Monday, 12 December 2016

Wired to Worship: Origins of Christmas

Here we are, at the close of another year. School has finished. Some will be beginning to take holidays. And of course, Christmas with its symbology, liturgy, and doxology are all around us. Santa is available for photos in the shops, carols are on the radio, and trees and lights fill the city. And it fascinates me the amount of energy and money are invested into what is considered traditionally to be a religious holiday, even by secular society. Currently I am reading Mark Sayers’ book, ‘The Road Trip that Changed the World’, and in it he discusses how the emergence of a secular society has marginalised the transcendent, choosing to focus more on the immanent. Choosing to find ultimate meaning and purpose in the here and now in things like work, science, and pleasure. Yet, within all of us is a yearning for the transcendent. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” And perhaps this is the reason why the atheist enjoys Christmas. Maybe, as much as they may reject Christianity, the themes of hope, love, giving, and togetherness which are found in the story of the birth of Jesus, even if in their mind is based on a fairy-tale, is touching a deep longing within them. And this yearning after transcendent is rooted in the desire to worship God, an ‘impulse’ wired into our DNA by our creator, albeit twisted by sin. And this desire truly comes alive and is straightened when one comes to faith in Christ. And this, it seems, is the fuel for the origins of Christmas.

Last year, (exactly a year by coincidence) I wrote about the history of Christmas (here), to discover its origins and ask, is it a pagan holiday and should Christians celebrate it? And what I found was that, although there are some parallels between the Roman Saturnalia and the Scandinavian Yule, the relationship in iconography is quite weak and most likely coincidental/accidental, and any claim that Christmas is a contextualised pagan holiday is speculation. This year, I want to consider why the Church established Christmas from another perspective.

As part of my post on Christmas last year, I looked at the development of dates and how there appears to be no calculations for dating the birth of Jesus until the late second century, and December 25th does not appear until the fourth century. However, since then I have found evidence that suggests a December date was proposed by Hippolytus around the early third century (the originality of this is debated). Nonetheless, the truth is the early church did not know and relied on philosophical reasoning to calculate the birth of Christ. Within these Christians was a desire to honour Jesus by celebrating his birth. And this was quite unique as Jews, the early church's predecessor generally “did not celebrate their birthdays. Indeed, while the dates of passing (yahrtzeit) of the great figures of Jewish history are recorded and commemorated, their dates of birth are mostly unknown.” (Tauber)
It is possible, as Tyler Rosenquist suggests, that they were looking for an alternative to the Caesar’s Birthday, a holy day where no work was to be done and public prayers were made to Vesta and sacrifices made to the Emperor. An inscription from Halicarnassus from the time of Caesar Augustus is quite telling:
Providence has sent Augustus as a saviour for us… to make war to cease, and to create order everywhere… when he was made manifest, [Caesar] has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times… and the birthday of the god [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the good news (euaggelion [Gospel]) that has come to men through him” (in Thompson, p 62n24).
The authors of the New Testament indeed took back this language to describe Jesus, the one who alone rightly deserves these descriptions. But why wait until the late second century to take on the birthday celebration? Quite possibly, because the number of Roman followers was growing, they were looking for a way to honour the true and living saviour of the world, the true manifestation of the true God, in a culturally meaningful way. This could have been subversive as an outright rejection and rebellion against the Imperial cult, or as a way to appear acceptable during a time of growing persecution, or as a way of contextualising mission. And all three could have been going on. History is quite complicated and things typically have multiple causes, so this is perhaps only one part of many to the story.

By the late second century, in the fallout of the Bar Kochba revolt, the ‘Gentiles’ had significantly distanced themselves from ‘the Jews’, disdaining anything that looks Jewish because of an anger towards them rooted in a blame for increased persecution. Thus, we find Early Church Fathers in this period writing things like:
Now, then, incline thine ear to me, and hear my words, and give heed, thou Jew. Many a time dost thou boast thyself, in that thou didst condemn Jesus of Nazareth to death, and didst give Him vinegar and gall to drink; and thou dost vaunt thyself because of this. (Hippolytus. Against Jews. 1).
There was also a wanting to distinguish themselves from the Jews in they eyes of the Romans. Therefore, observing things like food laws and feast days were condemned. Consequently, we find Justin Martyr writing things like:
For we too would observe the fleshly circumcision, and the Sabbaths, and in short all the feasts, if we did not know for what reason they were enjoined you,--namely, on account of your transgressions and the hardness of your hearts. (Trypho. 18)
And so, with a desire to celebrate the works of God but no precedent on how to do so because they had cut themselves off from their Hebraic heritage, the early Church invented Christmas. And eventually by the end of the fourth century, Rome would outlaw what they defined as ‘Judaizing’ with threat of excommunication, declaring Easter and Christmas as the only legitimate Festivals. Perhaps this, more than supposed link to paganism should be the cause of questioning Christmas. As Tyler Rosenquist reflects:
To me, knowing the history of the fourth century CE – that Rome forcibly legislated the removal of Christians out of the synagogues and Torah keepers out of the assemblies of Messiah – Christians celebrating Christmas and Easter seem very much like children celebrating the consequences of having a broken home. Without the Christians, the Jews lost their Messiah and without the Jews, the Christians lost their inheritance. It’s like a child celebrating the absence of a parent who wasn’t even a bad parent. Christmas and Easter happened because of a broken home, and that grieves me – it doesn’t make me want to celebrate. At one point all believers in Yeshua were called Nazarene Jews, for hundreds of years – Rome robbed us of a stable home life. 

