In the nature of the case, “the” Christian meditation on Deuteronomy 14:1-21 cannot be written. Meditation offers too many possibilities, opens too many doors. There is not one and only one correct set of associations for a Christian to consider when thinking of Deuteronomy 14:1-21. We could, for example, consider how Israel kept or did not keep the laws here and what those laws mean for us now as Christians. Or, we could meditate on the whole notion of sonship from its beginning in the Garden of Eden to its culmination in the revelation of the Son of God. We could also consider almost endless questions and answers about what it means to “wear” the name of God. The list goes on. So, I do not imagine that what I have to offer can even cover most of the bases, let alone be a full exposition.
No More Clean and Unclean
I can, however, address the basic issue — clean versus unclean. In the new covenant there is no more distinction between clean and unclean. This is most fundamental and important. It seems that from the time of the fall, there had been a distinction between clean and unclean animals. At least from the time of Noah, the distinction was well known, for Noah took seven of the various clean animals, instead of just two, so that he could offer sacrifice after the flood (Genesis 7:2-5; 8:20-22).
Erasing the distinction between clean and unclean animals is tantamount to creating a new world, which is exactly what Jesus did. The old world of the flesh and fallen Adam was the world in which clean and unclean animals dwelt. It was the world in which the old Israel lived and worshiped God. It is profoundly important to teach Christians that Jesus changed the world, that His death and resurrection created a new reality in which the old distinctions have been done away and replaced with something better.
Jesus and the Clean/Unclean Distinction
Jesus’ most profound comment on the food laws comes in a passage in which He is rebuking the Pharisees for exalting their own traditions above God’s law. As James Jordan explains, Jesus’ comments here critique the Jewish laws that were added to Scripture, not the Biblical food laws per se. But after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter, who stands behind Mark’s Gospel, saw that Jesus’ instruction here had implications that were broader and deeper than anyone noted at the time.
And he called to him the multitude again, and said unto them, “Hear me all of you, and understand: there is nothing from without the man, that going into him can defile him; but the things which proceed out of the man are those that defile the man. If any man hath ears to hear, let him hear.” And when he was entered into the house from the multitude, his disciples asked of him the parable. And he saith unto them, “Are ye so without understanding also? Perceive ye not, that whatsoever from without goeth into the man, it cannot defile him; because it goeth not into his heart, but into his belly, and goeth out into the draught? (This he said, making all meats clean.) And he said, That which proceedeth out of the man, that defileth the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, evil thoughts proceed, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickednesses, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, railing, pride, foolishness: all these evil things proceed from within, and defile the man” (Mark 7:14-23).
The words in parenthesis — This he said, making all meats clean — are Peter’s later reflection on the profound meaning in Jesus’ words. But until the cross, these words were not wholly in effect. What Jesus said was indeed true. It would have been true in Moses’ day as well. If an Israelite was starving and in need of something to eat, and if the only thing that presented itself at the time was a pig, he would not be defiling himself in any deep sense by eating it. Real defilement has always and only come from man’s heart, the source of every sort of sin and evil. Yahweh was never more concerned with pork than with covetousness, adultery, murder, or theft. The food laws were intended to be educational, not to define certain animals as having a sort of quasi-magical power to defile.
However, it was Jesus’ death on the cross that reconciled all things unto God, thus removing the distinction between clean and unclean, as well as making the whole world holy in principle. There are now no especially “holy” places in the sense in which the word was used in the Old Testament.[i] What Jesus taught in Mark 7 pointed forward to new covenant realities.
Peter and the Clean/Unclean Distinction
Even though Jesus taught about clean and unclean in a way that pointed to the erasing of the distinction, His disciples obviously did not grasp what He said. So, when God granted Peter a vision of clean and unclean animals and told Peter to eat indiscriminately, Peter objected.
Now on the morrow, as they were on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour: and he became hungry, and desired to eat: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance; and he beholdeth the heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending, as it were a great sheet, let down by four corners upon the earth: wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts and creeping things of the earth and birds of the heaven. And there came a voice to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common and unclean.” And a voice came unto him again the second time, “What God hath cleansed, make not thou common.” And this was done thrice: and straightway the vessel was received up into heaven (Act 10:9-16)
Just as Peter rebuked Jesus when He spoke of going to the cross (Mark 8:32), now also in Acts 10, Peter attempts to correct God: “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common and unclean.” The translation above makes clear one aspect of the meaning that some translations obscure. For Peter to refuse to eat would be to “make” common what God had cleansed. To refuse to eat pork, for example, for religious reasons is to “make” pork unclean, in spite of the fact that God has already cleansed it. What does that mean?
