Food for Thought: The First-Century Church in Context

The apostle Peter was staying with a tanner in Joppa on the Mediterranean coast. One day around noon he went up onto the rooftop to pray and soon became hungry. 

While he waited for his meal to be made ready, he fell into a trance and saw the heaven opened and an object like a great white sheet descending down toward earth. In it were all sorts of animals, reptiles and birds—of the kind that Peter, as an observant Jew, would not have eaten (Acts 10:9–12). This is clear from his response to the voice that called out to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” Peter didn’t understand why God would have him eat what he knew to be unclean (forbidden by scripture). He protested, saying that he had never eaten anything common or unclean. God’s answer astounded him: “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” Peter could not reconcile this instruction with the scripture he had observed all his life. He “wondered within himself” or was perplexed, as the scripture notes (verse 17).

Many scholars use this passage to free followers of Christ from the biblical dietary laws that explain which meats to avoid and which are good for human consumption (see Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14).

But does this New Testament event provide such a basis? Does it remove the dietary restrictions laid out in the Old Testament, as most denominations teach? There are several important aspects to the account.

First, let’s note that Peter’s direct and forceful response shows that Jewish followers of Christ still held to the command to avoid certain types of meat.

Second, an important key to understanding the passage in Acts lies in the preface to chapter 10. A gentile believer, the Roman centurion Cornelius, had found favor with the God of Israel. His prayers and charitable giving had been noted by God, who sent an angel to direct Cornelius to send men to Joppa to contact Peter. The meaning of the vision relates to this context. 

Third, let’s note that it was almost impossible for a Jewish follower of Christ at that time to believe that gentiles could have the same access to eternal life through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. They thought this privilege belonged exclusively to Israelites. To change this perspective, God had to make a dramatic point.

Even though Peter had been taught that it was unlawful to keep company with a person of another nation, he tells Cornelius that God has shown him not to call any man common or unclean (Acts 10:28). The vision wasn’t about meat at all; it was about offering the potential for salvation to all nations (Matt 28:19–20). 

Another scripture that scholars often use to justify the belief that all meats are equally acceptable for food is Romans 14:14. Paul writes, “I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself.” On the surface, this seems to contradict what has already been stated, but let’s take a look at the context of this scripture.

Paul commands the Romans to “receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables” (Romans 14:1). This is a discussion not about clean and unclean meats, but about whether eating meat itself is wrong. The weak brother or sister in Christ believes that they should abstain from meat and eat only vegetables.

But Paul cautions the other believers not to judge their brothers and sisters because of this difference. Verse 14 says: “I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself [eating meat or drinking wine is not defiling]; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean [someone of a weak conscience about these things would say it is defiling].”

Paul goes on to show that eating meat is not forbidden by God, but it could be a stumbling block to a person who was weak in this aspect of belief. Believers are to look out for their brother’s welfare. 

That’s why Paul tells the Romans in verse 21, “it is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.” He was concerned about his brother-in-Christ being offended. He wasn’t saying it was permissible to eat what the scripture calls unclean meat.

Finally, another passage used to defend the view that all things are good to eat is found in 1 Timothy 4:1–5. Paul is writing to his helper Timothy about what to teach in the congregations under his care. 

He states that the spirit of God had shown him that in the latter days of this era people will depart from the faith, listening to doctrinal deception and speaking lies in hypocrisy. The kinds of wrong teaching would include:

“Commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” 

This scripture is pointed towards those who “believe and know the truth.” They understand the scriptures that say it is not permitted to eat certain types of meat. 

Paul goes on to say, “every creature of God is good and nothing is to be refused.” A conditional clause adds, “If it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (Verses 4–5). 

Sanctified means to be dedicated or set aside for service to God. Which foods are set aside or sanctified? As we noted earlier, we can read about them in Leviticus 11. 

Some believe that here Paul is warning Timothy about the influence of Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that spirit is good and matter is evil. According to The Bible Knowledge Commentary, “They (the Gnostics) believed all appetites relating to the body are therefore evil and should be rooted out, including normal desires for sex and food.” 

We can understand this passage much better with this explanation. Verse 3 states “ . . . forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods.” Paul was telling Timothy that this was going to be a problem in the Church and that he must warn the congregations about this deceptive idea. 

As we can see, this text isn’t talking about clean and unclean meats, but is a warning not to follow the destructive doctrines of false teachers. 

The apostles Paul and Peter warned about many of the potential deceptions that false teachers would try to introduce within the congregations of God. The first-century followers of Christ also understood this and obeyed these scriptures. God’s instructions are clear about which foods He intends us to eat and which are not appropriate. He makes this distinction because He cares for us.

In each of these examples we see that context is very important in understanding the Bible.

Jerry de Gier


Related Content: 
The Apostles

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