Romans 14, Part 4
Jan 11, 2011
Romans 14:14-17 says,
(14) I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. (15) For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. (16) Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken as evil; (17) for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
There are two views about this passage. The first view is that quite literally "nothing is unclean in itself." In other words, this is said to be a general principle without limitations. The second view is that the context ought to limit this to a discussion about eating meat in general, as opposed to being vegetarian (vs. 2).
We must recognize, of course, that Paul was not speaking from a scientific perspective, but was commenting on the laws that made certain things "clean or unclean." If we interpret these statements in regard to health concerns, we are talking science, not theology. And while science is something that God created, it should not be confused with theology.
When Paul says "nothing is unclean of itself," he was stating a universal principle. What you eat will not defile your relationship with God--unless your conscience is violated. What you eat is not a moral issue, "for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking" (vs. 17).
Some say that the law of clean and unclean animals was put away or changed. I do not think that is a right approach to the Law of God. In my view, it is our understanding of the Law that must change to conform to the original intent of the Lawgiver, Jesus Christ. Leviticus 11 gives us the laws regarding clean and unclean animals; but were these moral laws or health laws? I believe from a scientific perspective, they were health laws affecting our physical health only. But the theological perspective is different.
"The law is spiritual," Paul says in Rom. 7:14. The food laws are therefore spiritual and not to be thought of as carnal or evil. From a spiritual and moral perspective, the food laws were designed to teach us how to eat clean spiritual food. If we fail to understand this spiritual aspect of the Law, then we are in danger of becoming defiled morally and our relationship with God can be corrupted.
What is it we are to understand? First, that when we receive a word that is supposed to be from God (whether directly from God or indirectly through a man), there are certain rules and guidelines (laws) that God has established to keep us from becoming defiled.
If we go to a church to hear the word of God, the spiritual "food" that the preacher dispenses is "clean" if it has a "cloven hoof" (Lev. 11:3)--that is, if it stands upon a double witness. All truth is established by two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15). The people must also "chew the cud," because those who hear the word must be given the opportunity (and the right) to reflect upon it, to meditate, and to pray over it and assimilate it properly.
Any preacher who insists that the people take his word for it without question and without the right to ask God for a double witness to confirm that word is dispensing unclean food. Sometimes a preacher gives people the right to "chew the cud," but the people do not actually do so. Such people are ready to hear the man--perhaps because he enjoys a good reputation or a sparkling personality--but they are unwilling or unable to hear God's voice through the man.
This is what happened when the Israelites refused to hear God directly and wanted Moses to go up the mount and then tell them what God said (Ex. 20:18-21). Though Moses' words were truly from God, the people were unable to "chew the cud." Hence, even the divine revelation through Moses was unclean to them and defiled them.
Clean fish are those with fins and scales (Lev. 11:10). The fins signify divine guidance, while the scales signify divine protection by putting on the full armor of God. Apart from such guidance and protection, any spiritual food we eat may render us unclean.
Among fowls of the air, those birds which eat dead carcasses are unclean. Lev. 11:13-19 gives no particular reason, but it is plain that the unclean birds are the scavengers which were created to keep the earth clean of dead and rotting flesh. These are birds that eat dead flesh that has not been drained of blood. Blood was forbidden as food (Lev. 17:12), because its purpose was to make atonement for our souls (Lev. 17:11).
The spiritual law says that we are not to be bloodthirsty, but to live at peace with our neighbors, as Paul says in Rom. 12:18. We are not to follow the example of Esau (Edom), who was unclean by reason of his violent nature (Ezekiel 35:6). Thus, if we use truth to destroy others, the "food" is unclean. And, of course, if we destroy our fellow believers with our "truth" about food (Rom. 14:15), we are rendered unclean.
Of the creeping things, the unclean insects are those that crawl on the ground like babies, never trying to leap upward into new truth (Lev. 11:21). When churches are designed to keep people spiritually immature, continually feeding them the "milk" of the word and never moving on into the strong meat (Heb. 5:11 to 6:3), then even the "milk" is defiling to them.
In all of these things, it is not so much the "meat" of the word itself that defiles men, but their relation to it. How it is dispensed and how it is received are the issues. Hence, in understanding the spiritual law, we can see that from a moral perspective, the physical food is not the issue. The physical nature of the food is a health issue. We can apply the terms "clean and unclean" either way, of course, but Paul was writing from the moral and legal perspective. He was not writing a book on health.
Lev. 11:44 gives us the purpose of the food laws, saying,
(44) . . . Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth.
The common understanding of this in the first century was that men must abstain from eating unclean meat because eating it would make them unclean in the sight of God. Paul reinterprets this according to his understanding that "the law is spiritual." Nothing was unclean in itself (physically), he says. What defiles us is not the meat itself, but our inability to eat spiritual food at the local synagogue (or church) in such a way that the food would be clean.
Lev. 11:47 gives us the final reason for these food laws:
(47) To make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the edible creature and the creature which is not to be eaten.
The whole idea is to learn how to discern the voice of God and to eat the meat of the Word in a lawful manner. When we can discern the heart of God in giving the food laws (over and beyond the health concerns), we are then able to make this distinction and rightly divide the word of truth. It is of vital importance that preachers and teachers allow the people to chew the cud and ask for a double witness. It is equally important that the people receive the word in a lawful manner, both chewing the cud and waiting upon God for a double witness either from within or through an outside source.
If we practice these principles laid down in Leviticus 11, the spiritual food that we ingest will not defile us but will edify us and build the Kingdom.
This is the fourth part of a series titled "Romans 14." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones