WELCOME TO THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES

 

THE LAWS OF CLEAN AND UNCLEAN          

          

       Some within the Christian community teach that we should obey the dietary laws established under the Old Covenant.  Under that covenant, Israel was prohibited from eating the flesh of certain creatures including swine, rabbits and fish that did not have both fins and scales. These Old Covenant regulations are defined in Leviticus, chapter eleven.  Are these dietary laws incumbent upon us today?  To properly address this issue, we need to begin by looking at the issue of clean and unclean as it pertains to Israel. Under the Old Covenant, to be clean or unclean was a huge issue.  There were many laws governing ones status of being clean versus being unclean. Ones standing before God was predicated on strict observance of these laws.  Let’s look at some examples.

       Menstruation caused uncleanness for seven days, and whoever touched the woman's bed was unclean until evening.  If a man slept with his wife during menstruation, he would also be unclean for seven days, and any bed he laid on would also be unclean (Leviticus 15).

       Normal sexual intercourse rendered both husband and wife unclean (Leviticus 15:18). Childbirth made women unclean. For a boy baby, the mother was unclean for a week, and cleansed or purified 33 days later. For a girl baby, the mother was unclean for two weeks, and purified 66 days later. In both cases, her purification ceremony involved a burnt offering and a sin offering (Leviticus 12:1-8).

      If a person touched a corpse, he would be unclean for seven days and be unable to participate in religious activities such as the Passover (Numbers 5 & 9). If a person died in a tent, all who were in the tent would be unclean for a week (Numbers 19:14).

       If an unclean man touched anyone or spit on anyone, that person would be unclean until evening (Leviticus 15:7-8). If the unclean man touched a pot, the pot had to be broken (Leviticus 15:12).  If a person touched an unclean bed, he would be unclean until evening (Leviticus 15:4-10). Even if a person accidentally touched something that was deemed to be unclean, he was considered guilty of being unclean.  He had to confess his sin and make a sin offering (Leviticus 5:3-6).

       Various skin diseases could cause a person to be considered unclean. If a sore was more than skin deep and the hair turned white, the person was unclean (Leviticus 13).  If the skin problem spread, the priest pronounced the person unclean. Such persons had to live outside the camp and warn people that they were unclean.

       When a person could be declared clean, the priest killed a bird, dipped another bird in the blood, sprinkled the person and released the live bird (Leviticus 14). The person then had to shave and wash twice before he was fully clean. Then he had to offer a guilt offering and a sin offering, and the priest was to anoint him on the right earlobe, the right thumb and the right big toe.

       People who were unclean because of a dead person could be cleansed by the water of cleansing, which was made with the ashes of a specially sacrificed red heifer.  Although the ashes could be used to purify people from sin, people who made the ashes were unclean, and those who touched the water were unclean until evening. Those who failed to be cleansed in this way were to be expelled (Numbers 19). The ashes had to be put in a clean place outside the camp.

       The laws of clean and unclean appear unusual, and the purification ceremonies even more unusual. Why would a red heifer be more effective than a black one?  Why dump sacrificial ashes in a clean place rather than an unclean one?

       Why was sexual intercourse defiling?  Why were sin offerings required for circumstances beyond a person's control? Why were pots broken rather than simply washed?  Why did the water of cleansing make some people clean and others unclean?  Why anoint the right big toe instead of the left little toe?

       The system of clean and unclean given to Israel was very complicated and difficult to sustain.  We have touched on just a few of the multiple dozens of such regulations under the Old Covenant.  As you read through the Pentateuch you will see one over riding refrain.  All these regulations were given to achieve separation from the rest of the human race and to keep the Israelites in constant need of doing physical things to maintain an awareness of their privileged status as God’s chosen people.  Included in these regulations was prohibition against eating certain kinds of animals which were defined as unclean.

Clean and unclean meats:

       We see distinctions between clean and unclean animals being made before the Mosaic covenant.  Noah was told to take more of the clean animals than the non-clean animals into the ark. After the flood, we are told in Genesis 8:20, “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking some of all the clean animals and clean birds; he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” Then we find in Genesis 9:1-3:  

       Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.

       For Noah, the distinction between clean and unclean animals appears to relate to sacrifices, not food.   Nothing is recorded as to God telling Noah that the animal distinctions He gave him had to do with eating.  The Jewish Encyclopedia, under the heading "Clean and Unclean Animals," vol. 4, p. 110,  says: "It seems that in the mind of this writer (The writer of Genesis) the distinction between clean and unclean animals was intended for sacrifices only: for in the following chapter he makes God say: `Everything that moves shall be food for you.'”

