The Clean and Unclean-Part I (Leviticus 11)
Leviticus 11 is dealing with the subject of cleanness and uncleanness—specifically, with the subject of clean and unclean foods. The word “clean” has a lot of different meanings today depending upon the context in which it is used. For example, in the operating room, things must be clean, and that has a very rigid, strict interpretation—to be as free as possible from all germs and contamination. In an electronics plant where silicon crystals are grown, the clean room is incredibly clean. There is hardly any contamination at all! The restaurants in which you and I eat are supposed to be clean, especially the kitchens. That is not always true. I remember someone telling me of his experience not long ago. He was taking this girl out for the first time, and as they waited at their table in the restaurant, he noticed a huge roach crawling up the booth right beside her. He thought to himself, “Now shall I tell her and ruin the whole night, or shall I not tell her and hope the roach just walks away?” He decided not to tell her, and the roach went on its way and continued up over the booth and then down the other side. When my friend got to the cashier, he said as quietly as he could, “You all have a real roach infestation here. We had a trophy roach in the booth where I was eating.” Not at all taken back by the comment, the cashier replied, “Oh, that’s nothing! You should see the size of them in the kitchen!”
Clean and unclean—that can be a matter of great importance to us, but it is also a matter of differing definitions. In third world countries, “clean” means “free of large clumps of contamination.” In our children’s bedrooms, clean has a definition which means that everything has been kicked into one general pile and if given enough time, they can find what they left in that pile.
Clean means something different when we come to the definition of clean versus unclean in Leviticus. It is important for us to understand the meaning of clean and unclean, as it is used in the Old Testament, and its application for us in the New Testament.
For one thing, the expression clean and its counterpoint unclean is one of the prominent themes of Leviticus. Author G. J. Wenham,62 in a footnote in one of his commentaries, says that unclean and its cognates occurs 132 times in the Old Testament; over 50 percent of these are Leviticus. So the sense of uncleanness is a predominate theme, and the word clean, along with its related terms, occurs 74 times in Leviticus, which is over one-third of the uses found in the Old Testament. All of that says to us that if we are going to begin to get some kind of grasp of Leviticus, we must have some kind of grasp over what clean and unclean means and how these words apply to the Israelite.
When we leave the Old Testament and come to the New Testament, we once again find that the definition of clean and unclean is critical to our understanding. We find these issues discussed and debated heatedly between the scribes and the Pharisees, and our Lord had to do with cleanness and uncleanness—particularly the area of ceremonial uncleanness as defined by Jewish tradition, not so much as defined by Old Testament revelation. If we are going to understand how our Lord differed from the scribes and the Pharisees, if we are going to understand how Judaism “went to seed” on the area of clean and unclean, we must first understand the backdrop teaching of cleanness and uncleanness as it is introduced in Leviticus chapter 11. We must also observe that cleanness and uncleanness is related to holiness. Certainly, this is so in Leviticus. And if that is so, then if you and I are committed to the concept of holiness in general, and to the reality of holiness in specific in our lives, then we must understand the role which cleanness plays in regard to holiness. All of this says to us that these chapters are important. We must understand what we are dealing with as we come to our study because clean and unclean is one of the great issues of the Bible.
We should note that clean and unclean was the great issue dividing Jews and Gentiles. Clean and unclean was the critical issue that had to be met head on and solved in Acts 10 and 11 before the church could become a church where the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles was torn down.
When we come to Leviticus 11, we come to the third major section of Leviticus. In chapters 1-7, we had the offerings and the sacrifices that the Israelites could bring. Chapters 8-10 dealt with the priesthood—the actual ordination of Aaron and his sons which culminated in the death of two of Aaron’s oldest sons—and the instructions which come to Israel and to us from that. There were the offerings, the priesthood. Now chapters 11-15 deal with those things which are clean and unclean. Chapter 11 begins by talking about clean and unclean food, and then in chapter 12, the uncleanness that is the result of a woman bearing a child. I’m sure all of us want to know why that is so. And then there is uncleanness that is the result of issues that come forth from an individual. So there are a number of areas in which we find uncleanness.
