Are some meats unclean?
“Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last days some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons. These people are hypocrites and liars, and their consciences are dead. They will say it is wrong to be married and wrong to eat certain foods. But God created those foods to be eaten with thanks by faithful people who know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:1-3).
For religious and ceremonial purposes, not for health reasons, God gave ceremonial instructions about cleanliness and uncleanliness to Israel under the old covenant. Note, it was not given only for clean and unclean animals:
Woman is ceremonially unclean during her menstrual period and when she gives birth:
“Give the following instructions to the people of Israel. If a woman becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her menstrual period” (Lev 12:2).
Anyone who touches a woman during her menstrual period is ceremonially unclean:
“Whenever a woman has her menstrual period, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. Anyone who touches her during that time will be unclean until evening” (Leviticus 15:19-23).
Anyone who touches a dead person or has a skin disease is ceremonially unclean:
“Command the people of Israel to remove from the camp anyone who has a skin disease or a discharge, or who has become ceremonially unclean by touching a dead person” (Numbers 5:2).
Anyone who ate unclean animal or touched a dead carcass of it became ceremonially unclean:
“Give the following instructions to the people of Israel. …You may not eat the meat of these animals or even touch their carcasses. They are ceremonially unclean for you” (Leviticus 11:1,8).
- Note that all the uncleanliness is associated with ceremonial defilement. The Hebrew word unclean in all of the above uses is in reference to ceremonial uncleanliness. We will see that all ceremonial and ritual laws have been done away in Christ because they fulfilled the purpose to which they were given.
- If those who insist on ceremonial defilement through food are consistent in their teaching about clean and unclean meats, they should also enforce other things that can make someone ceremonially unclean, and not just food.
Jesus declared no food can defile you or make you unclean. He said every kind of food is acceptable:
“It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart.” he asked. “Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.” By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes” (Mark 7:15-19).
In the Old Testament, uncleanness was a matter of external matters. Even touching an unclean thing, let alone eating it, could defile a person. Therefore, when Jesus said that nothing entering people defiled them or made them unclean he overthrew a basic principle of that whole ceremonial old covenant law.
Jesus did away with this ceremonial uncleanliness:
He touched people with leprosy and people with discharges (Matthew 8:3; 9:20). He touched dead people (Mat. 5:21-43). Even though the people were healed, under the old covenant rules, both they and Jesus would technically be unclean until evening. However, Jesus made no effort to avoid this. Nor do we read that Jesus ever participated in a cleansing ceremony. In the new covenant, touching a dead person or menstruation, or eating meat does not affect our status with God. It is not wrong to touch a dead person. There is nothing to repent of, to ask forgiveness for or to be cleansed of in the religious sense.
But didn’t God make a distinction between clean and unclean animals to Noah before He gave the law to Israel?
Noah was told to make a distinction between clean and unclean animals (Genesis 7:1-9). We are not told why Noah was to make the distinction; the only evidence we have in Genesis is that the clean animals were used for sacrifice (Genesis 8:20).
“Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and there he sacrificed as burnt offerings the animals and birds that had been approved for that purpose” (Genesis 8:20).
Again, the clean and unclean distinction is given for ceremonial and religious purposes, and not for health purposes.
When it came to eating animals, God told Noah explicitly that everything that lives was permissible as food.
After the flood God said,
“All the animals of the earth, all the birds of the sky, all the small animals that scurry along the ground, and all the fish in the sea will look on you with fear and terror. I have placed them in your power. I have given them to you for food, just as I have given you grain and vegetables.” (Genesis 9:3).
This indicates that all types of meat were permissible after the flood. Laws not to eat unclean meats were given only to Israel, for ceremonial purposes.
Jews believe and teach that Noah could eat any kind of meat he wanted, just as he could eat any kind of green plant he wanted. According to Jewish history, they believe clean and unclean food laws, sabbath, and tithes were given only for Jews.
