can only be the result of the influence of Halakhah, Jewish Law and Tradition, on Judaism and on Jewish society in general. I’ve demonstrated in both the Book of Acts and in the Book of Romans that terms and meanings used in Jewish Law can be found in the New Testament because they were just an unconscience way of speaking and thinking within Jewish culture in that era. Actual Jewish Law, Halakhah, Tradition, did not exist in the Old Testament era because Judaism did not exist in the Old Testament era. Judaism, and thus Jewish Law, only sprang up during the 400 year span in between the end of the Old Testament and beginning of the New and thus we only find its societal influence in the New Testament. As an aside, most Jewish scholars will tell you that (much to their disappointment) the single largest and best recorded body of knowledge about Judaism in the 1st century A.D. is the New Testament! But most important for our purposes, clearly common (koinos) can’t mean ritually unclean mainly because there already was a precise Greek word in wide use that means unclean and that word is akathartos. To repeat: as we looked at Acts 10 we saw that both of these words were used in the same verse, as different adjectives that mean different things, and the King James version is one of the few English Bible versions to acknowledge that it is self evident that koinos and akathartos can’t both mean ritually unclean.
So, let’s substitute the more literal and usual English word for koinos in Romans 14:14 and see what we get: “I know….that is I have been persuaded by Lord Yeshua the Messiah….that nothing is common of itself. But if a person considers something common, then for him it is common.” Another definition of koinos is ordinary, in the sense of meaning not-special. Or, in Jewish thought, not set-apart or not holy. I believe what we have in the term koinos is sort of a relatively new Tradition in Judaism that was created as a middle ground between holy and unclean as regards food and it came about for practical reasons because 95% of all Jews in Paul’s era lived NOT in the Holy Land among thousands of their fellow Jews, but in the Diaspora among millions of gentiles. That is, the vast bulk of Jews in the 1st century lived scattered all over the Asian, European and North African Continents in a pagan world of gentiles where often just one or a few Jewish families would live in a tiny ghetto among the majority gentiles. Kosher eating would have been especially problematic for Jews because the requirements of Judaism added many nuances and rules to the rather simple and straightforward dietary rules as found mostly in Leviticus chapter 11. Rules of Jewish Law made it nearly impossible to eat meat if it hadn’t been raised, fed, killed, butchered, handled, cooked and served exclusively by Jews.
This issue weighs heavily on proper doctrine for Believers so I don’t want to hurry through it because I know that many of you are unsure about the issue of kosher eating and whether it applies to you or if it has somehow become irrelevant because of Christ.
Therefore we’ll stop here and pick this up next week to conclude Romans chapter 14.