ARE ALL FOODS CLEAN?

In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 God gives us a list of animals that are not to be eaten as food. Included in this list declared "unclean" are some of man's favorites: swine, shrimp, lobster, crab, catfish, as well as squid, rabbit, squirrel, etc. However, there are several places in the New Testament where God seems to indicate that He has changed His mind on these things:

MARK 7:18 And he said to them, "Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.) (NASU)
ROMANS 14:14 As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. (NIV)
ACTS 10:10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. 12 It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. 13 Then a voice told him, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat." 14 "Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean." 15 The voice spoke to him a second time, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." (NIV)

On the surface, it looks pretty clear, doesn't it? Go ahead and eat what you want, God has given you the green light. But has God really changed his mind? Are these animals listed in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 now OK to eat?

In Malachi 3:6, God declares that He does NOT change. This would seem to indicate the opposite of what's stated above. In order to determine if God has really changed His position on the issue of clean and unclean foods (considered important enough to be included in the Torah twice), let's look at the passages above (and a few others) in more detail. You may be surprised at what the Scriptures really say on this topic.

Let's begin in the seventh chapter of Mark. In order to fully understand Yeshua's words, we'll start at the first of the chapter and get the context:

MARK 7:1 Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to him, having come from Jerusalem. 2 Now when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled [koinais], that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. 3 For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches. 5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?" (NKJV)

This passage is the background context for what Yeshua states afterward. As the Scripture shows, the problem that arose was related to Messiah's disciples not washing their hands in the traditional way. The reason for this specialized washing was for ceremonial purity, not cleanliness.

The word translated "defiled" in verse 2 is a form of the Greek adjective koinos. Like many words, this word and the related verb koinoo (along with their variations) can be used positively or negatively. In the positive sense, these related words mean "common," such as in Acts 2:44 and 4:32, where the disciples of Messiah were said to have had "all things in common." In a negative context, these words are used to contrast the "holy" with that which is "common," "defiled," or "profane." This is the sense in which koinais is used in Mark 7:2.

Yeshua uses the Pharisees' criticism of his disciples over a non-biblical ritual to launch a scathing attack on their use of human traditions to override the scriptural commandments of God. He then spoke a parable to the crowd to illustrate the true cause of spiritual defilement:

MARK 7:14 When he had called all the multitude to himself, he said to them, "Hear me, everyone, and understand: 15 There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile [koinosai] him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile [koinounta] a man. 16 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!"(NKJV)

As with most parables Yeshua used, this one was not readily understood (Matt. 13:10-15). The disciples asked Yeshua for a further explanation of what he meant:

MARK 7:17 When he had entered a house away from the crowd, his disciples asked him concerning the parable. 18 So he said to them, "Are you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile [koinosai] him, 19 because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?" 20 And he said, "What comes out of a man, that defiles [koinoi] a man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, 22 thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within and defile [koinoi] a man." (NKJV)

Yeshua explained to his disciples that those things which go into a man's body from the outside (such as dirt from unwashed hands) do not keep a man from being holy. Instead, the evil things that come out of a man's heart and lead him to commit sin are the things that prevent him from being holy.

Now let's look more closely at verse 19. The New King James Version renders this verse differently than does the New American Standard Bible 1995 update cited at the beginning of this article. The NASU (and most other modern translations) ends Yeshua's quotation after "eliminated" (ekporeuetai) and sets off the final phrase as an explanatory comment by Mark. According to this interpretation, Yeshua was using the parable to declare all animals to be edible, in contradiction to Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. However, the NKJV considers this entire verse to be the words of Yeshua.

Why is there a difference between the two?

The reason for the differing translations is a ONE letter variation between the Greek manuscript base used by the NKJV translators and the manuscript base used by the translators of other modern versions (such as the NASU). The vast majority of the Greek manuscripts of Mark end verse 19 with the conclusion to Yeshua's statement being ". . . thus cleansing all foods" (Gr. katharizon panta ta bromata). The "o" in katharizon (καθαριζον, "cleansing") is the Greek letter omicron (ο). However, a very few Greek manuscripts instead have katharizon (καθαριζων) spelled with the "o" being the Greek letter omega (ω) instead of omicron. The omega changes the word's gender from neuter to masculine, allowing for the difference in translation.

Without getting into a technical debate regarding Greek grammar or the pros and cons of each manuscript base, the overwhelming textual evidence supports the NKJV rendering of verse 19 over the NASU translation.