The Jewish Encyclopedia says:
“It seems that in the mind of this writer the distinction between clean and unclean animals was intended for sacrifices only: for in the following chapter he makes God say: “Everything that moveth shall be food for you” (Genesis ix. 3). (“Clean and Unclean Animals,” vol. 4, p. 110)
All foods are permissible, and do not ceremonially make one unclean, but all may not be healthy
“You say, “I am allowed to do anything”—but not everything is beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:20).
God gave Noah all plants to eat, but some plants are poisonous, but God did not list the ones that are. He allowed humans to discern which plants are good; this is done by scientific investigation. Likewise, some animals (clean or unclean) are not good for food. God allowed Noah and his descendants to investigate which were good for food.
Why did God give these ceremonial rules to Israel?
He wanted his people to be holy and distinct from other cultures. He wanted them to make distinctions in what they could do and what they should not. It was a reminder of holiness.
“I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from all other people. “You must therefore make a distinction between ceremonially clean and unclean animals” (Leviticus 20:24-26).
Under the new covenant, however, God does not make a distinction between Israelites and Gentiles.
“Jew and Gentile are the same in this respect. They have the same Lord, who gives generously to all who call on him” (Romans 10:12)
Christians are set apart and declared holy when they put their trust in Jesus. All these Old Testament ceremonies pointed to the holiness that His people will receive through Jesus, who is holy:
“Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you” (John 15:3)
The holiness that God wants is in our morality, not in our diets. We are sanctified in our hearts, not in dietary customs.
The cleansing ceremonies that dealt with food and drink and other ceremonies were only for a time
“For that old system deals only with food and drink and various cleansing ceremonies—physical regulations that were in effect only until a better system could be established” (Hebrews 9:9-10)
If the Israelites found something dead, they were not allowed to eat it, but a Gentile could eat it.
“You must not eat anything that has died a natural death. You may give it to a foreigner living in your town, or you may sell it to a stranger. But do not eat it yourselves, for you are set apart as holy to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:21)
The meat was unclean, but it could be given or sold to a Gentile. But God would not encourage something harmful to be sold. This shows that the distinction between clean and unclean was designed for Israelites, not for health. Israelites had different rules than Gentiles; the rules about uncleanness separated the Israelite nation from Gentile nations.
Clean and unclean animals are listed in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. The Bible doesn’t make any claims about health benefits in these chapters.
- Although we can see some health benefits to avoiding certain types of meat, these benefits appear to be coincidental rather than the primary purpose of the list. If the problem was parasites, for example, a simple solution would have been to require thorough cooking.
- Moreover, clean animals can have parasites, just as unclean animals can.
- If God wanted to give us health laws, he would need to spend more time advocating exercise and sleep rather than forbidding seagulls and bats, which few people want to eat anyway. He would need to tell us about which mushrooms are dangerous, and which herbs increase our chances for cancer. He would need to tell us about the more dangerous health hazards.
In Peter’s vision, if the animals that caused ceremonial uncleanliness remained ceremonially unclean, wouldn’t the person it represented also remain unclean?
“In the sheet were all sorts of animals, reptiles, and birds. Then a voice said to him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat them.” 14 “No, Lord,” Peter declared. “I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure and unclean.” Peter was very perplexed. What could the vision mean? The voice said again, “Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.”28 Later, Peter told them, “You know it is against our laws for a Jewish man to enter a Gentile home like this or to associate with you. But God has shown me that I should no longer think of anyone as impure or unclean” (Acts 10:9-28)
In the vision, the ceremonially unclean animals represented Gentiles. In the vision, the animals were called cleansed. Peter understood from this that Gentiles were cleansed. But would Peter understand this conclusion if ceremonially unclean animals were not in fact declared ceremonially clean? If the animal remained ceremonially unclean, wouldn’t the person it represented also remain unclean? God was showing Peter that Christians were no longer separate from Gentiles — his people included Gentiles. The ceremonial laws of separation no longer applied. The meats that were commonly eaten among the Gentiles did not make them religiously unacceptable.