       So why do we later find God disallowing the eating of certain animals which are classified as unclean.  If the distinction between clean and unclean animals was for sacrifices only after the flood and possibly before the flood as well, why does God now make clean versus unclean a matter of what the Israelites could eat or not eat. 

      Leviticus 20; 24-26: But I said to you, "You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey." I am the LORD your God, who has set you apart from the nations. "`You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourselves by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground--those which I have set apart as unclean for you. You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.

      Deuteronomy 14:21:  Do not eat anything you find already dead. You may give it to an alien living in any of your towns, and he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. But you are a people holy to the LORD your God. 

       It is scriptures such as these that make it evident that distinctions as to what could be and not be eaten was part of the comprehensive system of ceremonial regulations that were designed to show separation of Israel from the rest of mankind.  These were not health laws as some contend.  If they were health laws, then God was protecting Israel from problems related to diet while virtually saying to the Gentiles, “I don’t care about your diet or if you get sick from what you eat.”  The very fact that non-Israelites were given the green light to even eat animals that had died of themselves, shows these food laws did not have universal application but applied only to Israel.  It was a sin for an Israelite to eat a dead animal.  It apparently was not a sin for a non-Israelite to do so.  If it was, God was sanctioning Gentile sin.

     Some teach that the Old Covenant foods laws are still binding upon Christians because they predated establishment of the Old Covenant and therefore would not have been abrogated by transition to the New Covenant.  Those who teach this also point out that in the New Testament narrative we see evidence for the first century Jewish Christians observing the foods laws.  In the vision given to Peter of the clean and unclean meats, as recorded in Acts 10, we find Peter recoiling at the very though of eating unclean animals.  This vision occurred some ten years after the ascension of Christ.  A careful reading of the New Testament narrative shows the entire Jewish Christian community continued to keep the Mosaic regulations in full or in part after the Christ event.  This included the dietary laws.  They had kept these regulations all their lives and even though they had come to recognize and accept Jesus as the promised Messiah, they continued to observe the Mosaic regulations. Being weaned from obeying these regulations was a slow and arduous learning process that took many years to accomplish.

Does Mark 7:19 abolish kosher law?

       During His ministry, Jesus interacted with the religious leaders on a variety of issues involving Old Covenant law.  We see Jesus dealing with the issue of clean and unclean in the following manner:

       Mark 7:1-5: The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were "unclean," that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles).  So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with `unclean' hands?"

       Verse 14-19: "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a man can make him `unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him `unclean.' "After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable.   "Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him `unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." Verse 19: (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.") {NIV}.

       Now there has been a lot of controversy about the end of this verse in that English translations differ depending on what Greek manuscripts were used in the translation process.  For example, translators of the KJV and NKJV used Greek texts that, because of their grammatical construction, led the translators to the following translation of these verses:

       Mark 7:18b-19: Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man, it cannot defile him; Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?  (KJV).    

       Mark 7: 18b-19: Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, Because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?'' (NKJV).

       The Greek grammatical construction in manuscripts used to produce the KJV and NKJV requires Christ making the statement, “purging all meats” or “purifying all foods.”   Other Greek manuscripts show a grammatical construction that requires Mark as the one that says these words, such as in the NIV and NET translations.  In those cases the translators put these words in brackets to indicate it is Mark commenting on what Christ was saying about this issue.

       Those who teach that the Old Covenant food laws are still operative instruct that Christ was not talking about food but about dirt from eating with unwashed hands. It’s believed He was saying this dirt is purged from the stomach through the bowel.  It’s maintained that Christ wasn’t talking about the food laws but simply addressing the issue the religious leaders of His day had brought up about eating with unwashed hands.  It’s maintained that Christ was addressing rules the Jews had added and was not addressing God’s food laws at all.   

       It should be noted, however, that whether it is Christ or whether it is Mark making the statement about all foods being purified or made clean, it is food and not dirt that is being addressed.  The scripture doesn’t say purging all dirt.  It says purging all meats. It is food that is being addressed.  Christ was not talking about dirt.  The Greek here for meats is broma.  This word appears seventeen times in the NT and over and over again can be seen by context to refer to food. This being the case, does what Jesus or Mark said abolish Old Covenant dietary law?

       Jesus was a Jew and as such He lived under Old Covenant law.  Kosher law was part of the Old Covenant law and to violate it would have been considered sin.  Since Jesus never sinned, he did not violate Kosher law and didn't teach anyone else to violate it.  Jesus could not have been teaching that adherence to Old Covenant dietary law was no longer necessary. So what was he teaching?  He was teaching that food rendered unclean by Pharisaic laws was not unclean or did it make anyone unclean.