The matter of uncleanness is related, I believe, to Leviticus 10:10, where it is commanded that the priests are not to drink wine or strong drink, so as to make a distinction between the holy and the profane and the clean and the unclean. This matter of declaring something clean or unclean was a matter for the priests, and they needed full comprehension to do that. Also we will notice in Leviticus 16, which is the chapter dealing with the Day of Atonement, that the purpose of the annual atonement was to make the people of Israel clean. Cleanness and uncleanness was the preparatory issue that comes to declare the people of God unclean and therefore in need of the great day of Atonement as it will be described in Leviticus 16.
Categories of Cleanness and Uncleanness
Now let’s take a brief look at some of the details of chapter 11. Let me preface this by giving one word of caution. When we come to the animals named here, some of us agonize over not being able to pronounce them correctly, let alone understand what they are. But one of the scholars has pointed out that likely in no more than 40% of the creatures named here can they be absolutely confident they have the right name, let alone the right one. We understand then that when a translator is dealing with Hebrew terms and trying to isolate and identify a specific creature, it is not always easy, nor even possible, to do so with a great deal of accuracy because you and I are not worried about whether we eat or don’t eat those things—it doesn’t matter anyway. I simply want to share with you that as you read the different translations, you may find some difference of opinion. Essentially it is easy to at least discern that we are dealing with three different categories of creatures. When we come to chapter 11, we find first the land creatures, the animals that roam about through the earth (vv. 1-8); then we find in verses 9-12 the water creatures, those that live under water or in the water, and finally we have the flying creatures.
So we have the same three basic distinctions found back in Genesis 1 where God created all life that is in the heavens, on earth, and under the waters. Those three categories are all dealt with, and creatures that are in those categories are defined as being either clean or unclean, according to the formula that God lays down.
Verses 24-47, basically the last half of the chapter, deal with the cure, the solution for the problem of uncleanness. Generally speaking, one of the prominent themes of those last chapters has to do with death—that is, whether it is a clean animal that is corrupted or made unclean by its death because all dead creatures are unclean, or whether it is an unclean animal that has been perhaps killed in order to be eaten. It is in its death that the animal contaminates. If we are going to eat a creature, the first thing we generally do is that we kill them. The death of any creature contaminates it and makes it unclean. There is only one way in which an animal can be killed in order for it to be clean, and that is to offer it as a sacrifice to God. Leviticus 17 clearly spells that out. If we were to go through our Bibles and circle the work carcass, or carcasses, we would see that we are stepping over carcasses all the way through the second half of the chapter because these animals contaminate in their death, but the cure for contamination is given.
Essentially, we are dealing with misdemeanor offenses in chapter 11. These are not felony-type offenses because usually one is only unclean until the evening, and one may be cleansed by simply washing oneself, or the item involved, in water. If a clay pot was defiled and could not be cleansed, then it could be destroyed, but normally the solution was to wash it with water, and in the evening it would be cleansed. There are greater levels of uncleanness in chapters 12 and following, but these are the lesser matters that are solved by the application of water itself.
Let’s go through the categories of cleanness and uncleanness as they are defined by God in these verses. Notice in verse 1 that God “spoke again to Moses and to Aaron saying to them …” I think that is significant because normally God would have spoken through Moses, but now he is speaking through Moses and Aaron. You may remember that I suggested from chapter 10 that Aaron as the great high priest, now that he is installed, has come into his own, and he has a leadership role to play—and now Moses and Aaron share that leadership role. Also it is the priests who will declare whether something is clean or unclean, so this is a priestly function, and it is natural that Aaron would be the one addressed as well as Moses in terms of what makes or constitutes cleanness or uncleanness.
First, there are the land animals. There are two basic stipulations which must be met before an animal that dwells on the land can be considered clean and therefore can be eaten by the Israelite. It must be split-hoofed, and it must be a cud-chewer. It cannot be just one of those; it must be both of those. So a non-cud chewing split-hoofer isn’t good enough. It has to be both, and the text makes it very clear. A rabbit, for example, is called a cud-chewer (I think you and I understand that rabbits do not chew their cud like a cow does). But if we watched a rabbit eat, we would observe that as the rabbit ate his food, he chewed it up very carefully.
