“It is impossible to remove all blood from your food. Microscopic traces will remain. Unless you eat your steaks well done, to remove all the blood… Sorry, still some left in there.” -Anti-Torah Guy
Anti-Torah Guy is right that it is impossible to remove all of the blood from an animal. I don’t care how thorough your butcher is or how many times you soak, salt, and wash that steak, there will still be trace amounts of blood.
On the other hand, he’s wrong about cooking it well done. Unless you’re prepared to incinerate it, no amount of cooking will remove all the blood. It will just be cooked blood.
So, what do we do with commands like this one?
For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood. Whoever eats it shall be cut off. Leviticus 17:14
In addition to all of these: Genesis 9:4, Leviticus 3:17, 7:26, 19:26, Deuteronomy 12:16, 12:23, 15:23. Not to mention Acts 15:20 and 21:25.
God really, really does not like his people eating blood, and no matter what Anti-Torah Guy and his compatriots might say, the Apostles clearly reiterated that commandment for all believers in Yeshua, Jew and Gentile. They considered abstaining from blood to be the absolute bottom rung of acceptable behavior for gentile converts, right beside idolatry and sexual immorality.
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Acts 15:28-29
If it’s impossible to remove every drop of blood from meat and God hates it when people eat blood, does that mean it’s impossible to obey God in this matter? Definitely not! God wouldn’t command us to do something that we were completely unable to do. He told Israel that obedience was not too hard for them (Deuteronomy 30:11), so unless God was lying to them, it is not impossible to obey the command not to eat blood. All you have to do is ask him how.
Ta-da! Asked and answered.
Leviticus 17:13 “Any one also of the people of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among them, who takes in hunting any beast or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth.”
Well….that’s just another iteration of the command not to eat blood. How does that tell us how to keep the commandment?
Draining the blood from an animal that was shot with an arrow or pierced with a spear–the primary ways that animals were hunted at the time Leviticus was written–will never remove every drop of blood from the tissue. A butcher will cut the animal’s throat and let the still-beating heart pump the blood out, but you can’t do that with an animal that has been hunted. Of course, it will still lose a significant amount of blood–must hunted animals die from blood-loss, after all–but the process will never be as thorough.
In both cases–the butcher and the hunter–draining the blood from the animal will only remove blood from arteries and veins, mostly the former. Draining the blood will never remove blood from capillaries and other tissues.
Yet, God still said we may eat an animal that was hunted as long as it is drained before the blood has a chance to coagulate.
The only possible conclusion is that God never expected anyone to get every drop of blood out of an animal’s tissues. He only expects us to remove the blood that can be drained by opening the major blood vessels!
As long as the animal was bled properly, most of the red fluid that oozes from a fresh cut of meat is myoglobin, not hemoglobin, which is what gives blood its red color. They are chemically similar, hence the similar color. A rare, bloody steak isn’t actually so bloody at all.
Bleeding the animal either at the time of death or immediately after is sufficient to remove the blood for the purposes of the commandment, and almost all animals butchered commercially in the United States meet that requirement. If there is still some blood in the animal after bleeding it–as there always will be–and other fluids that resemble blood, then that is God’s problem to deal with. Your job is to obey his instructions. It’s his job to deal with the consequences of that obedience. Anything more than that is a tradition of man, not a commandment of God, so don’t be afraid to take your steak off the grill before it’s shoe leather, because that’s another kind of sin in itself.
(The production of a healthy product fit for human consumption and the humane treatment of animals are important issues too, but beyond the scope of this article.)
(1) Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; (2) Speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; (3) Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. (4) For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: (5) For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer. 1 Timothy 4:1-5 KJV
I believe that there are two primary ways in which people tend to misread this passage which lead them to interpret it to mean that all of God’s rules about clean and unclean animals have been revoked.
Semantic Drift of English Words
I usually quote from the English Standard Version, but I chose the King James Version in this article to illustrate the first problem: the intrepid drift of English vocabulary over time. The KJV translates two Greek words in a way that seems to be clear on first reading, but actually obfuscates Paul’s original meaning. Specifically, broma (βρῶμα), translated as “meat” and ktisma (κτίσμα), translated as “creature”.
“Commanding to abstain from meats” must refer to Jewish laws about not eating pork, right? And “every creature of God is good” must mean that pigs are good to eat, right?
The Greek word Broma does not refer only to the flesh of animals, what we call meat, but to food in general. This isn’t a mistranslation in the KJV, because “meat” also once meant any kind of food in English. Throughout the New Testament broma is translated as “meat” in the KJV, but is used to refer to food in general, not to the flesh of animals. Bread, broccoli, and beef are all equally “meat” in King James English. Most modern translations read “food” in those verses instead of “meat”.
Likewise, the second Greek word, Ktisma, does not refer only to living things, as we understand the word “creature” in twenty-first century English, but to all things created. When the KJV was first published, the English word creature was applied to anything that could be created. The sun, stars, and sand dollars are all God’s creatures, not because they are alive, but because God created them.
Now consider how the ESV translates this same passage:
(1) Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, (2) through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, (3) who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. (4) For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, (5) for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. 1 Timothy 4:1-5 ESV
For modern English speakers, the ESV is much clearer. “Abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving” is unambiguous, even if the subsequent clause of “by those who believe and know the truth” could allow for some speculative theology. “Everything created by God” is also quite clear. It refers to everything that God created, which includes….everything.
Paul told Timothy that liars were making people abstain from foods that God created to be eaten and that everything God created is good. Does that mean everything God created should be “received with thanksgiving” as food? Not at all. Surely Paul didn’t mean that we should add gravel, cyanide, and babies to the breakfast menu. He wrote “food that God created to be received with thanksgiving”, and clearly God did not create all things to be used as food, especially not with thanksgiving. Even some things that are technically edible were not created to be food.
And YHWH God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Genesis 2:16-17
David Stern used a memorable turn of phrase when commenting on 1 Timothy 4:3-5 in his Jewish New Testament Commentary: “Everything created by God is good, but not everything created by God is food.”
The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was only one of many edible creatures that God did not create to be eaten, and Paul doesn’t state anywhere in this passage in First Timothy (nor in any other passage) that God has set aside his instructions on what animals he wants his people to eat and not to eat. Interpreting it so is a clear example of eisegesis, reading a theological opinion back into the text instead of letting the text speak for itself (aka exegesis).
