The Old Testament of the Bible has some very clear and specific instructions about which meat is clean and which is unclean to eat. Today, Christians generally do not follow these instructions anymore and eat without dietary restrictions. Does God really tell us we don’t need to care about it anymore?
To see what the Bible teaches us on this topic, we will first look at the origin of these dietary laws. Once this and the reason for them are established, we will discuss a number of Bible verses from the New Testament that for many have caused confusion around this topic.
The origin of clean and unclean animals
The law of Moses
When Moses received the law from God, it included a detailed description of which animals were clean and which were unclean (Leviticus 11). The entire chapter is dedicated on specifying the differences and it concludes like this:
Many Christians think because these instructions were given to Moses as representative of the Jewish nation, it was meant to be only for them. It might surprise you, but this is actually not where we find this distinction between the clean and unclean animals for the first time.
In sevens or by two
You might have grown up, as have I, with the charming picture of Noah and all the animals two by two entering the ark. Though that sounds cute, it is not completely Biblical. Of each clean animal, Noah was to take seven. The fact that Noah was told to take seven of each clean animal, tells us that he already knew that there was a distinction between the animals, clean and unclean. So already here, at the time of Noah, not all animals were to be treated the same. Before the flood, long before the law was given to Moses, God had clearly already instructed man that some animals are clean and others unclean.
Some differences between the two
There are several criteria that distinguish one group from the other, such as the way of eating, or even the kind of hoofs they have. It’s pretty amazing that God has given man such clear descriptions that made it relatively easy to know which animal belongs in which group.
It all has a lot to do with the quality of the meat that makes an animal clean or unclean to eat. Of course we are not talking about quality in the sense whether it can be served in a Michelin 3-star restaurant, but what the meat contains. You might have heard the expression, ‘you are what you eat’, which is true in a way. The body of the animal takes up different things from what the animal eats. Take a shrimp for example, an amazing little creature that keeps the oceans clean. One of the ways it does that is by eating dead animals. So a shrimp is like nature’s garbage bin. How many of you would willingly eat a garbage bin? Does not sound too appealing right? Yet many of nature’s garbage bins end up on people’s plates with all the toxins, parasites and poisons that their bodies have taken up. The clean animals on the other hand naturally eat only plants. This probably is the most distinct feature is the clean-unclean classification, that the clean animals are herbivores, while the unclean animals are carnivores or scavengers. The fact that the body takes up what it eats is just one example as to why these unclean animals should not be eaten.
Body as a temple
The reason why God told Noah and Moses and His people throughout time to abstain from eating certain animals, is not to take away our pleasure, but to keep us healthy. God tells us to treat our body as a temple (1 Corinthians 6:19), because Jesus paid an infinite price for your life. We want to do what we can to keep ourselves fit, healthy and in shape, for Jesus’ sake and our own. This principle of pursuing good health has not been only for a people of the past, but it is still oh so relevant for us today. And diet plays an important role in that.
Moreover, it is important to note that God even calls it abominable to eat the unclean meats (Deuteronomy 14:3). In His sight it is really not a good thing to do, maybe for even more reasons than those that science has discovered so far.
Some popular arguments explained
Peter’s vision, Acts 10:9-16
Peter receives a vision from God where a large sheet with all kind of animals comes down from heaven (Acts 10:9-16). God tells him to “kill and eat”. Peter tells God that he has never eaten anything common or unclean. Three times this happened before the vision ends. We today are quick to draw conclusions from this vision, “God declared all animals clean, so we can eat all animals”. Before jumping to hasty conclusions, let’s notice Peter’s reaction to the vision in the very next verse (Acts 10:17). Peter does not understand the vision and he is trying to figure out what it means.
Even though animals were used in the vision, he knew this is not about the animals but had a deeper meaning. Then a situation presented itself immediately after that made Peter understand. Some representatives of the gentile believer Cornelius come to Peter and invite him to come with them to Cornelius’s house to talk about Jesus. And that’s when Peter understands the meaning of the vision, it was not about animals, it was talking about accepting all people (Acts 10:28). The Gentiles were not to be avoided and treated as common or unclean, but they were to be included in those who they should share the gospel with.
According to the Bible and Peter, these verses do not tell Christians today they can eat all kinds of animals.
Common or unclean, Romans 14:14, Mark 7
Paul makes a statement that on the surface seems to flat-out say that no food is unclean for the Christian (Romans 14:14). Depending on your translation, the word can be translated as ‘unclean’. The Greek word here is from the word koinos (2839.) which means common. In the vision from Peter we can clearly see that this is significant. Peter says that he had never eaten anything common (koinos) or unclean (akathartos, 169.). The second one, akathartos, is used to refer to animals that are in themselves unclean as was already known by Noah. The word koinos is used for those things that during the process have become unclean or dirty. Paul is here not talking about the animals that God had said are unclean, but about the clean animals that due to a certain process were considered unclean. It is true that God had set up some regulations about how to treat food, but the Jews, like with the Sabbath, went overboard and set up a whole lot of more rules and regulations.
