UNCLEANNESS IN THE BIBLE
By Russell Earl Kelly, PHD
August 7, 2015
BEFORE SIN ENTERED
Before sin entered neither man nor beast ate flesh. Men, animals, birds and insects were to eat vegetation and the fruit from the trees of the garden (Gen 1:29-30; 2:8-9, 16; 3:2).
FROM THE FALL TO THE FLOOD
After sin entered, diets changed. An animal died to cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve (Gen 3:21) and Abel was a shepherd (4:2-4). Tents are mentioned in 4:20. Not only did the “wickedness of man” become “great” between 3:21 and 9:1-4, but the earth had become “corrupt before God” and “all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth” because of sinful men (6:5-7, 11-13, 17).
God first commanded to Noah to “bring two of every living thing” “to keep them alive” and to gather edible food both for himself and for them (6:19-21). This suggests that Noah and even the animals, birds and insects were still vegetarian. However, this was amended to distinguish between clean and unclean (7:2).
THE PURPOSE OF UNCLEAN ANIMALS
Why did unclean animals exist prior to the flood (Gen 7:2)? The Bible does not say. Perhaps they existed for the same reason they later became unclean only for Old Covenant national Israel in the Law – to remind Noah and his family that they had been set apart from all others by Yahweh for a special work (Ex 19:5-6). “Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD” (6:8); “with thee will I establish my covenant” (6:18); “thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation” (7:1). Noah then offered burnt sweet-savor offering sacrifices from the abundance of clean animals (8:20).
NO UNCLEAN AFTER THE FLOOD
A radical change in diet was commanded in Genesis 9:1-4. THERE ARE NO UNCLEAN DISTINCTIONS! God clearly told Noah that “every beast, every fowl and everything in the seas” will be “delivered into your hand” (9:2) as “meat (food) for you” (9:3). There can be no parsing or explaining away the clear literal meaning of Genesis 9:3 “Every moving thing that lives shall be meat for you.” This was in addition to the green herbs – “even as the green herbs have I given you all things” (9:3). At THIS TIME the only forbidden (unclean for consumption) thing was blood (9:4).
“And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man” (9:5).
Now every beast will be eaten by man and now man shall eat every beast (9:3, 5). Clearly that includes the wild beasts which had formerly been called “unclean.”
Why the change? Why is there suddenly no unclean category? The answer is so simple that it evades discovery – because there are no unclean PEOPLE to represent with “unclean” flesh. They have all died in the flood!
FROM THE FLOOD TO THE LAW
When did the unclean categories reappear? The Bible does not say. Logic would teach that, as soon as unrighteous peoples repopulated the Earth, all would be unclean except for the righteous lineage who called upon the LORD. Nimrod was “a mighty hunter before the LORD” (10:9) and Esau was “a cunning hunter” (25:27). Only after the flood does the Bible mention hunting.
Did pre-Exodus Hebrews have unclean food laws? Why should they? They were unclean themselves until the Passover in Exodus 12. Why would God tell an unclean people not to eat unclean food? Why would God tell unclean Gentiles not to eat unclean food?
THE PURPOSE OF ISRAEL’S LAWS
Ex 19:5 Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:
Ex 19:6 And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
God had previously separated Noah. Now He had even more separated Old Covenant national Israel from every other nation on Earth. Hebrews were not to touch, marry, make treaties with, worship with or associate with “unclean” Gentiles because Israel was uniquely “holy” or “set apart” from all other peoples (Ex 19:5-6; Deut 14:2; ;Lev 11:2).
Certainly God was concerned about the physical health of His people, but “ritual” uncleanness is the real focus of biblical uncleanness. The O.T. ritual did not purify the conscience or heal anybody of any malady or disease. Instead the O.T. ritual only “sanctified to the purifying of the flesh” (Heb 9:13-14). It dealt with the legal physical (fleshly) standing of a Hebrew man; it prevented him from being “cut off” from the fellowship of the community. Compare First John 1:1-9.
