Clean and Unclean Food in Leviticus 11 from a NT Perspective

Leviticus has all sorts of food laws. How does the New Testament relate to them? Are they canceled? Are they kept? What exactly does the New Testament really say? The bulk of this post is about the last question.

The goal here in this post is not look at these food laws symbolically, but to understand how the New Covenant Scriptures (New Testament) handles the issue in the relations between Jewish and Gentile believers in the same kingdom community.

For a general overview of the interrelations between the Old Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant, click on:

What Does the New Covenant Retain from the Old?

How Jesus Christ Fulfills the Law: Matthew 5:17-19

Many (not even close to all) elements are retained, and what is kept is improved on or streamlined.

The NIV is used here, unless otherwise noted. Readers are invited to go to biblegateway.com, choose their own translation, and open another window to follow along.

Let’s begin.

Moses told Aaron and the priests that their goal was the following: “so that you can distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean” (Lev. 10:10). Clearly, holiness and ceremonial cleanliness are linked, but this is ceremonial cleanness, not necessarily and always and only healthy diet concerns. As it happens, however, many of the prohibitions and permissions led to a healthier diet and a healthier nation.

The Levitical laws of cleanness have “no known extensive parallel in the surrounding cultures … the laws were symbolic of spiritual cleansing and served to set Israel apart from surrounding nations … the Levitical code prohibited the idolatrous practices … Exodus 23:19, 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21 possibly were given to avoid a Ugaritic ritual” (Harris, pp. 568-69). In other words, these laws were not borrowed from the surrounding cultures, but they were given by God.

Harris also affirms that the laws may still be beneficial to the health of their practitioners. “In general it can be said that the laws protected Israel from bad diet, dangerous vermin, and communicable diseases. Only in very recent days have better health been possible with the advance of medicine. These were rule-of-thumb laws that God gave in his wisdom to a people who could not know the reason for the provision” (Harris p. 569).

Then Harris goes on to say that the fish that were to be avoided were mud-dwellers which hosted many parasites. The fish that could be eaten were scaly free swimmers that were not as susceptible to parasites. Not only were the Hebrews to avoid unclean animals, but they could not even tough their dead carcasses. A dead rat was carefully taken out and buried. The Hebrew housewife had to keep a clean house, which led to a clean or uncontaminated family. Diseases spread less. Thus the laws helped control vermin. Laws of sexual cleanness led to a decrease in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The divine author of these laws did not explain why they existed, like warding off demons or spirits, but the laws were fashioned for the general health of the nation.

After listing the clean and unclean animals, the author of Leviticus writes about people being holy:

For I am the Lord your God, so you must consecrate yourselves and be holy because I am holy. Do not defile yourselves by any swarming creature that crawls on the ground. 45 For I am the Lord, who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God, so you must be holy because I am holy. (Lev. 11:44-45)

Here personal holiness and ceremonial cleanness are linked. “Be holy because I am holy” is repeated in 19:2; 20:7, 26; 21:8. Basically, it means to separate yourself from the common and profane. Holiness is separateness, which is a sign of consecration to the Lord. Don’t be polluted by certain things.

What do the New Covenant Scripture (New Testament) say?

The interest of this post, however, is not the health of the nation, which is all valid in its own right, but the ceremonial and holiness aspects attached to the laws. It is one thing to say that food laws provided physical cleanness and health for a household and the nation; it is another to say that the ceremonial cleanness or uncleanness of animals excluded people from God’s approval and covenant.

So let’s explore this angle of holiness and unholiness, acceptability and unacceptability before God, from a New Covenant point of view.

First, since Peter quotes Lev. 11:44, let’s begin with him. He delinks holiness from the cleanness or uncleanness of this or that animal, but keeps the command to be holy in conduct, keeping oneself defiled from moral pollution, in the bigger context:

15 But as the one who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; 16 for it is written, Be holy, because I am holy. (1 Pet. 1:15-16)

Before, then he learned that God had cleansed previously unclean foods, in his vision of a sheet coming down from heaven three times with unclean animals on it. God told him to arise and eat. He replied:

14 “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” 15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:14-15)

Peter learned that holiness and belonging to the New Covenant has been delinked from food. In the bigger picture, Gentiles are also clean, and Cornelius the Gentile was about to experience salvation and entry into the New Covenant in the rest of Acts 10.