When Paul wrote that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and that we should honor God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), he was talking about sexual sins, not about physical health, although one can draw principles for physical health:
“Don’t you realize that your bodies are actually parts of Christ? Should a man take his body, which is part of Christ, and join it to a prostitute? Never! 19 Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God?” (1 Corinthians 6:15-20).
Paul declared no food is in and of itself unclean
“I know and am convinced on the authority of the Lord Jesus that no food, in and of itself, is wrong to eat. But if someone believes it is wrong, then for that person it is wrong” (Romans 14:13-14).
1 Timothy 4:3-5 says that all food may be eaten if it is “consecrated by the word of God.” Does the Bible consecrate all meats?
“Since everything God created is good, we should not reject any of it but receive it with thanks. For we know it is made acceptable by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4-5).
Romans 14:20 says yes — all are acceptable although all may not be healthy:
“Don’t tear apart the work of God over what you eat. Remember, all foods are acceptable, but it is wrong to eat something if it makes another person stumble” (Romans 14:20).
This passage does not comment on whether all meats are good for our health, just as it does not say that all vegetables are good for food. Whether it is good for food is up to people to discern, just as it was in the days after Noah’s flood. The point is no one can become ceremonially defiled by eating meat.
God abolished the old covenant commandments and regulations at Calvary because Jesus fulfilled them.
“For Christ himself has brought peace to us. He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. 15 He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations” (Ephesians 2:14-15).
Paul says, do not let anyone judge you on these:
- JEWISH DIETARY LAWS
- ANNUAL FEAST DAYS
- MONTHLY FEAST DAYS
- WEEKLY SABBATHS
“So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink (Jewish dietary laws), or for not celebrating certain holy days (Annual feasts) or new moon ceremonies (Monthly festivals) or Sabbaths (Weekly Sabbath). For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality” (Colossians 2:13-17)
Doesn’t Isaiah say God will destroy those who eat unclean food?
“But those who choose their own ways…When such people sacrifice a bull, it is no more acceptable than a human sacrifice. When they sacrifice a lamb, it’s as though they had sacrificed a dog! When they bring an offering of grain, they might as well offer the blood of a pig… Those who ‘consecrate’ and ‘purify’ themselves in a sacred garden with its idol in the center—feasting on pork and rats and other detestable meats—will come to a terrible end” (Isaiah 66:3,17)
- The warnings are given to Israel who chose their own ways instead of the laws given under the old covenant. God warned them for not obeying the laws pertaining to sacrifices, and ritual laws, because they were under those laws.
- In the new covenant, Christians are no longer warned for improper animal sacrifices, and grain offerings any more than adhering to ceremonial food laws given to Israel, as these have been abolished.
- To effectively convey warnings to an old covenant nation who was disobeying God’s old covenant law, the prophets referenced old covenant principles like sacrifices, unclean food laws.
God hears our prayers whether we have touched a dead body or not, whether we have eaten prawns or not. He calls on us to be holy, but holiness is in matters of the heart rather than external rules that have no connection with morality.
“It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart” (Mark 7:15-19)
- There is no law forbidding eating unclean meat in the new covenant or sin in eating unclean meat.
- The laws given to Israel with regard to food were ceremonial and ritual laws, which are now abolished.
- To be consistent, they should teach all other ways people can become ceremonially unclean and not just through foods.
- Clean and unclean animals are listed in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. God makes no claims there regarding health. For Israel, it was forbidden because of ceremonial and religious reasons.
- Paul states no food is unclean in itself and you can eat any meat sold in the meat market. Jesus said all food is acceptable.
- If someone believes it is not good to eat certain food, then for that person it is wrong to eat such food
- While all food is acceptable, all food may not be healthy. God’s people have been given wisdom and knowledge to avoid that which is not beneficial
- We are not judge people on dietary laws, feast days and Sabbath day
- For people to insist others obey Old Covenant laws, they are denying the clear teachings of Jesus and the new covenant, which Christians are under.
- If some are teaching it is wrong eat certain meat, it is a teaching that comes from demons.
“For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God, and others will approve of you, too” (Rom 14:17-18)