Not only does secular society investing so much into Christmas baffle me, but seeing how much energy Christians put into a man-made tradition does too. Although certain methods of celebrating Christmas could arguably be unbiblical, the concept of Christmas is merely extra-biblical. And celebrating the birth of Christ is good and worthy point of thanksgiving, but this is where the inconsistency comes in. Some would argue, ‘I don’t need a Sabbath, I can Sabbath any day.’ Yet, you won’t find them saying ‘I don’t need Christmas, I can celebrate the birth of Jesus any day.’ The one, commanded in scripture is minimised, while the man-made tradition is elevated. Does this sound familiar? Is this not what Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for in Mark 7? “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” (Mark 7:9).
Is there anything wrong with traditions? No. Note that in Mark 7 Jesus had washed his hands prior to eating. It’s when traditions supersede Scripture that they become a problem, and it for this that Jesus often rebuked them.
The early church did not need to invent new holidays, God in His word had already provided His people with 7 feast days to celebrate, all reflecting the person and work of Christ, thus making them worthy of Christian observance and celebration. But because of their anti-semitism, the ‘Gentile church’ turned their back on ‘Jewish’ things, thus abolishing the instructions of God.

Now you may be thinking: 
“Didn’t Paul say the feast days were done away with? In Colossians 2:16-17 he wrote: Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
Yes, Paul wrote that, but he didn’t mean that. There are two things about this passage that will help us understand what Paul is saying. First, is that this passage says that it is wrong to judge, think less of, condemn (kreno, Jn 3:17-18), and disqualify Christians from the faith with the feast days as a measure. So this should give us perspective on how Paul is defining the importance of the feast days, i.e. they aren’t salvation critical. The second thing, however, reveals that Paul was not talking to those who reject the feast days. Looking at the broader context, note that Paul is warning his readers not to allow someone to take them “captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ… These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion…” (Col 2:8, 23). Now the feast days are not ‘Jewish’, they are God’s feast days: “These are the appointed feasts of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts (Lev 23:2). They are among His commandments and statutes. If Paul is rebuking people for insisting on observing the Lord’s feast days, then he is describing the commandments of God: empty, human tradition, having the appearance of wisdom, and self-made religion. Moreover, he is equating God with the ‘elemental spirits of the world.’ Note too that these false teachers are insisting on “asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind… and severity to the body” as a way to overcome our sinful nature and evil spirits (Col 2:8, 14, 18, 23). So Paul is in fact rebuking false teachers for condemning Christians either because they were keeping the feasts, or the manner in which they kept them. Insisting on aestheticism could mean that celebrating anything was wrong, or perhaps the feasting and revelry of the feasts should be exchanged for fasting. Thus, Paul is saying:
“Therefore let no one pass judgement on you because you keep the feasts or the way you keep the feasts. Why? For one, celebrating doesn’t promote sin. And secondly, because they are all about Jesus. So, of course you should celebrate them. And they haven’t passed away yet because they are ‘a shadow of the things to come [fut. Tense].”
So no, the feast days have not been done away with. Why would our creator take away occasions for celebrating? Yet, because of the inherited thinking from the likes of Justin Martyr, the church sees them as something that needed to be done away with at the cross. And because of the inherited interpretation of Colossians 2, most look upon them indifferently.

As I spoke about here and here God has already given us a perfect opportunity to celebrate the birth of Jesus: the Feast of Tabernacles. Not only is it a highly probable date for Jesus’ birth, but it is a week of celebrations designed to help God’s people remember that He dwells among them. A time to reflect on Immanuel. If people want to celebrate Christmas, then that’s okay. There is nothing wrong with traditions. There’s nothing in scripture explicitly forbidding it, nor for celebrating it more than once. Scripture doesn’t give a date for the event, so we should not be dogmatic about when we celebrate it. But it is important that we keep Christmas in correct perspective: it was a tradition established to replace the days of celebration given by God in scripture, because the early church needed an outlet to honour their true saviour. Let’s give both tradition and scripture the attention and energy they deserve.


Rosenquist, Tyler. "So What about Christmas and Easter"

Tauber, Yanki. "What Happened on your Birthday" 

Thompson, Alan J. One Lord, One People the Unity of the Church in Acts in Its Literary Setting / Alan J. Thompson. Library of New Testament Studies ; 359. London: T & T Clark, 2008.

Friday, 9 December 2016

New Testament and the Food Laws 4: Paul's Letters

At an ancient meat market, a couple is offended when they observe a fellow Christian buying meatFor most theologians, scholars, preachers, pastors, and laity that the food laws no longer apply to us is taken as a ‘simple and obvious’ fact. This is not too dissimilar to how much of society considers it a simple and obvious fact that dinosaurs never lived with humans. Because of years of being told that dinosaurs lived millions of years before humans through books, films, and education, the idea of creationism is mocked as nonsense. That Genesis describes humans and all animals (which would include dinosaurs) being created on the same day is ridiculous and obviously wrong. Similarly, when you might suggest that perhaps the food laws weren’t done away with, because of centuries of an inherited doctrine that the law was done away with, you’re obviously wrong. And just as the atheist will interpret the evidence through the lens of naturalism to defend their position that dinosaurs never lived with humans, most Christians will read Scripture through the lens of the inherited idea that the Law is bad and just for the Jews, despite the Bible saying otherwise, and as we have seen in our previous posts, read things into the text that aren’t even there. Commentator William J. Larkin Jr. brings the arguments that this post series have covered together quite succinctly in his discussion of Peter’s vision in Acts 10,