A More Digestible Exegesis
The problem Paul was addressing had nothing to do with Biblical dietary laws. As in almost all of his letters, Paul denounced man-made traditions masquerading as divine command, not God’s own commandments. False teachers were telling people that they needed to abstain from marriage and food. Perpetual celibacy and frequent fasting were common themes among among false teachers of the time. Celibacy before marriage is good, but celibacy within marriage is bad. Fasting is good, but it is only commanded on one day of the year, and even that’s debatable. Petty arguments about whether we should fast from all food on Mondays or Wednesdays or from meat on Fridays were rampant in the first century. (See my article on the Didache.)
In this passage, Paul told Timothy not to let these liars add or remove from God’s actual instructions. God decides what is food or not. God instituted marriage, and no man can change God’s laws on these or any other matters. Even if he had wanted to change God’s Law, Paul simply did not have the authority. No man does. As Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 4:2, “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of YHWH your God that I command you.”
We also know that Yeshua never violated Torah and never taught anyone else to do so. In Matthew 5:19, he said, “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
A close reading of Paul’s letters, being careful not to add anything to the text that he didn’t actually write, shows that he did not teach against Torah or Yeshua. (Considering Yeshua’s words, it seems to me that to teach against one is to teach against the other.) People often misconstrue his polemics against over-zealous converts, both Jewish and gentile, as being against obedience, but one can only interpret his letters in such an antinomian manner through eisegesis and begging the question.
The most expansive interpretation of this passage that good exegesis allows is that Paul believed nobody should forbid marriage, as long as it’s done according to God’s guidelines, and nobody should forbid eating what God has authorized to be eaten, because everything that God created is good if used according to its design.
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful.
“All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.
Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.
But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
1 Corinthians 10:23-33
As with every line written in every personal letter, context is key to understanding the author’s intent. Paul’s main point in this passage didn’t begin in verse 23, but in chapter 8, verse 1: “Now concerning food offered to idols…” The full conversation didn’t begin even there, but in a previous letter written to Paul by the believers at Corinth, a letter that has been entirely lost to history.
From 1 Corinthians 8:1, we know that Paul was responding to a question about eating the meat of animals that had been sacrificed to idols on pagan altars. He told them that offering a sacrifice to a pagan deity does nothing at all to change the nature of the meat itself, so long as you aren’t actually participating in the sacrificial rite. Even eating the meat in the pagan temple, doesn’t itself make the eating sinful if you are only eating meat with no regard to the location, the false god, or the ritual.
Eating meat that has been sacrificed to an idol becomes a problem in three circumstances:
Are you participating in the pagan celebration or rituals for which the animal was sacrificed? Eating the sacrifice is an intrinsic part of worship, so if you are participating in a pagan ritual, you are engaging in idolatry, which God most definitely does not appreciate.
Could an observer mistake your eating for idolatry? If so, you shouldn’t eat it because you don’t want to mislead them to think that idolatry is allowed or that you are a hypocrite in what you profess to believe.
Does eating the meat bother your conscience? If you feel guilty in the eating or if you are tempted to go just one step closer to idolatry, then you should stay away from it.
In chapter 10, Paul made the argument that eating the meat might be perfectly lawful, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. When you’re in gray areas like this, in which specific circumstances can make all the difference, you should tread lightly.
What he does not say is that any of God’s commandments have been canceled or that we are free to ignore them when we feel like it.
Most modern translators seem to believe that “All things are lawful” in verse 23 is a hypothetical quote of his audience. Paul posited that someone at Corinth might say “All things are lawful” and the text that immediately follows is Paul’s response. In other words, Paul probably didn’t even intend for anyone to think that he was stating that “all things are lawful”.
However, even if we take those phrases as Paul’s own words, we need to interpret them in the context in which he was writing. He certainly didn’t mean for us to think that all sexual immorality and idolatry are lawful, because he wrote “we must not indulge in sexual immorality” and “flee from idolatry” just a few verses earlier in the same chapter.
We can’t extend “all things” to eating pork and people unless we also extend it to eating blood and engaging in sexual immorality. Yet, even if Paul hadn’t addressed those things already, in Acts 15:20 James clearly says that eating meat sacrificed to idols (participating in the idolatry), eating blood, and sexual immorality are the most basic of all moral standards. These are the very first rules that a new convert from a pagan religion to faith in Yeshua (Jesus) needs to adopt in order to fellowship with other believers, but they are not the entirety of godly living.
The context is idolatry, not clean and unclean animals. Even his statement about sexual immorality is about pagan temple prostitution and sexual acts as worship. If we allow the text to define itself, then we can’t reasonably conclude that Paul said anything except that eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols is not strictly a sin as long as we aren’t participating in the idolatry.
Neither James nor Paul taught that “eating all things of all kinds is lawful”. Rather, they taught that as followers of the Messiah, we need to make wise and biblically informed distinctions between clean and unclean and between prudent and imprudent.
Being a Torah observant follower of Yeshua (aka Jesus) means living according to God’s instructions as given to Moses (aka Torah) and as illustrated and explained by Yeshua, including those rules that pertain to diet. Food is a very personal thing and other Christians are frequently dumbfounded that I don’t agree with them that God’s rules for eating were canceled by Jesus. Just read Mark! Read Romans! Haven’t you read Galatians!? Etc. Pick a New Testament book and there’s probably a verse in it that someone will interpret to mean that God no longer cares what anyone eats. I am convinced beyond any doubt that the vast majority of people–even well-educated and sincere believers in Jesus–have never even considered that those verses might be interpreted in some other way, let alone done any serious study on the matter.
American Torah (and other websites that have published my articles) holds other articles on this topic, but the same “counter” verses come up often enough that I think it’s worthwhile to the most common, including what they say and what they are claimed to say. I don’t have the time or inclination to address every possible relevant Bible passage, of course, but I hope that I will be able to add something useful to the collective dialog and encourage you to reconsider what you have been taught or what you might assume about others.
I will add the tag “kosher” to this and other articles on this topic so that you can easily find them here at American Torah and over at Soil from Stone.
And I will begin with The Beginning, Genesis…
And God said, Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. Genesis 1:29
Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Genesis 9:3
When God first created man in the Garden, he gave Adam permission to eat plants (“every herb bearing seed” in the KJV), but then after he destroyed the world in the Flood, he gave Noah permission to eat animals (“every moving thing that lives” in the KJV).
