Should I follow the OT “Food Rules”? (Part 4)

Last week, I asked the question:

Must the Christian Jew continue to follow those laws that were intended to identify the Jews as distinct from the rest of the world? Does the Christian Jew need some sort of external practice or mark to identify Him as chosen by God?

To answer that question, I turn to a passage that is often (incorrectly) applied to the question of the New Testament believer’s obligation to follow the Old Testament dietary law: Acts 10.

In Acts 10, the Apostle Peter has a vision in which a sheet comes down from heaven filled with all sorts of unclean animals. A voice sounds in Peter’s ear, enjoining him to kill and eat. Peter, a devout Jew and law-keeper, declares “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” But the voice rebukes him, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”

Often, this passage is given as a proof text for the acceptability of, say, bacon for the New Testament believer. But this isn’t how Peter (under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) interprets his vision. Peter interprets his vision as a call to him as a Jew to not keep himself separate from Gentiles. Huh? That seems very strange, except for what the Holy Spirit said to Peter immediately after the vision.

While Peter was contemplating his vision, the Holy Spirit spoke to him, telling him that three men are seeking him. The Holy Spirit directed Peter to “accompany them, making no distinction” (Acts 10:20 ESV-alternate translation).

Why is this directive so unique? It is because the three men in question are Gentiles, the people the Jews were supposed to be distinct from.

Yet the Holy Spirit tells Peter that now is not the time for making distinctions. Why not?

I believe the answer is found at the end of the chapter:

“While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.”
~Acts 10:44-45

Something unique happened here among the Gentiles, something that set them apart from all the other Gentiles, something that identified them with the Jewish believers in a way circumcision and rule following could not. The Gentile believers received the Holy Spirit.

All that the laws of distinction had been intended to provide, to point forward to, were now fulfilled as the indwelling Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentile believers.

While circumcision was an outward mark to indicate one’s identity within God’s covenant and obedience to the external laws of the first covenant, the Holy Spirit circumcised the hearts of the physically uncircumcised, indicating their new identity as partakers in the new covenant and signifying the obedience of Christ on their behalf.

There was no longer a need to make distinction between Jew and Gentile. Another distinction had been made, one that far superseded the shadow of the Old Testament law of distinction.

A new group of people was being called out, from both the circumcised and the uncircumcised, a group marked by a new identity, completely distinct from those around them. These were the chosen of God, bought by the blood of Christ, sealed by His Holy Spirit.

The laws of distinction had been fulfilled and could now pass away. Just as, once the Ultimate Sacrifice of Christ was complete, there no longer remained any sacrifice for sin; so, once the Ultimate Distinctive of the Holy Spirit’s seal had been made, there no longer remains any laws of distinction.

The dietary laws are complete, fulfilled in Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and the receipt of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

The New Testament believer, whether Jew or Gentile, need not bind himself to a law that has already been completed.

Should I follow the OT “Food Rules”? (Part 3)

Now that we’ve discussed the who and the what of the Old Testament dietary laws, it’s time to ask ourselves our initial question again.

Should I follow the Old Testament “Food Rules”?

From our first session, we can clearly see that Gentile believers have no obligation to follow the Old Testament dietary law. In our second, we questioned but did not answer whether Jewish believers should follow the dietary laws. That is what I shall attempt to answer today.

I argue that there are two types of laws given in the Old Testament: universal law (sometimes called the “moral law”) which springs from the nature of God, and specific law (including sacrificial law, civil law, and laws of distinction) which is given for a specific people in specific circumstances with a specific purpose.

The former laws are universal (duh) and unchangeable. All men everywhere are accountable to obey them at all times. The latter laws, on the other hand, do not apply in certain circumstances. There are three reasons why a specific law may not apply to an individual:

  1. If a person does not belong to the group to which the command was given, they are not obligated to keep that specific law
    For example, only those who had taken the vow of the Nazirite were required to avoid all fruits of the vine; only male Jews or male aliens who wished to become Jews were required to be circumcised
  2. If the circumstances for which the law was given have changed, one is no longer obligated to keep that command
    For example, the civil laws regarding punishments for stealing, killing, adultery, etc. were given for the ruling of the theocratic nation of Israel. That nation no longer exists.
  3. If the purpose of the law is fulfilled, there is no longer a need to continue to follow the external law meant as a shadow to point towards the thing that would come
    For example, the sacrificial law and all the laws regarding temple ritual have been fulfilled in Christ, who was the ultimate sacrifice and who established in the church a temple not made with human hands.

