Food is an intricate part of everyone’s life. We all have foods that we like or don’t like, as well as foods that reflect our cultural backgrounds. But have you ever wondered about the purpose for the various food laws, or dietary laws, in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14:3-21? I would like to begin a five part series dealing with the one thing we all enjoy: FOOD.
In part 1, I want to lay the foundation of this study, and then in part 2, get into the actual food laws, and then in parts 3-5 look at those passages in the New Testament that seem to contradict these laws. But what I find interesting about these two chapters is that they provoke some rather interesting questions: “Why is it important to God what we eat or don’t eat?” and “How can food ‘defile us’ or make us ‘unclean’?” In this article, I would like to lay the foundation for this study by discussing FIVE reasons for the food laws given in Scripture.
REASON #1 – THE KINGSHIP OF GOD
One reason, I believe, for the food laws has to do with God’s kingship in our lives. God wants to be King in every area of our life, not just spiritually. Therefore, an important question that these two chapters raise is, “Is God King when it comes to the foods we eat?” And unfortunately, the answer for most Christians is “No, He’s not King, they are,” since they choose to eat what they want, regardless of what the Scriptures teach. And I do believe this is the reason many of us get sick or get the diseases that we do because we disregard God’s instructions in this area of our lives.
For example, I may like Dr. Pepper, and because I like it, then I believe that my car will also like it. So I begin to put Dr. Pepper in my gas tank. After awhile, my car breaks down. Now is it the manufacturers fault that my car broke down? No, of course not, it is mine because I didn’t follow the manufacturer’s instructions. In the same way, when we don’t follow our King’s instructions, we also break down and have problems for the same reason: we didn’t follow the manufacturer’s (God’s) instructions.
And we do this because we have been erroneously taught that Yeshua (Jesus) did away with the food laws; however, as I am going to show in parts 3-5 of this series, this is not true at all. For example, the food being discussed in Matthew 15:1-20 and Mark 7:1-23 were plants which are all “clean foods.” So the discussion had absolutely nothing to do with “unclean food” at all, but it was about the ritual hand washing laws taught by the Oral Traditions of the Pharisees, not the food laws given by God. In fact, Yeshua (Jesus) specifically says this in Matthew 15:20.
REASON #2 – THE FOOD LAWS ARE FOR OUR PHYSICAL HEATH
There are many people who see the food laws to be simply a health issue, and there’s some warrant to this, but I believe the health benefits are a side issue, they are not the primary reasons for them. But if you are interested, there are two good books I want to recommend if you are interested in studying this aspect of the food laws. Both books are written by Gordon S. Tessler, Ph.D., called Did God Change His Mind (TLC Associates, 1991) and The Genesis Diet (Be Well Publications, 1996). Dr. Tessler is “a widely regarded author, lecturer, and consultant in the fields of clinical nutrition and biblical health.”
REASON #3 – SANCTIFICATION & HOLINESS
Another reason that repeated over and over again for the food laws has to do with sanctification and holiness. For example, throughout the Scriptures, we are taught that we are to be holy because God is holy. But, of course, this provokes the question, “What is Holiness?” HOLINESS does not refer to “MORAL PURITY” or “MORAL PERFECTION,” but to “BEING DISTINCT, SEPARATE, AND OTHER THAN” THE WORLD. In essence, to be an imitator of God. Throughout the Bible, God calls His people to walk in holiness: “be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7, 8, 26; I Thessalonians 4:7; and I Peter 1:15, 16).
THE LAW – A DESCRIPTION OF HIS WAYS
And because God wants us to imitate Him, He gave us a description of “His ways” or “His way of life” in and through His commandments, and with them He gives us do-able, concrete ways to do this, to imitate Him, and one of those ways He does this is with our food. For example, in the book of Leviticus, we read,
You shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creeps, neither shall you make yourselves UNCLEAN with them, that you should be DEFILED thereby. For I am the LORD your God: you shall therefore SANCTIFY yourselves, and you shall be HOLY; for I am holy: neither shall you DEFILE yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. (Leviticus 11:42-43)
According to God’s Word, we can make ourselves “unclean” and “defile” our own holiness by the things that we eat. Therefore, God says if we “sanctify” ourselves, then we “shall be holy.” But isn’t this a complete contradiction to the teachings of Yeshua (Jesus) in the New Testament?
In Matthew 15 and Mark 7, while Yeshua (Jesus) and His disciples are out in a field, a group of Pharisees from Jerusalem approach them, and they ask, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread” (Matthew 15:2). In this account, the topic under discussion has nothing to do with food, since the food the disciples were eating was “clean food,” not “unclean food.” The actual conversation had to do with the oral tradition of the Pharisees, not God’s commandments at all.