The voice comes again, this time providing the rationale: God has declared all foods clean. Peter is not to go on declaring some foods profane or "common." Jesus' teaching and behavior had certainly prepared the way for such a declaration (Mk 7:14-23; Lk 11:39-41), and the cross was the salvific basis for it (Eph 2:14-15; Col 2:14). The sheet from heaven and the voice both bear witness that all God's creatures are now to be viewed as clean and good, not to be refused (Gen 1:31; 1 Tim 4:3).
But as we have seen, Jesus did not bring an end to the supposed ‘ceremonial’ law (here), nor did he declare all foods clean to the Pharisees and the disciples, (here) nor specifically to Peter in Acts 10 via the Holy Spirit (here). In the latter two, the dispute was about the man-made purity category of common, which is distinct from unclean. A fact that is ignored (intentionally or not) when interpreting these passages.

To conclude this series on the food laws, we will continue looking at the apostolic period, this time considering Paul’s words on the matter. One of Paul’s key teachings on the matter is found in Romans 14, where Paul is dealing with disputes between ‘the weak’ and ‘the strong’ in regards to food. In verse 14, Paul states:
I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.
So, there you have it. Nothing is unclean except for those who think it is. Food laws are now a matter of conscience, right? Would you be surprised (probably not) to learn that that is not what the Greek says. Let’s revisit an old friend to see what Paul really said:
I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is common (koinen) in itself, but it is common for anyone who thinks it common.
Therefore, what Romans 14:14 should really say is, food is not polluted by coming into contact with something unclean. In Acts 10, Peter was talking about Gentiles being common. Here, like Jesus, Paul is talking about food becoming common. What is interesting is that prior to 1611, virtually every English translation such as the Coverdale and Tyndale version all say ‘common.’ Even Luther’s translation of 1545 uses common (gemein) instead of unclean (unreines). But for some reason, since the publication of the KJV, we begin to see unclean being used instead of common. Could it be because older, more reliable manuscripts use ‘unclean’ instead? No. The oldest complete manuscript, Codex Sinaticus from the 4th century uses common (koinen) instead of unclean (akathartos), which agrees with many other later manuscripts such as the Textus Receptus and the Stephanus New Testament. The fact that translators can use common in Acts 10, but not in Romans 14 makes the process quite questionable. Perhaps they were ignorant of the fact that, as we see in Peter’s declaration, that common and unclean are actually different. As Colin House explains, “Even though Peter consistently differentiated between ‘common’ and ‘unclean,’ it seems reasonable to assume that the various translators of the English Scriptures believed this distinction to be defunct.” Or perhaps it was more convenient to create a proof-text out of Romans 14:14 to reinforce either their freedom to eat whatever they want, or maintain a differentiation between us Christians, and those Jews. Either way, the translators knowingly mistranslated a word which is misleading to its readers. Therefore, Paul’s argument is all about the category of common, and not the abolishment of the food laws of Leviticus. And this is how we should define the ‘weak’ follower of Christ in Romans 14:2-3 about whom Paul writes:
One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.
The weak here are often assumed to be legalists. Those who have not yet grasped the concept of justification by grace, and that the food laws are done away with. For example, Calvin describes the weak as those who could not let go of the law, and “they would have thought otherwise, had they possessed a certain and a clear knowledge of Christian liberty." Similarly, Douglas Moo describes the weak as those who are unable to “accept… the truth that their faith in Christ implies liberation from certain OT/Jewish ritual requirements." And this is interesting because the Apostles at Jerusalem council in Acts 15 promoted the law's 'ritual requirements' of abstaining from blood etc…, and Paul underwent a Nazarite Vow in Acts 20. Therefore, according to Douglas Moo’s definition, the Apostles were weak Christians. The Augsburg Confession suggests that “they forbade it for a time, to avoid offense” (28.65), however that is assumed since Scripture makes no mention of that.  But notice in verse 2 Paul provides the explanation of those who are weak: the ones who "eat only vegetables." This means that the weak are those abstaining from all meats, not merely unclean meats. Moo suggests that the reason they do is because they cannot guarantee the kosher quality of meat in the marketplace, however, considering the discussion about common in verse 14, it is more than likely that the weak are those avoiding food sacrificed to idols from the marketplace since they believed this was a significant source of food pollution. Consider Paul’s similar wording in 1Cor 8:7, "…not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled…"
Also compare Paul’s advice given in both chapters
Rom 14:21 “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.”
1Cor 8:11,13 “…by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died… Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat.”
The weak, therefore, are those who would not buy meat from the market (1Cor 10:25) because they believed that meat offered to idols became ‘common’ and would therefore eat only vegetables as these were not offered to idols and sold in a different area. 