All sin is uncleanness; it breaks fellowship (not relationship) with a pure holy (clean) God. It is wrong to separate the unclean food laws from all other unclean laws. The unclean laws were one. They all reminded Hebrews of their holy standing before Yahweh and their holy separation from all other races and religions. The unclean laws included not even touching unclean persons, animals, birds and insects. Merely being in the room with a dead person would make one unclean. Why? Not because such might make one unhealthy, but because such reminded Hebrews that they had been set apart for a holy service to Yahweh. “Be ye holy for I am holy.”
UNCLEANNESS NOT A HEALTH SUBJECT
Lev 5:2 Or if a soul touch any unclean thing, whether it be a carcass of an unclean beast, or a carcass of unclean cattle, or the carcass of unclean creeping things, and if it be hidden from him; he also shall be unclean and guilty.
Like accidentally swallowing a gnat (Mt 23:24), a Hebrew who unknowingly touched (or ate) uncleanness became a ritually and legally unclean person. It is totally irrelevant whether or not he became unhealthy – that is not the focus of the unclean laws!
The remedy for unknowingly becoming unclean was NOT washing (or disinfecting) one’s body and clothes as would be expected if such were a health matter. Instead the unknowingly-unclean was required to bring a sacrifice when the uncleanness was later revealed to him (Lev 5:2, 5-13). Again, this must be ritual because, in this instance, there is no required washing in water of the clothes and body and waiting until evening to be unclean; the remedy was a trespass offering of a clean animal or a bird. This remedy is strange indeed if the purpose of the ritual were to physically purify from some infectious contagious disease acquired from touching the unclean.
DELIBERATE UNCLEANNESS DID NOT REQUIRE SACRIFICIAL CLEANSING
Lev 11:28 And he that bears the carcass of them shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: they are unclean unto you.
Beginning in Leviticus 11:27-28, the phrase “unclean until the even” occurs 29 times in the Bible (all O.T.).
(1) If God had wanted Israel to stay healthy by not eating or touching unclean things, then why was the “remedy” for deliberately violating the command simply washing (not sanitizing) one’s body and clothing in water and waiting until sunset to be clean again? It must have been a minor offense since the remedy was so easy to obtain (beginning in Leviticus 11:27).
(2) And what is the significance of waiting “until even (sunset)”? If simply washing (dipping and rinsing) in plain water cleansed from uncleanness, then why wait until sunset? The only possible answer is that a ritual is involved
(3) “Unclean unto/to you” occurs 16 times and “an abomination unto you” occurs 5 (five) times. Thus 21 (twenty one) times God told only the Hebrews, national Israel that the unclean laws only applied to them and not to the Gentiles (also Leviticus 11:2).
Lev 11:39 And if any beast, of which ye may eat, die; he that touches the carcass thereof shall be unclean until the even.
Lev 11:40 “And he that eats of the carcass of it shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even; he also that bears the carcass of it shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even.”
Even Hebrews who routinely killed and ate clean animals for food routinely became unclean. This can only be explained as ritual and not a health matter.
Again, the uncleanness is not something which is unhealthy or something which might make one sick; it is purely ritual. Again, the remedy for this uncleanness is to rinse both clothes and body in plain (not disinfected) water and wait until sunset. Such remedy makes no sense if the uncleanness caused one to be unhealthy.
WHY THE UNCLEAN LAWS FOR ISREAL?
Leviticus 11:44-47 “For I am the LORD your God: ye [Hebrews] shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye [Hebrews] shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye [Hebrews] defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.
NEWBORN HEBREW CHILDREN DEFILED:
A Hebrew woman who gave birth to a male child was “unclean” 40 days (Lev. 12:1-4). If the Hebrew woman gave birth to a female child, the mother became unclean for 80 days (Lev. 12:5). She had been defiled by touching blood. This uncleanness is ritual (Lev. 12:5-7).
