Sunday, March 12, 2017

Acts 10 :9-23 “Vegetarians, Pork-eaters and the Gospel“

Last time[1]  when  considering  Acts  10,  we saw that this chapter represented a  turning point in Luke’s narrative of the story of the early church. The whole story is repeated  in Acts 11, because Peter will go back to Jerusalem  to give an explanation of what has happened. We see here that the gospel is going beyond the boundaries  of Jerusalem and Judea  (i.e. the territory  of Judaism),  and beyond  the boundaries  of Samaria (the territory  of  half cast Jews),  to the ends of the earth, to the territories  of the gentiles. 

At that time I alluded to one of the  key issues addressed here,  but  did not take time to explain the transition  from  the Old Testament  food laws (cf. Leviticus 11 ;  Deuteronomy 14)[2] to the New Testament abolishment of these laws.

The key character in our story is Peter, to whom Jesus had given the keys of the kingdom (Acts 16:19). Peter is indeed the first apostle   to the gentiles. We have already seen that he had opened the kingdom to Jews on the day of Pentecost, and then to the Samaritans, and now to the  gentiles.  The transition happens here in this chapter.  Peter, who is at this time in Joppa (10:6) receives a vision from the Lord, whilst praying at the 6th hour – 12 o’clock noon. In this vision he is called to eat all sorts of animals, which according to the law would have been forbidden. Hence his reply in  10:14 - “By no means  Lord… I have never eaten anything that is common  or unclean”. However, the LORD insists a second time, and note what He says to Peter,   “What God has made clean do not call common.“ [v.15]

So, at the first level of understanding, God is saying something to Peter about   changed rules of eating. He is saying 3 times [v.16]  i.e. insistently, “Peter,  don’t question me, eat!”    The question arises, is God going against His own Word in the OT?  Or is there something more that we need to understand?  In order to determine this, we first  need to look at some other passages in the Scriptures.

The clearest instruction on this matter comes from the mouth of our Lord Jesus in Mark 7:1- 23, where He is confronting the Pharisees on the subject of what is truly “unclean” and “clean”. The Pharisees were complaining that the disciples were eating with unwashed hands, another matter unthinkable for Jews – but clearly, this is not something that Jesus was too concerned about.  He is far more concerned  about  another matter. He shows them that the expression of  true faith is not primarily a matter of handwashing or not cooking a meal on the Sabbath,   or of  eating and drinking only specific  things. Jesus was more concerned about  the  matters  of the heart. By the heart the Bible means, the seat of our mind, will and emotions.  Then He makes this very important announcement in Mark  7:15,  “Nothing outside a man   can make him unclean  by going into him. Rather it is what comes out of a man, i.e. from the inside.  He explains in v.19 that this means. The heart, the inner disposition, the will  is  the source of that which makes  a person  unclean. Then to reinforce this again, Jesus says to His disciples, “Are you without understanding….so dull? Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him unclean? For it doesn’t go into His heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” 

Now notice what else  is said  in v.19. Jesus declared all foods clean! That means that you can eat pork, crayfish, crocodile steaks and even broccoli and Brussel sprouts with thanksgiving. That means that you can go into a foreign culture, and eat Mopani worms and other foods such as Peter had to do when he went to these gentiles, and eat that which was set before him, with thanksgiving, and without asking many questions!

Does that mean that Jesus has set aside the dietary laws of the OT? Yes it does! In fact there are many things that God sets aside under the new covenant because they are not essential to the gospel. The main thing that He sets aside under the new covenant (and this was prophesied in the OT) is the way in which God’s people were redeemed and cleansed from their guilty consciences. In the OT He accepted the sacrifices of bulls and sheep as sacrifices for sin offerings. In the NT that is not valid. Only by looking to Jesus, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world (John 1: 29) are we redeemed.
In the same way, He sets aside circumcision.  The symbol of belonging to the New Covenant   people is not circumcision, but baptism, by which Jesus means believers’ baptism i.e. the baptism of those that have themselves actively believed, and not infant baptism.
Furthermore, we do not observe Passover, nor any of the Jewish feasts, do we? What feasts then do we observe? Those that  have to do with the  person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ – the gospel of Christ. 
Here is a challenge : Is your Christmas , Easter , Ascension day , Pentecost  focus  gospel centred ? Otherwise you’re back to  the  way of the Pharisees  who  put more focus on outward displays than  the heart.

