Are God's Laws of Clean and Unclean Meats
Upheld Under the New Covenant
Three New Testament passages are often quoted as "proof" that the Old Testament prohibitions against "unclean" meats have been nullified. But is this true?
I Timothy 4:1-5—Did Paul Teach that All Meat is Good for Food?
There is no question that the apostle Paul believed—and thus taught—“all things that are written in the Law and the Prophets” (Acts 24:14). This certainly included God’s commands concerning clean and unclean meats (as found in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14). But mainstream Christianity insists that Paul relaxed the Biblical injunction against unclean meats. They often site I Timothy 4:1-5, which is misleading in the KJV: “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.”
Here, Paul warns Timothy of an apostasy to occur in the end times—which would involve various “doctrines of demons.” One such “doctrine” commands abstinence from certain meats—which Paul counters by apparently saying that all meat is good for food, that nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving.
But is this really what Paul is saying? Is Paul upending centuries of adherence to Old Testament food laws?
Note first that this particular “doctrine” refers specifically to abstaining from meat that was “created to be received.” Conversely, this substantiates that there are other meats which were not “created to be received.” Indeed, God created meats which were never designed to be food—thus they are termed unclean. But clean meats were created to be received as food with thanksgiving. Thus, the passage is not dealing with meat in general, but only with clean meats—those “created to be received with thanksgiving.”
Next, note that the meat being discussed has been “sanctified by the word of God.” Where in the Bible is meat particularly sanctified—set apart—for human consumption? Why, obviously, Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, which lists meats to be avoided and those to be eaten. Thus, Paul did not say that every kind of meat was created by God for food—but that every clean meat was created by God for food.
Without question, Paul upheld the laws of clean and unclean meats as a requirement for Christians. He described the meats that Christians are permitted to eat as those which God has “created to be received with thanksgiving.” Paul was actually condemning a false doctrine that prohibited the eating of clean meats. The correct translation helps resolve the matter:
“Now the Spirit tells us explicitly that in the latter times some shall apostatize from the faith, and shall follow deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons; speaking lies in hypocrisy, their consciences having been cauterized with a hot iron; forbidding to marry; and commanding to abstain from meats, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by the faithful, even by those who know the truth. For every creature of God designated for human consumption is good, and nothing to be refused, if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is [already] sanctified [set apart] by the Word of God [in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14] and prayer.” (Please note how The Holy Bible In Its Original Order—A Faithful Version incorporates inserted words and phrases in italic type in the appropriate places to make the intended meaning clear. All such insertions are based fully on the contextual meaning of the passage.)
Paul adds that clean meats are also set apart by prayer. Indeed, we have Christ’s own example of asking for God’s blessing on our food (Luke 9:16; 24:30; etc.). This further sets the food apart as approved and even enhanced by God—but in no way can prayer make unclean meat clean.
Mark 7:1-5—Did Jesus Declare all Meats Clean?
It is a widely held conception of modern “Christianity” that Jesus set aside the laws and commandments of God—including those which prohibit certain meats as “unclean.” An incident recorded in Mark chapter seven is often used as a proof-text for such a view. In this case, Jesus’ disciples were criticized by the Jewish leadership for eating without first washing their hands. This dispute had nothing to do with clean and unclean meats. Rather, it revolved around Jewish traditional of ritual purity, such as ceremonial hand washing.
“Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes from Jerusalem came together to Him. And when they saw some of His disciples eating with defiled hands (that is, unwashed hands), they found fault. For the Pharisees and all the Jews, holding fast to the tradition of the elders, do not eat unless they wash their hands thoroughly. Even when coming from the market, they do not eat unless they first wash themselves. And there are many other things that they have received to observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and brass utensils and tables. For this reason, the Pharisees and the scribes questioned Him, saying, ‘Why don’t Your disciples walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?’ ” (Mark 7:1-5).
Drawing a sharp distinction between the Jews’ traditions and the commandments of God, Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of invalidating the Word of God by their traditions.
“And He answered and said to them, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy concerning you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men.” For leaving the commandment of God, you hold fast the tradition of men, such as the washing of pots and cups [and ritual hand washing]; and you practice many other things like this.’ Then He said to them, ‘Full well do you reject the commandment of God, so that you may observe your own tradition’ ” (verses 6-9). Jesus sternly rebuked the Jews for “nullifying” the authority of the Word of God by their countless and restrictive traditions (verse 13).
Notice that Jesus’ primary response was to defend and fully support the laws and commandments of God. In no way have God’s laws been abrogated. Having made that point, He went on to deal with the question of eating with “unwashed hands.” Addressing the multitude, He said, “Hear Me, all of you, and understand. There is nothing that enters into a man from outside which is able to defile him; but the things that come out from within him, those are the things which defile a man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (verses 14-16).
