Book: What the Bible Teaches About "Clean" and "Unclean" Meats

Contrary to “Christian” myth, Jesus did not come to annul God’s Law, but to expand and magnify it by emphasizing its original spiritual intent (Matt. 5-6). Early in His ministry, Jesus made the unambiguous proclamation, “Do not [even] think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until the heaven and the earth shall pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from the Law until everything has been fulfilled [brought to pass]” (Matt. 5:17-18). The primary meaning of “fulfill” in verse 17 is to “fill to the full” or to complete.

This is not to suggest that the Law was in any way incomplete; but part of Jesus’ ministry was to draw attention to an aspect of the Law that had not been emphasized under the Old Covenant—its all-important spiritual intent. In what is generally regarded as a messianic prophecy, the prophet Isaiah foretold that Christ would “magnify the Law and make it glorious” (Isa. 42:21). In this key passage, the Hebrew gadal—translated as “magnify”—more accurately means to increase or advance the Law. This is exactly what Jesus did—He increased, advanced or intensified the application of the Law by emphasizing its underlying spiritual intent and purpose. The fact is, Christ brought obedience to a new level, making the laws and commandments of God more binding.

Jesus went on to say, “Therefore, whoever shall break [even] one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever shall practice and teach them, this one shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19). Arguably, God’s laws concerning “clean and unclean” meats might be among the “least” of His commandments—yet we are still obligated to obey them and teach others to do so as well!

We are not even to think—let alone teach—that Jesus came to abolish any part of the Law or the Prophets! Jesus had previously said, “It is written [in the Law], ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’ ” (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3).

Those who teach contrary to God’s clear laws and commandments usually do so because they prefer their own humanly-devised traditions. But note this sober warning concerning just such a mindset: “Well did Isaiah prophesy concerning you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors Me with their lips [they use all the popular Christian-sounding terms and phrases], but their hearts are far away from Me [they do not truly put God first in all things]. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men.’ For leaving the commandment of God, you hold fast the tradition of men....” Then He said to them, “Full well do you reject the commandment of God, so that you may observe your own tradition…. [Thus, you are guilty of] nullifying the authority of the Word of God by your tradition which you have passed down; and you practice many traditions such as this” (Mark 7:6-8, 9, 13).

While Jesus was specifically addressing the blatant hypocrisy of the Pharisees of His day, the principle is fully applicable to Christians today: we must not pretend to be followers of Christ, but must truly follow His example in all things—and that means putting God and His ways first, instead of looking to the teachings and traditions of men.

Why do mainstream “Christians” have so much contempt for the laws and commandments of God? The apostle Paul tells us that the “carnal mind is enmity against God, [and] is not subject to the law of God; neither indeed can it be” (Rom. 8:7). As long as we are thinking carnally—looking for whatever satisfies the lusts of this life—we will not take God’s laws and instructions seriously. Instead, we will look to human reason (and tradition) as our guide: “All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes…. There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof is the way of death” (Prov. 16:2, 25).

To many, the laws of “clean and unclean” meats may seem like a small thing, perhaps not even a matter of salvation. But consider this: if we are willing to disregard God’s food laws— graciously given to safeguard our health—what does that say about our spirit and attitude? Where is our fear of God? Where is our gratitude toward God? What else will we compromise on for the sake of “fitting in” or convenience?

Orthodox “Christianity” insists that the Old Testament teachings concerning “clean and unclean” meats are relics of “that Old Covenant”—and are no longer binding on today’s liberated “New Covenant” Christian. But is this true? Let us look at the so-called “proof texts” theologians use to teach that the laws of “clean and unclean” meats are null and void.

Did Jesus Declare All Meats as Clean?

It is a widely held misconception of modern “Christianity” that Jesus set aside God’s instructions prohibiting unclean meats. An incident recorded in Mark chapter seven is often used as a proof-text for such a view. In this case, Jesus’ disciples were criticized by the Jewish leadership for eating without first washing their hands. As we will see, this dispute had nothing to do with clean and unclean meats. Rather, it revolved around Pharisaic traditions of ritual purity, such as ceremonial hand-washing.

“Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes from Jerusalem came together to [Jesus]. And when they saw some of His disciples eating with defiled hands (that is, unwashed hands), they found fault. For the Pharisees and all the [pious] Jews, holding fast to the tradition of the elders, do not eat unless they [ritually] wash their hands thoroughly. Even when coming from the market, they do not eat unless they first wash themselves. And there are many other [ritualistic] things that they have received [from their sages] to observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and brass utensils and tables. For this reason, the Pharisees and the scribes questioned Him, saying, ‘Why don’t Your disciples walk according to the tradition of the elders, but [we have observed that they] eat bread with unwashed hands?’ ” (Mark 7:1-5).

Quoting from Isaiah (see above), Jesus accused the scribes and Pharisees of invalidating the Word of God by their traditions. Drawing a sharp distinction between the Jews’ traditions and the commandments of God, He said: “ ‘For leaving the commandment of God, you hold fast the tradition of men, such as the washing of pots and cups [and ritual hand-washing]; and you practice many other things like this.’ Then He said to them, ‘Full well do you reject the commandment of God, so that you may observe your own tradition’ ” (verses 8-9).

Notice that Jesus’ primary response was to defend and fully support the laws and commandments of God. In no way have God’s laws been abrogated. Having made that point, He went on to deal with the question of eating with “unwashed hands.” Addressing the multitude, He said, “Hear Me, all of you, and understand. There is nothing that enters into a man from outside which is able to [spiritually] defile him; but the things that come out from within him, those are the things which [spiritually] defile a man. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear” (verses 14-16).

Obviously, unwashed hands will not particularly defile a person. But Jesus said there was “nothing that enters into a man from outside which is able to defile him.” Does that mean unclean meats were no longer prohibited by God’s Law—that literally nothing can defile a person? What did Jesus mean?

It is important to remember that the dietary laws of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 deal with health and cleanliness—not with spiritual issues. Eating unclean meats can harm one physically, but they will not defile one spiritually. (However, an insolent attitude toward any of God’s laws can defile one spiritually.) Jesus is referring to one being spiritually defiled—not by anything eaten, but by the thoughts and attitudes a person accepts into his or her heart and mind.

Knowing that His disciples did not understand, Jesus said, “Don’t you perceive that anything [food] that enters into a man from outside is not able to [spiritually] defile him? For it does not enter into his heart, but into the belly, and then passes out into the sewer, purging all food.” Food is simply processed, purged from the body. Jesus was talking spiritually, making the point that even the dirt on one’s unwashed hands cannot defile the heart or make a person unholy.

The defilement of which Jesus spoke comes from within: “That which springs forth from within a man, that [is what] defiles the man. For from within, out of the hearts of men, go forth evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickednesses, guile, licentiousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness; all these evils go forth from within, and these defile a man” (verses 20-23).

The disputed phrase, “purging all meats” (verse 19, KJV), simply means that all foods are ultimately purged from the body. Clean and unclean meats are nowhere discussed in this passage. The New International Version and a few other “modern” translations spuriously add to verse 19, “In saying this, Jesus declared all foods ‘clean’ ” (NIV, 1984). Yet no such phrase exists in the original Greek texts! This deliberately inserted phrase reflects the anti-law bias common among numerous modern translators.

Suppose Jesus had actually meant to abrogate the laws of clean and unclean meats. Such a position would have easily created one of the biggest controversies of His ministry. Imagine how the Pharisees would have reacted if Jesus had even implied that swine’s flesh was good for food. But there is not so much as a hint in the account that the Jews took Jesus’ teachings to be contrary to the Old Testament food laws.