But didn’t Paul say that “Everything is indeed clean” (v20). Doesn’t this mean that clean and unclean divisions are done away with, meaning that all meat is clean now? Not necessarily. ‘All’, or pas (Gk) does not necessarily mean absolutely everything. For example, in speaking about John the Baptist, Matthew writes “all (pas) Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him.” Does this mean each and every citizen came out to see John? Perhaps, but not likely. In Romans Paul says that “all (pas) Israel shall be saved” (Rom 11:26). But we know that not every single Israelite ever will be saved. And later he writes “your obedience is known to all (pas)” (Rom 16:19). Did every single person know about the obedience of the Romans? To the Ephesians, Paul says that “Tychicus, a beloved brother and faithful minister in the Lord, shall make known to you all (pas) things” (Eph 6:21). Tychicus is going to tell them absolutely everything there is to know, including the laws of thermodynamics? And to the church in Colossae, Paul tells “Bondservants [to] obey in everything (pas) those who are your earthly masters” (Col 3:22). What if their masters tell them to sin by worshipping an idol? Because that part would be included in everything? So, while pas can mean absolutely all, this is not always the case. In fact, a clause is typically offered, “Grace be with all them that love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity” (Eph 6:24). If indeed all things are now clean (katharos), does this mean that the unclean (akatharos) spirits (Matt 10:1) and all unclean people (Eph 5:5) are now clean? Does that mean the defiled conscience of the unbeliever (Tit 1:15) is now clean? Because these are a part of all things. Or should we recognise that all can have limitations. When we consider the context of verse 20, we realise why Paul says that everything is clean; “because, as with the parenthetical comment of Mark 7:19, nothing within the parameters of ‘clean’ food should be thought of as being made ‘common’” (House, 153). In short, Paul is not saying ‘eating a ham sandwich is fine.’ This becomes particularly evident through Paul’s instruction not to “quarrel over opinions”, as food laws were not opinions. That pigs and prawns were unclean was not a matter of interpretation. God had laid out in Leviticus c.1500 years earlier what his people could and couldn’t eat. He is saying that the believers in Rome (and Corinth) need not worry that the meat they buy in the marketplace being polluted by idols, something scripture is silent on, thus requiring discernment and opinion.

The second passage of Paul and our final passage for consideration is found in Paul’s letter to Timothy:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1Tim 4:1-5)
Here, it is understood, that Paul is warning Timothy about people who will impose the food laws upon people. As John Macarthur explains, “Paul knew that Judaizers were trying to force dietary laws on Gentiles. Paul identifies them as false teachers because there were no more dietary laws.” However, a close examination of the text reveals that this is not the case. Firstly, note that the false teachers will devote themselves to “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” Now, if Paul is talking about the Old Testament food laws, or even more generally the laws about clean and unclean, he has just declared that the one who gave the Law to Moses, as a deceitful spirit and a demon. Which would be strange, because earlier in 1Tim 1 and Romans 7, Paul describes the Law as good and holy. So either Paul is unstable and divided in his mind about the Law, or he isn’t talking about the food laws at all. What the situation appears to be describing is false teachers telling Christians that they should not eat any meat at all. Why? Either because of a connection to idolatry, such as what we looked at in Romans 14, although we don’t see the same language being repeated here. Or, and this seems to be more likely, because of the gnostic idea that creation is evil because it is made by an evil intermediary, they are rejecting food created by God to be received as food with thanksgiving. As Paul explains, food is “made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1Tim 4:5). God’s word defines what is to be considered food. We see this articulated in Genesis where God distinguishes between clean and unclean (Gen 7:2,8; Lev 11) where, through Moses, God spells out what is to be eaten and not eaten. So while the ‘gnostic’ says ‘sheep are evil’, scripture says that lamb is clean. But nowhere does it say in scripture that prayer can make a pig clean. Now, yes, everything created by God is good. But should I drink bleach or eat a vacuum cleaner if I’m grateful? After all, “nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” Or should I recognise the goodness of things according to their purpose? Because not everything was created by God to be food. The pig and the prawn are basically natures vacuum cleaner. Therefore, what Paul is saying, is that no food (as defined by scripture) is to be rejected based on the traditions of man and false teachings.

So, as we have explored, the proof-texts which supposedly say that the clean/unclean division between food is done away with, do not actually say that. Rather, they are dealing with the traditions of man and false teachings. And some might say, ‘well, that doesn’t matter. Food laws are not repeated in the New Testament and are therefore unbinding on the Christian.’ There are two problems with this. The first is that it doesn’t have to. Laws against bestiality and pre-marital sex are not expressed in the New Testament, yet we accept them as binding. Now, it could be argued that because Jesus, James, and Paul speak against the ‘sexual immorality’ (Mark 7:21, Acts 15:29, 1Cor 6:18) the sexual laws can be considered to be carried over. Which makes sense. However, if you looked up Ephesians 5:5 as mentioned above, you would have found Paul declaring 
“everyone who is sexually immoral or impure [akathartos], or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” 
Here, Paul has just described someone as unclean. Why, if clean and unclean were done away with, is Paul using this term? If the sexually immoral are those who have engaged with sexual immorality, it makes sense that those who consciously and wilfully engage with those things God has declared unclean become unclean. Therefore, we do in fact find ‘unclean’ repeated in the New Testament. Interestingly, the ESV here combines immoral and impure as categories of sexual sin, however the Greek shows a distinction with the disjunctive conjunction E, meaning it should be translated as “everyone who is sexually immoral, or impure, or…” Ignorance, or an attempted cover-up to hide the active use of unclean in the New Testament? I’ll let you be the judge.
The second is that passages like Jeremiah 31, and Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 show that the Law, the Torah, God’s Torah, would still be in effect in the New Covenant, and that not even the smallest part which includes the food laws, would be done away with. Instead, God’s Law would be written on the believer’s heart to be lived out. And those who act or teach otherwise, will be considered least in the Kingdom. So, if in our reading of Paul’s letters we interpret him as doing away with the commandments of God, something Jesus rebuked the Pharisee’s for, in Mark 7, then we either need to reject Paul because he is contradicting the teachings of Jesus and other parts of Scripture (1Cor 14:32), or we need to reconsider our interpretation of Paul. 