Normally touching blood of any kind from any source made only Hebrews unclean. The exception was sacrificial blood which cleansed (Heb 9:13-14). Think: if blood itself made one unclean physically, this could not be true because sacrificial blood cleansed. This is more proof that the unclean were more ritual than physical. Again, since the blood of sacrificial animals or birds cleanses from this uncleanness, it is impossible to explain this as a cleansing from something unhealthy. It is purely ritual.
LEPROSY, LEVITICUS 13 & 14: AN EXCEPTION
From Leviticus 13 and 14 it is obvious that leprosy was an uncleanness relating to health. However, since priests were not trained doctors, their conclusions were more precautionary than diagnosis. There were no diagnosis of diseases which remain internal and are not evident by observing the skin; their uncleanness of health would not be detected.
In Leviticus 14:5 the announcement of a cleansed leper was preceded by killing a clean bird “in an earthen vessel under running water.” The sacrificial ritual did not cleanse the leper; it merely announced that the leper had been cleansed. The sacrificed bird was not unclean (14:5-31).
OPEN SORES, LEVITICUS 15
In Leviticus 15, a person with an open sore was unclean (15:1-6). However, the remedy for willfully touching the open sore was the same as that for willfully touching anything unclean: wash both clothes and self (not disinfect) and wait for sunset to suddenly become clean again (15:7-12). [Also affected wooden vessels were simply rinsed out.] Again, if Yahweh had given the unclean laws to prevent the spread of disease and increase health then (1) the remedy was wrong (and God does not err) and (2) waiting until sunset was meaningless if the washing cleansed. The focus is always on legal and ritual cleanness and not health.
SPILLED SEXUAL FLUIDS CAUSED UNCLEANNESS
In Leviticus 15:16-18 spilled body fluids from sexual activity caused uncleanness. How many of those who insist on observing the unclean food laws obey this unclean law? Is that even possible? It was obviously not a health risk though because the remedy was to wash and wait until sunset.
MENSTRUAL WOMEN MUST LEAVE THE COMMUNITY
Lev 15:19 And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever touches her shall be unclean until the even.
Lev 15:20 And everything that she lieth upon in her separation shall be unclean: everything also that she sits upon shall be unclean.
Lev 15:21 And whosoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even.
Lev 15:29 And on the eighth day she shall take unto her two turtles, or two young pigeons, and bring them unto the priest, to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
The penalty and remedy for touching a woman during her menstrual cycle was WORSE THAN that for touching and eating unclean food.
Verse 29 may have been possible during the 40 year wilderness wandering, but it would have been impossible after Israel was in the land.
Lev 15:32 “This is the law of him that hath an issue, and of him whose seed goes from him, and is defiled therewith.”
Unclean food law advocates (such as Seventh-day Adventists and Mormons) should not allow their menstrual women or persons with running sores to enter their worship service. They should either obey all of the unclean laws or obey none of them.
UNCLEAN MIXTURES OF ANIMALS, GRAIN AND CLOTH – AN EXCELLENT EXAMPLE
Leviticus 19:19 Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee.
It caused uncleanness for Israel to allow one breed of livestock to mate with another breed of the same kind. It was unclean to plant a garden with different kinds of seed (as we all do today). It was unclean to make garments of different kinds of fabric. Why? Not because such was harmful or unhealthy but because it reminded Israel that they were different and should not mix or marry Gentiles. This is an excellent example which makes no sense if interpreted as unhealthy practices (also Lev 20:24-26).
UNCLEAN BY TRAVEL DISTANCE
In Numbers 9:10-11, if a Hebrew could not attend the yearly Passover during the first month of the new year, he was unclean for something he failed to do. The remedy for this uncleanness was to observe Passover during the same week of the second month.
RED HEIFER ASHES DEFILED THE OFFICIANT WHILE CLEANSING OTHERS
In Numbers 19, under particular circumstances the ashes of a red heifer both caused uncleanness and removed uncleanness at the same time. This must be interpreted as ritual and not an uncleanness of health.
