Let not then your good be evil spoken of: for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:16-17).
God desires for all who believe in the name of Jesus to be one (John 17:20-23) and to have the same mind and the same judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10). In order even to begin this process we must all submit ourselves under God’s mighty hand and to be instructed by Him and not the world around us (1 Peter 5:6, Colossians 2:1-9, Romans 12:1-2). And yet, even though we are to be of the same mind and the same judgment, there are matters concerning which God has provided liberty and are not of significant concern. In matters relating to the faith, we must hold firm and not compromise (Galatians 1:6-9). In matters of liberty, we must consider the interests of others and resolve to not put a stumbling block in a fellow Christian’s way (Philippians 2:1-4, Romans 14:13).
This is why the message of Romans 14:17 is so essential: we must use proper judgment to discern the matters of “eating and drinking” so as to not violate or grieve the “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
“Eating and drinking” are the matters of liberty– in context, the eating of meats (Romans 14:2). Observing days is a similar issue that is mentioned, demonstrating that we should not interpret “eating and drinking” exclusively literally (cf. Romans 14:5). These liberties involve practices or means of accomplishing practices that are within the realm of Biblical authority (Colossians 3:17) and yet for which God has not made specific provision.
“Eating and drinking” is contrasted with “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The Kingdom of God is not about the former, but it certainly is about the latter.
“Righteousness in the Holy Spirit” involves that which God has established– doing what God has determined is right, and avoiding that which God has determined is wrong (Romans 12:9). There can be no room for compromising these standards– those who approve what God condemns or condemns what God approves are considered accursed (Galatians 1:6-9, 5:19-21). To believe that Romans 14 can provide “flexibility” in God’s standards of righteousness is misguided and certainly not Paul’s intent. The matters concerning which Paul speaks in Romans 14 are the matters of “food and drink” which are not to hinder the Kingdom of God. If God says we must do something, we must do it. if God says we must avoid something, we must avoid it.
Paul does not stop there. He also speaks of the “peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Peace is not merely the absence of hostility or strife– it involves killing hostility (cf. Ephesians 2:15-17). To have peace requires each person to seek the best interest of others and not themselves, and to work to build up– even if one’s personal preference must be sacrificed (Philippians 2:1-4, Romans 14:19). We must remember that in order for us to have the peace that surpasses understanding and to be reconciled to God, Jesus needed to kill the enmity through suffering and enduring the cross (Ephesians 2:11-18). If we will have peace in the Kingdom, we are going to have to suffer and endure (cf. Romans 8:17-18, 15:1)!
“Joy in the Holy Spirit” is based in our great salvation that God is accomplishing (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-9). There is joy when people repent and do what is right (Luke 15:7). There is joy when we walk in the truth (3 John 1:4). We are to take joy and happiness in one another and the encouragement we derive from one another in our walk of faith (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:19, Hebrews 10:24-25). In Philippians 2:2-4, Paul tells us exactly how we can make the joy of God complete: to be of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind, doing nothing out of rivalry, considering everyone better than themselves, looking toward the interests of others. This is the happiness we can have in the Spirit!
While we have examined righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit separately, it only works when all three are present. The Kingdom requires not just the righteousness of the Holy Spirit– peace and joy in the Spirit must also be present.
“Eating and drinking” may not violate the righteousness in the Holy Spirit, but if people insist on their liberties to the detriment of the consciences of their fellow Christians, or if Christians vigorously condemn fellow Christians for matters of liberty and not on the basis of revealed truth, the peace and joy of the Holy Spirit is violated, no matter how “right” or “legitimate” the doctrinal position.
God is not merely concerned about truth– He is also concerned about people (1 Timothy 2:4). We are to be known as Jesus’ disciples by our love for one another (John 13:35), and biting and devouring one another on the basis of liberties does not reflect that love (cf. Galatians 5:15).
We must hold firm to the truth and proclaim it to all men, embodying the righteousness of the Holy Spirit. But we must also work to kill any hostility that may exist among us and to seek the best interest of one another and to share in the peace and joy in the Spirit– and that is going to mean that we are going to have to sacrifice some personal opinions, desires, and liberties for the sake of one another. Let us seek to uphold the righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, building up the Kingdom, and glorify God!
Ethan R. Longhenry