It is widely-assumed in modern Christian denominations that the New Testament permits believers to eat meats that were previously labelled as “unclean” meats in the Old Testament. Last month, a reader of this blog informed me that he was part of a Bible study group that was going to examine this topic. He requested that I provide a biblically-based commentary on this topic for the Bible study group to consider. I did so, and had meant to offer it to the readers of this blog last month for their consideration, but it got sidetracked with other pressing items to consider in my blog posts. However, in this post, I am offering readers of this blog my commentary on this subject for your consideration.
This topic is widely misunderstood by the modern Christian church. Some modern Christian churches do teach that the New Testament continues the Old Testament’s warning against unclean meats. I think most are Sabbatarian churches, but the first link shows a post I did on May 19, 2008 that the Evangelical Christian teacher, Joel Osteen, had told his mega-church that Christians should avoid unclean meats. I urge believers of all denominations and affiliations to read the commentary below. God observed in Hosea 4:6 that “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” The topic of clean/unclean meats is one where that observation of God applies to us today. As you will see in the medical links included with this commentary, God had some good reasons for giving the ancient Israelites his biblical laws about clean/unclean meats. Those reasons are also valid today. The last link below will take you to a post I did on September 3, 2009 on this topic which includes an especially graphic videolink of a surgery to correct a severe brain worm condition which can afflict people who eat pork. The surgeon interviewed on the link states that this condition related to eating pork is getting “more common.” I hope you will consider the information presented in this post. The health of you and your family really is at stake.
The Commentary Now Follows:
This commentary is dedicated to the topic of clean/unclean meats to answer in advance some issues which would likely come up in any Bible study discussion on the subject of whether modern Christians should observe biblcial meat laws. To begin with, let’s put the discussion in its proper historical context. To be able to understand many complex New Testament passages, we have to understand (A) what issues were being discussed and (B) what was the target audience of the epistle’s writer. If we try to understand NT epistles as if the original writer were writing to us in the 20th century, we will inevitably make mistakes about what was meant. We have to understand the subjects actually being discussed in their proper historical perspective or we often won’t understand the material. This is especially important in the epistles of Paul. Peter wrote in II Peter 3:15-17 that people were commonly misunderstanding what Paul wrote even during his lifetime. How much easier is it to misunderstand Paul when we don’t live in his culture and our scriptures are no longer in the original language that he wrote.
The main point to realize is that at the time they were written, none of the NT writers realized their writings and epistles would ever be canonized as “scripture.” All NT books were written by people who were trying to explain the laws of God and the Messiahship of Jesus/Yashua to mostly gentile Greek coverts. It is also helpful to realize every NT book was written by converted, observant Jews. At the time that Paul was raising up churches in the Greco-Roman world, the new converts were coming out of the “doctrines of men” and “weak and beggardly elements” that these converts previously had practiced in their pagan religions where they worshipped Diana, Apollo, etc. The Greeks also had a practice of offering their slaughtered meats to pagan gods before serving them to customers. That is why we see the subject of “meats sacrificed to idols” mentioned so often in NT books. Many Christians had their consciences offended by the offering of meats sacrificed to idols and wouldn’t eat meats because of that practice. Many people that Paul wrote to had no option but to become vegetarians because they had no way to obtain meats that weren’t offered to idols. Hardly any converts were landowners and some were slaves. They had no option to raise their own beef, sheep, chicken, etc. Almost always, when meats are being discussed in Paul’s epistles, he is addressing the subject of whether “clean” meats can still be eaten if they were offered to idols. I Corinthians 8:7-13 is an example of this wherein Paul says that Christians could eat meats sacrificed to idols without fear, but he also stated that if doing so bothered another brother’s conscience, he would refrain from doing so (and he urged others to have that same policy). The subject of clean/unclean meats isn’t even being discussed here.
Another huge issue in the early Greek churches was the manner in which beasts were slaughtered for meat-processing. Torah law required all the tribes of Israel to eat meats that were properly bled out before processing (Leviticus 7:26-27). Leviticus 5:8-9 is a specific example that all blood had to be drained from any sacrificed or slaughtered animal. This is important as parts of sacrificed animals were sacrificed on altars and the priests ate other portions. This is one thing being discussed in Acts 15:19-20 when the Apostle James decreed that the apostles write to gentile Greek converts that they abstain from idols, fornication, and things strangled and from blood. What he was saying was that the converts should stay away from pagan temples or places where idols were worshipped, that they should avoid the temple prostitutes (“vestal virgins”) in pagan temples and that they should avoid eating the clean meats that were not slaughtered properly in a manner where all blood was drained from them before their flesh was eaten. “Strangling” is specifically mentioned as a slaughter-method to avoid as that method would congeal blood throughout all the tissues of the animal. One example of this practice is the blood of all the Passover lambs that was spread on the lintels and doorposts of all Israelite homes in the Exodus account. Where did they get all that blood? The Israelites slaughtered the lambs in a manner where the neck was slit and the carcass was hoisted so all blood bled out via the neck. The blood was collected in vessels and used to “paint” the doorways of all Israelite homes while the meat was eaten as part of the Passover meal. Even today, Orthodox Jews will not eat “clean” meats unless they are slaughtered in a proper manner. This was also an issue for the early Greek churches. James’ words in Acts 15:20 affirmed that Greek converts should avoid eating even clean meats that were slaughtered in a wrong manner and not bled out properly. Everyone at the Acts 15 conference was an observant, converted Jew so they all understood they were talking about the slaughter methods for clean animals.
