Does the New Testament Abolish Meat Distinctions?
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Does the New Testament Abolish Meat Distinctions?
Most theologians assume that God's laws regarding clean and unclean meats ended at Christ's crucifixion. They suppose that the New Covenant removes the need for Christians to keep such laws. But is that what the Bible says?
The administrative change from the Levitical priesthood to the ministry of Jesus Christ did not void God's expectations that His people obey His law of clean and unclean meats (or any other law) as part of their sanctification, or separation, as people of God (see Leviticus 11:44-47; Leviticus 19:2; Leviticus 20:7-26; Leviticus 21:8). Peter and Paul both speak of the continuing need for God's people to be holy (Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:14-16).
Some Bible scholars acknowledge that members of the early Church continued to observe the distinctions between clean and unclean meats. However, because of the common misconception that the New Covenant abolishes much of God's law, many assume these food requirements were simply Jewish cultural practices that continued until the Church became more gentile in composition and outlook. Such preconceived ideas have influenced interpretations of many New Testament passages. In theological circles this is known as eisegesis, or reading one's own ideas into Scripture.
Let's examine the New Testament passages dealing with food. As we do that let's practice exegesis—drawing meaning out of Scripture by seeking a thorough understanding of the background of a passage as we seek to apply it.
Peter's vision: Did God cleanse all meats?
One often-misunderstood section of the Bible concerns Peter's vision in which he "saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth." In this sheet "were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air." Peter heard a voice tell him, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat" (Acts 10:11-13).
Assuming the vision meant he should eat unclean animals, Peter spontaneously responded: "Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean" (Acts 10:14). The same vision came to Peter three times (Acts 10:16).
At this point many readers, without finishing the account, assume they know the meaning of the vision—that God told Peter we are now free to eat any kind of animal flesh we desire. In context, however, these scriptures show that this is not at all what Peter understood. On the contrary, even after seeing the vision three times he still "wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant" (Acts 10:17).
Later Peter realized the significance of the revelation. It was that "God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (Acts 10:28). Recognizing the real intent of the vision, Peter baptized the first gentiles (non-Israelites) God called into the Church who were not initially Jewish proselytes (Acts 10:45-48).
This divine disclosure, we see from reading further in the account, did not concern food at all. Rather, it concerned people. Because the Jewish religious leaders at the time of Christ had erroneously considered gentiles to be unclean, this dramatic vision righted a common misconception that had come to affect Peter and other members of the Church. It demonstrated that God was beginning to offer salvation to members of any race. Gentiles whom God was calling were now welcomed into the Church.
Far from abolishing God's instructions against eating unclean meats, these verses show that, about a decade after Christ's death, Peter had "never eaten anything common or unclean."
Peter obviously had not assumed that God had annulled His own food laws or that Christ's death and resurrection rendered them obsolete. From Peter's own words we see that he continued to faithfully follow those laws.
Nor do we find any evidence that he ate unclean meats after this experience. He obviously continued to obey God's laws delineating meats that could and could not be eaten and saw no reason to change his practice. He realized that the puzzling vision could not be annulling God's instructions, which is why he "thought about the vision" until he understood its meaning (Acts 10:17-28)—that gentiles could become members of the Church upon repentance and faith, too (Acts 10:34-35, Acts 10:45-48).
Food controversy in the Church
When reading through the New Testament, we do find references to a controversy in the early Church involving food. However, an examination of the Scriptures reveals the issue to be different from what many assume.
In 1 Corinthians 8 the apostle Paul discussed "the eating of things offered to idols" (1 Corinthians 8:4). Why was this an issue?
"Meat was often sacrificed on pagan altars and dedicated to pagan gods in Paul's day. Later this meat was offered for sale in the public meat markets. Some Christians wondered if it were morally right for Christians to eat such meat that had previously been sacrificed to pagan gods" (Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1995, "Meat").
It is interesting, though not conclusive, to note that in Acts 14:13, the only passage in which the type of animal sacrificed to idols is mentioned, it was oxen—clean animals—that were about to be offered.
This controversy was not over the kinds of meat that should be eaten. Obedient Jews of the day, in accordance with God's instruction, did not consider unclean meat even to be a possible source of food. Instead, the controversy dealt with the conscience of each believer when it came to eating meat—clean meat—that may have been sacrificed to idols.
Paul explained that "an idol is nothing" (1 Corinthians 8:4), clarifying that it was not intrinsically harmful to eat meats that had been sacrificed to an idol. That an animal had been sacrificed to a pagan god had no bearing on whether the meat was suitable for food.
