“Jesus Declared All Foods Clean”: Christian Liberty and OT Food Laws
Some Christian denominations and individuals still believe that the OT food laws contained in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 are universal food laws that were designed to regulate the diet of all God’s children at all times.
Any occasion of disease transmission from the consumption of “unclean” animals (unclean by virtue of Lev. 11 and Deut. 14) is seen as new evidence for their view. If any health magazine reports any positive correlation between any of these “unclean” animals and a disease, they feel justified in their insistence that Lev. 11 and Deut. 14 are eternally relevant (even if the next article in the magazine is about the same positive correlation between a “clean” animal and a disease).
This attitude is similar to some Christian millennialists who are always excited when any global political event seems to support their eschatological timetable — their view of when Jesus will come and the specific events that will precede his coming. Many of their predictions have been left in the dust of history and their predictions about when Jesus will come have, obviously, failed.
The point here is that Christian theology must be rooted in Christian scriptures and not the daily newspaper or health magazine.
So, what do the Scriptures say about the OT food laws?
A basic point of biblical interpretation
Fundamental to biblical interpretation is the maxim that the NT must interpret the OT.
God revealed himself in many portions and in many ways in the OT but that revelation was brought to consummation in these last days when he spoke through his Son (Hebrews 1:1-3). This is why Jesus could stand on the mountain (reminding the audience of Moses standing on Sinai) and say “you have heard that it was said … but I say unto you” (Mathew 5). God’s revelation of himself from Genesis 1 onward had been progressive (in many portions and in many ways) until it reached its telos (goal) or consummation in Christ.
Jesus reminded his disciples that everything in the OT was pointing to him (Luke 24:27) and he took the time to show them how. The Ethiopian Eunuch would never have known that Isaiah 53 was about Christ except Philip had instructed him in the Scriptures (Acts 8:24-40). Neither would we have known that God’s demand for physically flawless animals for sacrifices was because the lamb that will save the world from sin would be morally flawless (1 Peter 1:19). We could go and on.
The basic principle, which should be obvious to anyone, is that the NT explains the purpose and design of the OT and shows how that purpose and design are brought to fulfilment (in the individual cases) in the NT.
Jesus declared all foods clean
A good place to begin is Jesus’s interaction with certain Jews (Pharisees and teachers of the law) in Mark 7. These men were angry that Jesus, the supposed (as they saw it) Son of God and Israel’s redeemer, was eating together with his disciples with unwashed or defiled hands. This was not a matter of hygiene but a purification ritual as verse 3 clearly shows.
They had the courage to ask Jesus why he and his disciples disobey the traditions of the elders (oral traditions that developed after the return from exile as a way to protect the sanctity of the covenant people and avoid another exile). Jesus rebuked them for teaching human rules as God’s commands and binding the consciences of God’s people as if those human rules were God’s.
However, Jesus did not stop with exposing the humanness of their rules. After rebuking them, he turned to the crowd and told them that “nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather it is what comes out of a person that defiles them” (verse 15). He further taught his inner disciples this principle after he left the crowd: “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then go out of the body” (verse 18-19).
Mark commented that it was through this statement that Jesus declared all foods clean (verse 19). Notice that Jesus went beyond the tradition of the elders — which was merely about cleaning the hands and the cutleries — to cancel every distinction between clean and unclean foods. Nothing that enters through the mouth can ever defile anyone.
Instead of scruples about washed hands and clean foods, Jesus focused their attention on what really mattered: clean hearts (verse 20-23). The OT outward distinction between clean and unclean was designed to point them to the real moral issue: purging the heart of all the evils that come from within (the real defilement).
Paul picked up on this teaching in his letter to Timothy. He warned him about false teachers who would forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods (1 Timothy 4:1-3). Paul told Timothy to be wary of such teachers because the foods they command people to abstain from were created by God to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.
We don’t know the certain foods these false teachers were commanding abstinence from, but we don’t need to know. Why? Because Paul goes on to establish a universal principle: “everything God created is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (verse 4). If “everything” and “nothing” are not universal enough, we can as well remove “universal” from our dictionaries.
Everything is to be received (which in this context, verse 3, includes every food) because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. Jesus has declared all foods clean (the word of God) and Christians bless everything with prayer and thanksgiving, receiving them from the hands of our beneficent creator.
Peter, raised a Jew, was taught this lesson through a trance. In that trance, all kinds of clean and unclean food were set before him (Acts 10:9-16). As a conscientious Jew, he rejected the food, claiming that he had never eaten anything impure or unclean. A voice corrected him that he should not call anything impure that God has made clean. This cancellation of all distinctions between clean and unclean foods then became a simile for the cancellation of all distinctions between Jews and Gentiles (Acts 11:15-18).