       The Pharisees and other religious leaders had added many laws to the Torah. Requiring that ones hands be washed prior to eating something was not a requirement of Old Covenant law.  This is something that had been added by the religious leaders.  Under this added law, even a kosher food could be seen as unclean if it had been touched by unwashed hands.  Jesus appears to be attacking this Pharisaic perspective.  He was saying that to eat a food with unwashed hands did not make the food or the person eating the food unclean.  Jesus was not instructing that it was OK to eat foods prohibited under kosher law.  He was addressing the inappropriate adding of law that had no legitimate bearing on kosher law.

       The Scriptures do not show Jesus abrogating Old Covenant law but attacking its misapplication. For Jesus to have abrogated any Old Covenant law would have been unthinkable.  Jesus had plainly said He had not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17, See Sermon 11 in Sermon on the Mount series).  To teach the kosher laws had been abrogated would have caused quite a negative reaction not only from the religious leaders but from the general Jewish public as well. As seen above, Peter was still keeping kosher some ten years after the Christ event. He certainly didn't believe Jesus had abrogated kosher law in speaking to the disciples as recorded in Mark 7:18-23. 

       Mark 7:18-23: "Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him `unclean'? For it doesn't go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods "clean.") He went on: "What comes out of a man is what makes him `unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man `unclean'" (NIV). 

       Mark 7 is not telling us that Jesus was abrogating kosher law.  On the other hand, it is apparent Jesus was teaching that spiritual dynamics of behavior were more important than the physical dynamics of the Old Covenant system, let alone the regulations that had been added by the religious leaders.   

       During the time Christ walked on this earth, the regulations of the Old Covenant were still in force and all of Israel, including Christ, were required to keep these regulations,  It is apparent, however, that Christ's focus was on the spiritual, not the physical.  Under the Old Covenant system, doing or not doing certain physical things could made a man clean or unclean. This physical approach to righteousness had become the focus with the addition of many other regulations. Christ was teaching the religious leaders and His followers that this focus on the physical was not the proper focus.  Only one thing really mattered.  That one thing was the condition of your heart. Notice that in His listing of what makes a man unclean there is no mention of such separatist regulations as the Sabbath, Holy Days, New Moon observances or any of the other separatist laws that were part of the physical approach found under the Old Covenant.  Jesus knew these regulations were going to be abolished with the soon to be implemented New Covenant.

        Christ was showing that moral/ethical behavior was the determinant as to being clean versus unclean.  Jesus was in essence signifying that a new approach was being implemented to being clean  This new approach would replace the old approach of ritual cleanliness.  The old approach was terminated at the cross.  The new approach is seen in what took place after the cross.  The episode with Peter and Cornelius gives profound witness to this new approach 

The Cornelius event:

       The Cornelius event is very instructive as to the question of what laws are applicable under the New Covenant and what laws are not. In Acts 10 we have the account of the Gentile Cornelius, the Roman centurion who became a Christian.  Cornelius was a Gentile Roman Centurion.  He would have had charge of 100 soldiers.  He would be on duty 24/7.  He would be responsible for maintaining peace and enforcing the laws of the Roman Empire.  Those laws would include moral codes of conduct.  On the other hand, Cornelius, being an uncircumcised Gentile Roman Centurion, would not have been keeping the Sabbath.  As an uncircumcised Gentile he would not have been allowed to associate with Jews in the synagogue.   Cornelius would not have been keeping Holy Days, dietary restrictions or any of the various other laws that separated Israelites from Gentiles.  Cornelius and his family would have been considered unclean by the Jewish community. Yet Cornelius and his family are identified as fearing God and practicing works of righteousness.

       Acts 10:1-2: At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.

       Despite this family being devout and God fearing they would be considered unclean by Old Covenant standards.  After all they weren’t circumcised.  They weren’t keeping the Mosaic covenant.  On his own, Peter would never have associated with this family.  God had to show Peter through the vision of clean and unclean meats that this gentile was not to be considered unclean.

       In the vision Peter is told to eat unclean animals.  That Peter was keeping the food laws some ten years after the ascension of Christ is clear from his reaction to the vision.  When God told him to eat of the unclean animals Peter said:

       "Surely not, Lord!" "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."

       The purpose of the vision was to show Peter that he is not to consider any man common or unclean. Peter is seen as clearly understanding this when while at the house of Cornelius he said, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.”  This statement by Peter clearly shows that Israelites (and Peter certainly was one) looked upon Gentiles as being unclean. They looked upon them in this way because they did not conduct their live in harmony with the Old Covenant system.  Cornelius was considered unclean by Peter.  It was only because of the vision that Peter was made to understand that Gentiles were not unclean even though they did not observe Old Covenant regulations. We then see God confirming what He had shown Peter in the vision by giving the Holy Spirit to these uncircumcised Gentiles.

       Acts 10: 34-35: Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him (KJV).  Verse 44-45; While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.