In Numbers 19:12-16, merely being in the presence of a dead person made one unclean for seven days. Clearly this is far more a ritual than a health matter.
NOT EVEN (UNCLEAN) STRANGERS WERE TO BE GIVEN OR SOLD MEAT FROM ANIMALS WHICH DIED OF THEMSELVES.
Deut 14:21 “Ye shall not eat of any thing that dieth of itself: thou shalt give it unto the stranger that is in thy gates, that he may eat it; or thou may sell it unto an alien: for thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God. Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk.”
While uncircumcised pagan Gentiles were not forbidden from eating unclean food, this is an exception to the rule. The explanation must be because health and was prominent when an animal died of itself. This is significant. If all of the unclean food laws were health-related, Yahweh would not have commanded this one exception.
In Deuteronomy 3 additional unclean persons and items could not enter into the assembly of Hebrews and worship: (1) men with damaged or missing sex organs, v1, (2) bastards, v2, (3) Ammonites or Moabites for 10 generations, v3-8, (4) whores and sodomites, v17 and (5) ill-obtained money, v18. Except for whores and sodomites, no health risk was involved; yet they were all considered unclean. Ritual must be the explanation.
THE NEW TESTAMENT
In the Greek New Testament “unclean” appears 32 times; it is “a-ka-tha-ri-zoo” 28 times. The Greek word means “not purified, not cleansed.” Truly unclean persons are those Hebrews and Gentiles who have not been washed in the blood of Christ (Heb 9:14).
UNCEAN PERSONS BEFORE CALVARY
Matt 10:5 These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not:
Mt 10:6 But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Not until Jesus had brought His message to all Israel would He turn to the Gentiles. Compare Mt 28:19-20. As long as the Old Covenant remained in effect until Calvary, non-Hebrews remained legally and ritually unclean and incapable of worshipping with the community of God.
NOTHING THAT GOES INTO THE MOUTH DEFILES
In Matthew 15:2-3 [Mark 7:2-5] scribes and Pharisees told Jesus that his disciples transgressed the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands when they ate bread. Jesus replied that they were guilty of transgressing the commandment of God by their tradition (15:3). He was referring to the commandment to honor one’s parents. The hypocrites had devised a tradition (Corban) which removed what belonged to the parents and gave it to God (15:4-9) (also Mark 7:6-13)
Jesus then spoke directly to the multitude (15:10). (also Mark 7:14)
Mt 15:11 “Not that which goes into the mouth defiles a man; but that which comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” (also Mark 7:15)
Mk 7:19 adds “because it enters not into his heart”
“By eating with unwashed hands, Jesus’ disciples must have inadvertently eaten unclean dust and other things which transgressed the oral law of the Pharisees, thus making them sinners” [Adam Clarke]. “The man, the moral agent, the soul could not be polluted by anything that was eaten” [Barnes Notes]. “It is not the kind or quality of our food or our hands that affects the soul with any moral pollution or defilement” [Matthew Henry]. “Jesus is not abrogating the Levitical code (before Pentecost) … but was stating the principle that moral defilement is spiritual, not physical. Food is amoral (1 Tim 4:3-5). Sin lies in the heart of the man who disobeys God and perverts its use. Even the defilement arising to a Jew from eating meat Levitically unclean was caused not by the food itself, but by the rebellious heart that acted in disobedience to God” [Wycliffe Bible Commentary].
Jesus was not abrogating the Law of God for Israel before Calvary; He was abrogating the oral tradition attached to it by the Pharisees.
However, Jesus used this occasion to speak about uncleanness beyond the oral tradition of the Pharisees. As with tithing in Matthew 23:23, Jewish leaders had made the literal law about what one should eat more important than WHY God forbade such food items. With the wisdom of Deity Jesus knew that the literal eating of anything could never defile the soul morally. Jesus was God; Jesus never erred or sinned. Jesus knew that the unclean laws were imposed, not for health reasons, but to remind Hebrews that they had been separated from all other nations by a peculiar unique covenant relationship with God. Jesus was not wrong when He declared “not that which goes into the mouth defiles a man”; He revealed that He understood the real reason for the unclean laws.