If the purpose of the dietary laws are, as I purport in my previous post, to distinguish the Jewish people as separate from all the other nations of the world, the next question to ask is whether that purpose has been fulfilled.

Must the Christian Jew continue to follow those laws that were intended to identify the Jews as distinct from the rest of the world? Does the Christian Jew need some sort of external practice or mark to identify Him as chosen by God?

I was hoping to finish this week-but I have, yet again, let my word count run away from me. Next week, I’ll pick up where I left off, looking at Peter’s Vision and the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius.

Should I follow the OT “Food Rules”? (Part 2)

Last week, I discussed the “who” of the Old Testament dietary laws and concluded that the dietary laws were given to the people of Israel and not to the surrounding nations. Thus, Gentile believers have no obligation to keep the Old Testament dietary laws.

For the majority of believers, that’s enough for us to eat our bacon in peace.

But what about the Jews? Are they obligated to keep the Old Testament dietary laws?

To begin to answer that question, we must ask a second question of the texts (Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14): Why has God given these dietary laws to the Israelites?

The answer is easy to find, but not quite as easy to interpret. Leviticus 11:44-45 gives several answers:

  • For I am the Lord your God
  • For I am holy
  • For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God
  • For I am holy

Deuteronomy 14:21 repeats the above:

  • For you are a people holy to the Lord your God.

If we are to believe the Scriptures, we must understand that the reason the Israelites were to keep the dietary laws was because God is holy–and they were supposed to be holy like God.

In our modern understanding of the word “holy”, we struggle with how this fits. We see “holy” as being “good” or “clean” (which it is, in a sense). But “holy” goes beyond that. The word Kadesh, which is translated “holy”, literally means “apartness” or “separateness”.

God is apart from humanity, separate from us. He is the great Other, the One so far different from us, so far above us that we cannot attain to Him.

When God was calling Israel to be holy, He was calling them to be apart, separate, different from the nations around them.

To demonstrate how His people were different from the people around them, God gave them a collection of rules for proper behavior.

Some of those rules, what we call the “moral law”, spring from the nature of God or from the created order and, although they were given specifically to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai, they are universal for all humanity. Lying is wrong because God is truth. Murder is wrong because God is the author of life. Idolatry is wrong because God alone is worthy of worship. Adultery is wrong because God created marriage to reflect His faithfulness.

Others of the rules given to Israel are not universal. These laws had a specific target and a specific purpose. The laws regarding the sacrificial system were intended to reinforce the need for atonement and to point forward to the coming Sacrifice. The laws regarding how restitution is to be made if someone steals something or borrows and loses something or accidentally mistreats someone were intended for the government of Israel’s theocratic nation-state. Other laws, like the command to not wear garments mixed with flax and wool, were intended to set Israel apart from the nations around them.

The dietary laws, like the laws governing mixed fibers, were laws of distinction–laws intended to make Israel stand out from all the other nations of the world, just as Israel’s God stands out above every other god.

As mentioned last week, this series within a series on Old Testament “Food Rules” is going to keep going until it reaches its conclusion, probably another couple of weeks.

Should I follow the OT “Food Rules”? (Part 1)

If you read last week’s post, in which I proclaim that there is no forbidden food, you already know what my answer to the title question is going to be.

I don’t believe that the believer in Christ has any obligation to obey the Old Testament dietary laws.

Saying that is the easy part. Judging by practice, this is the view of the majority of Christians worldwide.

But theology is not democracy, and majority vote means little by way of determining orthopraxy.

If we’re going to answer the question of whether New Testament believers are bound to obey the Old Testament dietary laws, we must look at Scripture itself.

The logical first step in this study is to look at the Old Testament dietary laws themselves. As we read through these laws, found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, it is important to note who God is giving these laws to and why He is giving them these laws.

Observe the following verses, extracted from those two chapters:

“Speak to the people of Israel, saying, These are the living things that you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth.”
~Leviticus 11:2

“For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”
~Leviticus 11:44-45

“And whatever does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you.”
~Deuteronomy 14:10

“You shall not eat anything that has died naturally. You may give it to the sojourner who is within your towns, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God.”
~Deuteronomy 14:21

Our first question, when reading this text, should be to ask who God is giving these dietary laws to.

