"If you’re a Christian, and believe the bible then why do you not keep the food laws?”
If you’ve been a follower of Jesus for any length of time, you’ve likely heard this objection before. I’ve personally heard it in a few different situations. From people who parrot things that they’ve heard or seen from others in order to dismiss the witness of God’s Word, to others who are genuinely confused and want to understand the truth.
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully
(1 Timothy 1:8)
As followers of Christ, we are no longer under the requirements of the Old Testament law (Galatians 3:13), but have been set free to pursue righteousness by the redeeming blood of Christ. Some have thought this to mean that we are better to simply not read the Old Testament as we are no longer under its requirements (“New Testament Only”). To go this way means to neglect a great piece of the testimony of God’s character, works, and promises regarding the person and work of Christ and the fact that all scripture is breathed out by God and is therefore useful (2 Timothy 3:16).
Far from throwing out the Old Testament from our bibles, it is important that we earnestly search them in order that we might gain deeper insights into the mystery of the Gospel revealed in Christ (e.g., the Bereans who received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Acts 17:11). The Old Testament forms the foundation of God’s work which the Gospel is built upon (Ephesians 2:20).
But how do we use the law lawfully?
What a strange question, but one worthy of consideration. We seem to make the basic assumption that those who know the law employ it in a lawful way. In our context, the one who enforces the law also knows the penalties and the means of carrying out those penalties, should the law be broken. But we also are becoming more and more aware of those who abuse the law in order to serve means other than what the law has been designed for (i.e., using the law unlawfully).
When this comes to the 613 laws of the Old Testament, how do we, as followers of Christ, hold to the goodness of the testimony of God’s word while at the same time not placing ourselves under the yoke of the law? How do we keep the law lawfully acknowledging the completed work of Christ? How do we uphold the Old Testament teaching on sexual immorality, while not at the same time putting ourselves under obedience to the food laws?
Christ himself teaches us how to navigate this tension.
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.”
In this context, Jesus has been approached by some religious leaders who ask why his disciples do not wash their hands before they eat according to the tradition of the elders (so, not dealing with the Old Testament law at this point). In the characteristic bluntness that Jesus often employs in the presence of devout Jewish men who ought to know better he points out their hypocrisy in neglecting God’s command in order to uphold the commandments of men (tradition). After his scathing rebuke of the religious elites, he points the people to the spiritual reality of defilement that comes from within rather than the physical defilement that comes from without.
The disciples, in their characteristic non-understanding of what Jesus was saying, having not been illuminated by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, need to be brought up to speed with what Jesus is teaching and we receive further benefit from their asking:
And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
In the sequence of Jesus’ teaching, he transitions from an issue of tradition (eating with unwashed hands) to a matter of law (Mosaic food laws; Leviticus 11) and in so doing delineates for his disciples and for us what the determining factor is between which laws we are to observe by empowerment of the Holy Spirit in the completed work of Christ, and which laws have been nailed to the cross.
The short answer is, does what is commanded in the Old Testament affect what springs from inside the heart, or is the command a matter of what is outside the heart?
There have been many theories as to why the food laws (and other laws like it, not mixing materials to make a garment, or planting two kinds of seed in a field, Leviticus 19:19) exist. They will look at dietary reasons why certain animals shouldn’t have been eaten, but many of these reasons fall short of reality (I can, and do, eat pig quite often with little repercussion). The overall purpose of these kinds of laws is as an object lesson for the nation, a continual reminder throughout the generations of God’s work in redeeming the people of Israel. This is confirmed by how God concludes his instructions in the food laws:
For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.”
The command is rooted not in a care for dietary purity for the sake of health (not that that isn’t important in its own right), but is firmly rooted in the salvation which God won for his people from slavery in the land of Egypt. In case you’re still unsure, consider also this firm foundation of salvation that caps off God’s commands in other places (Ex. 20:2; 29:46; Lev. 19:36-37; 22:31-33; 23:43; 25:37-38; Num. 15:41; Deut. 5:6; 15:15; 16:3; 20:1; 24:22; Ps. 81:10).
These laws exist to keep the people of Israel fixed upon their Savior, but their shortcoming is that they do nothing to address the spirit of the law within the person; which is to say, they are powerless to affect lasting change the heart of those who obey. Christ on the other hand, points his disciples to the very near realities of the New Covenant in his blood.
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Jesus says in Mark seven that it is what comes out of a person that defiles them. This means that the very heart of the person is what needs transformation, and this is exactly what God promised he would do:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Why do we not keep the food laws? Why do we mix fibres in the clothing we wear? Why may we plant a field with two kinds of seed? Because the great salvation of Old Testament that these outward laws represent has been surpassed by the greater salvation of Jesus Christ. Why do we keep the laws regarding holiness, sexual immorality, adultery, idol worship, theft and covetousness? Because we are actually able to do so by the inward power of the Holy Spirit with a heart that has been changed by the New Covenant in Christs blood!
The law has been nailed to the cross of Christ; He has come to fulfill the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17). We are no longer under the curse of the law, but at the same time acknowledge that the law is good (1 Timothy 1:8) and that all scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). So, if you’re reading your Old Testament and you come across a command and wonder if you are to be obedient to it, ask the question, “Is this an issue that comes from the heart? Or, is it an outward expression of a salvation that is good, but has ultimately been surpassed by the salvation that has been accomplished in Christ?” If it is an issue that comes from the heart, then we ask the Father in the name of His Son to change our hearts by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.