The Pharisees had been offended (15:12). Jesus then compared them to plants which were teaching error and should be uprooted (15:13). In essence Jesus called Pharisees unclean plants making the souls of men sick. “Let them alone: they are blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch (15:14).
Mt 15:17 Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever enters in at the mouth goes into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?
Mt 15:18 But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.
Mt 15:19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: [Mk 7:22 adds “covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, pride, foolishness”]
Mt 15:20 These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwished hands defiles not a man. (also Mark 7:16-23)
Mark 7:23 All these evil things come from within, and defile the man Mark.
Eating unclean foods never did defile a person morally and make him a sinner. As the Wycliffe Commentary says, the sin was in disobeying God. Disobeying God leads to murder, adultery, fornication, thievery, lies and blasphemy. Jesus had it right; He was and still is God.
UNCLEAN OLD COVENANT LAWS ENDED
Matt 27:50 Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice [“It is finished,” Jn 19:30], yielded up the ghost.
Matt 27:51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent.
Matt 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
Acts 1:8 But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
Jesus came to seek and to save lost Israel, His covenant people (Gal 4:4-5). In redeeming Israel Jesus paid the price of redemption for all humanity (Jn 3:16). The unclean animals of Noah and the Law reminded both that they were different from the rest of humanity. That wall, that difference, ended at Calvary.
Eph 2:13 But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.
Eph 2:14 For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us;
Eph 2:15 Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace;
Eph 2:16 And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby:
Eph 2:17 And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh.
Eph 2:18 For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.
Eph 2:19 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God.
Ephesians 2:13-19 speaks strongly to the matter of unclean law. Those unclean laws reminded Hebrews that they were a holy people and Gentiles were not. Now that Gentiles are also the people of God, there is no need for the symbolism of unclean laws of the Old Covenant. The new “unclean” refers to those who reject the blood of Jesus Christ.
ACTS 10: GOD TAUGHT PETER A LESSON
The Old Covenant Law (which only applied to Hebrews) had been in practice for about 1600 years when Jesus died. It would take decades of study and revelation before the Jews could fully grasp what happened at Calvary with its New Covenant. As late as 30 years after Calvary the leaders of the mostly-Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem boasted to Paul, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe and they are all zealous of the law” (Acts 21:20). There is little doubt that Jewish Christians had continued to support the Temple system with tithing, Sabbath-keeping, circumcision and observance of O. T. food laws.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Peter had probably not yet changed his views on tithing, Sabbath-keeping and unclean laws much soon after Calvary. Paul would not evangelize Gentiles until Acts 13. God chose Peter to begin their evangelization.
A great barrier stood between Peter and the Gentiles. Though wrong, to him they were still unclean, uncircumcised, untouchable pagans. Merely knocking on their front door would render him unclean and unfit for sanctuary worship.
In Acts 10 God sent Peter to witness o Gentiles (10:1-18). While Peter was praying he became very hungry and fell into a trance (10:10). The same vision was repeated three times. First, God commanded Peter to eat unclean animals, birds and insects. Second, Peter refused (10:11-16). Third, God replied “What God has cleansed, that call no man common” (10:15).
As Peter doubted what he had heard, men from Cornelius stood and called for him at his gate (10:17-18).
Now Peter was wide awake. The Holy Spirit spoke to him and commanded him to go with the men. After hearing that an angel had commanded Cornelius to send for him, Peter agreed and was accompanied by other men from Joppa, probably fellow Jewish Christians (10:19-23). In the interim Cornelius had gathered all of his kinsmen and friends (10:24).
When Peter arrived Cornelius fell at his feet and worshipped Peter (10:25). Peter corrected Cornelius an entered into his house (10:26-27). (Thus Peter had become unclean by entering the house of an unclean Gentile.)
Acts 10:28a “You know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company or come unto one of another nation.”
