Food and Holy Days

The Law of Moses specified what foods the people of Israel could eat by distinguishing between the “clean” and the “unclean.” The consumption of the latter was strictly forbidden. Israel was summoned to be “holy” since Yahweh was holy. It was inappropriate, therefore, 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. The description of the dietary regulations of Leviticus is found in its eleventh chapter.

Calendar scribbles - Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash
[Photo by Estée Janssens on Unsplash]

Of concern was not personal hygiene or healthy dietary practices, but 
ritual purity. Under the Mosaic system, an impure state prevented a person from fully participating in the worship of Yahweh, and in the religious and social life of the nation.

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 that “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, he undermined the religious logic behind food restrictions and any resultant restrictions on table fellowship - (Mark 7:19).

His saying is behind Paul’s statement in 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 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 demanded tolerance between the disputing parties.


On the one hand, believers without such scruples were free to treat every day the same or to eat whatever they preferred. On the other hand, those who felt obligated by their conscience to keep holy days or to avoid certain foods must continue to do so until they are convinced otherwise, for “whatever is not of faith is a sin.”

Not only must each group 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.” Paul’s call for tolerance did not water down his principles. The Kingdom of God “consisted NOT of eating and drinking, but of righteousness and peace and joy in Holy Spirit.”

Food did not affect a man’s standing before God. It neither condemned nor commended him. Believers were no worse or better off if they chose to eat or not to eat certain foods. Regarding right standing before God, such things were matters of indifference, and disciples of Jesus must not divide over them - (1 Corinthians 8:7-8).

Paul did not require some believers to eat and others not to eat. He left the matter to each man’s conscience. If he still believed that diet or calendrical observations affected one’s standing before God, he could not have made this argument in good conscience. As he wrote to the Colossians:

  • (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 was 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”).

The issue in Colossae may have been fasting rather than debates over “clean” and “unclean” meats. However, the principle held - Let no one judge another over “food and drink.” Such things were only “shadows” of the substance found in Jesus, precursors to the New Covenant.

Paul’s logic demonstrated that the time of shadows had reached its end. Decrees over matters of food and drink constituted the “rudimentary principles” of the Old Era that began to “pass away” following the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. Food was subject to decay, a characteristic of life in this fallen age, but not of life in the age to come.

Shadows 2 - Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash
[Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash]

If food does not commend or condemn us before God, then what one eats is irrelevant to his standing before Him. It is a matter of indifference except when eating (or not eating) violates one’s conscience or the act offends another believer unnecessarily.

The Levitical food regulations amount to “shadows.” One is free to eat or not to eat or to keep the Sabbath or not according to his or her conscience. But a red line is crossed whenever we teach that conformity to dietary or calendrical regulations is required. This is especially so if the exercise of our liberty causes a “weaker” brother or sister to stumble.

However, since Jesus is the substance, why continue clinging 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.”

  • Ekklesia - The Assembly - (The Christian use of the term church or ekklésia is derived from the assembly of Yahweh gathered for worship in the Hebrew Bible)
  • One Spirit, One People - (By his death and resurrection, Jesus formed one covenant community - One New Man - based on faith in him, not ethnicity or nationality – Ephesians 2:11-22)
  • True Spirituality - (The spiritually-minded man understands that the Gospel of Christ Crucified is God’s true power and wisdom - 1 Corinthians 2:14)

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