The Words of the Talmidim
Acts 10 relates a vision that is given to Peter:
But he [Peter] became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he *saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, "Get up, Peter, kill and eat!" But Peter said, "By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean." Again a voice came to him a second time, "What G-d has cleansed, no longer consider unholy." This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky. Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon's house, appeared at the gate; and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was staying there. (Acts 10:10-18)
First, we should note that if Peter, who was constantly with the Master, had ever heard Yeshua change the food laws (as some claim regarding Mark 7) then he would have had no qualms about eating something unclean. Why was Peter so troubled by being offered something unclean now? It is because Peter, like Yeshua's opponents, never understood His statement to mean that "all foods were declared clean".
Second, we should note that Peter was given a vision. There is no place in Scripture where the imagery of a vision is ever taken literally. Visions are always symbolic of something else. So what do the elements of this vision symbolize? How should we understand it? Even Peter, to whom the vision was given, was perplexed as to the meaning (verse 17) so it is not as clear cut as some might think.
Surely no Scripture is a matter of our own interpretation (2 Peter 1:20) but Scripture interprets itself. So where else in Scripture do we find this kind of phrasing? There are only two places outside of Acts 10 where all three groups (birds, beasts, and creeping things) are mentioned: Hosea 2 and Ezekiel 38.
In that day I will also make a covenant for them With the beasts of the field, The birds of the sky And the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword and war from the land, And will make them lie down in safety. (Hosea 2:18)
And the fish of the sea, the birds of the heavens, the beasts of the field, all the creeping things that creep on the earth, and all the men who are on the face of the earth will shake at My presence; the mountains also will be thrown down, the steep pathways will collapse, and every wall will fall to the ground. (Ezekiel 38:20)
The context of this passage in Hosea is that G-d will have a renewed relationship with Israel and will make a covenant for them with these critters. The critters here, however, are not literal animals but are symbolic of the nations of the world. Daniel 4:12, 21 provides an example of this type of imagery.
Using this Scriptural foundation, Peter's vision can correctly be understood to mean that Peter should not call the nations unclean. Indeed, this is the understanding that G-d gives him later in the same chapter:
And he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet G-d has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. (Acts 10:28)
Just to avoid any confusion regarding this vision, G-d makes the meaning of it clear: G-d is showing Peter that he should call no man unholy or unclean.
Some who might interpret this passage in Acts 10 to mean that G-d has revoked the food laws He previously established would have to deal with the claim inherent to that position that, somehow, it is now OK to eat people.
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. 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. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of G-d is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to G-d and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Do not tear down the work of G-d for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. (Romans 14:14-20)
The Greek word translated as "unclean" in this passage is the word κοινός (koinos- Strong's #2839) which does not mean "unclean", it means "common".
Consider these passages:
- Acts 2:44- the believers had all things in common [shared]
- Acts 4:32- the believers' possessions were common [shared] property
- Titus 1:4- Titus is Paul's "true child in a common [shared] faith"
- Jude 1:3- Jude writes about their common [shared] salvation.
"Common" in this sense can also mean unholy. Holy means "set apart for G-d and His purposes". If something is common, then it is "without special designation"1 and is not holy. There is nothing evil about something that is unholy. For example, we all have forks and spoons in our kitchens that are intended for common use. That does not make them evil.
The Greek word translated as "unclean" in the Levitical food laws is not koinos, it is ακάθαρτος (akathartos- Strong's #169, i.e. "impure, foul"). The Septuagint provides us with this word as it is used in Leviticus 11 for "unclean". It is the same word used in the apostolic writings for "unclean" (e.g. Matthew 10:1, Mark 1:23, Luke 4:36, Acts 10:28, Revelation 16:13).
A more accurate and consistent translation of this passage would be this:
I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing by itself is common; except to the one deeming anything to be common, it is common. But if your brother is grieved because of your food, you no longer walk according to love. Do not by your food destroy that one for whom Christ died. Then do not let your good be spoken evil of. For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For the one serving Christ in these things is pleasing to God, and approved by men. So then let us pursue the things of peace, and the things for building up one another. Do not by your food undo the work of God. Truly, all [people] are clean, but the man who eats with offense is evil. (Romans 14:14-20)
We should also consider the context of the passage and its author, Paul. In Acts 23:6 (well after his Damascus road encounter with Messiah) Paul declares that he is a Pharisee (present tense not past tense). Either Paul was lying or was, indeed, still a Pharisee. To a Pharisee, pork chops and "tenderloin of cat" are just not on the menu.