This raises two questions:
Did God’s Law change after the Flood?
If God changed the rules once, could he change them again?
God told Noah he could eat every living thing. Doesn’t that mean we can eat pigs and lobsters?
“Every plant yielding seed” and “every thing that lives” are descriptions of categories. In other words, God gave Adam permission to eat from the category of all seed-bearing plants and he gave Noah permission to eat from the category of all living things, but he did not mean for either of them to understand that they could eat absolutely any and every member of those categories.
If you get your drivers license and I tell you, “Congratulations! You can drive all kinds of cars now,” do I really mean that you are free to drive any and every motor vehicle you can find? No, because not every vehicle is yours, some vehicles require special licenses and training, and other vehicles are illegal to drive on regular roads. I think these two Genesis phrases would have been better translated as “the seed-bearing plants” and “the living things” to convey the intended meaning.
Leviticus 11:3 says, “Whatever parts the hoof and is cloven-footed and chews the cud, among the animals, you may eat.” Does that mean that every cow is available for food to anyone? Clearly not. God did not give anyone permission to kill and eat his neighbor’s cow.
Let me give you a scenario as an illustration.
Your town has an ordinance against driving 18 wheelers on any streets within town limits. You don’t own an 18 wheeler, but your neighbor does. Are you allowed to drive his 18 wheeler on a country road without his permission? No, you aren’t. Not because of the town law–that doesn’t apply on country roads–but because it’s not your truck.
Now, if you take it into your head to become a long haul truck driver, you can get your CDL and purchase your neighbor’s rig. Then you will be free to drive it on that country road, but still not in town, not because it is illegal for you to drive an 18 wheeler, but because it remains illegal to drive it in town. If your neighbor had only loaned you his truck, instead of selling it, with the condition that you can only drive it downtown, you would be no more legally authorized to drive it than before, because his consent in the matter has no effect at all on the town’s ordinance against 18 wheelers within town limits.
Before the Flood, before God allowed Noah to eat animals, he told Noah to take seven pairs of every kind of clean animal into the Ark with him (Genesis 7:3), so God’s laws concerning what makes an animal clean or unclean existed and were in force at that time. God’s laws concerning what makes an animal edible to humans are identical to those that distinguish clean from unclean, and so it seems to me that those laws were also in force prior to the Flood, prior to God granting Noah permission to eat animals.
On the sixth day of Creation, he gave the Garden into Adam’s custody, but not for every purpose that Adam might desire. Adam’s responsibilities as a gardener allowed him to prune and harvest the trees, but not to burn the whole place down. Everything belongs to God, every rock, tree, animal, and person. Before the Flood, cows and sheep were perfectly edible to humans, but they belong to God, and God was (and is) free to disallow mankind to kill his cattle for food, not because it is immoral to eat a cow, but because it is immoral to eat someone else’s cow.
God’s instructions to Noah were not a change in his eternal Law that says “You may eat this kind of animal, but not that kind.” Rather, they were a change in how much authority over his own possessions God had delegated to mankind, much like a farmer allowing his hired hands to take a few chickens home with them in addition to their daily allotment from the harvest.
If God changed the rules about what we can eat once, could he change them again?
But if God can change the wages of mankind from plants alone to plants and animals, can he also reduce those wages again to plants only? Or to animals only?
I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t. They and we are all his creations to do with as he chooses.
However, he would need to send a prophet to tell us of the change in such a way that nobody would have any excuse for not recognizing his authority and the truth of his message. The last two times God sent such a message, the prophet who delivered it was the supreme, unquestioned human authority on earth. I am unaware of a single human being in over 1900 years whom I could point to as a certain and true prophet, let alone one with such unimpeachable credentials. If a prophet carried a word from God that was so fundamental to human existence as the revocation of permission to eat animals, surely it would have to be delivered in a similar manner to the original granting of permission.
Perhaps when Messiah Yeshua returns to establish his earthly kingdom in the land of Israel, he will make such a decree. I doubt it, but who am I to say?
Speak to the people of Israel, saying, You shall eat no fat, of ox or sheep or goat. Leviticus 7:23
Occasionally, skeptics like to pick this verse to show how ridiculous the Torah is. How can anyone eat meat without eating fat? Are you supposed to trim every bit of fat from every cut of meat? What could possibly be immoral about eating a well-marbled steak?
However, these arguments only betray an ignorance of the Scriptures and the Commandments. Only two verses later, YHVH added this:
For every person who eats of the fat of an animal of which a burnt offering (Heb: ishshah) may be made to YHVH shall be cut off from his people. Leviticus 7:25
So the fat that is forbidden is specifically “the fat of an animal of which a burnt offering may be made to YHVH”, which are “ox or sheep or goat”, so it doesn’t apply to all clean animals, but only to those animals which are eligible to be burned on the altar. Furthermore, it doesn’t apply to all of the fat even of an animal that could be offered.
Not all fat is equal
Earlier in this same chapter, in vs 3-4, God gave a short list of specific fats that must be burned on the altar in the case of a guilt offering and not eaten:
The fat tail
The fat that covers the entrails
The fat that is on the kidneys
I take from this that when it says not to eat the fat of any animal that may be sacrificed, that it is talking about these specific fats and not subcutaneous and intramuscular fats, but there are other passages that take the guessing out.
Leviticus 7:6 says that the meat of the guilt offering “shall be eaten” by the priests in a set apart place. No specific priest is required to eat it, but some priest must. This is a command.
Leviticus 11:3 permits eating land animals that chew their cud and have split hooves by any Israelite.
The people to whom God gave these instructions were herdsmen. Your average atheist skeptic today might not know very much about the anatomy of a goat, but I assure you that the average Israelite in the wilderness did. They observed and participated in the slaughtering and butchering of animals on a regular basis. They knew from intimate, personal experience that it is completely impossible to remove all the fat from every cut of meat of any animal.
Torah requires some common sense
If God meant for his instructions to be followed, and he expected the priests to eat the guilt offerings and the people of Israel to eat oxen, sheep, and goats, then it is logically absurd to interpret Leviticus 7:23 to be a total prohibition on the eating of fat.
The Torah isn’t complicated, but it wasn’t written for morons either. It doesn’t explicitly provide for every possible contingency. It was written for people who live in a real dirt and blood world and who are capable of drawing necessary logical inferences from incomplete data.
