So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
Romans 14 is a call mainly for the strong to love the weak. It goes the other way also. For example, in verse 3 Paul says, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” So both those who are free in their conscience to eat and those who aren’t should learn how to love each other and how not to judge or despise each other. But mainly the chapter is addressed to the strong who are in danger of flaunting their freedom and causing the weak to stumble.
Exhortations to the Strong
So the exhortations to the strong run through the chapter: Verse 13: “Decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” Verse 15b: “Do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” Verse 20: “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.” Verse 21: “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” Verse 22: “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.”
I left out a very important one in verse 19 because I want to end on it—it’s a positive summary exhortation: “Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” We will come back to this.
Reasons Why These Exhortations Should Be Obeyed
Besides these exhortations mainly to the strong, the chapter is woven together with reasons that Paul gives for why these exhortations to love and not to destroy should be obeyed. For example, verse 9: Christ died to be Lord both of the dead and the living—how much more the strong and the weak! Verse 3b: Don’t judge the brother because “God has welcomed him.” Verse 10: Don’t judge because “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Verse 6b: Don’t judge or despise because it is possible to glorify God by eating and by abstaining: “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
Now in today’s text what Paul does is give one more reason why the strong should not flaunt their freedom and put stumbling blocks in the way of the weak. We see the exhortation in verse 16 and then the positive expression of it in verse 19. Verse 16: “So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.” Verse 19: “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” Then between these two exhortations (the negative one in verse 16, the positive one in verse 19) he gives a reason that he has not mentioned before in this chapter. But it is deeply rooted in chapters 1–8.
He says in verse 17, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Then in verse 18 he confirms that serving Christ like that is indeed a manifestation of God’s kingdom because it pleases God and wins serious approval from man. “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.”
Don’t Use Your Good to Hurt Your Brother (v. 16)
So let’s start with verse 16: “So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.”
Paul has just said in verse 15, “If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” Now he says, Therefore (oun), “do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.” In other words, if you take your good faith and your good freedom and your good, clean food, and use it in away that causes a brother to be grieved, and possibly even destroyed, then your “good” faith and your “good” freedom and “your” good, clean food will not be praised. They will be spoken of as evil. In fact they will have become evil—you are no longer “walking in love” (v. 15). And lovelessness should be spoken of as evil.
So Paul says in verse 16: Don’t do that. Don’t let that happen. Don’t use your good faith and your good liberty and your good, clean food that way. Why would you do that?
And he gives the new reason now in verse 17 for why that makes no sense. Why would you think that your eating and drinking in liberty is so important that you must hurt your brother? Don’t you know (v. 17) that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
What Paul Means by “Kingdom of God”
This is the only place in the book of Romans where Paul uses the word “kingdom.” But he uses it elsewhere and we can know what he means by “kingdom of God.” Four clarifications:
1) First, he means the reign of God, not the realm of God. We tend to think of a kingdom as a place. But for Jesus and for Paul it almost never has that meaning. Rather it means the reign or the rule of God. You can see that here: Where the Holy Spirit is bringing about righteousness and peace and joy, the kingdom (that is, the reign of God) is being manifested.
2) The kingdom of God refers to his saving reign, not to his total providence over all things. In one sense God reigns over all. So you could call everything “God’s kingdom.” But that is clearly not the way Paul uses the term. The kingdom of God is God’s redemptive reign. His saving reign. When Jesus said to pray, “Hallowed by your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6: 9-10), he meant that the coming of the kingdom would be the extent of God’s rule where his name is hallowed and his will is done the way angels do it—obediently and joyfully. So the kingdom of God is God’s reign, not realm; and it is his saving, redeeming reign bringing about the hallowing of his name and the joyful doing of his will.
3) The kingdom of God is fulfilled partially in the present and will be consummated at the end of the age when Christ comes a second time. Paul speaks of unbelievers not inheriting the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9), and so treats the kingdom as yet future. But then he also says to believers that “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,” and so treats the kingdom as already present.
4) The kingdom of God and the kingdom of Christ are the same. He says in Ephesians 5:5, “Everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous . . . has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” There is one kingdom, and it is the kingdom of Christ and of God. So to serve the kingdom of God is to serve Christ, and to serve Christ is to serve the kingdom of God.
So Paul is saying in verse 16, Don’t use your good—your good faith and your good liberty and your good food—to hurt anyone. Don’t put that much weight on eating and drinking. It’s not that crucial. Why? He answers in verse 17: Because “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The saving, redeeming, sanctifying rule of God—the kingdom of God—has broken into this world in Jesus Christ, the Messiah—the King—and the evidence of his rule in your lives is not eating and drinking. You may think that your liberty to eat all things is what God’s kingdom produces. But that’s not quite right. What the kingdom produces is something deeper and larger that governs how you use your liberty to eat all things.
