Through the New Testament in a Year

Alternative Reading   -      Old Testament Readings

Acts 10:1-23 – Bacon sandwich anyone?

What was the rationale behind the complex food laws of the Old Testament and how were they related to Christian mission?

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I was recently in conversation with someone who told me that they really do not understand the food laws of the Old Testament. They just seem rather odd.

Some have suggested that the food laws were all to do with health and hygiene; it’s best to avoid eating pigs as their meat can easily give rise to food poisoning if not properly cooked. But if it’s all about health, why were the food laws swept away by Jesus (Mark 7:19) rather than with the invention of the refrigerator? This is a classic example of trying to second-guess the reason behind Old Testament Law rather than reading it carefully in context.

The food laws form part of the holiness code of Leviticus. Holiness is all about separation; avoiding mixing things up that don’t belong together: don’t sow a field with two types of crop; don’t wear clothes made of two types of thread. Similarly, animals that seem to be a mixture of two sorts are viewed as unclean. Animals that chew the cud and have a cloven hoof are clean, but if they do one and not the other they are unclean – they are mixed up animals. Animals/fish that swim in the water and have fins and scales are clean but those without fins or scales are unclean – they are hybrids. By these laws, which seem so strange to us, God was teaching his people to be separate. The food laws kept them distinct from the nations around them, and that was important to preserving the revelation God had given them.

But with Jesus, everything changed. God’s people are no longer ethnically and culturally separate. Jesus and Jesus alone is to be our distinctiveness; holiness flows from a heart captivated by him and transformed by his Spirit. God’s purpose is to redeem for himself a people from every nation and culture, and to do so not by removing their distinctiveness but by valuing it and sanctifying it.

This may seem obvious to us, but it was a hard lesson for Peter to learn. He had never eaten anything unclean and he was not in the habit of associating with Gentiles. It required a personal lesson from God himself, complete with visual aids let down from heaven – three times – for Peter to begin to understand the radical nature of the good news about Jesus Christ. But he was beginning to learn. When Gentile visitors came knocking at the door he invited them in and they stayed the night with him – in all probability he shared food with them. A couple of days later, Peter would be entertained in the home of a Roman centurion.

How well do we learn this lesson? We can find it all too easy to live in our own closed sub-culture, the gated estate of our own Christian ghetto. We think to preserve our distinctiveness by physical separation from those who are ‘not like us’. Others may be allowed in to join us only if they give up their own culture and join us in our ghetto; they must become like us. But Jesus came to break down the barriers of mistrust that divide people. Let’s join him in breaking them down rather than rebuilding them. Let’s also celebrate the diversity of human cultures in which Christian discipleship is finding expression.

Lord Jesus, break down the barriers in my mind and understanding through a fresh vision from heaven so that I may be your agent in making you known to people of every background, race and class. Enable our churches to be places where divisions are broken down rather than reinforced. May they reflect the variegated character of your kingdom and celebrate the breadth of your saving purposes.


Peter Misselbrook