Paul continued: "However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse" (1 Corinthians 8:7-8).
When a believer bought meat in the market or was invited to a meal at which meat was served, it was not necessary to determine whether anyone had offered it to an idol, said Paul (1 Corinthians 10:25-27). His concern was that the brethren be considerate of others who believed differently. He taught that in such cases it was better for them not to eat meat than to risk causing offense (1 Corinthians 8:13; 1 Corinthians 10:28).
The question of meat sacrificed to idols was a considerable controversy in New Testament times. It is the foundation of many of Paul's discussions of Christian liberty and conscience. Unlike God's law of clean and unclean animals, which was straightforwardly recorded in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures are not explicit about the matter of food offered to idols. But, in the first-century world of the New Testament, this issue varied in significance and importance to members according to their conscience and understanding.
The timing of Paul's letters
The chronological relationship between Paul's letters to the members in Corinth and his correspondence with those in Rome is another important piece of background information people often overlook.
Many believe Romans 14 supports the idea that Christians are free from all former restrictions regarding the meats they may eat. Romans 14:14, in which Paul wrote, "I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean," is often cited as a proof text for this view.
This approach, however, fails to consider Paul's perspective and the context of his letter to the Roman church. Many Bible resources agree that Paul wrote the book of 1 Corinthians around A.D. 55 and that he wrote his epistle to the Romans from Corinth in 56 or 57. As demonstrated above, the food controversy in Corinth was over meat sacrificed to idols. Since Paul was writing to the Romans from Corinth, where this had been a significant issue, the subject was fresh on Paul's mind and is the logical, biblically supported basis for his comments in Romans 14.
Understanding Paul's intent
Those who assume the subject of Romans 14 is a retraction of God's law regarding clean and unclean animals must force this interpretation into the text because it has no biblical foundation. The historical basis for the discussion appears, from evidence in the chapter itself, to have been meat sacrificed to idols.
Romans 14:2 contrasts the one who "eats only vegetables" with the one who believes "he may eat all things"—meat as well as vegetables. Romans 14:6 discusses eating vs. not eating and is variously interpreted as referring to fasting (not eating or drinking), vegetarianism (consuming only vegetables) or eating or not eating meat sacrificed to idols.
Romans 14:21 shows that meat offered to idols was the dominant issue of this chapter: "It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak." Romans of the day commonly offered both meat and wine to idols, with portions of the offerings later sold in the marketplace.
The Life Application Bible comments on Romans 14:2: "The ancient system of sacrifice was at the center of the religious, social, and domestic life of the Roman world. After a sacrifice was presented to a god in a pagan temple, only part of it was burned. The remainder was often sent to the market to be sold. Thus a Christian might easily—even unknowingly—buy such meat in the marketplace or eat it at the home of a friend.
"Should a Christian question the source of his meat? Some thought there was nothing wrong with eating meat that had been offered to idols because idols were worthless and phony. Others carefully checked the source of their meat or gave up meat altogether, in order to avoid a guilty conscience. The problem was especially acute for Christians who had once been idol worshipers. For them, such a strong reminder of their pagan days might weaken their newfound faith. Paul also deals with this problem in 1 Corinthians 8."
What is the point of Paul's instruction in Romans 14? Depending upon their consciences, early believers had several choices they could make while traveling or residing in their communities. If they did not want to eat meat that possibly had been sacrificed to idols, they could choose to fast or eat only vegetables to make sure they did not consume any meat of suspicious background that might offend their consciences. If their consciences were not bothered by eating meat that might have been sacrificed to idols, they could choose that option too. Within this context, said Paul, "Let each be fully convinced in his own mind" (Romans 14:5) because "whatever is not from faith is sin" (Romans 14:23).
Romans 14 is, in part, a chapter on Christian liberty—acting according to one's conscience within the framework of God's laws as they pertained to meat sacrificed to idols. Understood in its context, Romans 14 does not convey permission to eat pork or any other unclean meat. When one understands that the food controversy of the New Testament era dealt with meat sacrificed to idols and not which meats were clean, other scriptures become clear.
Debate over ceremonial cleansing
Another often-misunderstood passage is Mark 7:18-19. Here Jesus said, "Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?" The subject here—made obvious from Mark 7:2-5—was unwashed hands, not which meats could be eaten. The purification of food referred to the way the body's digestive process eliminates minor impurities such as those that might be present from eating with unwashed hands.
The Pharisees, like Jesus and His disciples, ate only meat the Scriptures specified as clean. They objected, however, when Jesus and His disciples did not go through the Pharisees' customary ritual of meticulously washing their hands before eating.