We have two dogs and they are not cud-chewers. We throw a piece of food on the floor, and they don’t chew AT ALL! One animal is so fearful that the other animal is going to get it that they just inhale the food. They don’t chew their cud. But when we look at a rabbit, we see that a rabbit sort of works on that food, and works on it, just like mothers tell their children they ought to chew up their meat and other things. So a cud-chewer does not technically have to be cow-like in having multiple stomachs, but one that chews its food well. I think we could say it is that which chews its non-meat food well. So cud-chewers are vegetarians. It is to be split-hoofed and cud-chewing if it is clean, and therefore the Israelites may partake of it.
Second, the sea creatures. When we come to the creatures that dwell in the sea, they must meet two qualifications as well—they must have fins and scales. Now that is certainly the norm. Those of us who are fishermen and hope to catch something when we throw our lines in expect that it will have fins and scales. It must have both of those in order to qualify. That would mean that creatures that live in the sea, like shrimp, lobster, and those kinds of creatures, would not fit. Only those that have fins and scales—only those that are fishy—would be clean.
Third, those creatures that are in the air. It seems as though, essentially, no qualifications are given. That is, it doesn’t have to have two wings, but rather it seems as though those creatures in the air are creatures that are non-vulture like. That is, they are not sitting around waiting for something to die so they can go pick it up and eat it. It doesn’t look as though these are meat eaters or those that feed off of the dead carcasses of other creatures. Then we have flying insects that are described. Here all flying insects are called unclean, with the exception of those that have a set of jumper legs which propel them so they can leap through the air and thus propel themselves through the air. Jumping, flying insects are edible; all the rest are not.
Fourth, there is the category of dead animals which are unclean. Essentially, any dead animal other than an animal which has been killed through the sacrificial process in the front of the door of the tent of meeting is unclean. There are unclean animals that will defile in their death, and there are clean animals that will defile man in their death, if their death is not a sacrificial death. The carcasses are that which can contaminate, therefore if a person eats a cow which has just been killed by a wolf, that person would be ceremonially unclean even though he could eat the meat if it were sacrificed to God.
Fifth, swarming animals. These are a bit of a puzzle, but this category includes things like mice, lizards, and most all of those things that I can readily pass up, so I can easily and readily identify them. I don’t know how many of you saw the movie “Cry Wolf” but I’ve seen it a couple of times and giggled my way through that scene where the fellow eats the mice. He studies the wolves, and he can’t understand what they live on during the winter when the things they normally feed on are gone. Then all of a sudden one day hordes of mice appear all over, and the man must decide how the wolves could live on the protein of the mice, so he cooks up a batch of mouse stew. I can remember when he popped that first mouthful in and crunched its bones. I say to myself “Unclean! Unclean!” I can agree with that—I understand! But apparently they are called swarming because they go about together in groups, and they seem to have an erratic, unpredictable manner of movement.
A General Definition of Cleanness and Uncleanness
Now let’s talk now about cleanness and uncleanness just in terms of generalities. What are some of the things we can observe about cleanness and uncleanness as we find it in Leviticus 11? Other points will come as we get to different kinds of uncleanness, but let me touch on a few characteristics of cleanness and uncleanness.
First, in chapter 11, cleanness and uncleanness has to do principally with food. It deals secondarily with cleanness or uncleanness that is the result of contact with a dead animal, but it seems the reason the dead animal is called unclean is because we couldn’t eat it. Even a clean animal, a bull or a sheep, could not be eaten if it were not killed in a sacrificially prescribed way. So it has to do with food or that which is touched when dead.
Second, cleanness or uncleanness is a matter of category more than of condition. When we talk about being clean, we generally speak of a condition someone is in. If our children come in unclean, they need to have their hands washed, but they are still in the category of a child. When we read in the paper that there is a car for sale, and it says Clean, that supposedly describes the condition of the car, not the classification of it. It may be a coupe, sedan, or station wagon. It may be a convertible or not. Those are classification areas. Clean in automobile terms is a condition, but basically what we are dealing with here is categories. Clean is a categorical pronouncement. It is all those land animals that chew their cud and have split hooves, whether their hooves have been washed or not. The category is clean or the category is unclean, depending upon the classification of the creature that is in mind.