Most Greek manuscripts of Mark 7:19 literally read: "Because it does not enter into his heart, but into the stomach, and into the toilet passes, cleansing all foods." It is clear that Yeshua is not declaring all foods "clean" here, because the cleansing process he refers to is digestion, which ultimately leads to defecation. Yeshua' point here appears obvious: Breaking God's law defiles a man, not non-adherence to man-made traditions. This parable has nothing to say about eating unclean animals.

Next, let's look at the experience of Peter recorded in Acts 10 to see if it supports eating unclean animals. As we did with Mark 7, let's start at the beginning to get the proper context:

ACTS 10:1 There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, 2 a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. 3 About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius!" 4 And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, "What is it, lord?" So he said to him, "Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. 6 He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do." 7 And when the angel who spoke to him had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier from among those who waited on him continually. 8 So when he had explained all these things to them, he sent them to Joppa. (NKJV)

Here we see that Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman centurion, was given a vision of a holy angel. In the vision, the angel told him to send for Simon Peter and have him come to his house in Caesarea. In obedience to the words of the angel, Cornelius sent THREE men (two of his household servants and one of his soldiers) to get Peter. That particular number will be important a little later in the story:

ACTS 10:9 The next day, as they went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour. 10 Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat; but while they made ready, he fell into a trance 11 and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and let down to the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. 13 And a voice came to him, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." 14 But Peter said, "Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common [koinon] or unclean [akatharton]." 15 And a voice spoke to him again the second time, "What God has cleansed [ekatharisen] you must not call common [koinou]." 16 This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again. (NKJV)

Notice the situation; Peter went to the rooftop about noon to pray at the same time the three men from Cornelius were drawing near. After he had finished praying, he became very hungry. While those in the house were preparing the noon meal, Peter (still on the roof) fell into a trance and had a vision. In this vision, he saw a sheet being let down from above with all kinds of animals in it, both clean and unclean.

When a supernatural voice told him to rise, kill and eat, Peter responded the way any good Torah-observant Jew of the 1st century would have. He refused, saying that he had NEVER eaten anything "common" (koinon) or "unclean" (akatharton). That statement by itself is interesting, considering that it had probably been at least ten years since the resurrection of Messiah at that time. Clearly, Peter did not take Yeshua's words recorded in Mark 7 (examined above) to mean that any animal could legally be eaten.

Why did Peter differentiate between "common" ("defiled") and "unclean" in his reply? The Greek word akatharton specifically refers to those animals prohibited from being eaten in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, as an examination of the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament clearly shows. But "common" referred to a different group of animals altogether. Only clean animals designated as food sources in the Torah could become "common" or "defiled" in such a way that they became inedible.

Peter was saying here that he had never eaten any "unclean" animals or any clean animals that had been "defiled" ceremonially. The angel's answer to Peter is interesting; it conclusively shows that food is not the subject of this vision at all. The angel told Peter not to call "common" that which God had cleansed (ekatharisen). There is no mention of the "unclean" here at all by the angel. This statement was repeated three times before the vision ended.

ACTS 10:17 Now while Peter wondered within himself what this vision which he had seen meant, behold, the men who had been sent from Cornelius had made inquiry for Simon's house, and stood before the gate. 18 And they called and asked whether Simon, whose surname was Peter, was lodging there. 19 While Peter thought about the vision, the Spirit said to him, "Behold, three men are seeking you. 20 Arise therefore, go down and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them." (NKJV)

Notice that Peter did not immediately understand the vision. As he sat on the roof contemplating what the vision meant, the three men from Cornelius arrived. God's Spirit let Peter know that he was to go down and go with the men. At this point Peter likely began to understand the vision and the reason that the angel had repeated his message three times (once for each of the Gentiles sent by Cornelius to fetch him):

ACTS 10:21 Then Peter went down to the men who had been sent to him from Cornelius, and said, "Yes, I am he whom you seek. For what reason have you come?" 22 And they said, "Cornelius the centurion, a just man, one who fears God and has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews, was divinely instructed by a holy angel to summon you to his house, and to hear words from you." 23 Then he invited them in and lodged them. On the next day Peter went away with them, and some brethren from Joppa accompanied him. 24 And the following day they entered Caesarea. Now Cornelius was waiting for them, and had called together his relatives and close friends. 25 As Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him and fell down at his feet and worshiped him. 26 But Peter lifted him up, saying, "Stand up; I myself am also a man." 27 And as he talked with him, he went in and found many who had come together. 28 Then he said to them, "You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man COMMON [koinon] or UNCLEAN [akatharton]. 29 Therefore I came without objection as soon as I was sent for. . . ." (NKJV)

