Paul argued for tolerance within the church on food regulations and observing holy days because the “shadows” have found their fulfillment in Jesus – Romans 14:1-12.
The law of Moses specified what kinds of food the people of God could eat by distinguishing between that which was ritually “clean” and “unclean,” and the consumption of the latter was forbidden. A comprehensive description of the dietary regulations given to Israel is found in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Leviticus.
Israel was called to be “holy” since Yahweh was holy, therefore, it was inappropriate for members of the covenant people to eat anything that was 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 an “abomination” before the Lord.
At issue was not personal hygiene or healthy dietary practices, but ritual purity. An impure state would prevent a person from full participation in the worship of Yahweh, the religious, and even the social life of the nation.
On one occasion, Jesus was challenged by certain Jews when his disciples ate food with “unwashed hands.” The Pharisees believed that doing so rendered a person “unclean.” He responded to the immediate issue, but also went further by declaring:
- “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 stating this, Jesus undermined the religious logic behind food restrictions and any resultant limitations on table fellowship with anyone who might be ritually unclean – (Mark 7:19).
The same saying is behind Paul’s statement in the fourteenth chapter of Romans – “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is profane of itself.” He was dealing with disagreements between Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome that included disputes over dietary practices and the observations of holy days – (Romans 14:14).
Paul categorized individuals with scruples about keeping specific days or avoiding certain foods as “weak in the faith,” though he argued for tolerance between the disputing parties. On the one hand, those without such scruples are free to esteem every day the same or to eat whatever they wish. On the other hand, those who feel obligated by their conscience to keep holy days or 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 remain 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.”
His call for tolerance did 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.” Food does not affect a person’s standing before God; food neither condemns nor commends one before Him. Believers are no worse or better if they choose to eat or not 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 did not require some Christians to eat and others not to eat. He left the matter to the individual’s conscience. If he had continued to believe that one’s diet or calendrical observations affected one’s standing before God, then he could not have made this argument in good conscience. Similarly, to the Colossians he wrote:
- (Colossians 2:16-23) – “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… If you have died together with Christ from the first principles of the world, why as though alive in the world, are you 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 rituals and lowliness of mind, and ill-treatment of body, are in no honorable way for a satisfying of the flesh.”
Paul’s wording is not precisely parallel to that of Jesus, but the conceptual link with food being subject to “decay” is clear enough – (“food enters into the belly and goes out into the draught”).
In Colossae, the issue may have been fasting rather than debates over “clean” and “unclean” meats. However, the principle holds true – 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 inaugurated by him.
Paul’s logic indicates that the time of the shadows had reached its end. The full light of day had 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, but not of life in the age to come.
None of this means that believers who observe dietary restrictions commit sin. Christians are not obligated to conform to the dietary regulations of Leviticus, but neither is there anything inherently sinful in doing so.
If food does not commend or condemn us before God, what one eats is irrelevant to one’s standing before Him, it is a matter of indifference except when eating (or not eating) violates his or her conscience, or the act offends another believer unnecessarily.
The Levitical food regulations amounted to “shadows,” and the true substance is now available in Jesus. One is free to eat or not, to keep a holy day or not. However, a red line is crossed whenever we teach that conformity to dietary regulations is necessary for proper Christian conduct.
However, 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).