Third, cleanness is that which is defined by God and declared by the priests. Clean or unclean is clean or unclean by the definition, and the definition for the clean and unclean creatures is given in Leviticus 11. It is declared by the priests, which will become more and more important as we get into skin disorders. It is the priest who must say, this person or this disease is clean or unclean. It is God’s definition; it is the declaration the priests will make.
Fourth, it is the state of access to God. The practical outworking of being declared unclean means that we have to stay back. For example, a priest in Leviticus 22 cannot go about his priestly duties in a state of uncleanness. He must wait until he is ceremonially clean. So one may not approach God in his normal worship in an unclean state. It restricts one’s fellowship with God, and it restricts one’s fellowship with men. That is the natural consequence of the declaration of uncleanness.
Cleanness is somehow related to holiness. We say that “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” but I don’t think that is scriptural. In our bathroom, we have a little plaque that says, “Cleanliness is next to impossible!” Now that has some earthly wisdom to it! But in Leviticus, cleanliness is next to holiness. When we get down to the basic reason why an Israelite is to make these distinctions between clean and unclean, it is because God says, “You are to be holy, for I am holy.” For the first time in history—for the first time in the Old Testament—men and women are to observe these distinctions because God has made them. Therefore cleanliness is related to God’s holiness, and Israel is to observe it because of the holiness of God. Twice it is repeated in this chapter. Therefore there is a direct relationship between what is clean and what is holy in Scripture. What is unclean can never be holy. Some things that are clean may be consecrated and set apart as holy, but nothing which is holy is unclean; only that which is clean can become holy.
There is also an intensification which goes on here. When we read through chapter 11, we start out with the sense that these are the creatures that are going about on the land, and some of them are clean and some are unclean—the clean ones they could eat, the unclean ones they were to avoid. But by the time we get to the category of those that are in the water, it talks about them being abhorrent, “and their carcasses you shall detest.” There is a sense in which one’s emotions must come to agree with God’s.
There are certain kinds of food we would not even begin to think about eating. When I was visiting my folks recently, my Dad had been loaned a book by one of the great western artists, and he had written a number of stories. I don’t know if they are true or not, but one of the stories I read was called, “The Dog Eater.” This poor old man was a trapper, and he was stuck out in the middle of winter in a cabin with no food. He and his dog were together. As the man neared the condition of starvation, he began to have these terrible dreams that he did not want to dream, but they kept coming to him. It was a dream of having dog-tail soup. Finally the day came when the man crept up behind the dog with an ax, lopped off his tail, and boiled it for soup. A few days later the dog came back with his stump of a tail, and the man shared his soup with the dog, who seemed to think it was all right. I read a story like that, and I can’t think of anything more abhorrent than to eat dog-tail soup.
There is a sense in which the Israelite is called to detest what is unclean. It is not enough for the Israelite to say I can eat this, and I can’t eat that. It is more a matter of saying that I can eat this, and those things which I can’t eat, I loath. We cannot rightly relate to the unclean things until we loath them. When Eve looked at the forbidden fruit, it looked good to eat. She looked at that as something desirable not just to look at, but something desirable to eat. God knows that if we look upon something as desirable, sooner or later we are going to eat it. It is only when we look at that as something terribly undesirable that we are not going to eat it.
I am getting close to the point of going on a diet, and when I do, I have to start looking at donuts as not only something I can’t eat, but I have to start looking at them as a friend of mine puts it, as “Fat-pills!” I can’t eat them. I have to start looking at them as the worst thing in the world. And that is what the Israelite was called to do with regard to unclean animals. It was to be abhorrent to them, to be detestable to them, so that they didn’t even have the inclination to want to eat it. That seems to be the sense here in the detestable and abhorrent terminology.
