SYNOPSIS: Paul can argue for tolerance on matters of food and calendrical observations since the “shadows” of the Levitical regulations have found their fulfillment in Jesus.
The Law of Moses specified what kinds of food the Israelites could eat; it defined which categories were ritually “clean” and which were not and, therefore, forbidden. A comprehensive description of the dietary regulations is recorded in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Leviticus (Leviticus 11:1-47).
Israel was called to be “holy” as Yahweh was holy, therefore, it was inappropriate for members of the covenant community to eat anything ritually “unclean.” The nation was required to “distinguish between the unclean and the clean, and between the living thing that may be eaten and the living thing that may not be eaten.” To eat “unclean” meat was to commit “abomination” before the Lord.
At issue was not personal hygiene or healthy dietary practices but ritual purity. An impure state could prevent a person from full participation in the worship of Yahweh, the religious, and even the social life of the covenant community.
On one occasion, Jesus was challenged by certain Jews when his disciples ate food with “unwashed hands.” The Pharisees believed doing so rendered a person “unclean.” Jesus responded to the immediate issue but went further when he declared that, “not what enters the mouth defiles a man, but that which proceeds out of the mouth, the same defiles him” (Matthew 15:11, Mark 7:1-23).
Food enters the mouth but it “does not enter into the heart but into the stomach whence it proceeds into the latrine, thus cleansing all foods.” In this way, Jesus undermined the religious logic for food restrictions and any resultant limitations on table fellowship with another person who might be ritually unclean (Mark 7:19).
This saying of Jesus lies behind the statement of Paul in the fourteenth chapter of the Book of Romans: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is profane of itself.” The Apostle was dealing with disputes between Jewish and Gentile believers in the city of Rome. The issues included disputes over dietary practices and the observations of holy days (Romans 14:14).
Paul categorizes individuals with scruples about keeping specific days and avoiding certain foods as “weak in the faith,” though he argues for tolerance between the disputing groups. On the one hand, those without such scruples are free to esteem every day the same or eat whatever they wish. On the other hand, those who feel obligated by conscience to keep holy days or to avoid certain foods must continue to do so until they are convinced otherwise, for “whatever is not of faith is a sin.”
In the interim, each group must not only tolerate the other but also be sensitive to the other’s scruples (“Let not him that eats despise him that eats not and let not him that eats not judge him that eats”).
The call for tolerance does not water down Paul’s principles, for the kingdom of God “consists not of eating and drinking, but of righteousness and peace and joy in Holy Spirit” (Verse 17).
Food does not affect a person’s standing before God; food neither condemns nor commends one before Him. Believers are no worse or better off if they choose to eat or not to eat certain foods. Regarding right standing before God, such things are matters of indifference and, therefore, believers must not divide over them (1 Corinthians 8:7-8).
Paul does not require some to eat and others not to eat; he leaves the issue to individual conscience. If the Apostle continued to believe that one’s diet affected right standing before God, or that keeping kosher was mandatory, then he could not have made this argument in good conscience.
Similarly, in Colossians 2:16-17, Paul wrote, “let no one, therefore, be judging you in eating and in drinking, or in respect of feast or new moon or Sabbath, which are a shadow of the things to come, whereas the substance is of the Christ.” Paul continues:
(Colossians 2:20-23) – “If ye have died together with Christ from the first principles of the world, why, as though alive in the world, are ye submitting to decrees—Do not handle nor taste nor touch;—Which things are all for decay in the using up;—according to the commandments and teachings of men? The which things, indeed, though they have an appearance of wisdom in self-devised religious observance, and lowliness of mind, [and] ill-treatment of body, are in no honourable way unto a satisfying of the flesh.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The wording is not precisely parallel to that of Jesus, but the conceptual parallel with reference to food being subject to “decay” is clear enough (“food enters into the belly and goes out into the draught”).
The issue in Colossae may have been fasting rather than debates over “clean” and “unclean” meats. However, the principle holds true in either case: let no one judge you in matters of “food and drink.” Such things are only “shadows” of the substance now found in Jesus, precursors to the new covenant.
An inference from Paul’s argument is that the time of the shadows has reached its end; the full light of day has dawned in Christ. Decrees over matters of food and drink constitute the “rudimentary principles” of the old age that already is passing away. Food is subject to decay, a characteristic of life in this fallen age, not of the age to come.
None of this means that believers who observe dietary restrictions commit sin. Christians are not obligated to keep kosher according to the regulations of Leviticus but there is nothing inherently sinful if they choose to do so.
If food of any sort does not commend or condemn one before God, in the end, what one eats is irrelevant to one’s standing before Him; it is a matter of indifference except when eating (or not eating) violates one’s conscience or offends another believer, at least, unnecessarily.
The key theological point in the remarks of Paul is that the Levitical food regulations amounted to “shadows.” The true substance is now provided in Christ. One is free to eat or not to eat. However, considering Paul’s comments, a line is crossed when we begin to teach that conformity to dietary regulations is necessary to a proper Christian walk.
But since Jesus is the substance, why continue to cling to the “shadows” of the Old Covenant? Indeed, Jesus has “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).