When we understand the cultural context of the New Testament and hear the other side of the conversation, we will discover that the New Testament does not give us permission to eat food God declared unclean.


Calvin, John. Romans. (Kindle)

Larkin, William. “Peter’s Vision.” IVP New Testament Commentaries

House, Colin. Defilement by Association: Some Insights from the Usage of KOINOS/KOINOU in Acts 10 and 11. Andrews University Seminary Studies. 2, 1983. P 143-153

John Macarthur, “Salvation Reaches Out.”

Moo, Douglas. The Epistle to the Romans. NICNT. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids. 1996.

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Saturday, 26 November 2016

New Testament and the Food Laws 3: Peter's Vision

Peter's Vision of a sheet
with animals.
by Domenico Fetti
A Christian’s theology needs to be based on Scripture. If what we believe theologically cannot be found in the Bible, then we need to put it on the shelf of opinion. If what we believe contradicts the Bible, we need to file it under 'T' for Trash. Very few people who claim to follow Jesus would disagree with that. The problem arises, however, when this becomes a case of proof texting. “Proof texting is the method by which a person appeals to a biblical text to prove or justify a theological position without regard for the context of the passage they are citing” (Theopedia). An extreme example is using Psalm 135:5 (“…our Lord is above all gods”) to support polytheism, while ignoring verses like Isaiah 43:10. Or how Jehovah’s Witnesses use 1Thess 4:16 (…the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel) to 'prove' that Jesus is an angel, while ignoring passages like Hebrews 1. It is actually scary what you can make the Bible say with proof texting, turning exegesis into an episode of Bad Lip Reading: saying something they're really not.

As we discovered with Matthew 5 and Mark 7, saying that these passages prove Jesus abolished the food laws is an example of proof texting. I know I used them, but once I looked at their context, as well as realising the implications of Jesus doing away with any commandment, I realised they weren’t saying what I thought they said. Jesus taught nothing about abolishing the food laws, rather, he challenged the Pharisee’s unbiblical traditions. But maybe there is something in the Apostolic period (ascension to the closing of the canon) that teaches the food laws were done away with after Jesus’ ministry. In fact, there are a few verses that appear to be saying just that. But is this the case, or is this just more proof-texting?

Our first example is Peter’s vision in Acts 10. This was my go to when I was challenged on my bacon eating at a BBQ, and when I would challenge other people on why they adhered to the food laws of Leviticus. Let’s review the encounter:
Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven. (Acts 10:9-16)
So here, it is argued, the Holy Spirit has just declared that unclean animals are now clean. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Seminary said something similar:
As the Book of Acts makes clear, Christians are not obligated to follow this holiness code. This is made clear in Peter's vision in Acts 10:15. Peter is told, 'What God has made clean, do not call common.' In other words, there is no kosher code for Christians. Christians are not concerned with eating kosher foods and avoiding all others. That part of the law is no longer binding, and Christians can enjoy shrimp and pork with no injury to conscience.

John Piper said something similar in a sermon from 1991:
And so Peter's vision has two points: the food laws are fulfilled and ended in Jesus (Mark 7:19), and the people they kept you separate from (the nations, the Gentiles) are not to be considered unclean or common.

Let’s move beyond the proof-text and consider the context to see what this vision really was about.
What did the vision really mean?
This vision is smack in the middle of Acts 10 which details Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, and Cornelius’ encounter with the Gospel. In the opening verses, just before the vision, we are told by Luke that Cornelius had a vision to send for Peter and thus sends his servants to Joppa to get him. Then comes the vision, after which the Spirit says, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” Then we read about Peter going and sharing the Gospel and Cornelius, and his household believing, receiving the Holy Spirit, and being baptised. This is what the vision was all about; Peter going to a Gentile’s home. As I wrote in an earlier post (here) the Jews, (mostly in Judea), were reluctant to associate with the Gentiles, especially in their homes, lest they become contaminated, or as I explained in the previous post (here), be made ‘common’. This was reflected in Peter’s words to Cornelius when he arrived:“You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation” (Acts 10:28). This word for unlawful is actually not related to the Law. There is no commandment prohibiting Israelites from interacting with Gentiles. Rather, it is best understood as something ‘taboo’, or culturally forbidden. This is the wall of separation, as reflected in the anti-Gentile ‘Edicts of Shammai’, that were destroyed through the crucifixion of Christ (Eph 2).
So, the narrative context is pointing us to the conclusion that the vision is about challenging Peter’s perception of Gentiles. Is there anything in scripture that interprets the visions for us? This is important in scripture as the symbolic nature of visions are wide open to interpretation. Just look at the various candidates for the ‘whore of Babylon’.

Fortunately, we don’t have to look to far to find an interpretation. Shortly after telling Cornelius he shouldn’t be at his house, Peter says: “but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean…Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:28, 34-35). Notice the lack of mention about food. Maybe there’s another interpretation that mentions food? Peter explains his vision and encounter with Cornelius in Jerusalem in the following chapter:
Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” But Peter began and explained it to them in order: “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me.  Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air. And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I said, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing common or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But the voice answered a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, do not call common.’ This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men arrived at the house in which we were, sent to me from Caesarea. And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction… When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Finally, we can eat some bacon.” (Acts 11:1-11, 18). 
No, that last bit doesn’t actually say that, but that’s how some people read it. What they actually said was, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Again, no mention of food, just Gentiles. The Spirit told Peter not to make a distinction between himself as a Jew and the men as Gentiles. If the scriptures that describe the interpretation of the vision are silent of food laws, then we need to seriously question whether that was happening in the vision at all. Consider, in light of the historical context, how significant this change would be. If there was a change in food laws, it is bizarre that Peter never mentions it. To account for this, many point to God’s words in the vision themselves: “What God has made clean, do not call common.”
So our second question is, what did God really say?