We need to realize that ALL references in the NT to “scriptures” or “the word of God” referred to the Old Testament scriptures. The Old Testament was the only “Bible” the Apostolic church ever had! The New Testament was not canonized until much later. When Paul writes in II Timothy 3:16 that “all scripture is profitable…for doctrine,” he was referring to the Old Testament scriptures. James the Apostle also stated in Acts 15:21 that the Greek converts could learn the right laws to observe because they would hear them read “in the synagogue every Sabbath Day.” James wrote this at a time when Christians all practiced “Jewish” lifestyles and were seen by others as a sect of the Jews (Acts 24:5). James had no idea that soon after he was slain that Christians and Jews would experience a breach and Christians would not be welcome in synagogues. James’ statement also reveals that he expected all Gentile converts to observe the 7th Day Sabbath but that is an entirely different issue than the subject of this email.
I Timothy 4:1-5 also states that vegetarianism is not required (verse 3) and it affirms that the scriptures must “sanctify” which meats are consumed. Verse 5 states that any meat can be eaten IF it is taken with thanksgiving AND it is sanctified by “the word of God.” The “word of God” was, of course, the Old Testament, and Paul was referring to Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 as those portions of “the word of God” which revealed which meats were sanctified by God for mankind to eat. Paul’s meaning was that his Gentile converts could eat any meat which was “sanctified” in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Paul’s reference to the “word of God” would also include the scriptures which mandated that slaughtered animals be drained of their blood before being eaten.
Colossians 2 is another passage often misunderstood. Remember the book of Colossians was written to Gentile converts who had adopted the religion of the Old Testament laws of God and had accepted Jesus as Savior. According to commentaries, Colossians was written several years after the Acts 15 conference where Greek converts were told by James, a deeply-observant converted Jew, that he expected them to hear the Law of God read “every Sabbath” in the synagogue. The Colossian converts were keeping the Old Testament laws and stood out “like sore thumbs” amongst their other Greek pagan community members. Paul wrote verses 16-17 to encourage the Colossians to “let no man [in their pagan community] judge them because of the [biblical/Jewish] meat laws, Holy Days and Sabbaths that they were observing.” Verse 17 specifically states the Holy Days are a “shadow of things to come”—referring to the New Testament meanings of the Old Testament Holy Days which Christians can understand (I gave a short message on this topic at the Sukkot event held at CATG [Church at the Gate]). It is clear that this is the correct understanding of this passage because in verses 18 and 23 Paul warns against Greek pagan idolatry as well as the pagan Greek ascetic practices of punishing or depriving the body of necessary things. Verses 20-22 warn against the pagan Greek practices that these converts had come out of–not against the biblical Old Testament laws. A careful reading of Col. 2 reveals that the words “clean or unclean meats” appear nowhere in the text because that is not what is being discussed. Modern Christians tend to “read into the text” what modern readers assume it meant (or want it to mean), not what it actually meant in its original historical context.
Jesus himself affirmed the continuing validity of the Old Testament scriptures for NT believers in Matthew 5:17 where he warned his followers not to think he had come to abolish the Old Testament laws and prophetic writings. In Matthew 5:21-27, Jesus made this point clear as he stated the Old Testament laws would be even more binding in NT times as he taught that the OT laws had to be obeyed by Christians in their minds as well as in their deeds. Hebrews 13:8 states that Jesus Christ is the same “past, present and future.” Jesus Christ lived his entire life as an observant Jew. When he returns, he will rule the earth as an observant Jew. He will order nations to keep the weekly Sabbath (Isaiah 66:23), even gentile nations will be required to keep the biblical Holy Days (Zech. 14:16-19) and he will outlaw the eating of unclean meats (Isaiah 66:15-17). Modern Christians have deeply de-emphasized the Jewishness of the Savior and the global King he will be after his Second Coming.
One last thought. God’s laws are not mean or arbitrary. He commands them because he knows what is best for us. Leviticus 13 mandated the quarantining of the sick and the burning of garments infected by diseased people, and Leviticus 15 warned that body fluids could transmit disease and advised the need for frequent bathing. We now know the science behind those wise warnings God gave his people. In giving the meat laws in Leviticus 11, it is apparent that any animal, bird or fish that eats dead and decaying flesh is an “unclean” animal. Did God also know that these “unclean” animals were created to clean up the earth and the oceans of decaying matter and were not to be eaten because they were not good for us in the long run? Christians also realize their bodies are “the temple of the Holy Spirit.” Would God have been pleased if the ancient priests had brought decaying “roadkill” sacrifices to offer to him in the Temple instead of the live, clean animals he specified? Obviously not. Perhaps God wants our bodies (the Temple of his Holy Spirit) not to be filled with flesh from animals, bids or fish which eat decaying “roadkill.”
I have enclosed the second link below from my website which answers many more specific questions on the subject of clean/unclean meats as well as three links [3, 4, 5] from a medical website which warns about eating biblically “unclean” meats. The sixth link is a blog post from my website about unclean meats which includes a link from FOX News about a case where a woman thought she had a brain tumor but surgery revealed that it was a large worm living in her brain which had come from her eating pork. After looking at these links, many will come to conclusions that God’s warnings against unclean meats are based on his love for us.