The answer should be plain. Leviticus 11 states that these laws were spoken “to the people of Israel”.

In Deuteronomy 14, we read a repeated refrain “it is unclean for you” (emphasis mine). The God who does not waste breath inspired those last two words as well as the previous ones. God does not declare these various animals unclean, period–He declares them unclean to the Israelites.

Furthermore, God declares that one of his “food rules” for the Israelites is explicitly NOT for the foreigners who live among them. The Israelites aren’t supposed to eat an animal who has been found dead–but they are more than welcome to give or sell it to the people around them that those others might eat the animal who was found dead.

An initial, simplistic answer to the question of whether a New Testament believer should follow the Old Testament food rules is apparent. New Testament Gentile believers clearly have no obligation to follow the Old Testament dietary law because the dietary laws were explicitly given to the people of Israel, and were not meant to apply to the people around them.

The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 confirms this conclusion by stating that Gentile believers are not obligated to keep the law of Moses (contrast the Judaizers’ comment in Acts 15:5 with the apostle’s command in Acts 15:28-29).

As I’m getting a bit long, I’m splitting this post into as many posts as it’ll take to get through this topic. Judging from what I’ve got right now, it’ll be at least three, if not four or more posts. (And don’t worry, I will get to and discuss the Jerusalem council in more depth.)

There is no forbidden food

Since the original forbidden fruit, the history of humanity has been rife with food rules.

Don’t eat this, do eat that. That food is bad, that food is good.

Today’s modern dieter (and most women, regardless of their dieting status) have a deeply-seated conviction that some foods are bad (maybe even evil.)

Popular diet counsel might disagree over which foods are good and which foods are bad, but all of them agree that food is moral and some foods forbidden.

That is frankly unbiblical.

When God gave humanity food, He gave them all the plants and all the animals. In other words, He gave them everything for food.

Later down the road, after a group of Pharisees berate the Savior and His disciples for their eating habits, Jesus replies in a landmark exposition on food:

“Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him.”
~Mark 7:14-20

In this passage, Jesus sets aright the wrong thinking of his day. Food cannot make one clean or unclean. Food is amoral.

Food enters through the mouth and is excreted at the bottom. It is external to the body, not internal to the soul.

Food doesn’t defile us, our hearts do.

In saying this, Jesus clarifies several hundred years of teachings and traditions regarding which foods one can eat and which foods one cannot.

As Mark, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote: “Thus he declared all foods clean.”

Perhaps we might still be able to excuse our attitudes and popular teachings about good foods and bad foods by saying that this is only one passage–and that the original context was about hand washing anyway.

But it’s harder to ignore the apostle Paul’s stunning of indictment of those who follow “deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons”:

“…who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”
~I Timothy 4:3-6

Here, Paul not only says that forbidding food is unnecessary, he says that it’s demonic.

That’s right. It’s demonic.

The enemy would have us live in a world of forbidden foods. He would have us concerned about eating the right foods and avoiding the wrong ones. He would have us plagued with guilt over the food in our cupboards or what we order in a restaurant.

God, on the other hand, created all foods good. Nothing is to be rejected.

God (through the apostle) does not stipulate what we should eat, but how we should eat it.

There is no forbidden food. All food is to be received with thanksgiving.

I know that this is probably one of my most controversial teachings about food. I also know that many will ask about the Old Testament dietary laws–since Scripture certainly contains plenty of food restrictions. I plan to address those next week, explaining how the Old Testament dietary laws have been fulfilled in Christ–and are not binding on the New Testament believer (either as a command or as a suggestion of what to eat and what not to eat).

Food is a Gift from God

What’s the first mention of food in Scripture?

If you guessed the forbidden fruit, you’ve got it wrong.

The first mention of food comes just after the creation of mankind–and before the account of the preparation of Eden for man.

“And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so.”
~Genesis 1:29-30 (ESV)

Now, some might look at this passage and start making rules. Since God says that He’s given mankind every green plant for food, that means that God’s intent for mankind is that they be vegetarian. What’s more, this Scripture prominently mentions the seed, which is an implicit condemnation of the genetic engineering that results in non-propagative species of plants…

Rules. We’re used to looking at food in terms of rules. The foods we should eat, the foods we shouldn’t. The way we should eat, the way we shouldn’t. The right way to buy, to cook, to eat food.

But to reduce this passage to rules is to miss the point of the first Scriptural mention of food.

