Understanding Romans 14:5-6
by Kelly McDonald, Jr.
Romans 14:5-6 is among the most misunderstood verses in the Bible. Let’s look at the two verses in question: “5 One man esteems one day as more important. Another esteems every day alike. Let each man be fully assured 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. He who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks” (Romans 14:5-6, KLV).
These verses have been misunderstood as negating the Sabbath and other commandments. We will examine the example of Paul, the context of Romans 14, and some history. These sources will clarify the meaning of Paul’s words.
One of the ways we interpret history is through what we call primary sources. This can include people who were eye witnesses to events as well as archaeological findings from the time period. The Apostle Peter was a contemporary of Paul and thus a primary source to the subject matter at hand. Here is what Peter said about Paul:
“15 And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote unto you; 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; wherein are some things hard to be understood, which the ignorant and unstedfast wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction. 17 Ye therefore, beloved, knowing these things beforehand, beware lest, being carried away with the error of the wicked, ye fall from your own stedfastness” (2 Peter 3:15-17, ASV).
We learn some important details from Peter’s words. Apparently, Paul wrote some things that are hard to understand, but they do not negate the other Scriptures. The other Scriptures are a reference to the Old Testament. They did not have a New Testament in that time. Paul was a very educated man, which is why some people struggled with his words.
With this background understanding from Paul’s life, let’s look further at the context of Romans 14:5-6 and the specific language used.
First of all, in Romans 14:1 Paul informed us that this issue was considered disputable. This means it is not clearly defined by Scripture. “Now accept one who is weak in faith, but not for disputes over opinions.” Secondly, the Greek word Paul uses for day, hemera, refers to any common day. It refers to the other six days of the week. Thus, he is addressing common days, not holy days like the Sabbath.
Third, the Greek word for holy, hagios, is not even found in this chapter (Romans 14). Thus, he is addressing common days, not holy days like the Sabbath. If he were referring to the Sabbath, Paul would have used a specific Greek word for Sabbath, such as sabbaton (or similar words). Fourth, Paul was not addressing which days God considers to be holy, but what days men esteem higher than others. God is the one who consecrated the Sabbath, not man.
Lastly, one must also consider his audience. Paul wrote these words to the Romans. He is applying these verses specifically to days that the Romans considered to be important. Let’s take a look at some primary sources from the time before, during, and after Paul that will illuminate the meaning of these verses.
The Romans were very superstitious. They considered some days of the week to be unlucky, such as Saturday (Tibullus, Elegies, 1.3,17-18; Propertius, Elegies, 4.1,81-86). They also considered certain days of the month bad for specific activities such as business or travel (Marcus Varro, On the Latin Language, 6.29-31; Plutarch, Roman Questions, 25). There were even days of certain months on which activities were discouraged, such as marriage (Ovid, Fasti, 5.470-492). On some days, common activities were encouraged, such as eating certain foods (Ovid, Fasti, 6.169 – For instance, beans and spelt were eaten on June 1st to honor Juno).
The Romans conducted their behavior in this manner for one or more reasons. Sometimes these prohibitions were to honor a specific god or goddess (such as their activity on June 1st). Sometimes a certain date coincided with a fortunate or bad event that happened in Roman history (for instance, June 23rd was considered ‘lucky’ because a Carthaginian general, who was an enemy of Rome, killed himself on that day – Ovid, Fasti, 6.769). At other times, the Romans were just superstitious. For instance, the Romans considered odd numbers as unlucky. Certain odd days of a month were considered bad for business (Plutarch, Roman Questions, 25). For the superstitions of Augustus, who even thought his shoes were an omen, see Seutonius, Life of Augustus, XCII.
Another issue raised in Romans 14:5-6 is the issue of abstaining from meat. There was a strain of thought in the Roman world which believed very strongly in vegetarianism (Ovid, Metamorphosis,15.76-112, 140-142, 458-462; Seneca, Epistulae, 108.17-22; Plutarch: On the Eating of Flesh, 1.41 and On Isis and Osiris, sections 2,4,7; Lucius Apuleis, Metamorphosis, 11.26-29). From these sources we can see that their vegetarian beliefs were rooted either in the worship of other gods (such as Isis and Osiris) or in a form of reincarnation which viewed the spirits of dead people as dwelling in animals.
With this historical understanding, we can better ascertain the meaning of these verses. Paul himself was an educated man and even a Roman citizen. While he grew up Jewish, he also grew up in a culture that practiced these Roman superstitions. He was aware of them.
What do we learn from Romans 14:5-6? If we are going to consider a common day as important to perform a specific activity, then we should do so unto the Lord and not to a pagan deity or superstition. He is addressing this specific Roman cultural activity for common days and activities, not the Sabbath or any day declared holy by God.
Paul’s example in the Bible shows us that he did not condemn any observance of the law, but that he continued to keep and reverence the Sabbath even after his conversion to Christianity (for a few examples: Acts 13, Acts 17, 18, Acts 20:16, Acts 27:9, and I Cor.16:8). All of the early churches kept the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week.
God is the one who declared the Sabbath Holy, not man (Genesis 2:1-3, Exodus 31:12-18, and Leviticus 23:1-6 to name a few). The seventh-day Sabbath persists even into the New Heavens and the New Earth (Isaiah 66:22-24).
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org