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Clean and Unclean In The New Testament
Publish date: May 13, 2009
Summary: The New Testament contains some passages about dietary laws that can confuse us, if we don't understand them correctly.
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In this article, we will discuss three passages from the New Testament that we often misinterpret in regards to the dietary laws.
Question 1: Romans 14:14 says, “there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” Was Paul saying that nothing is unclean?
Answer: Compare Romans 14 with 1 Corinthians 8-10. You will see that the same problem is being addressed—friction between two parties in the early Church.i
Jewish converts (aware of dietary laws) didn’t mind eating clean animals sold in the heathen markets. The Gentile converts thought heathen idols made sacrificed meat unclean:
As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one (1 Corinthians 8:4).
The argument wasn’t about dietary laws, but meat sacrificed to heathen idols. Paul urged Jewish and Gentile believers not to condemn each other based on sacrificed meat. Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 8:10-11:
For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol’s temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for which Christ died?
In other words, don’t make a brother feel he should ignore his uneasiness and try to eat sacrificed meat anyway. He would feel he is lost because his conscience wouldn’t let him rest.
But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died. Let not then your good be evil spoken of: for the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost (Romans 14:15-17).
Paul is not dealing with a moral law here. He is calling for understanding of the tender consciences of weaker brothers.ii He advises “Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way” (Romans 14:13).
Question 2: In Matthew 15:11 Jesus says, “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.” Does this mean we can eat whatever we want?
Answer: There are consequences to everything we eat—good and bad. Eating poorly will harm our bodies, just as eating well will help our bodies maintain health.
This verse needs to be understood in its proper context. It doesn’t mean that anything we eat is now good for us regardless of what it is, for we all know that there are many things that can go “into the mouth” and produce dire consequences. Many foods or drugs available to us harm us, and are not made safe to eat because of this verse.
In Matthew 15:2, the Pharisees criticize Jesus, saying, “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.” The Pharisees were not really concerned with physical cleanliness. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to obey their washing ritual so any heathen “defilement” would be magically removed.
In verse 15, Peter asks Jesus to explain the parable. He realized there was deeper meaning than just ritual washing. Jesus explains it this way:
Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man (Matthew 15:17-20).
This passage is not concerned with dietary laws, but rather the fruitlessness of ritual washing while the dark heart remains untouched.
Question 3: Doesn’t 1 Timothy 4:3-4 tell us that we can eat anything if we pray over it first?
Answer: Let’s observe what the verses actually say:
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 (1 Timothy 4:3-4).
Paul is telling Timothy about false believers who will “depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils” (1 Timothy 4:1). They are in error—no longer following the Scriptures.
- Paul tells Timothy these false teachers will command people to “abstain from meats.” But what kind of meats? 1 Timothy 4:3 tells us these are not unclean meats but meats that “God hath created to be received with thanksgiving.” This cannot mean unclean animals, because they were never intended to be eaten!
- These clean meats are to be “received with thanksgiving of them that believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:3). Believe and know the truth about what? Obviously, the truth about clean and unclean animals.
- 1 Timothy 4:4 says, “For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving.” This does not mean that every created being is permitted to be eaten. If this were the meaning, cannibalism would justified. Rather, this verse refers to the previous verse’s clean animals. Those who “believe and know the truth” will receive “with thanksgiving.”
- 1 Timothy 5:5 describes the meat further: “For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.” Two things sanctify this food—“the word of God” and “prayer.” Remember this is the meat that false teachers said could not be eaten. This is in contradiction to God’s Word which listed the meat as “clean” (1 Timothy 5:1). By knowing the truth in the Word of God, and receiving these clean animals in a thankful manner with prayer, the true believers would obey God and not the “doctrines of devils.”
What would this passage be saying if it referred to unclean instead of clean food? Would it really mean that we could eat anything if we pray over it? Would we allow our children to eat anything, as long as they prayed over it? Not likely! We can expect God, our Father, to give guidance of what is good for us.
i. Bear in mind that when Paul says “nothing is unclean of itself,” he is saying that we can’t always tell just by our own judgment what is clean and unclean. It is determined by the Word of God. If a person feels that something is unclean, then the safe thing to do is avoid eating it since he does not have the faith to eat without scruples. Only knowledge of God’s Word can let our conscience rest in the fact that a particular food is clean or unclean.
ii. Romans 14 speaks about esteeming “one day above another” as well as eating (or not eating) sacrificed foods. Both problems focused on observing festivals and sacrifices. Paul did not want new believers swept back into dead rituals because some “knowledgeable” person encouraged weaker brothers to view them as “harmless.” Paul wanted believers to pay special attention to problems with the weaker brother’s conscience. Paul was not telling believers to ignore either the Sabbath in the Ten Commandments, or the dietary laws laid down by the Creator since the days of Noah.
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