The ritual purity laws of the Pharisees taught that to remain ritually pure, they had to wash their hands several times before eating. Mark’s version tells us a little more:
For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brazen vessels, and of tables. (Mark 7:3-4)
They believed if their hands were dirty (ritually unclean), then when they touched the food, it became ritually unclean. And then, when they ate it, the food made them ritually unclean. Yeshua (Jesus) was not contradicting the food laws of His Father, but this man-made tradition of the Pharisees. In fact, He says in Matthew,
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 witnesses, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man: BUT TO EAT WITH UNWASHED HANDS DEFILES NOT A MAN. (Matthew 15:18-20)
When we make the decision to eat what we want to eat, rather than what God wants us to eat, then this proceeds from our own evil thoughts within us. And as Yeshua (Jesus) says here, sin begins in the heart, and eventually, that sin works itself out in our behavior, even in the disobedience of eating what God has told us not to eat. And in so doing, those evil thoughts that began in our hearts defile us.
WE HAVE A ROLE IN OUR SANCTIFICATION PROCESS
Therefore, by seeking to walk in obedience to God by keeping His commandments through the empowering of God’s Spirit, we sanctify ourselves, and in so doing, with the Holy Spirit’s help, make ourselves holy. In fact, Paul teaches us that we do have a role in our own sanctification process. For example, let’s look at I Corinthians 6,
For ye are the temple of the living God; as God has said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Wherefore come out from among them, be separate, says the Lord, and touch not THE UNCLEAN THING; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty. (I Corinthians 6:16-18; Emphasis Mine)
In these verses, Paul is combining Exodus 29:45, Leviticus 26:12, and Isaiah 52:11. In this epistle, Paul is writing to the church at Corinth, and he is telling this congregation there that they, the group, the congregation, “are the temple of the living God.” In fact, this is what the pronoun “ye” means. It refers to a group. If Paul were saying this about them as individuals, he would have used the pronouns, “thou, thee, thy, or thine,” which always indicates an individual. For example, in the Ten Commandments, even though God is addressing them as a nation, He does not say, “Ye shall not steal,” referring to them as a whole, as a group, but “Thou shalt not steal,” meaning that each individual was not to steal.
Likewise, Paul is telling them and us, that our congregations are all part of the temple of the living God. But what we need to realize is that our God is holy, and because He’s holy, He needs a holy environment for Him to dwell and operate in. God cannot dwell in an unholy temple. In the prophets, we read how God put up with Israel defiling His temple for awhile, but there came a point when God finally left it. He would not put up with it any more, and in the same way, I believe that the reason God’s Presence is not felt in many churches, and even in the lives of many people, is because they do not live holy lives; therefore, they do not provide God with a holy environment for Him.
THE LAWS PURPOSE – IT WAS NEVER GIVEN TO REDEEM US?
There are so many things about God’s law we don’t understand because of how we’ve been taught to view it. For example, the purpose of the law was not to bring us into a relationship with God, or even to redeem us. For example, in the footnote for Exodus 20:1-17, in The Apologetics Study Bible, it says,
God and Moses perceived obedience to the laws, not as a way of or precondition to salvation, but as the grateful response of those who had already been saved. God did not reveal the law to the Israelites in Egypt and then tell them that as soon as they had measured up to this standard He would rescue them. On the contrary, BY GRACE ALONE, THROUGH FAITH they crossed the Red Sea to freedom. All that was required was belief in God’s promise that He would hold up the walls of water on either side and see them safely through to the other shore….Obedience to the Decalogue [“Ten Commandments”] or any other law has never been intended as the way of salvation but as the appropriate response to salvation already received. (115; Emphasis Mine)
Consequently, then, the whole argument that God’s law teaches “works righteousness” or salvation by works is completely bogus. Our obedience to His commandments is how we are to respond to His salvation; I obey God because I am saved, not so that I can get saved.
Let me give you a modern day analogy. Suppose someone from another country comes to the United States. If he obeys all of our laws, will that make him a citizen of the United States? No, it won’t. In order to become a citizen of the United States, he has to go through a special process, called “naturalization.” And then, once he becomes a U.S. citizen, we still expect him to keep all of our laws. In the same way, if we obey all of God’s laws, this does not make us a citizen of God’s Kingdom. Instead, if we want to become a Kingdom citizen, then we have to go through a special process, which the Bible calls “salvation.”