Some want to insist that we should take the implication of the simile (no salvific distinction between Jews and Gentiles) and reject the simile itself (no distinction between clean and unclean animals). But to reject the simile is to reject the implication drawn from it. If it is not true that Jesus has declared all foods clean then it is not true that all salvific distinctions between Jews and Gentiles have been abolished. What then is the point?
Mark 7, 1 Timothy 4, and Acts 10 are clear that in the new covenant, all the distinctions between clean and unclean foods are no longer relevant.
The food laws and Jewish purity
The use of the cancellation of the distinction between clean and unclean foods as a simile for the end of all salvific distinctions between Jews and Gentiles sheds some light on the initial purpose of the food laws.
To see how this is so, recall the event in Antioch that Paul narrated in Galatians 2. Based on his new convictions, Peter was having table fellowship with Christian Gentiles in Antioch. He did the same thing when he was in Cornelius’ house in Acts 10-11. Since Jesus has declared all foods clean, he, a Jew, could wine and dine with Gentiles as fellow heirs of Christ.
However, when some Jews from Jerusalem arrived in Antioch, he started to withdraw, afraid of the circumcision party — a likely reference to Jews in Jerusalem who will further have a negative view of Christianity as anti-Judaism because of Peter’s actions (and probably persecute Jewish Christians as a result). Paul rebuked Peter for failing to act in line with the gospel and leading others astray.
This episode shows that food laws were designed to erect walls of separation between Jews and Gentiles. These walls of separation were necessary in the OT to prevent Israel from polluting itself with the idols of the Gentiles. God had to instruct them to completely destroy Gentiles in Canaan (Deuteronomy 7:1-6). The command to not intermarry with them was also based on this desire to maintain the purity of the covenant community (verse 3-4).
Therefore, it is perfectly understandable that once the need to erect walls of separation between Jews and Gentiles was over, these walls themselves were to come toppling down (Ephesians 2:14-18). The law, with its commands and regulations, which constituted a dividing wall of hostility had to go.
Consequently, Jesus’ declaration that all foods are clean becomes an important precondition and testimony to the truth of the gospel: Jews and Gentiles are one in Christ and no walls of separation should be built again between them (Ephesians 2:14-18). To begin to erect those walls again, for whatever reason, is to, like Peter, refuse to act in line with the gospel
Similarly, Christians must not allow anyone to judge them in regards to food or drink or the Jewish festival, New Moon, and Sabbath. All these things are shadows, pointing forward to the Christ that was to come, and once Christ came, they lost their importance (Colossians 2:16-17).
Not an health issue
The above shows that good health was not God’s motivation for these laws. Deuteronomy 14 begins with a declaration that Israelites are children of God and the list of clean and unclean foods begins by identifying the unclean foods as detestable (Hebrew — tôwʻêbah), which is used in the OT either in a ritual (unclean food, idols, mixed marriages, according to Brown-Driver-Briggs) or an ethical sense (wickedness [no concern about health]).
In the list, the consistent concern is to distinguish between “clean” and “unclean,” not “healthy” and “unhealthy.” The Hebrew word for unclean (ṭâmêʼ) is used in the OT either in an ethical and ritual sense as well.
That the foods in Deuteronomy 14 are unclean ritually because God said so (as part of the necessary wall of separation to protect the purity of the covenant community) is evident from the use of “detestable” and “unclean,” which confirms what we have seen so far. God’s concern, based on what we see in the text, was not health but ceremonial purity.
Once Gentiles were incorporated into the one people of God, such ceremonial distinctions were over.
If you reject certain foods because of health, that is a personal decision you cannot impose on the conscience of other Christians by appealing to laws that don’t apply to them. Each believer should consider their own health situations and decide what is good for them or not. In that case, it is their doctor, not their pastor, that they need to speak to.
The point here is that there is nothing that a Christian can’t eat because of conscience (because God said not to eat it).
Paul, food, and idols
Paul faced a similar food issue in Corinth. Here, it was majorly a problem among Gentiles who were coming out of idolatry into Christ. It so happens that some of the foods that were sold in their markets were already sacrificed to idols. What should a Christian do?
For Paul (as for all believers), it is clear that idols are nothing and there is only one God (1 Corinthians 8:4-6). Therefore, eating those foods sacrificed to idols is not a sin. Anyone with a strong conscience that recognises Christian liberty will agree with Paul. Paul was not saying they could join in the sacrifices or idol feasts (10:14-22); instead, he was saying that when the foods are brought to the market, the Christians can buy and eat.
Also, Paul informed them that if an unbeliever invites them for a platonic meal in his or her house, they should eat whatever is set before them without raising any question about conscience (10:27).
Notice that Paul never attempted to erect Jewish distinctions between clean and unclean foods. He told them to eat anything that their fellow Gentile (though unbelieving) serves them without raising questions of conscience. Again, Jesus has declared all foods clean. Not even foods sacrificed to idols, who are nothing, since there is only one God, is unclean.