Personally, I would avoid all organ fat below the heart, but the fat under the skin and around the muscles is fine to eat. It’s even good for you in moderation and if the animal was pastured and cared for naturally.
All laws are an extension of the lawgiver’s character. God’s character never changes, therefore his Law has always existed and can never change.
Yet, we have God telling Noah that he can eat animals and telling Moses to set up a national priesthood for Israel and restricting all sacrificial worship to a single location.
Clearly something changed. What gives?
Your mother likes a clean house and she has rules to keep it that way: Take your muddy boots off before you come inside. Don’t eat on the sofa. If she lived in the city, her instructions might include leaving your raincoat and umbrella by the front door. If she lived near a river in the wilderness, she might say to clean your fish and game outside and away from the house and not to leave trash where it might attract bears.
These are your mother’s house rules, but, as you can see, the specific rules she chooses to spell out might be different, depending on circumstances. If she replaces her wood burning stove with a gas fireplace, some of the rules are going to change because the things that the rules governed have changed.
But Mom’s character hasn’t changed, only the circumstances into which her character is expressed have changed. The specific rules she spells out are instructions for aligning your actions with her character in a specific time and place–her torah–so they might shift somewhat over time. However, Mom’s character dictates that many of those rules are going to be constant across all circumstances. Don’t spit on the floor. Say please and thank you.
God’s Law Is an Expression of God’s Character
God’s Law and instructions are similar. The rules he gave Moses are an expression of God’s character in a specific set of circumstances. If God gave them today, they might talk about coveting your neighbor’s car instead of his donkey. That doesn’t mean that his Law changes, only that how it was expressed might have been different if it had been given at a different time, to different people.
This is confusing in part because God’s character is too huge, too complex to explain to us in a list of rules, so we have a list of rules, plus lots of stories of how he has interacted with people over time. One thing we can learn by reading the stories in the Bible is that the relationship between man and God requires a priesthood. We are tainted by sin and direct exposure to his presence would destroy us, so we appoint mediators, build altars, and offer sacrifices to facilitate approaching him. (How exactly sacrifices and priests accomplish that is another topic.)
Changing Covenants and Priests
In the patriarchal era, the head of the house or one of the sons would act as the family priest. When God made a covenant with the nation of Israel, that covenant required a national altar and priesthood. Enter the Tabernacle and the Aaronic priesthood. The New Covenant that was hinted at throughout the Torah and made explicit in Jeremiah 31 requires yet another priesthood. In the New Covenant, God’s Law is written on our hearts, and our relationship to him is mediated by the Priest-King Yeshua (aka Jesus).
When Jeremiah said that God’s Law would be written on our hearts, he didn’t mean that the words God gave Moses at Sinai would be literally carved into our flesh, of course. He meant that the principles on which those words were based would be implanted in our minds and spirits so that we would know God’s character instinctively. Nobody will ever need to explain God’s rules to us, because we will simply know them, just as we instinctively know the rules of our own earthly father whose character we have studied since we were infants.
This writing of God’s character, his eternal Law, on our hearts isn’t an instantaneous event. It’s a process that has taken two thousand years so far and will likely never be complete until our Priest-King Yeshua returns to reign in person. There is still so much we don’t understand and even very much that we have forgotten! Clearly we still need to be taught how to behave in God’s kingdom.
As God and Moses carved the Ten Commandments into the stone of Mount Sinai with the fiery presence resting on its head, God, through the Holy Spirit, is now carving his character into us. In a sense, Yeshua’s disciples became the new Mount Sinai in the upper room at Pentecost, with the fire of God resting on their heads too.
In the Sinai Covenant there is a hierarchy within the priesthood. There is one high priest who is the only one authorized to perform some functions, such as entering the Holy of Holies at Yom Kippur. Then there are the sons of Aaron who have some other special duties, such as offering sacrifices on the altar. There are also the Levites, who serve various functions around the Temple and across the nation, but don’t offer sacrifices. Finally, the whole nation of Israel is intended to be a priesthood to the world. In the New Covenant there is also a hierarchy, with Yeshua as our High Priest and every believer acting as a lower sort of priest to the whole world.
These changes in priesthoods don’t represent a change to God’s eternal Law, because they are all in alignment with his eternal character. Rather they represent the application of his Law within the circumstances of a specific covenant.
Changing Dietary Regulations
Another “change” that often confuses people is in our diet. In the Garden, God gave Adam the plant kingdom for food. The plain text says “every plant”, but clearly God didn’t mean every green thing because he explicitly forbade eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. After the flood, God gave Noah the animal kingdom for food.
Did God change his mind about what we could and couldn’t eat?
I don’t think it was that God changed his mind, but that our circumstances had changed so much that a change in the rules was necessary simply to allow life to continue. The Scriptures show that something materially changed in our quality of life after the flood. Lifespans decreased dramatically each generation until we reached a plateau of about 70-90 years. Whether this was due to genetic deterioration caused by increased solar radiation or some other factor is beside the point. However it happened, we are not nearly as healthy as those who lived before Noah’s flood.
I believed that God recognized that if we were going to survive at all, we had to add meat to our diets. Plants alone were insufficient for sustaining the human race, and God’s character dictates that the preservation of life must trump many other considerations. He didn’t change his mind about what we could eat. The principle on which his instructions were based was always to give us what we needed to survive.
No explicit instructions as to which animals could be eaten and which not are recorded in the text of Genesis, so it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume that God gave Noah permission to eat every animal that exists, but I’m convinced that’s not correct. When God told Moses what animals the Israelites were not allowed to eat, he didn’t just say “Don’t eat these.” He said that they are abominable (Deuteronomy 14) and that Israel is also to consider them abominable or detestable (Leviticus 11). Not eating forbidden animals is an important part of being holy, just as God himself is holy (Leviticus 11:44).
Noah knew which animals were clean and which were unclean as offerings to God, which means that God considered those unclean animals to be detestable at the time he told Noah he could eat of the animal kingdom and still does today. God’s character doesn’t change.
On the other hand, if you were faced with a choice between eating pork or starving to death, then by all means, eat the pork. This too is consistent with God’s character. Remember what Yeshua said about healing and rescuing animals on the Sabbath. The preservation and restoration of life supersedes most other considerations.