This statement is crucial for a correct understanding of Peter’s situation. “It is unlawful” reveals that Peter still (incorrectly) considered the Old Covenant Law to be in full effect and that he was still bound by it. Peter was wrong! That covenant and law had ended at Calvary. From his own sermons at Pentecost Peter should have realized that salvation did not involve law-keeping.
Acts 10:28b “… but God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”
While this text is used to argue that only men were now clean and not animals, it remains that God had literally commanded Peter three times to literally “Kill and eat” the unclean (10:13) and “what God has cleansed that call not common” (10:15). God does not use a lie to teach a truth! God was not lying when He repeated those two commands three times! God fully intended Peter to conclude that, since there is no longer a distinction between unclean foods --- then there must also be no unclean persons.
Acts 10:34-35 “Of a truth I perceive that God is not a respecter of persons, but in every nation he that fears him and works righteousness is accepted with him.”
This is a tremendous fundamental change in God’s Word. Concerning His chosen people and nation, God indeed was a “respecter of persons” when He chose Israel. However, concerning salvation God has never been a “respecter of persons.” That is the purpose of the book of Jonah and the conversion of Cornelius. It is taught in Romans 2:14-16 and John 1:9.
Think about it this way: This declaration is BEFORE the conversion of the Gentiles. Cornelius, his kindred and his friends were all still wholly Gentiles. They were still unclean in the interpretation of the Law. They were not circumcised; they still ate unclean foods and performed unclean ritual Jewish acts; they knew nothing “Christian.” Yet God considered them “clean” to hear the gospel and be saved! Those who insist that the unclean food laws continue must explain how people still eating unclean foods and touching unclean things remained clean in Acts 10. In 10:47 they were clean enough to baptized.
ACTS 15, THE FIRST CHURCH COUNCIL
At the end of Paul’s first missionary journey he returned to Antioch in Syria where he had begun (Acts 14:26-28). Some men from Judea came to Antioch and taught that Gentiles must be circumcised in order to be saved (15:1). A heated argument followed (15:2). The church decided that Paul and Barnabas and others would return to Jerusalem and let the apostles and elders of the Jerusalem church hear the arguments (15:2). Arriving in Jerusalem Paul and Barnabas declared how the Gentiles had been saved (15:4).
Acts 15:5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.
Jewish-Christian Pharisees told the church leaders that “it was needful to circumcise them and to command them to keep the Law of Moses.”. After much disputing Peter reminded the church of his own experience with Cornelius (15:7). So-called “unclean” Gentiles had received the Holy Spirit (15:8) while still being unclean! Either something is seriously wrong or something has seriously changed. “God put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith” (15:9).
These statements are crucial. “No difference” does not mean that God also placed Gentiles under food laws. Rather “no difference” meant that Hebrews were no longer under legal laws which require ritual cleansing. Purification of the gospel by faith replaced purification by washing of water and ritual.
“We believe that through the grace of the Lord we shall be saved, even as they” (15:11) directly contradicts “it was needful to circumcise them and to command them to keep the Law of Moses” (15:5).
James, the head elder of the Jerusalem church spoke “My sentence is that we should not trouble them [Gentile Christians] but that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled and from blood” – all things which related to pagan worship (15:19-20). Not a single word is spoken about unclean food, Sabbath-observance, circumcision or tithing (favorites of the Pharisees)!
Romans 14 begins with a discussion of how Christians should treat each other. This is especially important for those who have not grasped the importance of the doctrine of righteousness by faith.
The issue is not a matter of what one eats. It is a matter of how one acts around a fellow believer who eats differently than himself.
We are to receive as brothers and sisters in Christ those who have faith even though it may appear to be weak in some areas. We are not to receive them for the purpose of arguing with them over doubtful things – things which do not affect one’s standing before God (Rom 14:1). For example, one believer may think that it is permissible to eat anything while another believer may be a strict vegetarian (14:2). This could refer either to a Jewish Christian questioning eating unclean foods of the Law or even to a Gentile Christian questioning eating food which had been sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8). It could also refer to total vegetarians compared to meat and dairy consumers. Although it is not a discussion of unclean foods itself, the subject may be included.