TOUCH NOT THE UNCLEAN THING
And even after getting saved, we are still expected to walk in obedience to God’s commandments, so that the Holy Spirit can work through our obedience to sanctify us. Notice that Paul quotes Isaiah 52:11, which says that if we come out of the world, “the nations,” and “touch NOT the UNCLEAN THING,” God says, “I will receive you, and will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters.” And based on this passage, Paul writes,
Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, LET US CLEANSE OURSELVES from all filthiness (or defilement) of the FLESH AND SPIRIT, perfecting HOLINESS in the fear of God. (2 Corinthians 7:1; Emphasis Mine)
We do have a role to play in our sanctification, as Paul clearly teaches here. And notice, we are to “cleanse ourselves” from all “filthiness (or defilement) of the flesh and spirit,” so that we may “perfect holiness in the fear of God.” The word “perfecting” is the English translation of the Greek compound word, epiteleo, which means “to finish, complete, perfect.” This last line in the verse could then be translated as “finishing, completing holiness in the fear of God.”
This idea that we work in partnership with God in our sanctification can also be seen, or derived, from Leviticus 20:
Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy: for I am the LORD your God. And you shall keep My statutes, and do them: I am the LORD which sanctifies you. (Leviticus 20:7-8)
Notice again, we are being commanded to “SANCTIFY YOURSELVES” and to “BE HOLY.” God’s command for us to SANCTIFY ourselves and to BE HOLY has not changed. He expected it of the Israelites and the mixed multitude of Gentiles (Exodus 12:38; Numbers 11:4) that traveled with them, and He expects it of us today. To “sanctify,” or sanctification, is the process of making us holy; in fact, the word “saints” literally means “holy ones.” And this process of sanctification is extremely important in our relationship with God. For even in Hebrews 12:14, God’s word says that “without holiness, no man shall see the Lord.”
PAUL NEVER ARGUES AGAINST THE LAW FOR OUR SANCTIFICATION
And what many people may not think about is that although Paul argues over and over against using the Law for the purpose of JUSTIFICATION, as I mentioned earlier, but did you know that there’s NOT a single verse in the whole New Testament where Paul argues against the use the Law for the purpose of SANCTIFICATION. In fact, 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1 would clearly seem to argue the fact that he supported the use of the law for the purpose of SANCTIFICATION. So how do we “sanctify ourselves”? By keeping God’s commandments, and as we keep them, the Lord sanctifies us, as the verse above in Leviticus 20:7-8 suggests. God and His Spirit work together with us to bring about our SANCTIFICATION and to make us more like Him. And this process of sanctification even includes the foods that we eat. For example, at the end of Leviticus 11, God says,
For I am the LORD your God. SANCTIFY YOURSELVES therefore, and BE HOLY; for I AM HOLY. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth. For I am the LORD, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; and thus YOU SHALL BE HOLY for I AM HOLY. (Leviticus 11:44-45; Emphasis mine)
Holiness is who God is and what we are to be, and since the primary purpose of the Torah is to teach us who God is, what He is like and what He is not like, and what He expects of us as His people, then the purpose of the food laws is to do the same, as these verses makes clear.
REASON #4 – TO SHOW WE BELONG TO HIM AND ARE PART OF HIS KINGDOM
This third reason is interlinked with the previous reason. Many times when people go to other countries, one of the things they like to try are the different foods that are eaten and enjoyed in those areas. The various foods are part of the culture of that particular country or group of people. So why is it, then, that when it comes to the foods that are prescribed for those within God’s Kingdom, they are not likewise seen as part of the custom of His “Kingdom Culture”? So by following His laws in regard to what we are to eat or not eat, we are are in a physical way participating in God’s “Kingdom culture,” and showing that we belong to Him and are a part of His Kingdom. For example, in Leviticus 20:24-26, God says,
I am the LORD your God, which have SEPARATED YOU from other people. You shall therefore put difference between clean beasts and unclean, and between unclean fowls [birds] and unclean: and you shall not make your souls abominable by beast, or by fowl, or by any such manner of living thing that creeps on the ground, which I HAVE SEPARATED FROM YOU as unclean. And you shall be holy unto Me: for I the LORD am holy, and HAVE SEVERED YOU from other people, that you should be Mine.