Righteousness and Peace and Joy in the Holy Spirit (v. 17)
What does he mean that “the kingdom of God is . . . righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”? That is not immediately obvious because Paul uses at least two of these terms in more than one way. Righteousness can mean the righteousness that God imputes to us when he declares us righteous through faith even when we are guilty sinners (Romans 4:5). And it can mean the righteousness that he then, on the basis of that right standing, begins to work in us (Romans 6:13, 16, 18, 19, 20). And peace can mean the peace that we have with God (Romans 5:1) or the peace we have with each other (2 Corinthians 13:11).
I am inclined to think Paul has in mind the second kind of righteousness and peace—namely, the kind that he works in us in relationship to each other. But it may be that he wants us to think of both and remember that our practical righteousness and peace that we work out with each other is built on the perfect righteousness that he imputes to us by faith alone and the peace that we enjoy with him.
I say this because it is remarkable how similar this sequence of righteousness, peace, and joy is with the sequence of thought in Romans 5:1-2. “Since we have been justified by faith [that is, declared righteous!], we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” So there is righteousness imputed through faith, peace with God, and joy in the hope of his glory. So I wonder if Paul doesn’t want us to have that in our mind as the basis of the righteousness and peace and joy that he refers to here in Romans 14:17.
What makes me think that he probably is referring to our practical lived-out righteousness (rather than the imputed righteousness of Christ) and the practical-lived out peace with each other is the phrase “in the Holy Spirit.” “The kingdom of God is . . . righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” This seems to mean that the Holy Spirit is working these things right now. He is ruling in us to make us more righteous, more peaceable, and more joyful. This seems to be the fruit of the Spirit now, not a declarative act back at the beginning of our Christian lives. This work is built on justification by faith. But now the Spirit is producing in us these things: righteousness, peace, and joy.
That, Paul says, is the kingdom of God. In other words, the work of the Holy Spirit and the advancing of the kingdom of God are the same thing. This is exactly what we saw in the ministry of Jesus, for example, in Matthew 12:28. Jesus said, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The work of the Spirit is the presence of the kingdom of God. Or to say it another way: The reign of God is exercised through his Spirit.
So when the Spirit rules and conquers our selfishness and pride, and replaces it with Christlike righteousness, then we will not grieve and destroy a brother for the sake of food. The Spirit of God—the kingdom of God—creates righteousness and peace and joy. This is what the Spirit of God does. He creates righteousness and peace and joy. And when you have these, you don’t grieve and destroy a weaker brother.
Serving Christ in This Way Is Pleasing to God (v. 18)
Then in verse 18 Paul confirms this by explaining that what he has just said is in fact what pleases God and wins the sober approval of others. “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” That is, whoever serves Christ in the way that verse 17 just described is pleasing to God.
What did verse 17 say? It said that righteousness comes “in the Holy Spirit.” And when it comes “in —or by—the Holy Spirit,” it is the kingdom of God coming. So if you serve Christ that way, you please God. What does that mean? What is it here that pleases God?
What pleases God is not just when we serve Christ—not just when we try to do the righteousness that he commands—but when we do it in a certain way. And that way is described in verse 17 as “in the Holy Spirit.”
There is a way to serve Christ that would dishonor Christ. That’s why Jesus said in Mark 10:45, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” There is a way to serve Christ that would dishonor him. And there is a way to serve God that would dishonor God. That’s why Paul said in Acts 17:25, “God is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
The way to serve Christ and God so that they are dishonored is to serve with the mindset that they need you. They are dependent on you instead of you being dependent on them for life and breath and ransom and everything. What pleases God is when he is shown to be the giver in our service of him. If we serve God as though we are the giver and he is the needy one, he is not pleased. It makes him look needy and dependent. But he’s not.
So verse 18 says, “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” That is, whoever serves Christ—obeys Christ, pursues the righteousness that he commands—in the way described in verse 17 is pleasing to God. Namely, the one who depends on the Holy Spirit for what he pursues. The one who serves with the deep and happy confidence that God is always serving us in our service of him. He always remains the supplier. Always.
The text that we pray more than any other in our service of Christ at Bethlehem is probably 1 Peter 4:11. Peter exhorts each of us to be “one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” Serve with the expectation that the strength to serve will come from God. Then God will get all the glory. Do you want your serving to be an expression of his kingdom or of your power?
What pleases God, and wins the serious approval of others, is when our serving is the fruit of the Holy Spirit. This is why the writer to the Hebrews closed his book with this benediction, “Now may the God of peace . . . equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
God works in us what is pleasing in his sight. And the fact that he works it in us is part of what makes it pleasing in his sight.
The kingdom of God is not food and drink. It is righteousness, peace, and joy which come by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The one who serves Christ in this way—depending on the work of the Spirit for all the help you need and renouncing all self-reliance—pleases God and manifests his kingdom in the church and extends his kingdom in the world.
So then, Bethlehem, let us, as verse 19 says, “Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” Don’t flaunt your freedom. Love your brothers and sisters. And do it not in your own strength, but in the Holy Spirit. This is the kingdom of God. This is his rule in our midst.