A word of clarification:  The emphasis of the O.T. is not, as some would believe, on outward ceremonies. The O.T. like the N.T.  primarily focuses on God-centered thinking and behaviour. The 10 commandments, the moral law of  God,   have  to do  with God-centered living.  However the sinfulness and deviousness of the human heart  turns everything into second hand religion, focussing on  religious observance rather than  on the heart of true  worship.     The default of the  sinful human heart is to divorce  worship from God , so that we worship created things rather than the Creator who is forever to be praised and blessed (Romans 1:25) .  The truth is that at the end of the law  is Jesus.
What does it mean   when Jesus  said, “I  have not come to abolish the law and the prophets … but to fulfil  them?”  Precisely this, that the law in itself was an incomplete (temporary)   revelation , until the Son of God appeared, making everything clear , including the matter  of eating and drinking.  The same principle  can be  determined from  1 Corinthians 8

The second level of understanding of this passage has to do with Peter’s mission to the gentiles.There is obviously a connection between the eating   of  ‘unclean food ‘ and  the  association between  Jews and ‘unclean gentiles‘. Remember, that Jews as a rule never ate with gentiles. Again, it must be stressed that this was not the OT teaching.  The OT affirms time and again that all nations were in God’s purpose. There was a place for non- Jews to be integrated into the faith of Israel, as proven by Jesus’ own genealogy (Rahab and Ruth –  the gentile  women of  Matt 1:5) . Rather, this had become an extra biblical habit among the Jews. It  had become  a form of apartheid or racism,… fallen- human-  being- thinking, if you like.  This  is a lesson  about racism. It's one thing to have nice little theories about the gospel and its relationship to Gentiles when you’re in Jerusalem. It is quite another thing to actually go to the house of a Gentile and eat his food. And that's what Peter is being asked to do, and that's why he's protesting so much.
The Gospel is for EVERYONE!  There is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free[3], because we are all one in Jesus Christ, and there is only one way of salvation: By grace alone,  through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone; and whoever that person is we're all one in Jesus Christ. That was a hard lesson for Peter  and many modern Christians. Peter, though he  had made some progress in  his thinking along the way as we have seen   was now instructed to break that habit by God’s command. And old habits die hard! Paul had to rebuke him later in Galatians  2:11ff, for going back on this command,  because he  acted  hypocritically.  

God, in Christ,  had demolished  the dividing wall of hostility between  Jew and Gentile.  Jesus has  declared racism over and done with. The gospel changes everything. You can read all about that in Ephesians  2:11-22. That too changed under  the New covenant. Under  the Old Covenant, Israel developed  as a separate nation, but under the New Covenant, which was  anticipated  by the  OT,  the church would be comprised  of every nation, tribe and tongue. Heaven will be the final reality, when all nations shall assemble before the throne to praise the Lord  ( Rev 7:9ff) . So then the  eating of “unclean food “ with “unclean people”  points us  to   new realities of the kingdom. That is precisely what Peter declares in  10:28 when he confessed  before Cornelius and the assembled  gentiles : “” You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God  has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. THIS IS THE DEEP  TRUTH BEHIND THIS PASSAGE !   

At face value  it may be about food, and  by their abstinence from certain food Israel distinguished themselves  from the other  nations, but the distinction really  led to so  much more – namely  racial pride and  segregation. The whole thing had to be undone!  The Jews, of whom Peter was one, had made several wrong conclusions about the food laws. One conclusion that they had drawn was that because they didn't eat pork, they were better than other people. We meet vegetarians like that, too. They believe that simply refraining from eating certain things made them superior.

In our day there is a renewed emphasis by number of people who have declared themselves to be vegetarians,  and who think that by doing so they hold the  moral high ground.  Some maintain that the eating of meat is ethically wrong, because cruelty is done to animals. There are some Christians who suggest that the symptoms of the fall is man's domination over creation rather than his empathy with it. They  would point out that prior to the fall, nothing is said about  eating meat, and that man was created to be  vegetarian.  Be that as it may. We now live in a fallen world  where anyone of us scarcely know  what it means to eat in a balanced way, and we all die  because of this. But the supreme theological fact is not  that death is caused by incorrect eating or drinking . The wages of sin is death!

Isn’t it amazing how  food has become  such a dividing  wall in society?  Halaal, kosher, vegetarian, Banting  and  thousands of other  diets. People  become great evangelists and crusaders  for  food and drink! The statistics however remain  brutal. One out of one dies, diet or no diet!  All these emphases in their own right  and without gospel focus  are ultimately misplaced , for they do not focus on the gospel  which  truly gives life.  
So, we should have no arguments with people who are vegetarians, if that's the choice that they make. But the imposition of that on the conscience of others, we do have problems with, because it imposes something on the conscience of Jesus. Jesus ate the Passover lamb, and one of the last things recorded of Jesus is that He ate fish with the disciples on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, in His resurrection body!

The biggest point concerning  food  and  related  matters is this, and Paul  said it clearly : “The kingdom of God is not  matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness  and peace and joy  in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14:17). We should be passionate about that. Those are gospel matters, and the development of these in our lives are more important than food or drink.  Amen !

[1] 12th  February 2017 : Acts 10 :  “The  Gospel To the Ends of the Earth “
[2] Context : Moses giving instruction to the people of God on the plains of Moab, just before they cross over the River Jordan and into the promised land. It  had little to do with hygiene. It had  to do with separating Israel from the Canaanites. It was separating Israel from the surrounding nations.

[3] Gal  3:28

1 comment:

tkahimise said...

I really enjoy reading your blogs...please them coming!