       Why were the circumcised believers astonished that God had accepted this Gentile and his family?  They were astonished because they knew these Gentiles were uncircumcised and therefore unclean.  These Gentiles were not converts to Judaism. They knew this Gentile family didn’t keep the Mosaic regulations.  They knew this Roman centurion did not keep the Sabbath, Holy Days, dietary laws, do sacrifices or perform any of the other regulations that they believed made only Israel eligible to have a relationship with God. Yet here they see God confirming that these uncircumcised Gentiles were being accepted by God.  This constituted a direct attack on their ingrained paradigm that only Israelites had access to God facilitated by the many regulations of the Old Covenant.

       After his conversion to Christianity, was Cornelius required to be circumcised, start keeping the Sabbath, Holy Days, New Moons, dietary restrictions, and the host of other Mosaic regulations in order to maintain his new found relationship with God?  No he was not.  At the Jerusalem conference recorded in Acts 15, Peters references his experience with Cornelius and then James makes a decision as to what would be expected of the Gentiles.

       Acts 15:8-11: God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.

       Acts 15:19-20:  It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.

       James clearly points out that God was no longer making distinctions between Jews and Gentiles.  What were those distinctions?  Those distinctions were the separatist laws of the Old Covenant system such as Sabbath keeping, Holy Day observance, dietary laws, and circumcision which was the foundation of these separatist regulations. James only admonition was that the Gentiles abstain from several things that first century history shows to be connected with pagan religious practices and particularly offensive to Israelites.  The prohibition against eating foods offered to idols was later lifted by Apostle Paul (See 1 Corinthians 8 and 10).

        After the cross, the regulations that separated Jews and Gentiles were no longer in force. Recognition of this fact for Jews who became Christian was a slow and arduous process.  One example of this is the altercation between Paul and Peter as recorded in Galatians 2. 

      Galatians 2:11-14: When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.  Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.  When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

       Peter apparently had been eating with Gentiles but when some Jewish associates showed up, Peter withdrew himself because He feared what they might say.  Paul rebuked Peter for being two faced and pointed out that Gentiles were not compelled to live as Jews.  How did Jews live?  They lived by a variety of Mosaic regulations which included dietary laws which Gentiles did not observe.  The moral law is not at issue here.  What was at issue were separatist laws that Christ had done away with through His death and resurrection. 

       Peter apparently had come to understood this and was living like a Gentile as Paul pointed out.  Peter simple became squeamish when his Jewish friends showed up who hadn’t yet come to understand the full significance of the Christ event relative to the Old Covenant.  

       As is plainly seen from reading through the letters of Paul, the statement about not making it difficult for the Gentiles included not having to be circumcised, not having to keep the Sabbath, Holy Days, New moons, foods laws and other Mosaic regulations.

       Colossians 2:16-17:  Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

        There no longer was a need for the shadow.  The reality had come in the person of Jesus Christ.  Uncircumcised Gentiles, who did not keep the food laws, Sabbaths, or any other Mosaic separatist regulations, were no longer to be looked upon as unclean.  If these physically uncircumcised Gentiles were no longer to be viewed as unclean, then it should be obvious that the keeping of the Mosaic separatist regulations was no longer necessary to be clean, that is, to have a relationship with God.  So why did God implement these regulations in the first place?

       Galatians 3:19:  What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.

       The Mosaic system was added because of the transgression of preexisting law. This pre-existing law was the moral law extant from creation.  Some of this law included worship regulations as we see the Patriarchs offering sacrifices to God. These worship regulations included distinctions as to what animals could and could not be used for sacrifices as we see with Noah after the flood.  But now that the promised seed had come, the Mosaic worship system was no longer necessary.  It was no longer a matter of doing physical things to be clean.  Circumcision of the flesh was no longer the focus.  What now became necessary to be clean was circumcision of the heart.

       Romans 2:29:  No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.

       Remember what Christ said: "What comes out of a man is what makes him `unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man `unclean.'"            

       Romans 14:17: For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

       Under the New Covenant, the whole matter of being clean relates to the condition of our heart.  As can be seen in what Jesus said, the condition of our heart relates to ethical/moral behavior.  Our acceptance of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and accepting Jesus as Lord of our life is where it all begins.  Being clean no longer has anything to do with physical rituals.  We are clean before God because of what Christ did on the cross, not because we avoid eating a ham sandwich.  Accepting Christ as Lord of our life means we will endeavor to please Him by implementing the law of love which is a spiritual law of righteous behavior toward our fellow man.   This is the law which facilitates spiritual cleanness. The New Covenant is all about spiritual cleanness.   Spiritual cleanness is all about living the law of love.

RETURN TO HOME PAGE