Regardless of the context and/or type of food involved, Paul’s spiritual inspired advice is threefold: (1) do not judge because God has accepted both persons (14:3-4, 13a), (2) remember that we are here as believers to serve others as the Lord’s children (14:7-8) and (3) do not cause your fellow-believer to stumble in his faith (14:13b).
As far as Paul was personally concerned, Jesus had persuaded him that there is nothing unclean of itself. This must be because Paul realized that the unclean laws were primarily ritual to teach O. T. Israel that it was different from every other nation Ex 19:5-6. However, that knowledge or distinction is not understood by most persons.
Therefore our attitudes towards fellow believers should be that of love, respect and tolerance towards their (non-salvational) beliefs which do not agree with our own. “But to him that esteems anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (14:14).
Believers who are not offended by what, why or how somebody else eats anything should not offend those who differ. Take the initiative. Act in love. Do not wait for them to react first (14:15). Do not give them the opportunity to tell others that you offended them by eating in a way which would offend them (14:16).
FIRST CORINTHIANS 7:14
While Paul taught against believers marrying unbelievers, he realized that sometimes a husband or wife might become a Christian and not the other.
Paul opposed divorce (1 Cor 7:11) even if one were a Christian and the other was not (7:12-13). He made it clear that children born where only one parent was a Christian were still morally clean: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy” (7:14). Compare 2 Cor 6:14-18.
In Ephesians 5:1-2 Paul commanded believers to “be followers of God” an to “walk in love” because Christ gave Himself to be our sweet offering to God.
Eph 5:3 “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as is proper among saints.
Eph 5:4 “Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient [fitting]: but rather giving of thanks.”
Eph 5:5 For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
While “uncleanness” and “unclean” appear twice in these texts, they are far from being a list of common sins against the Law. The extremes of New Covenant uncleanness reach from fornication to covetousness.
“It is probably that the three terms used here refer to different species of the same thing. Fornication may imply adultery. Uncleanness may refer to all abominable and unnatural lusts as sodomy and beastiality” (Adam Clarke). “The common principle is longing to fill one’s desire with objects of sense outside of God” (JFB Commentary). “These verses contain a caution against all manner of uncleanness (Matthew Henry).
Heb 9:13 For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies to the purifying of the flesh:
Under the Old Covenant Hebrews who deliberately ate unclean food, touched body fluids or touched carcasses were merely commanded to wash their clothes and body in plain water and wait until sunset before being clean again. This must have been a legal ritual and not a matter of physical health. It restored the offender into fellowship with the community.
Again, under the Old Covenant Hebrews who unknowingly became unclean by touching or eating unclean food, touching body fluids or touching a dead carcass were required by law to bring a sacrifice to a priest and shed the blood of the sacrifice. Again, the purification did not have health curative qualities; in fact, it often occurred only after unclean disease or blood flow had ceased. Old Covenant sacrificial blood pronounced legal fleshly purification rather than caused it to happen.
“’Sanctifies to the purifying of the flesh’ answers the end proposed by the law; namely to remove legal disabilities and punishments, having the body and its interests particularly in view, though typifying the soul and its concerns” (Adam Clarke). Note: Physical health is not mentioned.
“Makes holy so far as the flesh or body is concerned. The uncleanness here referred is related to the body only, and, of course, the means of cleansing extended only to that. It was not designed to give peace to the conscience, or to expiate moral offenses. The offering thus made removed the obstructions to the worship of God so far as to allow him who had been defiled to approach God in a regular manner” (Barnes Notes). Note the release of a negative legal standing.
