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 11:44-47 44 For I am the LORD your God: you shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall you defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creeps on the earth.
45 For I am the LORD that brings you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.
46 This is the law of the beasts, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moves in the waters, and of every creature that creeps on the earth:
47 To make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten.
American King James Version×; Leviticus 19:2 Leviticus 19:2Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy: for I the LORD your God am holy.
American King James Version×; Leviticus 20:7-26 Leviticus 20:7-26 7 Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be you holy: for I am the LORD your God. 8 And you shall keep my statutes, and do them: I am the LORD which sanctify you. 9 For every one that curses his father or his mother shall be surely put to death: he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood shall be on him. 10 And the man that commits adultery with another man’s wife, even he that commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. 11 And the man that lies with his father’s wife has uncovered his father’s nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be on them. 12 And if a man lie with his daughter in law, both of them shall surely be put to death: they have worked confusion; their blood shall be on them. 13 If a man also lie with mankind, as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be on them. 14 And if a man take a wife and her mother, it is wickedness: they shall be burnt with fire, both he and they; that there be no wickedness among you. 15 And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and you shall slay the beast. 16 And if a woman approach to any beast, and lie down thereto, you shall kill the woman, and the beast: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be on them. 17 And if a man shall take his sister, his father’s daughter, or his mother’s daughter, and see her nakedness, and she see his nakedness; it is a wicked thing; and they shall be cut off in the sight of their people: he has uncovered his sister’s nakedness; he shall bear his iniquity. 18 And if a man shall lie with a woman having her sickness, and shall uncover her nakedness; he has discovered her fountain, and she has uncovered the fountain of her blood: and both of them shall be cut off from among their people. 19 And you shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, nor of your father’s sister: for he uncovers his near kin: they shall bear their iniquity. 20 And if a man shall lie with his uncle’s wife, he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness: they shall bear their sin; they shall die childless. 21 And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing: he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless. 22 You shall therefore keep all my statutes, and all my judgments, and do them: that the land, where I bring you to dwell therein, spew you not out. 23 And you shall not walk in the manners of the nation, which I cast out before you: for they committed all these things, and therefore I abhorred them. 24 But I have said to you, You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess it, a land that flows with milk and honey: I am the LORD your God, which have separated you from other people. 25 You shall therefore put difference between clean beasts and unclean, and between unclean fowls and clean: and you shall not make your souls abominable by beast, or by fowl, or by any manner of living thing that creeps on the ground, which I have separated from you as unclean. 26 And you shall be holy to me: for I the LORD am holy, and have severed you from other people, that you should be mine.
American King James Version×; Leviticus 21:8 Leviticus 21:8You shall sanctify him therefore; for he offers the bread of your God: he shall be holy to you: for I the LORD, which sanctify you, am holy.
American King James Version×). Peter and Paul both speak of the continuing need for God’s people to be holy (Ephesians 1:4 Ephesians 1:4According as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:
American King James Version×; 1 Peter 1:14-16 1 Peter 1:14-16 14 As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance: 15 But as he which has called you is holy, so be you holy in all manner of conversation; 16 Because it is written, Be you holy; for I am holy.
American King James Version×).
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 Acts 10:11-13 11 And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending on him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth:
12 Wherein were all manner of four footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air.
13 And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat.
American King James Version×).
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 Acts 10:14But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean.
American King James Version×). The same vision came to Peter three times (Acts 10:16 Acts 10:16This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven.
American King James Version×).
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 Acts 10:17Now while Peter doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen should mean, behold, the men which were sent from Cornelius had made enquiry for Simon’s house, and stood before the gate,
American King James Version×).
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 Acts 10:28And he said to them, You know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come to one of another nation; but God has showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.
American King James Version×). 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 Acts 10:45-48 45 And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. 46 For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter, 47 Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days.
American King James Version×).
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 Acts 10:17-28 17 Now while Peter doubted in himself what this vision which he had seen should mean, behold, the men which were sent from Cornelius had made enquiry for Simon’s house, and stood before the gate,
18 And called, and asked whether Simon, which was surnamed Peter, were lodged there.
19 While Peter thought on the vision, the Spirit said to him, Behold, three men seek you.
20 Arise therefore, and get you down, and go with them, doubting nothing: for I have sent them.
21 Then Peter went down to the men which were sent to him from Cornelius; and said, Behold, I am he whom you seek: what is the cause why you are come?
22 And they said, Cornelius the centurion, a just man, and one that fears God, and of good report among all the nation of the Jews, was warned from God by an holy angel to send for you into his house, and to hear words of you.
23 Then called he them in, and lodged them. And on the morrow Peter went away with them, and certain brothers from Joppa accompanied him.
24 And the morrow after they entered into Caesarea. And Cornelius waited for them, and he had called together his kinsmen and near friends.
25 And as Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him, and fell down at his feet, and worshipped him.
26 But Peter took him up, saying, Stand up; I myself also am a man.
27 And as he talked with him, he went in, and found many that were come together.
28 And he said to them, You know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come to one of another nation; but God has showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean.
American King James Version×)—that gentiles could become members of the Church upon repentance and faith, too (Acts 10:34-35 Acts 10:34-35 34 Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: 35 But in every nation he that fears him, and works righteousness, is accepted with him.
American King James Version×, Acts 10:45-48 Acts 10:45-48 45 And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. 46 For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter, 47 Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then prayed they him to tarry certain days.
American King James Version×).
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 1 Corinthians 8:4As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.
American King James Version×). 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 Acts 14:13Then the priest of Jupiter, which was before their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, and would have done sacrifice with the people.
