Some believe that Peter, the apostles and the New Testament Church ate foods that were unclean according to the law. They think Jesus Christ made all meat clean. This article examines the New Testament scriptures on the subject.
Years ago a devout religious man said that Peter ate pork and so do I. He apparently was referring to the events mentioned in Acts 10, especially the part concerning Peter’s vision of the unclean meats.
Cornelius, a devout gentile, was instructed in a vision to send to Joppa for peter, who would tell him what he should do (Acts 10:1-8). As Cornelius’ messengers were on the way to see Peter, Peter also had a vision. In his vision he became very hungry and saw all kinds of creatures that were not to be eaten, according to the law. “And a voice came to him, ‘rise, Peter; kill and eat’ “(v. 13).
No! Peter objected, even though the voice from heaven instructed him to eat! Notice Peter’s reply: “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean” (v. 14).
Peter’s response was surprising, if Jesus Christ had made unclean food clean a few years earlier. Peter had not only ever eaten anything called unclean by the law, but he had also never eaten anything that was common – that is, ceremonially defiled.
Peter was instructed three times to “kill and eat.” He was also told, “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (v. 15). Notice that he was instructed about what was not to be considered common any longer. No reference was made to what was clean or unclean. There is a great difference between what is common and what is unclean.
Peter did not understand what this vision meant, since he knew that the Scriptures plainly forbade God’s people to eat such meat. He realized that if the message was really from God it should not contradict God’s inspired Scriptures. While Peter puzzled over this dilemma, the men from Cornelius arrived. Peter was again given instructions from God: “Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them” (v. 20).
It finally became clear to Peter what all of this was about. He explained it in verse 28: “then he said to them, ‘You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”
God’s law did not forbid a Jew to keep company with someone of another nation; that was a rule made by Jews based on their wrong interpretation of the law. Until this time Peter and the Church had carefully followed this Jewish custom. God was showing Peter by this vision to accept gentile converts into the Church. He was not showing him that unclean meat was now clean.
Nowhere in this chapter or, for that matter, anywhere else in the Scriptures, do we find that Peter ate pork or any other meat called unclean in the law. This devout religious man was wrong, though I doubt he would have admitted it even if it had been proved to him without question. He was not yet willing to let God or anyone else tell him what he could or could not eat. And, sadly enough, that is the case with most of us. We say we want to obey God but when it comes to changing our lifestyles wesimply aren’t willing to obey.
If this verse doesn’t change the law concerning clean and unclean meat, do other scriptures? Mark 7:18-19 is purported to have done away with the law concerning unclean meats: “And he saith unto them, are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goes out into the draught, purging all meats”?
If Jesus meant by this last phrase that unclean foods were now clean, as many people believe, obviously Peter did not understand it that way several years later, as we have already seen in Acts 10:14.
Before we go further in Mark 7, we should understand a little about the law concerning clean and unclean meats. This distinction was known before the Flood (Genesis 7:2). It was given again by God to Moses and Aaron for all Israel (Lev. 11). It was rehearsed to all Israel a generation later by Moses (Deut. 14).
When you understand who the “Lord” of the Old Testament really was, you will see that the question is important. Many verses make clear that the One who became Jesus Christ was the same personage known as the “Lord” in the Old Testament (Col. 1:13-18, John 1:1-5). He was later made flesh by human birth (John 1:14).
He had personally said that His people should “distinguish between the unclean and the clean, and between the animal that may be eaten and the animal that may not be eaten” (Lev. 11:47). In this same chapter, as well as in Deuteronomy 14, he mentioned that His people, who were to be a holy people (Lev. 11:44-45), would make themselves abominable if they ate any of the prohibited food.
Why did God make such a law? God always has a good reason for the things He does. Based on several comments, such as Lev. 26:14-16 and Deut. 28, the answer should be obvious: He prohibited humans from consuming some animals because eating those animals would not contribute to human health and well-being. The Bible makes clear which animals are which in Lev. 11.
Neither the flesh of the unclean animals nor the human digestive system was miraculously changed during the first century A.D.!
Back now to Mark 7. A careful reading of this passage shows that Jesus was not addressing the question of clean or unclean meats, nor was he changing any of His own laws. Jesus was pointing out that the Pharisees had added to God’s laws many commandments and rituals that were not commanded by God. One of those had to do with how one must wash his hands and arms in a special ceremonial way before eating.
He also said that such rituals of men do not purify the heart. The dirt that one might ingest, having not washed his hands, cannot defile a person. What comes out of the person, such as evil thoughts, adulteries, fornication and other sins, are what defiles him or her (vs. 20-23).
Any dirt from unwashed hands does not enter the heart but the “stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods” (v. 19). Jesus was saying that whatever enters the stomach is processed by the human digestive system to obtain any possible nutrients, and what is left is eliminated from the body as waste. This is the simple and logical explanation of this verse in its context, which shows that it has nothing to do with the subject of clean and unclean meats.
Other verses that some people conclude does away with the law concerning unclean foods are Acts 15. Notice verses 28-29: “For is seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality.”
Is this a new formula for Christian living? Is this all that is required for salvation? Does it do away with unclean meats? Does it do away with the Sabbath? Many people believe it does.
