Question: "What does it mean that the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking (Romans 14:17)?"
Answer: In Romans 14, the apostle Paul discusses the matter of Christian freedom, especially regarding “disputable matters,” such as whether believers should eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols. In the Old Testament, God’s people followed numerous laws about what was lawful to eat and drink. But under the New Covenant, a higher law of love reigns supreme in the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 13:13). This law of love is revealed in our willingness to live in peace and unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
The church in Rome was a mixture of Jewish and Gentile believers. Although they were unified through faith in Jesus Christ, they were passing judgment on one another in two specific areas: their choices about whether to eat meat (Romans 14:2) and over which days should be observed as holy days (Romans 14:5). The Old Testament regulations for holy living clashed with New Testament church practices. Paul considered these “disputable matters”—gray areas in which the Bible does not provide clear-cut guidelines. They were sensitive issues but not the highest priorities in the greater scheme of kingdom life.
Many believers in the Roman church, most likely Jews, had stopped eating meat altogether for devout reasons. Either they feared that the meat sold in local markets was forbidden under Jewish dietary restrictions or that it had been used in pagan sacrifices. In short, Paul’s solution was to stop condemning those who hold a different view than our own; the matter is between them and God (Romans 14:1–4).
Paul spends the balance of the chapter explaining why believers should stop judging and condemning one another. The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking is Paul’s leading argument. One commentator summarizes: “Paul’s main point in this entire section is that there is a kingdom of God, not a cuisine of God, that is the priority. And in God’s kingdom, there is only one thing on the menu: unity—manifested by ‘righteousness, peace and joy’” (Boa, K., & Kruidenier, W., Romans, Vol. 6, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000, p. 422). The sentiment resonates in Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Unity in the church brings glory to God and reveals the evidence of our love for one another. The believer who practices the higher law of love will lay down his own need to be right for the sake of love and to maintain righteousness, peace, and joy in the fellowship of believers. Paul states, “If another believer is distressed by what you eat, you are not acting in love if you eat it. Don’t let your eating ruin someone for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:15, NLT). In God’s kingdom, acting in love is more important than being right (see 1 Corinthians 10:23—11:1).
When we grasp that God’s kingdom is not concerned with eating and drinking, but with maintaining righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, we begin to understand what it means to give our bodies to God as “a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable” (Romans 12:1, NLT). Even though we may have Christian freedom to enjoy a glass of wine, for example, God wants us always to conduct ourselves in a way that honors Him. If drinking that glass of wine will cause a brother or sister to stumble into sin, we ought to give up our freedom for the benefit of the weaker believer. Paul affirms, “If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God, and others will approve of you, too. So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up. Don’t tear apart the work of God over what you eat. Remember, all foods are acceptable, but it is wrong to eat something if it makes another person stumble” (Romans 14:18–20, NLT).
Eating and drinking are secondary concerns in the kingdom of God: “We can’t win God’s approval by what we eat. We don’t lose anything if we don’t eat it, and we don’t gain anything if we do” (1 Corinthians 8:8, NLT). Eating and drinking are external concerns, and God cares more about what is in our hearts (Matthew 15:11, 16–20). What matters most is loving people well, maintaining unity, and pleasing God.