At issue here was the concern in Paul's day about meat sacrificed to idols (as is apparent from Acts 15 and other examples). In Romans 14:1 Paul notes the issue is "passing judgment on his opinions". Some were of the opinion that meat sacrificed to idols was unclean while others (including Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:4-11) see meat sacrificed to idols as a non-issue... except that it should not become a stumbling block for those weak in the faith.
Ideas regarding what kinds of animals were suitable for food were not matters of opinion but were clearly defined commands of G-d. James 1:17 tells us that G-d never changes...there isn't even a variation or shifting shadow in Him. Since that is true, we know that G-d would not change His mind that these animals are unfit as food for His people. Whether or not a piece of beef was "common" or "holy" was a matter of opinion and in these matters. we were not to "undo the work of G-d" with those opinions.
Paul is definitely not speaking of the food laws in this passage
Galatians 2:11-14 gives us insight into an issue with which Paul confronts Peter: the problem of hypocrisy. This directly relates back to Peter's vision in Acts 10 (see above) and Peter's unwillingness to call all men "clean". Nothing in the passage indicates this problem had anything to do with what was on the menu.
Colossians 2:20-23 records an issue relating to certain Gnostic teachings Paul was correcting for the believers in Colosse.
The Gnostics of Paul's era taught that the things of the physical world were evil and the things of the spiritual world were good. The ascetic lifestyle that they embraced indicated their belief that any kind of pleasurable experience (tasty food, comfortable clothing, a soft bed, marital relations) were to be avoided. This asceticism is what Paul is addressing hence his reference to "do not handle, do not taste, do not touch". All the classical commentaries on this passage consistently take the view that the issue was Gnosticism. The issue was not the food laws given by G-d.
1 Timothy 4:4-5
Some may point to 1 Timothy 4:4-5 as evidence that Paul has told Timothy to disregard the food laws. A quick examination of the context dispels such a notion. The context reveals yet another matter of asceticism being addressed by Paul:
But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which G-d has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by G-d is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of G-d and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5)
The context of this passage is centered on apostates to the faith who are following deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons. To call G-d's Word regarding food laws "doctrines of demons" borders on blasphemous if not just simply uninformed in this matter.
These men Paul opposes are both forbidding marriage and advocating abstention from certain foods. The scope of this passage is clearly not Jews who see the commandment to be fruitful and multiply as a major one that is strongly promoted. Paul is again speaking about the Gnostics who oppose anything enjoyable or pleasurable to the flesh in order to strengthen the spirit.
Just as sandal leather, plastic wrap, and cockroaches are not "food" in the eyes of Americans today, "food" to Paul (who is a Pharisaic Jew as per Acts 23:6) does not include pork, shellfish, or other things G-d has said are not suitable for food. Paul's point is that these men are forbidding people to eat the beef, chicken, fish, and other foods that G-d has said are permitted (as the Gnostics were doing).
Verse 5 is exceptionally interesting when we consider the "foods which G-d has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe". Of which foods has G-d spoken of in His Word? What food has G-d's Word sanctified? As the Word made flesh, what food did Yeshua sanctify? That food which is defined in Leviticus 11! For Messiah to have done otherwise would have been sin which would have invalidated his Messiahship.
Revelation 18:2 provides an additional thought regarding the relevance of animals being clean or unclean. If the concept of "unclean birds/animals" was done away with by the teachings of Yeshua (some 30+ years before the writing of Revelation) then Yochanan's reference to "unclean birds" (in any context...food or otherwise) would have been meaningless to his readers.
The book of Isaiah also supports the idea that the laws forbidding certain animals as food are still relevant in the end times:
For behold, the LORD will come in fire And His chariots like the whirlwind, To render His anger with fury, And His rebuke with flames of fire. For the LORD will execute judgment by fire And by His sword on all flesh, And those slain by the LORD will be many. "Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go to the gardens, Following one in the center, Who eat swine's flesh, detestable things and mice, Will come to an end altogether," declares the LORD. (Isaiah 66:15-17)
The whole of Scripture is entirely consistent: forbidden animals (especially pork!) are definitely not on G-d's menu for humanity.