Obviously, unwashed hands will not particularly defile a person. But Jesus said there was “nothing that enters into a man from outside which is able to defile him.” Does that mean unclean meats were no longer prohibited by God’s law—that literally nothing can defile a person? What did Jesus mean?
It is important to realize that the dietary laws of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 deal with health and cleanliness—not with spiritual holiness. Eating unclean meats can harm one physically, but they will not defile one spiritually. (However, a careless attitude toward any of God’s laws can defile one spiritually.) Jesus is referring to one being spiritually defiled—not by anything eaten but by the thoughts and attitudes a person accepts into one's heart and mind.
Knowing that His disciples did not understand, Jesus said, “Don’t you perceive that anything [food, germs] that enters into a man from outside is not able to [spiritually] defile him? For it does not enter into his heart, but into the belly, and then passes out into the sewer, purging all food" (verses 18-19). Food is simply processed, purged from the body. Jesus was talking spiritually, making the point that even the dirt on one’s unwashed hands cannot defile the heart or make a person unholy.
The defilement of which Jesus spoke comes from within: “That which springs forth from within a man, that defiles the man. For from within, out of the hearts of men, go forth evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickednesses, guile, licentiousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness; all these evils go forth from within, and these defile a man” (verses 20-23).
The disputed phrase, “purging all meats” (verse 19, KJV), simply means that all foods are ultimately purged from the body. Clean and unclean meats are nowhere discussed in this passage. The New International Version and a few other translations spuriously add to verse 19, “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean’ ” (NIV, 1984). This is a deliberate, exaggerated disparity reflecting the translators’ anti-law bias, as no such phrase exists in the original Greek texts.
What if Jesus had actually meant to abrogate the laws of clean and unclean meats? Such a position would have easily created one of the biggest controversies of His ministry. Imagine how the Pharisees would have pounced upon such a reversal had Jesus said that swine’s flesh was good for food. But there is not so much as a hint in the account that the Jews took Jesus to be nullifying the Old Testament food laws. Quite the contrary. And Jesus’ point was not at all missed by the Jewish leadership: ritual washings are ineffective and unnecessary in preventing spiritual defilement; rather, true spiritual purity is a matter of the heart and mind.
Acts 10—Was Peter Shown that Unclean Meats are Clean?
Obviously, too many assume that the apostle Peter’s vision in Acts 10 represents a reversal of God’s laws prohibiting unclean meats. However, nowhere in the passage is it ever suggested that God had cleansed unclean meats. Rather, this is something “read into” the section by those with a predisposition against God’s laws. When the passage is read properly, it becomes obvious that Peter’s vision in no way authorized a change in the laws of clean and unclean meats. In fact, Peter’s vision had nothing at all to do with clean and unclean meats.
While staying in Joppa, Peter went up on the housetop about noon to pray. In a vision from God, he saw heaven open and what appeared to be a great sheet descending toward him full of unclean wild beasts, creeping things and unclean birds. A voice came to Peter, saying “Rise, Peter, kill and eat” (verse 13).
Peter did not automatically assume that it was suddenly okay to eat unclean meats. He knew that Christians were to continue living according to God’s law. His response shows that he obviously did not consider the laws concerning clean and unclean foods to be “done away” with or obsolete.
“In no way, Lord,” he replied, “for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” The voice from heaven added, “What God has cleansed, you are not to call common” (verses 14-15).
The sheet of unclean animals went up and down three times. Again, Peter never indicated that he believed it was now permissible to eat unclean meat. Finally, he awoke, wondering what the vision actually meant. But without question, he knew what the vision did not mean—that the vision in no way reflected a change in the laws concerning unclean foods.
Subsequently, Peter was led by God to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile. Peter then understood that he was to preach the gospel to Cornelius and to his household—and that they would be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit. Peter began to realize that God was opening the door of salvation to Gentiles. Suddenly, the meaning of the vision became clear. Talking to Cornelius, Peter said, “You know that it is unlawful for a man who is a Jew to associate with or come near to anyone of another race. But God has shown me [in the earlier vision] that no man should be called common or unclean” (verse 28).
Jewish tradition—based on a perversion of God’s laws regarding what is clean and unclean—forbade Pharisaic Jews to have a close association with Gentiles. Jews considered Gentiles to be unclean, unsuitable for physical contact. Peter was quite familiar with these traditions of Judaism.
God was showing Peter and the New Testament Church that Gentiles were being offered salvation—that they could become spiritually circumcised. Thus, the subject matter of Acts 10 has nothing to do with clean and unclean meats. God simply used the vision of unclean animals to emphasize a point to Peter—that when God has spiritually cleansed a Gentile, he is not to be deemed common or unclean.
Ultimately, Peter understood that “God is not a respecter of persons, but in every nation the one [Jew or Gentile] who fears Him and works righteousness is acceptable to Him” (verses 34-35).