American King James Version×, 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 1 Corinthians 8:4As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one.
American King James Version×), 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 1 Corinthians 8:7-8 7 However, there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol to this hour eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled.
8 But meat commends us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.
American King James Version×).
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 1 Corinthians 10:25-27 25 Whatever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake:
26 For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.
27 If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and you be disposed to go; whatever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.
American King James Version×). 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 8:13Why, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world stands, lest I make my brother to offend.
American King James Version×; 1 Corinthians 10:28 1 Corinthians 10:28But if any man say to you, This is offered in sacrifice to idols, eat not for his sake that showed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof:
American King James Version×).
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 Romans 14:14I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteems any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
American King James Version×, 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 Romans 14:2For one believes that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eats herbs.
American King James Version×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 Romans 14:6He that regards the day, regards it to the Lord; and he that regards not the day, to the Lord he does not regard it. He that eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he that eats not, to the Lord he eats not, and gives God thanks.
American King James Version×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 Romans 14:21It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby your brother stumbles, or is offended, or is made weak.
American King James Version×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 Romans 14:2For one believes that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eats herbs.
American King James Version×: “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 Romans 14:5One man esteems one day above another: another esteems every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.
American King James Version×) because “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23 Romans 14:23And he that doubts is damned if he eat, because he eats not of faith: for whatever is not of faith is sin.
American King James Version×).
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 Mark 7:18-19 18 And he said to them, Are you so without understanding also? Do you not perceive, that whatever thing from without enters into the man, it cannot defile him;
19 Because it enters not into his heart, but into the belly, and goes out into the draught, purging all meats?
American King James Version×. 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 Mark 7:2-5 2 And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashed, hands, they found fault. 3 For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. 4 And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brazen vessels, and of tables. 5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not your disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?
American King James Version×—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 Mark 7:20-23 20 And he said, That which comes out of the man, that defiles the man.
21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders,
22 Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness:
23 All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.
American King James Version×).
The New International Version of the Bible renders the latter part of Mark 7:19 Mark 7:19Because it enters not into his heart, but into the belly, and goes out into the draught, purging all meats?
American King James Version×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 Mark 7:19Because it enters not into his heart, but into the belly, and goes out into the draught, purging all meats?
American King James Version×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 24:14But this I confess to you, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets:
American King James Version×; Acts 25:8 Acts 25:8While he answered for himself, Neither against the law of the Jews, neither against the temple, nor yet against Caesar, have I offended any thing at all.
American King James Version×; Romans 3:31 Romans 3:31Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yes, we establish the law.
American King James Version×; Romans 7:12-22 Romans 7:12-22 12 Why the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. 13 Was then that which is good made death to me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. 16 If then I do that which I would not, I consent to the law that it is good. 17 Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwells no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. 19 For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. 20 Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me. 21 I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. 22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:
American King James Version×), as did James, the half brother of Christ (James 2:8-12 James 2:8-12 8 If you fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, You shall love your neighbor as yourself, you do well: 9 But if you have respect to persons, you commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if you commit no adultery, yet if you kill, you are become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak you, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.
American King James Version×; James 4:11 James 4:11Speak not evil one of another, brothers. He that speaks evil of his brother, and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law, and judges the law: but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge.
American King James Version×), and John (1 John 3:4 1 John 3:4Whoever commits sin transgresses also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.
American King James Version×). 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 Colossians 2:16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days:
American King James Version×), 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 Colossians 2:20-23 20 Why if you be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are you subject to ordinances,
21 (Touch not; taste not; handle not;
22 Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men?
23 Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body: not in any honor to the satisfying of the flesh.
American King James Version×).
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 1 Timothy 4:3-5 3 Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God has created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.
4 For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving:
5 For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.
American King James Version×, 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 2 Timothy 3:16All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
American King James Version×), 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 1 Timothy 4:1Now the Spirit speaks expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
American King James Version×: 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 1 Timothy 4:3Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God has created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.
American King James Version×) would be familiar with the scriptures that identify which meats were specifically “sanctified [set apart] by the word of God” (1 Timothy 4:5 1 Timothy 4:5For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.
American King James Version×) 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 Revelation 18:2And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.
American King James Version×). If clean and unclean designations no longer exist, why did Jesus inspire this picture for John? God is consistent and unchanging (James 1:17 James 1:17Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no ficklenss, neither shadow of turning.
American King James Version×; Malachi 3:6 Malachi 3:6For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore you sons of Jacob are not consumed.
American King James Version×; Malachi 4:4 Malachi 4:4Remember you the law of Moses my servant, which I commanded to him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments.
American King James Version×; Hebrews 13:8 Hebrews 13:8Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.
American King James Version×; Matthew 5:17-19 Matthew 5:17-19 17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, Till heaven and earth pass, one stroke or one pronunciation mark shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. 19 Whoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
American King James Version×). Animals He categorized as unclean thousands of years ago remain unclean in the future.
Revelation 18:2 Revelation 18:2And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.
American King James Version×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 Revelation 16:13And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.
American King James Version×. 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 Isaiah 66:15-17 15 For, behold, the LORD will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.
16 For by fire and by his sword will the LORD plead with all flesh: and the slain of the LORD shall be many.
17 They that sanctify themselves, and purify themselves in the gardens behind one tree in the middle, eating swine’s flesh, and the abomination, and the mouse, shall be consumed together, said the LORD.
American King James Version×). 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 Revelation 12:17And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
American King James Version×).
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 1 Timothy 4:8For bodily exercise profits little: but godliness is profitable to all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.
American King James Version×, Revised English Bible).