God Never Changes
God’s character–and therefore his deeper, eternal Law–doesn’t change, but how he interacts with us and what instructions he gives us sometimes do change based on changing circumstances.
Priests are mediators between God and men within the context of a covenant. A different covenant requires a different priesthood and this shift is entirely within the character of God and consistent with his Torah as expressed in the first five books of the Bible.
Idolatry, murder, fornication, and theft are clearly contrary to God’s eternal character independent of any covenant, so they will be wrong in all times and places. Despite what you might have been mistaught about these topics from Bible verses taken out of context, eating unclean animals and laboring on the Sabbath are also wrong in all times and places, except where it is necessary to preserve or restore life and relationship with the Creator.
There is a temporal law, the expression of God’s character in a time, place, and circumstance, and there is an eternal law, which are the principles that extend from the unchanging nature of God himself. Whenever it appears in Scripture that God has changed his Law, consider three things:
Could I be misinterpreting what the Scriptures are teaching?
Is this actually a change in God’s Law or merely in the application of his Law to a different circumstance?
A follower on Twitter asked me about Colossians 2:16 last week.
I’m including the rest of the chapter here for context:
16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22 (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23 These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
Does Colossians 2 Cancel the Torah?
Does this mean all of God’s commandments about food and drink, sabbaths and feast days, etc., have been nullified? Not unless you think God’s instructions are “elemental spirits of the world”, “human precepts and teachings”, and “self-made religion” with only “an appearance of wisdom”. Certainly many atheists would agree with that, but I don’t see how anyone who accepts the Bible as authoritative could.
Have you heard the phrase “Torah terrorist”? It jokingly refers to someone who is always telling other people they’re doing it wrong. Paul was saying, “Don’t let people condemn you for not eating, drinking, or keeping a feast day in exactly the way they think it should be done. It’s okay if you don’t do everything exactly right or if you disagree with someone else about the details of what’s good for food and what isn’t.”
Paul was addressing two categories of erroneous teaching:
The elevation of the forms of religion over the substance. See verse 17. For example, many people were teaching that new converts must be circumcised in order to be considered truly saved. There is NO commandment in Torah for a grown man to be circumcised in order to be considered an Israelite. You can’t eat the Passover unless you are circumcised, but otherwise, the only commandment is to circumcise newborn boys on the 8th day.
This is directly related to the ruling of the Jerusalem Council in the Book of Acts. New converts shouldn’t be expected to keep the whole Torah perfectly, let alone all of the man-made rules that we have added to Torah. Start with the basics and learn the rest as you go, not letting anyone condemn you for the things you haven’t mastered yet.
The elevation of man-made tradition over God-given instruction, whether it be Christian, Jewish, or pagan. As an example, consider the rabbinic rule against eating dairy and meat together. Some people will say you are sinning if you eat a cheeseburger, but this is based only on the opinion of some rabbis, not on what the Torah actually says.
Other examples would be the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, mandatory attendance at church, the celebration of Easter, etc. These are man-made traditions with little or no foundation in Scripture, yet many will insist you can’t possibly be a Christian or a Jew unless you follow the Pope or the rabbis or your local pastor instead of the clear commandments of God.
Don’t let those people pile their rules on your shoulders as if you are beholden to their weak consciences. Their rules, no matter how wise they sound, are not even a “shadow of the things to come”, but only a shadow of their own minds.
And don’t let people condemn you for being imperfect. God knows we all sin. We all fall short. I think him all the time that my salvation does not depend on my perfect obedience, but on my repentance and on his grace to forgive.
Live in peace with those people as much as you can, but don’t let them poison your relationship with the Father, with Yeshua, or with your fellow believers.
There are other arguments and New Testament passages that people frequently quote when they attempt to disprove Yeshua’s words in Matthew 5:17-19, but before I address some of those, I probably ought to define the topic.
What does clean and unclean mean?
God’s rules aren’t arbitrary. There is always a reason for them, and that reason is always for our ultimate good. What makes an animal unclean is still a difficult question to answer, though, because the Bible doesn’t spell it out.
About the only thing we can be sure of is that “unclean” (tamei) doesn’t mean soiled or sinful. Uncleanness refers to a spiritual impurity, and is most often associated with death or a loss of life-force: blood, disease, corpses, graves, and bodily discharges.
Nothing in the Bible says “This is what makes an animal unclean,” but it does list some unclean animals and describe characteristics of others.
Leviticus 11 lists the basic rules of what animals God doesn’t want us to eat.
Land animals that are cloven-hoofed and chew the cud are food. Any animal with one and not the other is not food.
Water animals that have fins and scales are food. Anything under the water with neither or one and not the other is not food.
Birds of prey and carrion birds are not food.
Certain other birds are not food, but due to translation uncertainties and a lack of defining characteristics in Torah, we have no way besides inference and tradition to tell us about birds that aren’t mentioned. (“Living the Law: Reinforcing the Tradition with a Palpable Precedent” by Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky and Dr. Ari Greenspan is an interesting article if you can find it.) Songbirds and wading birds (herons, storks, etc) are probably out, while pigeons, chickens, and turkeys are acceptable.
Insects and other creepy crawlies are not food except for four types of grasshoppers and/or locusts that have over-sized rear legs for jumping.
Anything that walks on paws or slithers on its belly is not food.
That leaves most ruminants, most fish, and many birds as suitable material for stew, salad, or stir-fry, but reptiles, amphibians, and shellfish are not allowed.
There are six common objections to a Christian or Messianic Jew to keeping kosher:
1.“Those rules were just because they didn’t have refrigeration. Now we know about tape worms and trichinosis and we keep everything frozen or at least cold before we cook it.” Beef spoils if left unrefrigerated for too long, and chicken is notoriously dangerous. Yet both are kosher. The rules for clean and unclean animals have nothing to do with safety or refrigeration.
2. “Jesus made all foods clean. Jesus died so we don’t have to obey those laws anymore.” Actually, Jesus never said anything of the sort. When debating the Pharisees about whether or not it is acceptable to eat food with unwashed hands when that food would otherwise be perfectly kosher, he told them that they were so concerned about their own traditions that they were ignoring God’s actual laws.His central point was this: What difference does it make if a man eats with dirty hands (or eats pork or lobster!) if he is a murderer, a liar, or an adulterer? If you put something into your mouth, your body eventually purges it. If you put something into your heart, however, there is no automatic, natural process to remove it.Jesus didn’t die so you could eat bacon. He died so you could have eternal life in spite of eating bacon.