Some suggest that although the vision was indeed about Jews and Gentiles, it is symbolically based on the literal removal of the food laws. For example, as John MacArthur explains:
I believe God was abolishing the Old Testament dietary laws. Why? Because they were designed to separate the Jew from the Gentile. But what is the body of Christ designed to do? Unite them. Therefore, the social barrier had to be removed for them to come together. Both groups had to learn to socialize around the table together because they were now one.
This claim is similar to one of John Piper’s argument for why the food laws were abolished and, as I explained in part one, Gentiles become a part of Israel, and the need to be set apart from the rest of the world is still there. So this connection is moot. But is there something else in the purpose of the food laws that changed after the cross? 

Interestingly, the Early Church Fathers don’t discuss food laws too often, and when they do most of them like Tertullian (Fasting, 5), Clement of Alexandria (On Eating, 2.1), and Justin Martyr (Trypho, 20), say the reason God gave the food laws was to control the gluttony and sin of the Israelites. And therefore, for them the reason Christians don’t keep the food laws (as with many other things wrongly perceived as ‘Jewish’) is because ‘we’re better than those immoral Jews.’
Some argue that it was about hygiene and health, and now that food like pork can be stored better, that need is gone. But, the scriptures say ‘be holy as I am holy’, not ‘be healthy as I am healthy.’ Furthermore, this would be no different to saying the sexual morality laws are no longer applicable because we have contraception.
I used to argue that the food laws no longer apply because Jesus makes us clean, thus putting an end to the purity laws. But, as I explained in a previous post, there was no ceremonial washing for eating shellfish, so that cannot be the case. And yes, the cross cleanses us from our guilt and sin, but that it not an invitation to disobey the commandments of God.
There are many possible reasons for setting the distinction between clean and unclean animals, which in fact had occurred by the time of Noah (Gen 7:2, 8:20), but ultimately it is somewhat of a mystery. However, our obedience should never be based on our ability to understand why, or whether we can find ways to avoid the consequences and reasons, excuses, and loop-holes to not obey.

But we still have this declaration from the Spirit. How do we make sense of this?
Firstly, look at what Peter said in response to the command, ‘rise and eat’: “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” Because the sheet contained clean and unclean animals, in Peter's mind the clean creatures are now made common (koinen) because they had touched the unclean animals, thus the sheet has common and unclean. That Peter considered them separate but related categories is evidenced by his use of “the disjunctive conjunctive E (koinen E akatharton)” (House, 146). Then compare this with the Spirits response: “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 
Peter: common and unclean
Spirit: common
Note that the Spirit makes no mention of unclean, just common. If this vision was about food as well, the Spirit would have said: “What God has made clean, do not call common or unclean.” But He doesn’t. The Spirit is saying, as Jesus did in Mark 7, “get the idea of koinen out of your mind, especially with the Gentiles. Go to visit Cornelius, for just as the lamb is not contaminated by the pig, neither will you be contaminated by the Gentile's home.”

So, as with Mark 7, because we fail to recognise the cultural context, namely the difference between common and unclean, this encounter is easily misunderstood. As we have seen by considering the context, claiming this vision is permission to put some pork on your fork is nothing short of proof-texting.

In our next part, we will consider the words of Paul and what he has to say about food. Perhaps there is something in the Pauline corpus that says eating pig and prawn is okay now.


Clement of Alexandria, On Eating.
House, Colin. Defilement by Association: Some Insights from the Usage of KOINOS/KOINOU in
       Acts 10 and 11. Andrews University Seminary Studies. 2, 1983. P 143-153
John Piper, “What God Has Cleansed Do Not Call Common”, Sermon 20 Oct 1991.
John Macarthur, “Salvation Reaches Out”
Justin Martyr, Trypho the Jew.
R. Albert Mohler Jr. (May 21, 2012). "The Bible condemns a lot, but here's why we focus on              
        homosexuality". My Take. CNN. Retrieved 2012-05-21.
Tertullian, On Fasting.
Theopedia, Proof texting


Thursday, 17 November 2016

New Testament and the Food Laws 2: A response to J.Piper.

Did Jesus declare all 'foods' clean?

Without knowing the whole story, we are bound to misinterpret things. There is a TV trope known as ‘Out of Context Eavesdropping’ where one person hears only one side of a conversation and jumps to the wrong conclusion. For example, on an episode of the Simpsons Lisa overhears her crush talking to someone names Clara and thinks she is his girlfriend. But it is his sister. Or in an episode of Diff’rent Strokes, Willis and Arnold overhear their adopted father say that black boys should be with black families, and end up thinking that he doesn’t want them. But it turns out that he was just repeating what a white social worker had said before she was thrown out. Without understanding other cultures, misunderstandings are bound to arise too. Consider how in Japan, the common American act of tipping is actually taken as an insult. Or how in the Middle East a thumbs-up is the equivalent of giving someone the bird. Similar things happen in Christianity too. Many onlookers since the beginning have questioned why we ‘eat the body of our god’ because they misunderstand Communion. So, as we can see, it is important that we understand cultural context and get all the information, lest we come up with a misguided interpretation of what others are about. And this is also true when we approach the scripture. It is easy to unintentionally misread a passage of scripture because we import modern ideas or we are missing a key piece of historical/cultural information. We saw in our last post that this was true of Matthew 5:17, and as we will see in the following posts, it is also true of Mark 7.