Second, now let’s see how clean food and holiness are delinked in other Scriptures. Jesus was interested in the covenantal aspect of the “kosher” diet (a word that came later than the Hebrew Bible), when Mark added the following gloss in parentheses in v. 19. Jesus speaking:

“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 out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) 20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:18-23, emphasis added).

A careful reading of the entire passage shows the food laws’ connection to the moral or ceremonial uncleanness of food. However, it is not what goes into a person that makes him unholy–what he eats; from here on, that is shallow thinking. But what makes him holy or unholy is inside a person that then comes out of him. The link between holiness and food has been broken, but not holiness that God works into a him, by the person’s surrendering to the kingdom and Jesus’ Lordship. Holiness is always relevant and binding.

More specifically, eating pork or shrimp does not make a man unclean or unholy, but the thoughts and actions that come out of him could. Or, his thoughts and deeds could also show that he was developing holiness, by God’s grace. And therefore, if a Jesus follower wished to keep a kosher diet, then he could, out of his own free will, do this, but not because the diet makes him, by some mystical concept, holy or clean or more acceptable before God and a better kingdom citizen and admits him into the New Covenant. God accepts him on the basis of faith in his Son. He does does not “kick” the man out if he chooses to eat pork or shrimp. If he does so, he is still a man of the New Covenant. Dietary restrictions are no longer boundary markers of being in or out of a soon-to-be obsolete Sinai covenant or the soon-to-be-ratified New Covenant.

However, in Christ the kingdom citizen is free to keep a “kosher” diet, if it helps his relations with his neighbor who has scruples about such things. So if a Messianic Jew (or a Jewish believer in the Messiah) living in Israel wishes to keep a kosher diet, in order to be a good neighbor and keep a door open to his Jewish neighbor who does not yet believe in the Messiah, then the believer has liberty in Christ to remain kosher. It is never shown in Jesus’s ministry that when he said that all foods are clean (v. 19), he walked through Jerusalem on the Sabbath eating a pork chop and proclaiming, “Look at me! I am free! Y’all are in bondage!” He would have been a bad witness; plus, he had “bigger fish to fry” (pun intended). He was challenging the whole old system of tired Judaism that was led by uptight Watchdogs of Orthodoxy who forgot about mercy and love and the deep parts of the Old Testament.

For example, they had predicted the Messiah would come on the basis of many Old Testament verses, and he was standing right in front of them, introducing the Kingdom of God in a new way. But they were so clueless, due to their adherence to the shopworn system, that they were in danger of missing it and him. Rather than eating a pork chop in front of the Pharisees, his preferred way to make his clear and demonstrated statement was to overturn the money tables in the temple precincts (Matt. 21:12 // Mark 12:15; John 2:14-15). Money lay at the heart of the corruption in the temple, not this or that insignificant food law.

Third, we have to quote an even longer passage, this time in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. The context is food sacrificed to idols, but we can draw conclusions of a more general nature.

Here is a description of a weaker brother or sister in Christ:

But not everyone possesses this knowledge [that all things come through him, and we live for him]. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. (1 Cor. 8:7-8, emphasis added)

To continue with the same passage, here are verses about stronger brothers and sisters in Christ who limit themselves in their diet for the benefit of the weaker ones:

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? 11 So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. 12 When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall. (1 Cor. 8:9-13)

Paul very closely argues the same things in Rom. 14. The baseline is in v. 8, above. We are no worse off if we eat or if we do not eat. Paul writes in his epistle to the Roman Christians, both Gentile and Jewish: “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean … All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble” (Rom. 14:14, 20). Sadly, some believers are weak in their conscience and cannot enjoy all foods. What then? It is better to be relational with the weaker brother than insist on eating certain foods to display one’s liberty on principle.

Therefore, once again, if a believer has a free conscience to eat whatever food he wishes, then he can do so. But if his neighbor might see him, then the free Christian should keep his liberty private. Paul again: “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God” (Rom. 14:22).

Fourth, however, eating bread and wine and other foods during the agape feast that have been sacrificed in pagan temples is to create a toxic mixture into the Lord’s Table. Paul clearly writes:

Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. 22 Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he? 23 No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. 22 Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Cor. 10:19-22)

It is simply testing too much of our freedom to mix together the bread and the wine at the Lord’s Table when the Corinthians converts knew the food has been sacrificed to idols because the recent converts realized after their conversion that demonic spirits were lurking behind the idols in the temples. The natural inference is that the bread and the wine is something very special, and we experience a participation with the blood and body of Jesus, when we partake of those two elements.