3. “That was only for the Dispensation of Law. God told Noah he could eat any animal. That changed when God gave the law at Mt. Sinai, then it changed again when Jesus rose from the grave. Now we are in the Dispensation of Grace and can ignore the Law of Moses.” Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 12:20 that the Israelites could eat whatever meat they wanted, but just 2 chapters later he repeated the list of things that God didn’t want them to eat.Sometimes one passage, when removed from the context of the whole Bible, appears to contradict one or another passage. That’s an illusion caused by our preconceptions and inability (refusal?) to consider those same passages from a more holistic perspective that harmonizes all of Scripture as a unified whole. Everyone reads the Bible through a lens that colors their interpretations. The problem with most people is that they don’t know it, and act as if their vision is crystal clear with no possibility of tint or distortion. Humility is a rare commodity.
When you read about Noah after the Flood or Peter and Paul after the resurrection, consider–as an intellectual exercise if nothing else–reading those stories as if you believed that not a single letter could ever be removed from God’s Law. Do some of the words have alternate meanings (they all do) that work in the new context? Are you able to understand those passages in that light? If so, then it’s just possible that it is the correct light.
4. “Those are ceremonial laws. They don’t apply to us anymore. Only the moral laws are still in effect.” I have never yet seen a reasonable defense of such a distinction in the Law. There is no civil vs ceremonial vs criminal or any such division in Scripture. It’s an invention of man. To the contrary, God said, “Do not take anything away from my laws nor add anything to them.” On one side are hazy conjectures and complicated theories. On the other side are several very clear, unambiguous statements from God. I’ll go with the latter.
5. “All of the Law of Moses was abolished. It was entirely replaced with a new set of morals defined by Jesus and fleshed out by Paul: Love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself.” When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment, he quoted the Torah, and he said that all of the rest of God’s words hang on just two commandments. He didn’t say that the rest of Torah was no longer relevant. He didn’t add or subtract anything at all from the Torah. He didn’t even say anything new, although it might have been new to the Pharisees with their burdensome traditions: Matthew 22:37-40: And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (38) This is the great and first commandment. (39) And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (40) On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Jesus (aka Yeshua) wasn’t telling them anything new. He was just quoting Moses, words with which they were already very familiar: Deuteronomy 6:4-5: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. (5) You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Leviticus 19:18b You shall love your neighbor as yourself…
Earlier I mentioned something else Yeshua said about the Law of Moses: Matthew 5:17-19: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (18) For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (19) Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
Note two things about that statement: 1) Whatever “fulfill” means here, it does not mean to destroy. 2) Nothing can be removed from the Law until heaven and earth pass away.
6. “The Law of Moses is still valid and still applies, but only to Jews. It was never intended to apply to gentile Christians.”As far as salvation is concerned, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” However, the New Covenant was not promised to gentiles. It was promised only to the houses of Israel and Judah. See Jeremiah 31:31.Those of us, who were once Gentiles, have been grafted into the tree of Israel, not the other way around. There is only one body in the Messiah, one law, and one nation: Israel. If you want to be part of that body, then you have to become an Israelite, which means that, even if this objection were true, the Law must apply to all true believers in Yeshua. (Notice that I did NOT say you have to become Jewish.)
There are many strong-sounding arguments for ignoring God’s instructions regarding which animals are acceptable as food, and I don’t have time to hash them all out in this one article. Stick around, though. I’ll get to them eventually.
I assure you that every argument that relies on interpreting some Bible verse to mean the opposite of what Yeshua said in Matthew 5 falls apart when you start assuming that Yeshua knew what he was talking about.
Addendum on unclean birds
There’s a lot of understandable confusion about what flying animals (includes more than just birds) are clean and unclean. The Hebrew words that describe the various birds in Leviticus 11 are obscure, and translators can’t agree on what flying animals are actually listed.
Here’s a chart showing how some popular translations render the list:
As you can see, there is unanimous agreement on some points and total chaos on others. We also classify flying creatures differently than the ancient Hebrews did. For example, we differentiate between flying mammals and birds. They didn’t. They made distinctions between various kinds of birds of prey that we can’t even decipher now.
Here is what we can say with relative certainty:
Definitely Not Kosher
Any kind of vulture, buzzard, condor, etc.
Any kind of raptor, like a hawk, eagle, falcon, or anything else we would normally call a “bird of prey”.
Any kind of raven or grackle.
Storks, herons, and pelicans.
Lapwings and hoopoes.
Bats and all other flying mammals.
Probably Not Kosher
Based on those that are definitely not kosher, I think it’s safe to presume that these birds are also unclean, although I wouldn’t be dogmatic about it.
Sea-going predatory birds, like gull, terns, and penguins.
Long-legged wading birds, like flamingos, shanks, and egrets.
Semi-terrestrial, semi-predatory birds like roadrunners, killdeer, and woodpeckers.
I’d Avoid Them, Just in Case
These birds seem to me like they probably belong in the list and some translators include them explicitly. Your call, of course.
Large flightless birds, like ostriches and emus.
Song birds, like swallows, finches, and cardinals.
Or at least they don’t seem to fit cleanly into any of the forbidden categories and they definitely aren’t listed explicitly. Some people still disagree about them, though.
Peter’s vision in Acts 10 proves beyond any doubt that the Jewish dietary laws were canceled by God and have no relevance whatsoever to Christians.
This is a common objection to Christians continuing to keep God’s Law as given to Moses. It is a serious objection too. If God really commanded Peter to kill and eat a sheet full of unclean animals, that would be a very strong indication that the dietary laws are no longer in effect, so it warrants a thorough examination. It’s a long passage to cut and paste into a blog, so I’ll break it up into chunks and see if I can’t pare it down a little.
Acts 10 begins by telling us about Cornelius, a man very much like Abraham. They were both gentiles who loved God and lived by faith. God respected that faith and sent Cornelius an angel who told him to send for Peter. Note that the Angel did not tell Cornelius to go to Peter but to have Peter brought back to him. This was because Peter had a very important lesson to learn about gentiles and faith. (We are never too big, too smart, too Spirit-filled to learn from someone else, even someone of apparently much lesser rank.)