As I pointed out above, we have to remember that the distinction between clean and unclean was introduced by the fall. In the original creation, all was clean. Holiness and unholiness are not quite the same. Differences in the degree of holiness are differences in nearness to God, so it can be said that even apart from sin, in the world of Adam there would have been some places more holy than others. Without the fall, however, there would not have been any place, thing, or person who was unholy, just some that were less holy. The full system of clean-versus-unclean and holy-versus-unholy that was established by the Mosaic law presupposed the fall of Adam and the destruction of the original harmony of the creation caused by his sin.
Jesus’ death on the cross changed all of that. The world that had been undone by Adam was reconciled by Christ, so that in principle — though not yet wholly in fact — the world was restored and even exalted. Paul says that Christ reconciled “all things unto Himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through him, I say, whether things upon the earth, or things in the heavens” (Colossians 1:20). The disharmony that entered the world through sin was done away and peace was won. There cannot now be an unclean person, thing, or place, and no food that should be regarded as an “abomination” or “detestable.”
For men now, after the cross, to maintain the dietary rules of the old covenant and to insist that certain foods are unclean is to deny the efficacy of the cross and attempt to drag man back to the covenantal situation prior to the cross. It is a form of rejecting Christ and the cross, even though a man who does it, like Peter did, may have no such intention.
The vision to Peter should have made it clear to early Christians that there could be no more distinction between clean and unclean. This had a broader application than its dietary implications. For we see that through Peter’s vision, God communicated that Gentiles could be accepted equally with Jews through faith in Christ and baptism. But this was as hard to digest as pork, so Peter continued to struggle with the issue, as we see in Galatians when Paul had to rebuke Peter publicly for refusing to eat with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-21). Paul’s references to food and eating in his epistles show that this continued to be a problem in the early church (cf. Romans 14:1-4; Colossians 2:16; etc.).
Christians in the era of the new covenant have much to learn from the law of clean and unclean foods. But it is not something that applies directly, as if these laws prescribed a truly Christian diet. It is, rather, the symbolism of the law as originally given and as fulfilled in Christ that makes these laws especially edifying for Christians.
As we have seen, an intelligent and godly Israelite in Joshua’s day would refuse pork not only because God said to do so — though, of course, that would have been sufficient reason — but also because he would have perceived the relationship between pigs and serpents, and because he would have understood that God forbade all animals that were similar to the tempter. If he thought deeply enough, he might have understood that serpent-like animals must not be eaten until the Messiah comes, who will defeat the devil. To eat the serpents would signify complete victory over him, but not until the Messiah comes would that victory be won. Nor would anyone be able to confess their faith in Him by eating pork.
Now all has changed because the Messiah has come and won the victory. For Christians, therefore, eating pork should not merely be seen as equal to eating beef or chicken. Pork, shrimp, and other formerly unclean foods are special. They are victory foods. Foods that were unclean under the law are now clean specifically and only because of the cross of Christ. By eating what was formerly unclean, we are confessing our faith in the victory of Christ and the cross. We eat the serpent because Jesus defeated him.
We can think of the contrast between old and new covenants in other language as well. Israelites were in Adam and therefore lived in an age of forbidden-fruit laws. Also, they were in Abraham and therefore restricted by grace to clean animals. Now, Christians are in Christ, the last Adam, and therefore free from the restrictions that belong to those in first Adam. Since all the promises to Abraham and his seed are fulfilled in Christ, everything has been cleansed through Christ’s blood. There is no more clean and unclean. The food we eat and the food that we avoid shows our covenantal faith and its relationship to the history of the Messiah. Christians eat pigs because the Messiah has come and cleansed the world.
This might sound like a new idea to some, but it appears to be something that Christians have understood for a long time. At the beginning of his work titled, Pig Out? 25 Reasons Why Christians May Eat Pork, James Jordan quoted The Boar’s Head Carol:
The boar’s head in hand bear I,
Bedecked with bays and rosemary;
And I pray you, my masters, by merry,
Quot estis in convivio.
Refrain: Caput apri defero, reddens laudes Domino.
It seems clear that the Christians who sang this song recognized the significance of eating pork. It gives special honor to Christ for His saving work on the cross. Singing a song like this before eating the “forbidden fruit” of the law of Moses might be an especially appropriate way to begin the meal. It would certainly be an excellent teaching device for our children, to help them appreciate the realities of the new covenant.
Ralph Smith is Pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church, Tokyo, Japan.
[i] I qualify my statement because there may be places where the people live a much holier lifestyle than others, and so the place may be “holy” in that sense. But in the old covenant, the holiness of a place had to do with God’s presence and manifestation. There were gradations of holiness, the temple being the most holy general area, and within the temple, the most holy place being the holiest of all spaces. There is nothing corresponding to that now in the new covenant era. God dwells in each individual who believes in Him. The church as God’s people has become the new holy place.
[ii] James B. Jordan, Pig Out? 25 Reasons Why Christians May Eat Pork (Niceville, FL: Transfiguration Press, 1992) 4.