“The flesh --- their intrinsic effect extended no further. The law had a carnal and a spiritual aspect: carnal, as an instrument of the Hebrew polity, God, their King, accepting in minor offenses, expiatory victims instead of the sinner. … Ceremonial sacrifices released from temporal penalties and ceremonial disqualifications” (JFB Commentary)
Heb 9:14 How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
In the New Covenant (after Calvary) the sacrificial blood of Jesus accomplished “much more” than Old Covenant sacrificial blood. Not only did His blood pronounce the offender legally clean before God (as in the O.T.) but it finally and completely purified even the conscience.
“The term purify should be everywhere … preferred to the word purge” (Adam Clarke)
“Cleanse, purity or sanctify your conscience. This offering would take away whatever rendered the conscience defiled or sinful. The offerings of the Jews related in the main to external purification and were not adapted to give peace to a troubled conscience. They could render the worshipper externally pure so that he might draw near to God and not be excluded by any ceremonial defilement” (Barnes Notes).
“This redemptive and atoning work of Christ satisfies both legal requirements under the law and personal requirements in a cleansed conscience” (Wycliffe Bible Commentary).
A. When aware of it, an Old Covenant Hebrew who unknowingly became unclean after touching or eating uncleanness was required to bring a sacrifice (Lev 5). This was not a health matter because an unhealthy person with running body fluids could not enter the sanctuary to bring a sacrifice. The purpose of the sacrifice was to purify the flesh by legally meeting the demands of the law (Heb 9:13). It permitted the offender to re-enter fellowship with the community.
Old Covenant sacrificial blood was not sprinkled on the sick to heal a disease or infirmity; they were unclean. Rather, it was sprinkled on the altar or veil only after healing had occurred.
B. When an Old Covenant Hebrew deliberately (presumptuously, willfully, high-handedly) killed or touched a clean or unclean animal or human carcass, he became legally unclean. Since there has never been a sacrifice from mankind for willful sin (Heb 10:26), the willfully-unclean was not required to bring a sacrifice. Instead, he was to ritually wash both his clothes and himself in plain (not disinfected) water and “wait until sunset” in order to be clean again and regain broken fellowship with the community (Lev 11). “Deliberately eat unclean food; wash in water; wait until sunset” – 31 times repeated. That does not describe a person who had become sick and unhealthy because of eating unclean food. Therefore, again, the unclean food laws have been misunderstood.
C. The unclean food laws only applied to Old Covenant Israel before Calvary. They never did apply to Gentiles. In the entire Old Testament the only exception is eating food from an animal which died of itself. Hebrews could not eat it; Hebrews were not to give it to Gentiles to eat. This means that Hebrews could give other “unclean” animals to Gentiles to eat.
D. Yes, there are animals, birds, insects and poison plants which are unhealthy and often deadly to eat. Arguable there are many on both sides of the “clean-unclean” list which should be switched. However, however, however – this kind of argument completely misses the biblical reason and purpose for the unclean designations.
I am convinced from my in-depth study of the subject and in my own spirit that God designated unclean animals to Noah to remind him that he and his family was uniquely different from all other mankind; the result of the flood is my only evidence. The fact that, immediately following the flood, no unclean animals existed bolsters my argument; they had no unclean men to typify –everybody else had died. Also Israel in Egypt was unclean and it was proper for unclean persons to eat unclean foods.
I am even more convinced by in-depth Bible study and prayer that the purpose of the unclean laws of the Old Covenant were the same as those given to Noah – to remind Old Covenant Israel that it was a “holy, sanctified, peculiar” nation above every nation on earth (Ex 19:5-6). That is also why it was unclean to mix species of livestock, to sow different kinds of seed in the same field and to mix different kinds of fabric in clothing. It simply makes common sense.
E. The Old Covenant distinction between clean and unclean for Hebrews ended at Calvary. The Church is one of Hebrew and Gentile. The Old Covenant unclean walls which separated Hebrew and Gentile have been broken down. God used the Hebrew food laws to teach that to Peter. Three times God commanded Peter to “Kill and eat” and “What God has cleansed, call not that common.” God does not use a lie teach a truth! The unclean food was clean because the unclean Gentile was clean even before being saved.
Russell Earl Kelly PHD