Fifth, in the same section of Scripture, in a private setting away from the Lord’s Table, Paul says not to ask questions, but if you find out the meat was sacrificed in a temple, then don’t eat it, in order to maintain a good witness:

25 Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, 26 for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” [Ps. 24:1] 27 If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. 29 I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? 30 If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? (1 Cor. 10:27-30)

Sixth, the real motive behind Paul’s practical theology is the salvation of souls, as he writes in the last verse:

31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. (1 Cor. 10:31-33)

Do everything towards the end or goal of salvation. Refrain from eating if necessary or express your liberty if it does not bother anyone else.

Seventh, this relational and salvific concern is the motive behind the Jerusalem Council’s final decision:

And so now why do you push God to impose a yoke on the necks of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been strong enough to bear? 11 But through the grace of the Lord Jesus we believe to be saved, in the same way as they are. (Acts 15:10-11, my tentative translation)

This notion of “pushing” God is someone’s attempt to force God’s hand. Not going to happen. Salvation comes by grace and faith. The other insignificant laws have not been successfully kept throughout the history of the Israelite nation. Why impose them on the new Gentile believers?

The result of the Council is relational, as revealed in the next two verses:

19 Therefore it is my judgment not to trouble the Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but to send them a letter to avoid the pollutions of idols, sexual immortality, undrained, strangled meat, and bloodshed. (Acts 15:19-20, my tentative translation)

So in other words, the Gentiles should be good neighbors to the new Jewish believers in the Messiah and no longer do things that easily offend them, since the the Jewish believers still have weak consciences. (Of course sexual immorality should be avoided regardless of kosher food laws.) This result accords perfectly with Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor. 8 and Rom. 14.

Application and Summary

To apply all of the above, as noted, if a Jewish believer in the Messiah wishes to keep a kosher diet, in order to be a good witness to his Jewish neighbor, he may do so. When he does, he is not keeping some sort of degraded version of the New Covenant. “God will accept me better if I keep kosher!” No. God accepts him whether he keeps kosher or not. He keeps kosher only on a human or horizontal level, not a vertical one. Thus food restrictions are no longer boundary markers between the obsolete Sinai covenant and the New Covenant.

On the other hand, if a Christian becomes a missionary to India or an Indian becomes a Christian, then he must be careful about eating in a unbeliever’s house. Paul says don’t ask any questions and eat whatever is put in front of you. But if the Christian learns that the food was offered at a Hindu temple, then he should refrain from eating, in order to be a good witness. He can explain, if it is appropriate and safe to do so, that demons lurk behind the pagan temples and the idols.

But whatever the church does in public or private, Christians must keep the Communion elements absolutely pure. Let’s not cross any lines in that case.

In sum, the New Covenant authors of Scriptures do in fact cancel the food laws and the ceremonial cleanness and uncleanness attached to them, but only because they were signs of belonging to and obeying the old Sinai Covenant. They do not impart holiness or unholiness or ceremonial cleanness or uncleanness. Only God’s Spirit living in the believer in Jesus can do that. However, we do not live in isolation, and if it would be better to restrain our diet for the sake of a weaker Christian in the community, then we should do it.

A mature Jesus follower can even keep a kosher diet if he believes it is the healthiest path for him. However, can he do it without guilt-tripping those of us who don’t? Will he make a big deal of it, implying that he has a deeper walk with God than the rest of us? Will he say his Christianity is purer, as he returns to the “Hebrew roots”? If so, then he misunderstands the New Testament and misuses his liberty. The diet should not become a boundary marker between an “enlightened and deeper mind” and the rest of us “shallow commoners.” Let love, not arrogance, always prevail.

In the context of eating ceremonial food to prove one’s consecration to God, the author of Hebrews warns:

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. (Heb. 13:9)

Keep the right perspective about considering food ceremonial clean or unclean. That has turned into a “strange teaching.” It is about grace, not religious duties, which benefit no one. So be careful and use wisdom in going back to “Hebrew roots.”

How does this post help us to know God better and grow in Chrisrt?

For the strong believer–or at least the one who never grew up in a household that restricted food–here is the mature outlook:

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17).

That’s the ultimate word for the mature believer. However, if your Muslim or Jewish neighbor doesn’t eat pork, then don’t flaunt your liberty in front of him. Keep it private. In doing so, you will not cause him to stumble for silly reasons. The goal is to show love and then to be a good witness. The ultimate goal is the salvation of both the Jew and the Muslim.

SOURCES

Works Cited

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