(9) The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. (10) And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance (11) and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. (12) In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. (13) And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” (14) But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”
There are two very startling things going on here.
God appears to tell Peter to kill unclean animals and eat them.
Peter is shocked that God would tell him to do such a thing.
The first thing was startling to Peter who, as an observant Jew, had never eaten anything “common or unclean.” To him this was nearly as bad as idolatry or murder. He was startled and dismayed that would God command him to transgress the Law, to commit sin.
The second thing, the fact that Peter was shocked–ought to be quite startling to any Christian who believes that Jesus died so that we don’t have to keep the Law anymore, particularly the parts of the Law concerning what we are and are not to eat.
How could Peter not know that Jesus made it OK for him to eat unclean animals? He had walked at the Savior’s side as his friend, daily hearing him teach and preach on how to live a holy life and on the deeper meaning of God’s commandments. Peter had personal, intimate conversations with him about God, faith, salvation, and the Law. He was there on the day that the Pharisees confronted Yeshua about the disciples eating with unwashed hands and heard with his own ears the Messiah proclaim all foods clean. He must have known for many years by this time that no meat could be unclean anymore! At the very least he must have known that this day was coming. Yet he had never in his life eaten anything unclean, and he was shocked at the suggestion.
Why then was he so surprised at it? And why aren’t more Christians surprised at Peter’s surprise?
Is it possible that the subject never came up during Peter’s three year theological tutelage at the feet of Israel’s Messiah? Even after that famous confrontation with the Pharisees in which Yeshua supposedly declared all “foods” clean?
I don’t think so. Yeshua and his disciples ate together almost every day, multiple times each day, and sometimes even with gentiles, while he expounded at length on the meaning of the Law. Most likely, the subject came up more than once, yet it never crossed Peter’s mind that he might be free to eat any animal he wanted.
The truth is that Yeshua never even hinted to Peter that he had come to die so that everyone could eat bacon with their eggs. If God really wanted Peter to eat unclean animals, then this was a new change, and not something that Peter had heard or suspected before.
(15) And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” (16) This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. (17) Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate (18) and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there.
Three times, God told Peter to kill and eat, but each time he took the sheet with the animals away before Peter could carry out the command. If God sends a vision or a dream, then we know it must have an interpretation, but Peter didn’t immediately know what it might be. In fact, he spent much of the rest of that day puzzling over it and didn’t fully realize God’s message until the three men arrived from Cornelius.
Here is what puzzles me most about this perennial controversy: We don’t have to wonder what Peter’s vision meant. When he arrived at Cornelius’ house in Caesarea, he told everyone there in plain language exactly what the vision meant, and Luke recorded his statement for us:
And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.”
The sheets, the animals, the voice… It was all about people, not food! God wasn’t telling Peter that he had changed the rules about what animals were acceptable for food. God sent the vision to tell Peter that he was bringing people from all nations into the Kingdom, that the Jewish traditions keeping Jews and Gentiles apart were not right. The salvation bought by Yeshua’s blood was for all people, not just the Jews, and Peter had no right to exclude anyone from full fellowship in the Commonwealth of Israel based solely on the circumstances of their birth.
Some will object, saying, “Surely God would never command someone to commit a sin even in a vision, so Peter’s vision in Acts 10 presupposes that unclean animals have also been made clean.”
Why wouldn’t he? This is another parallel with the story of Abraham.
In Genesis 22, God commanded Abraham to make a human sacrifice of his own son, something that was clearly against God’s Law. Even before Sinai, only certain animals were acceptable for offerings and God has always abhorred human sacrifice. When God told Abraham to kill his son, he never intended anyone to believe that he had therefore abrogated laws against murder and human sacrifice. It was a sin to offer up a human before Mount Moriah, and it remained a sin afterwards. Although God told Abraham to kill Isaac, he prevented him from shedding even a drop of blood.
Now, to make this even clearer for the hard of hearing and the poor of vision:
Commanded to make a human sacrifice
Commanded to eat unclean animals
Prevented from making a human sacrifice
Prevented from eating unclean animals
God commanded both of these men to do something that was against his Law, and in both cases God prevented them from carrying out the command. In neither case did God change his Law. In both cases, God taught us something about his plan of salvation for mankind.
Abraham learned that God would send a substitute sacrifice to do what we could not, the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.
Peter learned that God can make children for Abraham from anyone in any nation, that there are no unclean people among those whom God has redeemed.
After telling Cornelius what he had learned from his vision, Peter went on to teach that whole household about Yeshua, the Messiah of Israel, about his miracles, his death, and resurrection. All of those present, both Jew and Gentile, were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began speaking in tongues and praising God.
All that… and not a single word about lobster ravioli, BLTs, or the flesh of any other unclean animals.
We know that Yeshua said that not even the least significant commandment would be removed from the Law until heaven and earth pass away and “all is accomplished.” Heaven and earth are still here. All has not been accomplished. Unless Yeshua lied, then the dietary laws cannot have been removed from God’s requirements of his people, and nothing in Acts 10 implies otherwise.
Peter’s vision of unclean animals was never about food. It was always about people. Unless Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac means that murder is no longer a sin, Peter’s vision does not mean that eating “all kinds of animals, reptiles, and birds of the air” is no longer a sin.
God’s Law stands unchanged, just as Yeshua said it would in Matthew 5.
The first century church dealt with a recurring conflict between missionaries to the gentiles and a group that is sometimes called “the Party of the Circumcision.” Acts 15:1 tells us that
…some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”
The rest of the chapter discusses this controversy and how the Jerusalem Council responded. I don’t like to reproduce large blocks of text from the Bible here, but I think it’s necessary because the council’s ruling is easy to misinterpret without considering the full context.
Act 15:1-33 (1) But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (2) And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. (3) So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. (4) When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. (5) But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (6) The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.
(7) And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. (8) And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, (9) and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. (10) Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? (11) But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (12) And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.
(13) After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. (14) Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. (15) And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, (16) “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, (17) that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things (18) known from of old.’ (19) Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, (20) but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. (21) For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.“
(22) Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, (23) with the following letter: “The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. (24) Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, (25) it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, (26) men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (27) We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. (28) For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: (29) that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”
(30) So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. (31) And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. (32) And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. (33) And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them.
I can see how it might appear to the casual reader as if the Jerusalem council ruled that the Torah does not apply to gentile believers. But a reader more interested in the broader context and a fuller understanding of what he reads might notice a few details that seem to indicate otherwise.