Reasons for Cleanness or Uncleanness
God never tells Israel why something is clean or unclean. He never gives a reason for the definition of clean or unclean. For centuries, men have tried to give reasons for these definitions of clean and unclean, and Wenham’s commentary outlines four, which I think are worthy of mentioning. Why is one kind of food clean and another kind of food unclean?
First, the cultic explanation says that certain kinds of creatures were used in pagan ritual and worship. Because of those animal’s association with paganism, God could not allow them to be brought into the Israelite’s worship of the True God. For example, pig bones were found all over the Near East, and they were involved in pagan sacrificial rituals. Apparently, this was true in Egypt also. But we have to remember that among the pagans, the sacrifice of a bull was prominent too. God had no problem in saying to Israel that they ought to sacrifice a bull. In other words, it just does not seem to play out that the creatures God proclaimed were unclean were all creatures that were involved in pagan worship, and the creatures God said were clean were not.
The second explanation is called the hygienic explanation. This is the one Christians love so much today. The basic theory is found in a number of books, one of which is None of These Diseases. The basic theory is that God prohibited the eating of certain animals because it was unhealthy to eat them in those days. They didn’t have refrigerators or microwaves, or all the things that kill germs. Now that sounds like a reasonable thing, and I would go so far as to say that there may be some creatures that God called unclean that were not healthy to eat. But that distinction doesn’t hold water either, because our Lord declared all of those to be clean. He did that at a time when there were still no refrigerators or ranges, and when all of the dangers that would have been present before would have been present after his definition, “All things now are clean.” Therefore it doesn’t seem that health is the issue concerning cleanness or uncleanness.
The third view that Wenham suggests is the symbolic interpretation. In those things man eats, or does not eat, he is an imitator of God—that is, there are only certain things which God allows to be offered up as burnt offerings to Him. Interestingly, the sacrificial terminology is used, but it is offered up as food to God. Now obviously God does not eat the food, but it is the symbolism employed. So if God is selective about what He eats, that is, what is sacrificed to Him, the Israelites ought to also be choosy about what they eat.
It seems to be partly true, if not universally true, that many of the creatures that are unclean are those creatures which may live on meat and may therefore be blood-shedders. For instance, in the category of those animals which prowl on the face of the earth, the cat family, as an illustration, does not have a split hoof; it has paws. Neither does it have those kinds of teeth that look like cow teeth that are for chewing up grass. They have claws, and they have sharp teeth because they kill other animals; they shed blood in order to eat. It would seem that often, though not always, the animals that are unclean are blood shedders, or they are those that eat off dead prey, as vultures of some sort or another. So there is some similarity there between what Israelites are to eat. They are not to eat of animals that of themselves sacrifice the life or come into contact with other animals. So man only eats creatures which are themselves free from contamination by death, by not shedding blood in a sacrificial way. It is possible that there is a great deal of symbolic information that ought to be seen here.
I lean most heavily toward the fourth answer, and that is the arbitrary definition. Why did God call the pig unclean and a cow clean? God never explains this, and by looking at all the commentaries, we find that nobody has figured it out either. It may be that there isn’t any reason at all other than that God said “clean” or “unclean.” Think about God’s choice of Israel as a nation. Is there some reason why God chose Israel as opposed to the Canaanites? Did he choose the Israelites because they were so spiritually pure? They weren’t! The prophets remind Israel that they served foreign gods when they were in Egypt, and they brought those foreign gods with them when they came out of Egypt. Was it because they were powerful and numerous and looked promising, and God wanted to go with a winning team? No, they were nobody! Why did God choose Israel and not some other nation? It was just God’s sovereign choice. That’s all! There was nothing intrinsically good about them or intrinsically more evil about anybody else. God just made a choice. It seems to me, therefore, that the arbitrary explanation, while it may not fully explain all of it, at least gives meaning and fits when nothing else does. It was just God’s choice. God said He chose Jacob, and He rejected Esau. Why? Because sovereign choices are sovereign choices, and they don’t have reasons. Election is the point we see in the clean and the unclean, as well as in the salvation of Israel.