Jesus was simply pointing out that the Pharisees’ ritual washings were ineffective and unnecessary in preventing spiritual defilement; rather, true spiritual purity is a matter of the heart and mind. Again, this passage does not deal at all with the subject of clean and unclean meats!

Did Paul Teach that All Meat is Good for Food?

There is no question that the apostle Paul believed—and thus taught—“all things that are written in the Law and the Prophets” (Acts 24:14). This certainly included God’s commands concerning clean and unclean meats. But mainstream Christianity insists that Paul relaxed the biblical injunction against unclean meats. They often cite I Timothy 4:1-5, which is misleading in the KJV: “Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; 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: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.”

Here, Paul warns Timothy of an apostasy to occur in the end times—which would involve various “doctrines of demons.” One such “doctrine” commands abstinence from certain meats—which Paul counters by apparently saying that all meat is good for food, that nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving. But is this really what Paul is saying? Is Paul upending centuries of Jewish adherence to Old Testament food laws? Is Paul contradicting his own later claim that he had committed “nothing against the people or the customs of [the] fathers” (Acts 28:17)—which would have included the laws of clean and unclean meats?

Note first that this particular false “doctrine” refers specifically to abstaining from meats that were “created to be received”—that is, clean meats created by God to be eaten! God also created animals that were never designed to be eaten—thus they are termed unclean. But clean meats were created to be received as food with thanksgiving. Thus, this passage is not dealing with clean and unclean meats in general, but only with clean meats—those “created to be received with thanksgiving.”

Next, note that the meat being discussed has been “sanctified by the word of God.” Where in the Bible is meat particularly sanctified— set apart—for human consumption? Obviously, Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, where God shows exactly which animals are to be avoided and which are to be eaten. Thus, Paul did not say that every kind of animal was created by God for food—but that every clean animal was created by God for food.

Without question, Paul upheld the laws of clean and unclean meats as a requirement for Christians. He described the animals that Christians are permitted to eat as those which God has “created to be received with thanksgiving.” Paul was actually condemning an ascetic doctrine that prohibited even the consumption of clean meats.

A correct translation helps resolve the matter:

“Now the Spirit tells us explicitly that in the latter times some shall apostatize from the faith, and shall follow deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons; speaking lies in hypocrisy, their consciences having been cauterized [as if] with a hot iron; forbidding to marry; and commanding to abstain from meats, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by the faithful, even by those who know the truth. For every creature of God designated for human consumption is good, and nothing to be refused, if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is [already] sanctified [set apart] by the Word of God [in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14] and prayer.” (Please note how The Holy Bible In Its Original Order—A Faithful Version incorporates inserted words and phrases in italic type in the appropriate places to make the intended meaning clear. All such insertions are based on the contextual meaning of the passage.)

Paul adds that clean meats are also set apart by prayer. Indeed, we have Christ’s own example of asking for God’s blessing on our food (Luke 9:16; 24:30; etc.). We also ask God to purify our food from things that have been added without our knowledge. While prayer further sets food apart as approved and blessed by God, it can never make unclean meat clean.

Was Peter Shown that Unclean Meats are Clean?

Many assume that the apostle Peter’s vision in Acts 10 represents a reversal of God’s laws prohibiting unclean meats. However, nowhere in the passage is it ever suggested that God had “cleansed” unclean meats. Rather, this idea is “read into” the text by those with a predisposition against God’s laws. When the passage is read properly, it becomes obvious that Peter’s vision in no way authorized a change in the laws of clean and unclean meats. As we will see, Peter’s vision had nothing to do with clean and unclean meats, but dealt with the issue of Gentiles being brought into the Church as “clean.”

While staying in Joppa, Peter went up on the housetop about noon to pray. In a vision from God, he saw heaven open and what appeared to be a great sheet descending toward him full of unclean wild beasts, creeping things, and unclean birds. A voice came to Peter, saying “Rise, Peter, kill and eat” (verse 13).