It is the LORD who has SEPARATED and SEVERED us from other people, so that we would belong to HIM and BE HOLY. And part of the way we demonstrate that we are His holy, set apart, and severed people is by the things that we eat and by the things that we do not eat. God is the One who SEPARATED us, and He has also SEPARATED from us certain animals or meats that He has declared to be UNCLEAN to us, which means we are NOT to eat it or even to touch it. He is LORD, which means “He is the MASTER,” and as MASTER, He has the right to determine what foods we can eat, and what foods we are not to eat. And to reject these food laws is, in fact, to reject His rule and reign over that area of our lives.
I have heard many Christians say that it is impossible for us to obey God’s commandments. However, the problem is their understanding of the Law, not the Law itself. For example, when God told Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of only one tree in the Garden, when there were many other trees with fruit on them, was His instructions “too difficult” or “too hard” for them to do? No. Well, what about when God gave the children of Israel the double portion of Manna on the 6th day on their way to Mt. Sinai, and then told them not to go collecting food on the 7th day, but to stay home and relax. Was that “too difficult” or “too hard” to do? No, it was something they could do. And the same is true of the other food laws (or “dietary laws”) as well.
REASON #5 – THE FOOD LAWS TEACH US ABOUT GOD AND ABOUT OURSELVES
God wants us to be imitators of Him, and in His commandments, He has given us concrete ways for us to do this. In fact, God is so concerned about teaching us about Himself in every possible way, that He even uses food to try and get us to understand Him. He wants us to understand not only what foods we are to eat and not to eat, but He wants to challenge us to think about —
- WHY are we to eat it or not eat it?
- WHAT do the foods I can eat teach me about God and me?
- WHAT do these foods teach me about holiness?
- WHAT do the foods I am not to eat teach me about what God is NOT like or that I am NOT to be like?
- WHAT do these foods teach me about unholiness?
These are definitely not questions most people stop to consider when thinking about their food, but God wants us to think about it. He wants to provoke our critical thinking skills and our imaginations.
For example, God says the pig or swine is “unclean” and we are not to eat it or even to touch its carcass (Leviticus 11:7; Deuteronomy 14:8). So what does a pig or swine teach us about what God is NOT like, or what characteristic does the pig exhibit that we are not to follow?
Well, even though people say a pig is intelligent, it is also undiscerning. It eats whatever comes across its pathway. It’s like a living garbage can. However, over and over in His Word, God tells us that we are to be discerning; for example, the Levitical priests in the Temple were to make a distinction between “the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean” (Leviticus 10:10). And they were to teach us, the people, “to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the edible creature and the creature which is not to be eaten” (Leviticus 11:47). But if we act like the pig, and we are not discerning in our lives, indulging in whatever comes along, then, like the pig, we too are seen by Him as being “unclean.”
TEACH MY PEOPLE THE DIFFERENCES
However, did you now when the Lord comes back, the prophets tell us that God is going to give the Levites a good verbal chewing out for allowing “uncircumcised men” into His Temple, and one of the things He’s going to do is assign the priests the following tasks:
Moreover, they shall teach My people the difference between the holy and the profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean. And in a dispute they [the Levitical priests] shall take their stand to judge; they shall judge it according to My ordinances. They shall also keep My laws and My statutes in all My appointed feasts, and sanctify My sabbaths. (Ezekiel 44:23-24)
If God truly did away with His laws and statutes as Christians teach, then why when God has everything the way that He wants – He is in control, Yeshua (Jesus) is ruling on earth, satan and his demons are bound for a thousand years – does He bring the law, the Temple, the Levitical priesthood, the animal sacrifices, the biblical feasts, including the new moon and weekly sabbaths all back? Maybe, the truth is that we’ve totally misunderstood the writings of Paul and these things never left.
Also, did you know at the end of Isaiah, there is the scene of the Second Coming of Messiah, where in the description of those who will be killed as part of God’s judgment, God includes the fact that they eat “swine’s flesh”?
For, behold, the LORD will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire and by his sword will the LORD plead with all flesh: and the slain of the LORD shall be many. They that sanctify themselves, and purify themselves in the gardens behind one tree in the midst, eating swine’s flesh, and the abomination, and the mouse, shall be consumed together, says the LORD. (Isaiah 66:15-17)
If the food laws ended at the cross, ask yourself why God is still using them to describe those who are living in rebellion to Him at His return? I think there’s more than enough evidence to suggest that we need to rethink our whole view of the Old Testament Scriptures, particularly God’s law, including His food laws. Are we recognizing His Kingship in our lives by eating what He has commanded us to eat? Are we seeking to perfect holiness in our lives by living in obedience to Him? And are we letting others know we belong to Him by reflecting His Kingdom customs and culture?
Please come back and join me for part 2 of this series, as we get into the food laws themselves. Peace and grace.