By the time Peter arrived at Cornelius' house, he fully understood the purpose of the vision given to him on the rooftop. It was not meant to allow the consumption of prohibited animals as food, but rather it was designed to show Peter (and the rest of the messianic Jews) that God was now calling people that they considered to be defiled into His family. No longer could the messianic Jews justify not keeping company with or going to a Gentile (a tenet of the oral law, not the written Torah). Instead, God showed Peter (and through him the rest of the messianic Jews) that he must accept these people as part of His chosen nation Israel.

Peter was told by the angel in Acts 10:15 that what God had cleansed (ekatharisen) he was not to call "defiled." A review of the usage of the Greek root word katharizo ("cleanse") in the Gospels illustrates the point God was making more fully. This word and its variants are used several times to describe the cleansing of leprosy by Yeshua and his disciples (Matt. 8:2-3; 10:8; 11:5; Mark 1:40-42; Luke 4:27; 5:12-13; 7:22; 17:12-19). Just as Yeshua physically cleansed many lepers of their disease, God was showing Peter that He was spiritually cleansing the Gentiles of their impurities (Acts 15:9; Eph. 5:26; Titus 2:14; Heb. 9:14, 22-23; I John 1:7-9) through the blood of Messiah. When properly understood, this passage of Scripture has absolutely nothing to say about the consumption of unclean animals.

Now let's look at Romans 14 in detail. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is addressing a congregation composed of both Jews and Gentiles. Although Paul had never been to Rome to meet with the assembly there (Rom. 1:10-15), he had apparently heard of some problems between the two factions which motivated him to write them. His letter to the Romans is a compilation of instructions and explanations to help these two groups coexist as one unified body.

The entire chapter deals with food customs that were dividing the Roman congregation. From the beginning of Romans 14 to the end, food and drink are mentioned 16 times. There were two specific problems related to eating and drinking that Paul addresses in this chapter:

(1) WHAT to eat or not eat, and
(2) WHEN to eat or not eat.

Both of these issues are introduced by Paul in this chapter, along with his solutions to the difficulties they were causing the Roman assembly.

The first problem is mentioned by Paul in Romans 14:2:

ROMANS 14:1 Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2 One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (NIV)

Paul begins this chapter by telling the Romans not to pass judgment on one another in regards to differences of opinion. He then defines one of the areas where the Roman believers were judging each other (eating meat versus eating only vegetables).

Why would this issue present a problem for the Roman congregation? Romans 14:14 holds the key to answering that question:

ROMANS 14:14 I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean [koinon] of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean [koinon], to him it is unclean [koinon]. (NKJV)

The underlying Greek word translated "unclean" is koinon. As it is in the passages we've already looked at from Mark 7 and Acts 10, this word would be better translated "common" or "defiled."

Verse 14, when translated properly, should read: "I know and am convinced by the Lord Yeshua that there is nothing defiled of itself; but to him who considers anything to be defiled, to him it is defiled."

This verse is really the key to understanding why some in the Roman assembly would not eat meat. There were those in the congregation that considered the meat sold in the meat markets to be ceremonially "defiled" (koinon).

But what was it that caused some in the Roman congregation to view the meat this way? The most likely reason was that they assumed most of the meat sold in the local market was defiled because it had been offered in sacrifice to idols.

Paul had addressed a similar situation which arose in Corinth (I Cor. 10:18-28). His answer to the Corinthians' concerns over this issue was that they should eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience about whether the meat had been sacrificed to an idol (I Cor. 10:25). But if they knew for certain that meat had been sacrificed to an idol, they were to avoid eating it (I Cor. 10:28).

Paul's advice to the Romans was very comparable. He said he was convinced that nothing was defiled of itself. In other words, he told the Roman believers not to automatically assume that meat sold in the marketplace had been sacrificed to idols. However, he went on, if someone in the congregation could not in good conscience eat such meat (because they could not be certain it had not been sacrificed to an idol), then to him it was defiled and he shouldn't eat it.

Obviously, Romans 14:14 has nothing to do with eating unclean meats.