Jesus, whose hands were sufficiently clean for eating, even if not clean enough to meet the Pharisees' humanly devised standards—explained that the human body was designed to handle any small particles of dust or dirt that might enter it due to handling food with hands that hadn't been ritually washed. He further suggested that, if the Pharisees were serious about wanting to obey God, they needed to revise their priorities. Cleansing one's thoughts, He said, is eminently more spiritually important than washing one's hands (Mark 7:20-23).
The New International Version of the Bible renders the latter part of Mark 7:19 this way: "(In saying this, Jesus declared all foods 'clean')." The New American Standard Bible similarly offers: "(Thus He declared all foods clean.)" These translations stand in stark contrast to the King James and New King James versions, which indicate that the bodily digestive process purifies food as opposed to Jesus making a pronouncement reversing God's laws on which meats to eat. Which interpretation is correct?
The King James and New King James renditions best fit the context, which concerns eating with ceremonially unwashed hands rather than deciding which kind of flesh is suitable to be eaten. They also best fit the New Testament culture wherein Jews and Christians ate only clean meats.
Notice that in both the NIV and NASB the latter part of Mark 7:19 is in parentheses, as though Mark is explaining Christ's words. This is obviously an interpretation of the original wording of Mark's Gospel. In the original Greek the words "In saying this, Jesus declared" (NIV) and "Thus He declared" (NASB) are not present; translators have added them to explain what they think Mark intended, thereby placing their own preconceived and mistaken interpretations on Jesus' words.
Putting together all the scriptures on the subject helps us properly understand the biblical perspective. When we see from passages such as Acts 10, discussed earlier, that Peter states he had eaten no unclean meat about a decade after Christ's death, it becomes obvious that the apostles did not believe He had abolished the commands against eating unclean meats. Such a view simply cannot be sustained in the light of plain scriptures to the contrary.
No New Testament passages describe Christians eating meats that had been considered unclean; such a view is glaringly absent in the Bible. On the contrary, we find many scriptures in which the apostle Paul vigorously and repeatedly upholds adherence to God's laws (Acts 24:14; Acts 25:8; Romans 3:31; Romans 7:12-22), as did James, the half brother of Christ (James 2:8-12; James 4:11), and John (1 John 3:4). Violating God's laws regarding clean and unclean meat would have been unthinkable to them.
Colossian controversy clarified
When Paul wrote that Christians should "let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths" (Colossians 2:16), some assume the believers he was addressing were eating pork and other meats previously considered unclean. Again, the Bible nowhere supports this assumption.
In reality, the issue of clean and unclean meats is nowhere addressed in this passage. Paul doesn't discuss which foods the Colossians were consuming; the Greek word brosis, translated "food," refers not to food itself but rather to "the act of eating" (Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, p. 245, emphasis added).
Some other translations make this clear. The Twentieth Century New Testament, for example, translates this as "Do not, then, allow any one to take you to task on questions of eating and drinking..."
Although many assume that Paul's criticism is directed at teachers who advocated Old Testament practices (such as following the law and practicing circumcision), no biblical evidence supports this view. However, we should recognize that perversions of proper biblical practice abounded at the time, both in Judaism and the emerging early Church. As The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia explains: "There is more than Judaism in this false teaching. Its teachers look to intermediary spirits, angels whom they worship; and insist on a very strict asceticism" (1939 edition, "Epistle to the Colossians").
The false teaching Paul condemned contained many elements of asceticism—avoidance of anything enjoyable—which was intended to make its followers more spiritual. Notice his instructions to the Colossians: "Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations—'Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,' which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh" (Colossians 2:20-23).
From this we see the ascetic nature of the error Paul was combating. The false teachers' deluded attempt to attain greater spirituality included "neglect of the body" (verse 23). Paul characterized their misguided rules as "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle" (verse 21). Their efforts created only a "false humility" (verse 23) and were destined to fail because they were based on "the commandments and doctrines of men" (verse 22) rather than God's instruction.
Paul admonished the church at Colosse not to listen to the ascetics. Rather than abrogating God's laws concerning unclean meats—which some people incorrectly read into this passage—Paul is instructing the Colossian members not to concern themselves with ascetic teachers who criticized the manner in which the Colossians enjoyed God's festivals and Sabbaths in pleasant fellowship with eating and drinking. Such enjoyment, although condemned by these false teachers, is perfectly acceptable to God. (For further understanding, please request the two free booklets God's Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind and Sunset to Sunset: God's Sabbath Rest.)