Cleanness or Uncleanness in the Old Testament
Now let’s look at cleanness and uncleanness in the Old Testament from a broader brush view. If we were to look at the words cleanness or uncleanness, we would discover that clean and unclean are found only in Genesis 7 and 8—with Noah. And it is only found with respect to those animals that were brought onto the ark. Remember there were seven of each species that were clean. At the end of Genesis 8, Noah offered up the clean animals as a sacrifice to God. The distinction between clean and unclean is much older than in Moses’ day; it goes clear back to Noah’s day. Noah didn’t say to God, “Clean? Unclean? What is that?” Noah knew what a clean creature was, and he knew what an unclean creature was, and he brought seven of the clean ones so that he could sacrifice them to God.
Noah already understood that anything that was to be offered to God had to be something that was clean. So the distinction between clean and unclean begins far earlier than the Book of Leviticus. However, it is not until Leviticus 4 that the “clean and unclean” terminology reappears after Genesis 7 and 8. Now it is given more substance, and “clean and unclean” are brought to bear on Israel’s worship of God and on Israel’s eating habits. So there is a history of clean and unclean that goes back beyond the Book of Leviticus and beyond the life of Moses.
Cures for uncleanness are spelled out in Leviticus and on through the Old Testament. In particular, what is interesting is that as we move toward the end of the Old Testament period and into that period of the prophets, we discover that the prophets begin to talk about cleanness and uncleanness as something internal rather than something merely external. Before, something unclean was always something “out there,” or it was something “out here,” as something that grew on my skin. It was not something apart. We find in Psalms 19:9 “The fear of the Lord is clean.”
David says in Psalms 51:10: “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” Now cleanness becomes something that is more internal than external. Ultimately, God says that He is going to make the Israelites clean, something that never was possible through the Old Testament legal system and through the Old Testament sacrificial system. He was going to make them clean, but it was going to be through the New Covenant and the coming of Messiah.
Ezekiel 36:24-27 spells this out:
“For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands, and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean. I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols; moreover I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh and I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and you will be careful to observe my ordinances.”
Even in Old Testament times, the prophets were pointing forward and saying that ultimately cleanness can only come by the work of God Himself. It can only come when the internal part of man is transformed, when he is cleansed, and when he has a heart of flesh rather than a heart of stone. In other words, cleanness can only come ultimately through the New Covenant and through the coming of Jesus Christ, whose blood cleanses us from all sin. The prophets looked forward to that.
Cleanness or Uncleanness in the New Testament
When we come to the New Testament, we discover immediately that our Lord begins to talk in terms of clean and unclean, and particularly as the scribes and Pharisees are disputing with Him. In Mark 7, for example, they debate about whether Jesus and His disciples can come in from outside and then begin to eat dinner, and they have not ceremonially (ritually) washed their hands. This is something the Jews added to the interpretation and the meaning of the Old Testament. They had more emphasis on cleanliness that was by their tradition than it was by Scripture. And our Lord says, “Don’t you understand that it is not that which comes from without that defiles a man, but that which comes from within that defiles a man.” Then, Mark says parenthetically, “Thus He declared all things to be clean.” No one really understood the implications of that until after the death of Jesus Christ.
Cleanness and uncleanness in terms of food was what distinguished a Jew and a Gentile. That is, a Jew, in order not to eat of the kinds of food God had prohibited, could not eat in a Gentile home because undoubtedly there was going to be contamination there. That built up a great wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles. That distinction was designed in the Old Testament, but it had to be set aside in the New Testament. The Book of Ephesians says the middle wall of partition has been torn down—the enmity that existed there has been taken away, and the Jews and Gentiles have been brought together in one new body—the church. The distinctions therefore that separate Jews and Gentiles have to be set aside. Thus in Acts 10, God said in a vision to Peter (a Jewish Jew) that He wanted him to eat of these things which Peter recognized as being unclean by Old Testament definition. And Peter said “Oh, no! No ham sandwich for me!” But God said to him three times, “What I have called clean, don’t you call unclean.” He takes the arbitrary definition of clean and unclean. Something is clean or unclean because God declares it to be just that. That means if God re-declares that something which was unclean is now clean, it is clean. And Peter had difficulty understanding that.