If it does, does it also remove from the Christian the need for repentance? Can the Christian now murder, steal, lie, and take God’s name in vain? If all that is needed now is to follow the four points of Acts 15:29, then it would seem we could throw away the rest of the Bible!
That is not, of course, what Peter, James and the headquarters ministers at Jerusalem had in mind. In order to understand, notice the problem that is addressed. It is mentioned in verse 1: “And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ “
Some of the Pharisees in the Church went even further: “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses” (v. 5).
In question, then, was circumcision and the law of Moses, not God’s spiritual law or all the other instructions of inspired Scripture.
The decision was that the gentile Christians were not obligated to be circumcised and keep the ritual laws of Moses, but they were instead to refrain from the four prohibitions mentioned in verse 29: “If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.” Note that if they did these things they would be doing “well” – but not fulfilling all requirements of righteousness or Christian living.
The four points of this verse relate directly to the practices in pagan idolatrous worship of that time, which had been commonly practiced by gentiles before their conversion. Therefore, though they were not required to be circumcised like the Jews, neither were they now to go back to their old pagan ways of worship.
Another scripture that is often misconstrued to do away with the law against eating unclean meats is I Corinthians 10:25; “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake.” Does this mean that you should not ask what kind of meat it is, where it came from, how it was raised or slaughtered?
Also note verse 27: “Eat whatever is set before you, asking no question.” Is Paul saying that if you have been invited to a dinner you should not ask any questions about the food on the table? Does Paul mean that you cannot ask questions about the source, type or preparation of the food?
Some people with stomach problems would be inviting disaster if they didn’t ask a few polite questions and then avoid what they knew would cause them trouble. If someone sets poison before you, are you obligated to eat it? The context should make it clear that such questions are not what Paul had in mind.
The section from verse 14 through the rest of the chapter has to do with eating food that was offered to an idol in a pagan temple. This sounds quite strange to a 21st century person, because such practices today are virtually unknown. At that time people offered animals as sacrifices in pagan temples. The meat later would be sold to a meat market, where it would be resold to the public. This is the problem Paul was addressing.
What should the gentile Christians do? Should he ask the butcher or his host at dinner whether that particular piece of meat had been sacrificed to an idol? Paul’s answer was no. There was no need to ask, as it didn’t affect whether the meat was wholesome.
However, if the host said the meat had been offered to an idol, then, for the other person’s conscience sake, the Christian should not eat it (vs. 28-29).
In Romans 14:14, Paul said, “I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself”? What is this verse all about? We again need to note the context of the chapter to see what Paul was addressing, and not just take part of a sentence out of context and put our own interpretation on what it means. The chapter subject is stated in verse 2: “One man will have faith enough to eat all kinds of food, while a weaker man eats only vegetables.” Some people ate meat and vegetables, while others ate just vegetables.
Paul shows in this chapter that Christians should not look down on one another or judge one another about vegetarianism. Instead, they should not do anything that would cause another Christian to stumble, even though what they wanted to do was not contrary to God’s ways (v. 21).
If this is what Paul was talking about, what about verse 14, which says “that there is nothing unclean of itself”? The answer is found in understanding the original Greek word that is translated “unclean.”
The word in Greek is koinos. This literally means, and is usually translated into English, “common,” and not “unclean.” In the Authorized Version of the Bible, koinos is translated “common” seven times. It is translated once as “defiled” and two times as “unclean”: however, the margins usually render “defiled” and “unclean” properly as “common.” In every instance, koinos should be translated “common.”
The Greek word for “unclean” is akathartos, which is not used in Romans 14:14. It is so translated 28 times elsewhere in the New Testament. The word koinos, which should be translated “common,” is used in Romans 14:14 and does not relate to what is called unclean in Leviticus 11.
The improper translation from Greek to English in this verse has caused many to wrongly conclude that this statement by Paul permits Christians to eat foods that even God Himself said we should not eat.
The remaining scripture that is commonly misunderstood on this subject is I Timothy 4:4: “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving.” Does this mean that rats, snakes, spiders and vultures should not be refused, and that they are all good to eat and made for that purpose?
Paul, writing to Timothy, was giving instructions to him and the Church. Paul stated that some people would depart from the faith and turn from the true doctrines of the Bible to doctrines of demons (v. 1). One such doctrine was “to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (v. 3).
If we let the Bible interpret the Bible, instead of using our own interpretation, this scripture will be clear. What foods did God create to be received? God answers in Leviticus 11.
Such food can be “received with thanksgiving by those who believe (God’s instruction in Lev. 11) and know the truth (of Lev. 11).” Then such food will be “sanctified (set apart for a holy use and purpose) by the word of God and prayer (of the one giving thanks, that God has created it for human food)” (vs. 4-5).
Paul was saying in I Timothy 4:1-5 that some people would turn to demonic doctrines and abstain from those foods God created for human consumption, which are listed in Leviticus 11.
This article started with the apostle Peter and now it would be good to end with him. He said that Christians should be “obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’ “(I Peter 1:14-16).
The scripture that Peter quoted here is found in Leviticus 11:44-45, the chapter where God instructs His people not to eat unclean foods! The part about being holy is still true, and the part about unclean foods is, too.