Peter did not automatically assume that it was suddenly permissible to eat unclean meats. He knew that Christian’s were to continue living according to God’s laws. His response shows that he obviously did not consider the laws concerning clean and unclean foods to be obsolete: “In no way, Lord,” he replied, “for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” The voice from heaven added, “What God has cleansed, you are not to call common” (verses 14-15).

The sheet of unclean animals went up and down three times. Again, Peter never indicated that he believed it was now acceptable to eat unclean meat. Finally, he awoke, wondering what the vision actually meant. But without question, he knew what the vision did not mean—that it in no way reflected a change in the laws concerning unclean foods.

In time, Peter was led by God to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile. Peter understood that he was to preach the gospel to Cornelius and to his household—and that they would be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit. Peter began to grasp the fact that God was opening the door of salvation to Gentiles. Suddenly, the meaning of the vision became clear. Talking to Cornelius, Peter said, “You know that it is unlawful for a man who is a Jew to associate with or come near to anyone of another race. But God has shown me [in the earlier vision] that no man should be called common or unclean” (verse 28).

Based on a perversion of God’s laws regarding what is clean and unclean, Jewish tradition forbade Pharisaic Jews to have a close association with Gentiles. Jews considered Gentiles to be unclean, unsuitable for physical contact. Peter was quite familiar with these Pharisaic traditions.

God was showing Peter and the Church that Gentiles were being offered salvation—that they could become spiritually circumcised. Thus, the subject matter of Acts 10 has nothing to do with clean and unclean meats. God simply used the vision of unclean animals to emphasize a point to Peter—that when God has spiritually cleansed a Gentile, he is not to be deemed common or unclean.

Ultimately, Peter understood that “God is not a respecter of persons, but in every nation the one [Jew or Gentile] who fears Him and works righteousness is acceptable to Him” (verses 34-35).

Clean and Unclean Birds

As a rule, unclean birds are predatory—those that kill and eat other animals—or are scavengers, such as the vulture, that eat carrion. Most of them are listed by name or genus in Leviticus 11 as unclean. Generally, clean birds are herbivores; however, farm birds such as chickens do eat a certain amount of small bugs and worms— and ducks eat small fish. (On most commercial poultry farms today, chickens are fed fishmeal or carcass meal—processed dead animals—which raises questions as to their suitability for human consumption.)

While Scripture does not mention clean birds having a “crop,” it does appear that this unique pre-digestion chamber assists in the complete digestion of food and the avoidance of fermentation.

Does Romans 14 Abrogate the Laws of Clean and Unclean Meats?

Romans 14 is a classic example of poor translation and even poorer exegesis on the part of modern scholars and churchgoers. To assume that Paul is in this discourse proclaiming the abrogation of various laws and commandments of God is to treat the text unfairly. Such a position also fails to take into consideration the plain statements made by the apostle as to his faithfulness to the Old Testament: “But I confess to you that according to the way which they call heresy, so I serve the God of my fathers, believing [and thus teaching] all things that are written in the Law and the Prophets” (Acts 24:14; see also Acts 28:17; etc.).

In the Protestant view, Romans 14 pronounces the annulment of the seventh-day Sabbath (verses 5-6) and the laws of clean and unclean meats (verses 2, 14, 17). To the contrary, the validity of God’s laws are not the issue in Romans 14; rather, the entire chapter revolves around the Christ-like attitude of showing love to fellow brethren by not offending them in areas where they might be “weak in the faith” (verse 1). As is sometimes the case, the newly converted may lack the confidence to take up certain lawful practices that are commonplace for more mature Christians.

In the case of Romans 14, verses 2-3 teach that those who enjoy eating clean meat are not to be critical of those who prefer to be vegetarians. If one’s conviction is to avoid meat altogether, then so be it; there is no sin in being a vegetarian or a meat-eater—God accepts them both (verse 3). There is not even a hint in this passage that Paul has somehow reversed his standing on clean and unclean meats.