When he finally got the message, he went to the house of Cornelius, and he ate his ham or bacon and tomato sandwich, and he shares the gospel with him. And they are saved! Then the whole church, which is predominately Jewish at the time, has to go through the same struggle. And Peter has to remind them that God no longer has distinguished between Jews and Gentiles. We saw what happened in Act 2—the Spirit came down on the Jews. Now when the gospel was preached to this Gentile group, the Spirit came upon them in exactly the same way. God doesn’t distinguish Jewish Christians from Gentile Christians. They are one body!
And the church says, “Oh, Oh! So God doesn’t distinguish anymore!” And then the next verse says they went out and preached only to Jews! (Acts 11) It wasn’t until after a few brave souls went out and began to share the gospel with Gentile unbelievers and they got saved that we begin to have a church that was mixed with Jewish and Gentile believers. The distinctions were set aside. Therefore, it was wrong to maintain the distinction of food laws. And here Paul had to jump all over Peter in Galatians 2 because Peter was now sitting only with a Jewish group, and he was implying to the Gentile group that if they wanted to become a part of this Jewish group they had to act Jewish. Paul jumps all over them and says it is not just wrong, but it is a denial and a contradiction of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is because the gospel of Jesus Christ not only removes the barrier between men and God, it removes all barriers between Jews and Gentiles. The distinctions don’t count! Therefore those distinctions cannot be maintained.
In the New Testament, we find chapters like Colossians 2 which says these practices which have to do with external things have no value in overcoming the struggle with the flesh. That is an internal issue that is worked out in part—not an external issue handled by these kinds of prohibitions. It forced them to distinguish themselves from other nations, for those kinds of food stipulations meant that an Israelite could not have real intimate interaction with a Gentile because intimacy most often came around a dinner table. So if you didn’t eat with Gentiles, you didn’t have the intimacy of communion that you would have had otherwise. Remember that it is when they started eating and drinking and making merry that the Israelites started mingling with the Canaanites. So God’s distinctions with regard to food helped to maintain the distinction of Israel as a nation apart from Gentiles as a nation in the Old Testament. It distinguished them as a people. It identified them with God as His people. It reminded them of the principal of election that God is the One who defines what is clean and unclean. It forced the Israelite to be meticulous about everything they did because they realized how easy it was to become contaminated under the laws of cleanness and uncleanness.
What does it say to a New Testament saint? When we are looking at the change of God’s law with regard to a kind of food, it is often a signal that we are dealing with a change of dispensation. There are distinctions with the way God has dealt with men. What happens in Genesis 1 when God creates all those creatures, and He makes man in His own image (Gen. 1:29-30)?
Then God said, “Behold I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food; …”
When God started creation, everybody was a vegetarian, including the animals! And in Genesis 3, what was the test? The test was food—whether you ate or didn’t eat of the particular food that was on the Tree of Good and Evil!
After the sacrifices are made by Noah of the clean animals (Genesis 8), then God blessed Noah, and in Genesis 9:3, He says, “Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you. I give all to you as I gave the green plant, only you shall not eat flesh with its life” (that is its blood). So there is a change in dispensation, because God is now giving not only just the green things to eat, but He has given meat to eat. One stipulation was that meat had to be killed in such a way that the blood was drained from it. Then in the Mosaic Law in Exodus and Leviticus, we see restrictions that bear upon the way in which Israel eats.
In the New Testament, what is the basic issue among the strong unbelieving Jewish element? He eats with unwashed hands; he eats with Gentiles. He doesn’t maintain the distinctions between clean and unclean. What does the New Testament say? Those things don’t matter anymore!! Romans 14 says, “All things are clean.” That is because there is a new age, a new dispensation. It signals that God has done something new. Whenever God prescribes something new to eat, He is doing it in relationship to a covenant; He is doing it in relation to a change that bears upon His relationship with men.