In my last post, I agreed with John Piper that we as followers of Jesus need to listen to what Christ said about the Old Testament Law. Having considered textual, idiomatic, and linguistic context of ‘fulfil’ from the first example that he provided of Matthew 5, we saw that Jesus was actually teaching the opposite of what Piper suggested it meant, namely, that in fulfilling the Law, He was faithfully teaching and upholding it. We also saw that there was nothing in the law or the prophets that demonstrate that God had intended for the faux category of ‘ceremonial law’ to be only temporary.
There is, however, another teaching from Jesus that Piper quoted which looks very much like He did do away with the food laws, and that is from Mark 7:15-19:
 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.” 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 reading that does make it look like a ‘done deal’. 'See, Jesus declared all foods clean.' And for Piper, “[this] is the key text…” But is this verse saying what we think it says? Did Jesus in fact annul and abolish the food laws in this dispute with the Pharisees? Let’s look at the textual and cultural-historical context before examining its linguistic context.

In verses 1-5, we are provided with the situational context and we discover that the dispute was about the washing of hands according to ‘the traditions of the elders’. As the Pharisees asked Jesus “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (v5). As Mark explains, the Pharisees had taught all the Jews that they must wash (baptise) their hands and cups and crockery before eating, especially after being in the marketplace. This is not because they are germaphobes, but because of their understanding of clean and unclean. They believed that everyday things considered ‘clean’ can be contaminated by something inherently unclean. In this case, they believed that by being in the marketplace among the Gentiles that their hands would become contaminated. And if they did not ceremonially wash their hands, their food would become inedible through its defilement. When something clean became defiled, the Pharisees called it ‘common’, or in the Greek koinen. For example, the disciples were eating with ‘koinais hands' (Mark 7:2,5). The category of ‘common’ is often equated with the category of ‘unclean’ from the Law. However, in the Septuagint, unclean (e.g Lev 11:18) is never translated as koinen, but rather akatharta, further demonstrating that they are different categories.
Based on repeated use of koinen and the phrase ‘tradition of the elders’ in this passage, we find that, “Mark is careful to point out that the disciples have not violated the Torah but [rather] the… ‘tradition of the elders’” (Rudolf, p 294). Note too how Moses or pigs never come into this conversation at all. Therefore, any apparent challenge made to clean/unclean distinction of food in this dispute needs to be understood through the lens of this context, i.e. the traditional Pharisaical category of ‘common.’

The first apparent challenge the food laws is found in verse 15:
“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.”
This statement is often taken to mean that eating bacon doesn’t make you unclean anymore. And there is truth to this, because there is a difference between the nature of ‘unclean’ food and nearly every other unclean thing in Leviticus. When someone became unclean through excessive menstruation, childbirth, touching a dead body etc… a ritual was provided to make them clean again. But when it came to eating pig or prawns, there is no cleansing ceremony. There were no restrictions on access to the Tabernacle for those who had eaten unclean food. The only way they did make one unclean, is by touching their carcass (Lev 11:24-28), but this was true of clean foods too (Lev 11:39-40), meaning there is a difference between a carcass and prepared food. It is also important to note that here Jesus is talking about things that make you ‘common’ (koinen), whereas in Leviticus 11 only eating “the swarming things that swarm on the ground” will make you ‘unclean’ (akathartoi [LXX]). Thus, we can say that eating unclean foods (with one exception) never made you unclean or common. Moreover, in Matthew’s account of this discussion, Jesus concludes by saying:
But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile [make koinen] anyone (Matt 15:18-20).
This further reinforces that this debate is about the traditions of the elders and not the Levitical food laws. Therefore, we can better understand Jesus as saying in verse 15 that the eating of clean food with common hands will not render that food, or you, common.

This is also true of verses 18 and 19 where we find Jesus explaining to the confused disciples:
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.)
To clarify his teaching, Jesus gives his disciples a lesson in biology lesson to let them know that whatever impurities the food ‘may’ have, God designed the human body to use that which is good and to remove that which is impure. Moreover, all food enters the stomach and the digestive tract, and not the heart - the source of sin - and its impurities are expelled. And again, Jesus is talking about the category of polluted, or ‘common’ food, not inherently unclean meat. So, as we covered with verse 15, He is not (and cannot be) talking about a pig making us unclean.

Then comes, as it appears in most English translations (except for the KJV), a parenthetical commentary statement from Mark:
“In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean” (NIV).
What is most interesting, is that this phrase isn’t in the Greek. Rather it merely says ‘purging all food’ (katharizon panta ta bromata). So how did modern translators get ‘Jesus declaring all foods clean’ out of ‘purging all foods’? Well, in most languages, verbs and nouns need to match grammatically. In English, we discern the relationship between words and ideas primarily through the use of word order, pronouns, and conjunctions. In languages like Greek, where word order is not as important syntactically, to know who is doing what and what word relates to what idea, one needs to match words through what is known as 'case endings.' The main word we are looking at in particular, purging: katharizon, is a singular masculine participle in the nominative case (the subject, or ‘main actor’ in the sentence). And because the closest matching singular masculine nominative is ‘Jesus’ all the way back in verse 18 (and He said), the translators concluded that Jesus must be the one doing the cleansing. There is, however, an exception to this rule:
“In Greek grammar… the nominative singular participle may sometimes refer to something within the previous context or to something implied in the context not explicitly mentioned, even though it may not be in the same grammatical case” (Hegg, 2)
This is what Daniel Wallace in his book, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics calls a 'pendant nominative' which refers to a word that is independent of the grammatical arrangements of a sentence, but still related to the subject at hand. The Net Bible study notes explain that this construction occurs when "a description of something within the clause is placed in the nominative case and moved forward ahead of the clause for emphatic reasons." We see an example of this in Luke 24:47:
“that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
The verb ‘beginning’ is a nominative singular participle with no matching noun to act as its antecedent. However, we can tell that it is referring to the preaching of repentance. In the same way, the cleansing of foods is related to the previous clause of the body expelling what was eaten, but for the sake of emphasis - since the issue of purification was what drove the conversation - purify is changed to the nominative case. Therefore, we are not bound grammatically to attach ‘purging all foods’ to a noun 38 words prior. Instead, we can understand the phrase as the conclusion to Jesus’ biology lesson. 