It is also possible that Paul was dealing here with the issue of eating clean meat that had been previously sacrificed to idols. Paul had previously addressed this problem in the church at Corinth. In I Corinthians 10, Paul shows that eating clean meat sacrificed to an idol is harmless: “Every lawful [clean] thing that is sold in the market you may eat, without asking questions for the sake of conscience” (verse 25). Mature Christians knew that the gods to which such meats were sacrificed were no gods at all, and that such meat—as long as it was not unclean—was still good to be eaten. In eating and drinking—in fact, in all things—we must bring glory to God and be careful to avoid offending anyone (verses 31-32). Those in Romans 14 who were declining to eat meat may have done so because they were uncomfortable with the idea of eating meat sacrificed to idols. Paul was admonishing mature Christians to be patient and nonjudgmental with those lacking in faith. Again, there is nothing in either of these passages that actually deals with clean and unclean meats.

Romans 14:5-6 is misconstrued by many to suggest that Christians are free to choose any day of the week to keep holy. Looking at the context, however, the subject is still avoiding offence in one’s personal, lawful preferences. The passage indicates that some were showing a personal preference for a particular day of the week on which to eat or not eat meat (or perhaps a particular day on which to fast or not fast). Paul sums up the godly approach in verse 13: “Therefore, we should no longer judge one another, but judge this instead: Do not put an occasion of stumbling or a cause of offense before your brother.” This passage has nothing to do with clean and unclean meats, nor does it in any way challenge the seventh-day Sabbath.

In the KJV, a poorly translated verse 14—“there is nothing unclean of itself”—has become a focal point for those wishing to believe God’s food laws have been overturned. The word unclean ties in naturally with the earlier references to meat, leading to the assumption that the subject really is clean and unclean meats. But is Paul—who taught the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27)—really saying that nothing is unclean?

The Greek word translated “unclean” is koinos, meaning “common.” But to a Jew the word also carried the meaning of ceremonially defiled. The Greek word for unclean (in reference to meats) is akathartos. Recall Peter’s vision in Acts 10, where he answered God in verse 14: “In no way, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is common [koinos, ritually defiled] or unclean [akathartos].”

With this understanding of koinos—and having previously looked at the practice of eating meat sacrificed to idols—we can understand Romans 14:14—“I understand and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that nothing is common [ritually defiled] of itself, except to the one who regards anything to be common [defiled]—to that one it is common [defiled].” Essentially, Paul was saying that no biblically clean meat was, of and by itself, defiled just because it was sacrificed to a false god. However, for those who were “weak in the faith”—who lacked the confidence of a mature Christian—if they believed meat sacrificed to idols was truly defiled and should not be eaten, to them it was defiled and should not be eaten.

Why? Paul gives the answer in verse 23: “But the one who doubts is condemned if he eats because his eating is not of faith; for everything that is not of faith is sin.” This statement reflects a profound Christian principle dealing with one’s conscience. Simply put, if one suspects that a particular behavior might be contrary to God’s way of life, he or she must avoid that behavior. If you have doubts about a certain action and do it anyway, you have defiled your conscience. So if one is convinced that it is wrong to eat meat defiled through pagan practices, he or she must not eat of such meat. The sin lies in the fact that you have compromised your conscience— the very opposite of building righteous character.

Again, Romans 14 has nothing to do with clean and unclean meats, but wonderfully expands on the “second greatest commandment” (Matt. 22:39)—exercising love for your brother. We must not offend one another by being judgmental or critical of another’s lack of faith; moreover, we must not offend one another even by our personal lawful preferences. Paul writes: “So then, we should pursue the things of peace and the things that edify one another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of meat. All things that are lawful are indeed pure; but it is an evil thing for someone to cause an occasion of stumbling through his eating. It is better not to eat meat, or drink wine, or anything else by which your brother stumbles, or is offended, or is made weak. Do you have faith? Have it to yourself [privately] before God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But the one who doubts is condemned if he eats because his eating is not of faith; for everything that is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:19-23).