Food is often the test today! Whether a certain kind of food was eaten or not eaten was a critical issue in the New Testament—not only in the issue between Jews and Gentiles—but it was also the issue that had to do with Gentile Christians who were going to eat at the home of a pagan neighbor. In the Old Testament, ignorance was never bliss because the sacrifices for the sin and guilt offerings were for sins you didn’t know you committed at the time. You may have sat down at your neighbor’s table and had what you thought was beef stew, but later discovered it was pig stew. Then you were a sinner, and you had to take care of it. But Paul says, if you go to your neighbor’s house, don’t ask them what they are serving. If they don’t tell you what they are serving, don’t ask; eat it! It doesn’t matter! Ignorance is bliss! If they tell you this has been sacrificed to an idol, then you can’t eat it because your neighbor obviously thinks that is important, though it wouldn’t have mattered to you.
When we get to the New Testament and the issue of whether or not a Christian ought to eat this meat or not eat the meat, it is not a matter of black or white. It is not a matter of yes or no, and no in between. It is a matter of personal conviction. The Christian there may eat it freely, knowing that God has given him all things to eat. There are others however who have different scruples. If they cannot eat in good conscience, they should not eat. If I can eat in good conscience, but I cause a weaker brother to go ahead and eat and defile his conscience, then it is sin. The Old Testament did not leave room for convictions. The New Testament does! It is the work of God that is written in our hearts, and it is the work of the Spirit inside that guides us as we make those kinds of decisions.
There are two primary motivations that we ought to evidence which the Old Testament saints also evidenced: (1) loving God and (2) loving man. If God’s distinctions between clean and unclean are arbitrary, then there are no good reasons for obeying Him other than that He is God. We have a choice to make. The decision is based not on whether something makes sense, but on who God is. It is as though a young man is dating a beautiful young lady, and he finds out that she hates liver and onions. Now, not only will that young man not order liver and onions for his date, but he won’t order it for himself. Why? Because it is detestable to her. If Israel is to have that same sense of abhorrence toward unclean things, they must begin to feel about things the way God feels about them. It is ultimately Israel’s love for God that is at issue. If God thinks something is unclean, if He abhors it, then I abhor it! I don’t care if there is no reason for it! I don’t care if it isn’t healthy to do it. I only care that God says that is what He hates, and this is what He loves, and I’m going to do what He loves and avoid what He hates.
Loving God! That is the motive for doing something—whether God’s commands are arbitrary or not. Whether we can find out a reason for them or not, if God hates it, I hate it; if God loves it, I love it! Loving God is the key! As I look at my believing neighbor, and I know that he is weak, I know that I can eat that meat but that it may cause him to stumble. My love for my neighbor overcomes my love for food. My love for my neighbor says to me, “Don’t eat it.” So what we do and what we don’t do is basically rooted in loving God and loving man. The Old Testament commandment is applicable in New Testament times.
Few things today are just as clear and simple as clean and unclean. Some days I wish it was that easy, don’t you? Don’t you wish that every choice and every decision you and I had to make we could just say, it’s clean or it’s unclean? It’s yes, or it’s no. It’s evil, or it’s good. I sometimes wish that life were that simple, but most often it isn’t. But there is one issue in which it is just that categorical, and that is when it comes to our relationship with God.
When it comes to our relationship with God, when it comes to the issue of where we will spend eternity, it is a clear-cut, clearly defined issue. All of those who are in Christ are saved, and their sins are forgiven. It is a category. All of those who are trusting in anything else, including their good works, are not in Christ. In that sense, our salvation is a very clear-cut yes or no, in or out matter. All of those who trust the shed blood of Jesus Christ, shed on their behalf, are in. All of those who trust in anything else are out! A clean issue! We are either in Christ, or we are not.
61 Normally, these messages are manuscripts, and not merely a transcription of the message which was preached. In this case, the manuscript was not completed, so what you will find here is an edited transcript of the sermon, as it was preached. It will therefore not have the footnoting, but perhaps something is better than nothing at all. Bob Deffinbaugh.
62 G. J. Wenham, The International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979). For references to Wenham’s commentary in this lesson, see “Unclean Animals,” pp. 161-184.