In Romans 14:5, Paul addresses the second "eating" problem:

ROMANS 14:5 One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. (NKJV)

What is Paul talking about here? In the first problem, he clearly explains the dispute. But here, the problem is not quite as evident. In verse 6, Paul mentions "he who eats" and contrasts him with "he who does not eat."

The second area of contention over eating in the Roman assembly was a question about when it was proper (or expected) that congregation members would fast. It is in this context that Paul speaks of "one who esteems one day above another" (Rom. 14:5).

The very issue of setting aside particular days for fasting was a contentious one in the early church. The Didache (also known as The Teaching of The Twelve Apostles), written sometime between 80-150 A.D., addresses this exact controversy:

DIDACHE 8:1 Be careful not to schedule your fasts at the times when the hypocrites fast. They fast on the second (Monday) and fifth (Thursday) day of the week, therefore make your fast on the fourth (Wednesday) day and the Preparation day (Friday, the day of preparation for the Sabbath-Saturday). (The Didache, 1998 translation by Ivan Lewis)

"The hypocrites" mentioned here is a reference to the Pharisees. The author of The Didache urged believers in Yeshua to fast on days other than those chosen by the Pharisees. In agreement with The Didache, the Mishnah indicates in tract Taanit that the Pharisees fasted on Monday and Thursday. This is also alluded to in Luke's Gospel:

LUKE 18:11 "The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' (NKJV)

Paul's point in this passage (Rom. 14:5-6) is that no particular days of the week had been sanctioned by God for fasting. Those who chose to fast regularly on days such as Monday and Thursday (or Wednesday and Friday) would be accepted if they did it to honor God. Likewise, those who didn't view any particular day as mandatory for fasting would be accepted if they ate in the proper spirit and gave thanks to God.

Paul goes on in the rest of chapter 14 to urge the believers in Rome not to judge one another and not to cause their brethren to stumble in these matters. Paul succinctly sums up both problems in the final verse of chapter 14:

ROMANS 14:23 But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin. (NKJV)

From our examination of the Scriptures, it is clear that God did not nullify Leviticus 11 or Deuteronomy 14 in Mark 7, Acts 10, and Romans 14. But there is one other Scripture that appears to show that any animal may now be eaten by believers:

I TIMOTHY 4:1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, 3 forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; 5 for it is SANCTIFIED [hagiazetai] by the word of God and prayer. (NKJV)

This passage by Paul appears very plainly to show that every creature on earth is now edible. However, one very important limiting factor is usually overlooked by those who use this passage to teach that doctrine.

Paul tells us that "every creature of God is good," and is not "to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving" (I Tim. 4:4). But he qualifies that statement in verse 5 by saying that these creatures are "sanctified by the word of God" (I Tim. 4:5).

The Greek word translated "sanctified" in verse 5 is hagiazetai; it literally means "set apart." What creatures of God have been "set apart" by the word of God for use as food? Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 conclusively list those creatures of God which are to be eaten and the ones which are not to be eaten. Instead of contradicting the Torah's prohibition on eating unclean animals, Paul is actually supporting it in this Scripture.

Nowhere in the New Testament can it be found where all foods are conclusively declared clean and fit for human consumption. But is there a passage of Scripture that shows that this prohibition will remain in force past the time of Messiah's first coming? Yes, there is!

In the final chapter of the book of Isaiah, we find a prophecy which speaks of the return of Messiah to pour out God's anger, fury and wrath on those who rebel against Him. A description of some of the identifying activities of this group is revealing:

ISAIAH 66:15 For behold, the LORD will come with fire and with His chariots, like a whirlwind, to render His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. 16 For by fire and by His sword the LORD will judge all flesh; and the slain of the LORD shall be many. 17 "Those who sanctify themselves and purify themselves, to go to the gardens after an idol in the midst, eating swine's flesh and the abomination and the mouse, shall be consumed together," says the LORD. 18 For I know their works and their thoughts. It shall be that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and see My glory. (NKJV)

God does not change. The prohibition He placed on which animals His people can use for food still exists. As the prophecy from Isaiah 66 shows, those who do not acknowledge these commands will be among those God pours His anger out upon at the time of the Messiah's return. Don't be counted among this rebellious group destined for punishment.

Bryan T. Huie
December 1, 2000

Revised: April 7, 2009

  • Submit to Digg
  • Add link to Delicious
  • Add link to Blink
  • Submit post to Furl
  • Submit to Reddit
  • Submit to StumbleUpon
  • Submit to Facebook
  • Link on Google
  • Bookmark at Yahoo!


Back to Top