Before God gave mankind rules about food, He gave them food itself.

Food is a gift from God.

This is so important, so central to a Christian understanding of food. Food is not an enemy to be fought against. Food is not a lover to be enchanted with. It is a gift to be thankful for.

In Genesis 9, just after God blesses Noah and his sons and repeats to them the creation mandate, He also repeats His gift of food. This time, it comes with an expansion.

“The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea. Into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.”
~Genesis 9:2-3 (ESV)

Just as God had given every plant to mankind for food, He now gives them every living creature.

Food is a gift from God.

The Lord taught us to pray in such a way as to remind us that food is a gift from God. How many times have you recited the familiar words of the Lord’s prayer without thinking of their implications.

“Give us this day our daily bread…”
~Matthew 6:11

We are dependent upon food for our physical sustenance–and it is God who gives us our food.

Food is a gift from God.

I can sense the discomfort some might have with this introduction to a theology of food.

How impractical, you may think.

Repeating a theological refrain.

What does that have to do with nutrition?

I would argue that it has everything to do with nutrition.

In the developed world (and perhaps elsewhere too), there are two prevailing attitudes towards food–attitudes that coexist despite their contradiction. We either see food as an enemy or as a lover or both. We love food for its flavor, for the comfort it provides, for how we feel when we’re eating. We hate food for what it does to our bodies, for what it cannot provide, for how we feel when we’re done eating.

The Biblical perspective on food provides the remedy to both of these unhealthy attitudes towards food.

While the glutton worships food, the Christian worships the God who has graciously given him food. While the dieter hates food and fights against it, the Christian receives it with thanksgiving to the one who has given it.

Food is a gift from God.

This is the beginning of a theology of food.

Introducing a Theology of Food

Several of you commented positively when I suggested in jest that I might just have to write my own Christian nutrition reference. While I’m not sure a book of that sort is anywhere in my near future, I figured I might as well get a few of my thoughts into text–and give you all a sneak preview of what I might write about if I were to write a book on the topic!

Food plays an enormous role in our lives. Physically, it provides fuel for activity, essential nutrients for our body’s functioning, and a whole host of chemicals that either enhance or limit our body’s health. Psychologically, food offers comfort and is a repository of memories both good and bad. Socially, food provides the context for relationships, from school lunch rooms to church potlucks to awkward first dates at “fancy” chain restaurants. Developmentally, food plays an important role in the socialization of children to the norms of our cultures.

For most of humanity’s history, food was a matter of life and death. Subsistence farming meant that most of the world’s population was in a constant state of what today’s nutrition experts call “food insecurity”–not knowing where the next meal would come from (or whether it would come). Humans saw food from a survival standpoint.

In the past one hundred years, the sciences of agriculture and nutrition have grown in leaps and bounds. Food became abundant and readily available to most, at least in the developed world. Dozens of essential nutrients have been discovered and analyzed, multitudes of studies have explored the health impacts of the food we consume. We have come to see food from a health standpoint.

More recently, consumers have looked at the explosive growth of the agriculture industry and have called some of its tenets into question. They have started the local foods movement, the organic foods movement, the sustainable agriculture movements, the humane meat movement, and a dozen other movements looking at food from economic and/or ecological standpoints.

Christians, of course, acknowledge the broad array of standpoints by which to evaluate food–but many find themselves confused as to exactly what they should be thinking about food. How does Christianity influence what they eat and don’t eat? Does Christianity influence what they eat or don’t eat? Is the health aspect most important for Christians? Should Christians see food as fuel, nothing more? Should Christians be most concerned about sustainability or justice in distribution or taboo foods?

Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch theologian and statesman, once said:

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!'”

Most Christians would agree that food, which touches so many square inches in the domain of our human existence, is no exception.

My experience, however, has been that most Christians have a vague sense that their Christianity should influence their view of food–but they don’t really have any idea how their Christianity should influence their view of food.

They’ve heard so many different things about food from so many different sources that many of them just throw up their hands and resign themselves to a vague feeling of guilt that they’re probably not thinking about food as they ought.

So what does God have to say about food? How should the Christian view food?

Come along with me over the next several weeks as I explore a theology of food.

I anticipate posting about once a week in this ongoing series, “A Theology of Food”. Depending on how things turn out, I may decide to make posting about food and nutrition issues a regular feature on bekahcubed. I appreciate your feedback along the way!