Paul only cautioned that those who are strong should cater to those who are weak which might mean abstaining from foods sacrificed to idols so that those with a weak conscience (who just came out of paganism and still see idols as something) are not caused to stumble. Nothing is unclean in and of itself and a Christian can choose to refuse to eat only as a sign of love to fellow believers who still consider foods sacrificed to idols as something.
In Romans 14, Paul also said that it is the person who eats everything and considers all days equal that is the strong believer who recognises his or her Christian liberty (verse 2). As Paul said, “nothing is unclean in itself” (verse 14) and “all food is clean” (verse 20). But out of love, those who recognise the full extent of their liberty should ensure they don’t cause others who are not there yet to stumble.
However, notice that Paul’s focus was on Gentiles just coming out of paganism or Jews just coming out of Judaism. He wanted the Christians with strong consciences to accommodate those with weak consciences because of where they were coming from. When it came to the issue of Gentiles trying to put themselves under the Mosaic law — circumcision and Jewish calendar (special days and months and seasons and years) — in Galatians, Paul was very stern with them (Galatians 5:1-6). These were not Gentiles with weak consciences because of their pagan past or Jews with weak consciences because of their Jewish past but Gentile Christians who were putting themselves under the Mosaic law as a way of perfecting their faith (4:23-24). Paul would not have it. There was no accommodation possible, they must stand firm in their liberty.
The covenantal basis of the end of the food laws
Paul made it clear that the Mosaic law was given to Moses because of transgressions and it was to last until Christ came (Galatians 3:19). God intentionally locked Israel up under the law (and under sin) until the faith that was to come would be revealed (verse 21-23).
The law was a guardian, supervising the life of Israel, keeping them distinct from the Gentile world. This guardianship of the law also kept them under sin because the law not only exposes sin (Romans 7:13) but also multiplies it (Romans 5:20).
Paul’s point is that the Mosaic law was temporary by God’s design and the era of law was to give way to the era of faith. God’s children are no longer “slaves” (verse 1) under the supervision of the Mosaic law but adopted sons (4:1-7). Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian (3:25). We are no longer under the covenant of Mount Sinai which gave birth to children who are to be slaves (4:24); we belong instead to the free woman and identify with the Jerusalem above which is free (verse 23, 26). Christ has brought us away from the covenant engraved in letters on stone, that brought condemnation, to the new covenant of the Spirit, who gives life (2 Corinthians 3:4). The change of priesthood has led to a change of law and the newness of the new covenant has made the old obsolete (Hebrews 7:12, 8:13).
In this new covenant, we are no longer under the law; instead, we are led by the Spirit (5:14, cf. Romans 6:14, 7:6), who leads us to obey the law of Christ (6:2, 1 Corinthians 9:21 [everything that Christ commands us himself and through his apostles, which includes the repetition and expansion of natural law — Mathew 28:20, Mathew 5, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, etc.]), the integral part of which is to serve one another humbly in love (5:13), express our faith in love (5:6), and love our neighbour (5:14). This Spirit-birthed love is what fulfils the law (5:14) and those who are led by the Spirit produce fruit against which there is no law (5:23).
Christians under this new covenant are not bound by OT food laws. Those laws pointed forward to Christ who has fulfilled them (Mathew 5:17-19, Colossians 2:14-16). Our duty now is to obey Christ who declared all foods clean. We must also celebrate the gospel message involved in this declaration — the walls of hostility separating Jews and Gentiles have been broken and all believers can come and eat on the same table (and even eat with unbelievers without raising questions of conscience).
Source: Bible Pic
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
Paul said this to Christians who were flirting with Jewish circumcision and calendar as integral to living the Christian life and receiving final justification at the end of time. He reminded them that having begun in the Spirit they must not seek to be perfected in the flesh.
Christ has given us freedom and we must stand firm in that freedom, not allowing other people to put us into bondage, placing on us yokes that even the Jews could not endure (Acts 15:10).
God has given us everything for our pleasure and we must receive them with thanksgiving. He has made all foods clean and we must stop calling unclean what he has cleansed. Instead, we must look inward and consider if our hearts are clean (filled with the fruit of the Spirit) or unclean (filled with the fruits of the flesh).
Bless’d are the pure in heart,
For they shall see our God;
The secret of the Lord is theirs,
Their heart is Christ’s abode.
The Lord, who left the heavens,
Our life and peace to bring,
To dwell in lowliness with men,
Their pattern and their King.
He to the lowly soul
Doth still Himself impart,
And for His dwelling and His throne
Chooseth the pure in heart.
Lord, we Thy presence seek;
May ours this blessing be;
Give us a pure and lowly heart,
A temple meet for Thee.