First, let’s define the controversy.
Verse one says that some men came from Judea and told the new gentile believers that, in order to be saved, they must be circumcised according to the “custom of Moses.” Paul, Barnabas, and some others went to Jerusalem (in Judea) to discuss this issue with the apostles and elders (v2). When they had brought the Jerusalem council up to date on their mission to the gentiles and had described the controversy at hand, some of the same group of men were there and reaffirmed what had been told to the gentiles (v5). These might have been the “others” who had accompanied Paul and Barnabas, possibly to ensure that both sides of the argument would be represented fairly.
This is the question that the Jerusalem Council convened to answer: Must the gentile converts be circumcised according to the custom of Moses in order to be saved and should they be ordered to keep the law of Moses? As you can see, there are actually two questions, and if you are unfamiliar with the written Torah, it will be very easy for you to misunderstand the nature of these questions from the text in Acts alone.
Note that verse one states “circumcised according to the custom (ethos in Greek) of Moses.” There is no general command anywhere in Torah to circumcise grown men. There were specific circumstances in which the Hebrews had neglected the command to circumcise their infant sons, and so they rectified that by circumcising themselves as adults, but those were one time events. Nowhere did Moses write, “If a foreigner wishes to be grafted into Israel, he must be circumcised,” or “a grown man who was not circumcised as a child must be circumcised as an adult before he can be acceptable to God.” The Law only stipulates that a newborn boy must be circumcised on the eighth day. This “custom of Moses” was just a custom of men and came with a long list of extra-biblical do’s and dont’s known as the Eighteen Measures of Shammai (briefly mentioned in this Jewish Encyclopedia article). By demanding that new believers must be circumcised in order to be saved, they were adding to God’s Law, something He expressly forbade them to do.
Verse five says that the Pharisees also wanted to order the new converts to keep the whole Law of Moses, something that they clearly weren’t even doing themselves. As Yeshua told them years earlier, “By your traditions you make void the commandments of God.” In fact, since their circumcision was only a man-made tradition, it’s very likely that the laws they intended weren’t the Law of Moses at all, but either the Eighteen Measures or else the full body of draconian and contradictory Jewish law. Peter’s statement (v10) confirms that this is almost surely the case:
Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? (Acts 15:10 ESV)
How could God’s Law as delivered through Moses be such an onerous burden when God Himself says that it was not?
Deuteronomy 30:9-16 ESV (9) The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, (10) when you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (11) “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. (12) It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ (13) Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ (14) But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (15) “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. (16) If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you today, by loving the LORD your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.
How could they have been unable to bear the burden of God’s Law about which David wrote such stirring words:
Psalms 119:44-48 ESV (44) I will keep your law (Hebrew: Torah) continually, forever and ever, (45) and I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts. (46) I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame, (47) for I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. (48) I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes.
So what was the yoke that the Apostles and their fathers couldn’t bear except for the innumerable regulations that lawyers had piled on top of the Divine Law? Yeshua was continually rebuking them for “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9), and this was just more of the same. The “party of the circumcision,” as Paul would refer to them, wanted to make all of these new gentile believers into full-fledged Jews, complete with a Jewish ritual conversion and all the rules and regulations that were impossible to keep and often in direct contradiction to the written Torah.
The actual question at hand was not whether the Law of God (aka the Mosaic Law) applied to the gentile converts, but whether they ought to be required to keep the Jewish traditions that had been added to God’s Law.
Peter urged the council to reject this proposal. What was too difficult for the Jews who already knew the Torah well would surely be even more difficult for the gentiles, and many would turn away in discouragement.
This is James’ final ruling on the issue:
Acts 15:19-20 ESV “(19) Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, (20) but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”
Clearly he rejected the idea that the converts must be circumcised to effect salvation, but did he go so far as to reject Torah observance altogether? It almost reads that way! But what about keeping the Sabbath, stealing, coveting, dishonoring parents, and oath breaking? If you refrain from sexual immorality, but hate your brother, have you really done well (v29)? Of course not! Paul, Peter, John, and James all wrote strongly against a number of immoral behaviors that James didn’t even mention, so we know that James didn’t mean for them to interpret his ruling as license to commit everything under the sun so long as it didn’t violate one of these four prohibitions. That would be putting God to a far more severe test than the legalism he was refuting.
So what did he mean? The vital clue in the very next verse is usually ignored:
“For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” Acts 15:21 ESV
James said that they should not trouble the gentiles, but only tell them to avoid these four things, because Moses is taught in every synagogue every Sabbath.
The Apostles had rejected the Circumcision’s premise that a ritual conversion was necessary and had then gone much further than anyone had expected. Not only did converts not need to be circumcised and keep all of the Pharisees’ man-made traditions, but they didn’t even need to keep God’s Law in order to be saved! This was truly radical! But it wasn’t the end.
What were they to do with their salvation now that it was assured apart from circumcision? This is the question that James was really answering. Let me give you my amplified version of his ruling:
“Let’s not discourage the gentiles with a treatise on every moral particular. We’ll keep it simple and easy with just four really important things that will facilitate fellowship between Jews and gentiles. They can progress from there by learning over time just like Jewish children for many generations, hearing Moses read aloud and discussed in the synagogue every Sabbath.” James’ words embodied a great principle of human nature: demand too much, too fast, and you’ll get nothing at all. You’ll break people instead of advancing them.
The controversy addressed in Acts 15 was never about whether gentile believers in Yeshua ought to keep God’s Law as given through Moses. It was about conditions for salvation and for acceptance into fellowship.
This is the very essence of God’s grace: He loves us right where we are, and we don’t have to keep any set of rules to be saved. His grace is sufficient for our salvation. We don’t need to be circumcised, dunked, shaved, bathed, anointed, slain in the spirit, or sprinkled for His grace to be effective at covering over all of our sins and making us His own. All we have to do to be saved is throw ourselves on His mercy, begging His forgiveness and throwing our sins at His feet.
But the liberty we have in Messiah does not mean we are free to make void the Law of God. As Paul said to this idea, “Heaven forbid!” It only means that we are not condemned by our failures as we progress toward the mark of perfect faithfulness. We are free to obey God without fear that every misstep will send us plunging into the abyss.
Start where you are and work to do a little better every day. And if you do these things, you’ll do well.