We can clearly see this problem come forward when Jesus is accused by the Jews for eating without having washed His hands (Mark 7:2). They actually say that Jesus’ hands are defiled (koinos). In response to this, Jesus tells them that nothing that you eat can make you defiled (koinos). Jesus confronts them by calling these regulations, and washings in this particular case, that would make the food koinos, are not of God but are man-made rules (Mark 7:3; 7:7-9). By saying this, Jesus made clear that the food that comes from clean animals is not defiled or unclean if one does not follow the man-made rules of the Jews. Jesus is not talking about the akathartos food which God Himself had said are unclean in themselves. The same declaration is made in the vision from Peter, where he is told that he should no longer call common (koinos), that which God has made clean (Acts 10:15). In the larger picture, God tries to shift the focus of man from mad-made regulations to the laws of God.
Neither Paul or Jesus here talk about that the animals God called unclean, are now okay for Christians to eat.
Meat sacrificed to idols, 1 Corinthians 10:23, Romans 14
A verse often taken out of context is 1 Corinthians 10:23. If you take just this verse, its potential reach has no limits. Can you imagine that Paul says that it is lawful for us to commit adultery, kill and steal, but it simply might not be as constructive as others things? Of course Paul makes this statement in a certain context, and in this case the context is talking about meat offered to idols. Paul is addressing questions from the Corinthians, and from chapter 8 all the way down to the end of chapter 10, he is answering their question about things offered to idols (1 Corinthians 8:1). We can see it in the direct context before (1 Corinthians 10:19) and after (1 Corinthians 10:25; 10:28). When pagans would offer meat to an idol, they would often offer half and sell the other half on the market. The Christian Jews didn’t want to have this meat because in their eyes it was defiled (koinos). And the gentile converts who had been involved in these kind of practices in other religions themselves, didn’t want it because of their own past experiences. Paul is trying to make the point that though Christians can eat meat offered to idols (from clean animals), if a brother or sister is not comfortable with it, let them be. Don’t judge them, and don’t be a stumbling block for them (1 Corinthians 10:32-33).
About a year later when Paul writes to the Romans, he tells them the same thing. One person’s faith may be weak and they do not believe that they can eat that is offered to idols (Romans 14:1-2). Another’s faith may be strong, and believe like Paul that these meats are not defiled (koinos, Romans 14:14; 14:20), but perfectly fine to eat. Though one’s own faith may be strong, they should not exercise that faith if it becomes a stumbling block for those who do not have that faith (Romans 14:13; 14:21-22).
Paul’s point in both cases, is not that unclean animals (akathartos) are all of a sudden clean, but that people should respect other people’s convictions about how to deal with animals that had been declared clean, but from one’s perception could be defiled by having been offered to idols.
Nothing to be refused, 1 Timothy 4:4
Another verse from Paul causes some confusion around this topic (1 Timothy 4:4). This verse too on the surface seems to clearly tell us that all creatures of God are good, nothing to be refused when received with thanksgiving. But again, let’s look at the context. The verse before already defines which creatures he is talking about, those that God had created to be received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3). Did God ever tell us that the unclean animals were to be received with thanksgiving? No, He did not.
So all the creatures that are good and to be received with thanksgiving are the animals that God declared as clean.
Not judge in meat, Colossians 2:16
Finally one more verse that we want to explain, again from Paul (Colossians 2:16). But here too it is important to look at the context. The verses right before and after tell us that Paul is talking about the ceremonial law that has come to an end (Colossians 2:14-15), since they were a shadow of Christ and have been fulfilled in His sacrifice (Colossians 2:17). Knowing the context we for sure that Paul is not talking about clean or unclean animals. First of all, the ‘meat and drink’ it talks about are declared to be a shadow of Christ, pointing forward to His sacrifice and ministry. Unclean food does not fit in this description, as it in no way points forward to Christ. Secondly, the institution of clean and unclean foods predates the ceremonial law as they were already known by Noah.
This verse actually refers to the meat and drink offerings that are recorded in the ceremonial law and indeed, as part of the sacrificial system, point forward to Jesus.
The call to respond
Now we have understood the origin and reason behind the dietary laws. And we have established that the New Testament in no way tells the Christian today that anything changed and that we are free to eat anything we want. The unclean animals, such as shrimp, pig and horse, are still unclean today and should not be on the menu for the Christian. Keep in mind also that these are the dietary laws, not suggestions. Eating the unclean animals is abominable to God. But friends, allow us to emphasize one thing, this is not a restriction. The God we serve is for us, and wants the best for us. He wants us to be healthy, for our sake, His sake and the sake of those around you as we become healthier and more available witnesses. Hopefully you will be motivated not just to avoid the unclean animals, but even go beyond that (considering that even the clean animals today are often filled with antibiotics and all kinds of toxins etc.) and honor the principle that God brings to the front, to live and eat healthy.