In this section of Colossians Paul encourages the Church to hold fast to its teachings and proper understanding; it is not a treatise on which foods to eat or on which days to worship God. We must be careful not to read preconceived notions into these or any other scriptures.
Misunderstood instructions to Timothy
Still another part of Paul's writings that is often misunderstood is 1 Timothy 4:3-5, where he speaks of false teachers "forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer."
What was the motivation of these false teachers? Did Paul warn Timothy against teachers who would advocate keeping the biblical laws concerning clean and unclean meats? Or was something else at work?
We know Paul told Timothy that God inspired the Old Testament Scriptures to be "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16), so the notion isn't credible that Paul would caution Timothy against adhering to instructions found in those same Scriptures.
On the other hand, Paul's words show us the real problem: These teachers were demanding that people follow commands not found in the Bible. They were "forbidding to marry," yet marriage is encouraged, not discouraged, in the Scriptures. They were also "commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth."
The Life Application Bible helps us understand the background of the problem Paul addressed here: "The danger that Timothy faced in Ephesus seems to have come from certain people in the church who were following some Greek philosophers who taught that the body was evil and that only the soul mattered. The false teachers refused to believe that the God of creation was good, because his very contact with the physical world would have soiled him...[They] gave stringent rules (such as forbidding people to marry or to eat certain foods). This made them appear self-disciplined and righteous."
Paul discusses the true source of these heretical teachings in 1 Timothy 4:1: Rather than being founded in the Bible, these teachings originated with "deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons." Thus we see that the problem in 1 Timothy 4 was perverted worldly asceticism, not obedience to God's laws that define clean and unclean meats.
Paul's assumption was that "those who believe and know the truth" (1 Timothy 4:3) would be familiar with the scriptures that identify which meats were specifically "sanctified [set apart] by the word of God" (1 Timothy 4:5) for our enjoyment. He encouraged Timothy to remind them to let the Scriptures be their guide instead of these ascetic teachers.
As in the situation Paul discussed in his letter to the Colossians, the problem he addressed with Timothy was asceticism, not adherence to God's dietary laws.
A broader view of history
As we have seen, no scriptural evidence exists that indicates that members of the early Church ever changed their practice of following God's instructions regarding clean and unclean meats. Instead, we see the unambiguous words of one of the apostles showing that, about a decade after Christ's death and resurrection, he had "never eaten anything common or unclean."
Does the Bible give us any other indication regarding when and for how long these laws were to remain in effect? Let's set the present aside and move forward in the history of humanity to the coming time of Christ's return to earth to establish the Kingdom of God. A sharply defined picture of His will for the future provides additional understanding to help guide us in the present.
The book of Revelation, in describing the end-time events leading up to the return of Christ, uses the expression "a haunt for every unclean and hated bird!" (Revelation 18:2). If clean and unclean designations no longer exist, why did Jesus inspire this picture for John? God is consistent and unchanging (James 1:17; Malachi 3:6; Malachi 4:4; Hebrews 13:8; Matthew 5:17-19). Animals He categorized as unclean thousands of years ago remain unclean in the future.
Revelation 18:2 may figuratively refer to demons—called "unclean spirits" in the New Testament. Even so, such a metaphor would not make sense if there were not still a distinction between actual clean and unclean birds. Note also that unclean spirits are compared to frogs in Revelation 16:13. Again, only when we understand that frogs are still unclean does this comparison follow.
Another passage that refers to the time of Jesus' return to earth presents this picture: "For behold, the LORD will come with fire and with His chariots,...the LORD will judge all flesh; and the slain of the LORD shall be many. 'Those who sanctify themselves and purify themselves, to go to the gardens after an idol in the midst, eating swine's flesh and the abomination and the mouse, shall be consumed together,' says the LORD" (Isaiah 66:15-17). Here we see that, at Christ's return, eating unclean things is condemned and those who do so will be punished.
The biblical position is clear. Distinctions between clean and unclean meats existed long before the New Testament was written; they were followed by the leaders and other members of the early Church; and they will still apply at the time of Christ's return in the future, when He will enforce them. Therefore they are clearly to be observed today as well by members of the modern Church, which "keeps the commandments of God and has the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 12:17).
Even though first-century Christians struggled with their consciences over meat sacrificed to idols, the Bible indicates that they lived in harmony with God's instruction regarding clean and unclean meats. Shouldn't we also live in harmony with those laws?
God designed and gave His laws for our benefit. As the apostle Paul wrote, the "benefits of religion are without limit, since it holds out promise not only for this life but also for the life to come" (1 Timothy 4:8, Revised English Bible).