But grammar is not everything. We need to consider context too. Earlier in in verses 6-8, Jesus’ response to the Pharisee’s question comes in the form of a reprimand and quotation of Isaiah, accusing the Pharisee’s of “rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish [their] tradition.” This is a rebuke against the Pharisee’s prioritisation of ritual impurity (as defined by their tradition) over ‘moral’ defilement (as defined by the commandments of God). By responding to the Pharisee’s challenge in this way, Jesus is reminding them that the commandments of God overrules their traditions, especially the ones that negate God’s Law. We see something similar in Matthew’s Gospel:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. (Matt 23:25-26).   
Therefore, based on his rebuke, we see that Jesus’ argument “centres on a single point – the overarching priority of the Torah” (Rudolf, p 295), and his entire point in this encounter was to rebuke traditions that subtract from the word of God. Thus, when it comes to verse 15 and 19 it becomes extremely unlikely that after Jesus declared the sacredness of the Law, rebuked the Pharisees for hypocritically neglecting ‘the commandments of God’, He then goes and abolishes a significant part of the Law, the implications of which I discussed in my previous post. Some might argue that Jesus had the authority to modify the Law, but if He did, why was He later asking the Father if He could bypass the cross? That is one stipulation of the Law that I am sure Jesus would have wanted to change.

But let's say that Jesus was actually declaring all foods clean, I have two questions:
1. Why is there such a lack of reaction? Why was this never mentioned at Jesus’ trial? Changing a law like this would mean instant conviction. Instead, they needed people to lie to try and convict Him. Moreover, consider how in the mind of Jesus’ audience forbidden food was not simply unclean, but detestable. In fact, Many Jews in the Hasmonean period (140-116 BCE) “chose to die rather than be defiled by food…" (1Macc 1:62-63, 2 Macc 7). Although this is a kind of argument from silence, the silence is nonetheless worth noting. 

And 2. Why in Acts 9 was Peter - who was here and got the explanation - so adamant that they still unclean? I know that Peter had his slow moments, but this was post Pentecost. Granted he wrestled with the idea of the inclusion of Gentiles, but once explicitly explained to him, he got it. So for Peter to insist that unclean food still existed at the time of his vision makes no sense. (I will cover this more deeply in my next post.)

As we have examined Mark 7:1-19, we see that this conversation had nothing to do with Levitical food laws, but rather the traditions of the elders. This is the case for many of Jesus’ confrontations with the Pharisees. Therefore, based on the grammar and the context of this statement, we can conclude that Jesus was not doing away with the divine commandment to abstain from unclean food as proposed by John Piper and many others.
It appears that because the context and grammar of this encounter with the Pharisees were ignored and overlooked, the interpretation and translation of Jesus’ teaching is corrupted by ‘Out of Context Eavesdropping’, leading to the misunderstood conclusion that that the food laws were done away with.  Rather, Jesus was challenging the Pharisee’s preoccupation with ritual purity and man-made traditions over and against the commandments of God and the weightier matters of the Law.

Having considered the teachings of Christ as put forward by John Piper, we find that they are not actually saying what he claimed they were saying. I agree with Pastor John that we need to follow Christ’s teaching on how to relate to the Old Testament Law. But as we have seen, we have no record of Him teaching that the food laws are done away with. Although, that is not all the New Testament has to say on food laws. Maybe He did teach it and it wasn’t written down. Considering its significance that is surprising, but not impossible. I’m sure if John Piper had time in his podcast, he would have discussed Acts 10 and Romans 14 as well. These will be the focus of my next posts.


Blass, Debrunner, and Funk. A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Hegg, Tim. Mark 7:19b – A Short Technical Note. Retrieved:
House, Colin. Defilement by Association: Some Insights from the Usage of KOINOS/KOINOU in Acts 10 and 11. Andrews University Seminary Studies. 2, 1983, p 143-153
Novation, On the Jewish Meats. Retrieved:
Reiscio, Mara & Walt, Luigi. “There is Nothing Unclean” Jesus and Paul against the Politics of Purity. ASE. 29, 2012, p 53-82.
Rudolph, David. Jesus and the Food Laws: A Reassessment of Mark 7:19b. Evangelical Quarterly. 74, 2002, p 291-311
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Zondervan, 1996. p51-53.
Zell, Paul. Exegetical Brief on Mark 7:19: “Who or what makes all foods clean?” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly. 109, 2012, p 209-212.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

New Testament and the Food Laws 1: A response to J.Piper.

I had been planning for some time to write an article about the place of Old Testament food laws in the life of the Christian, but because I have just started some holidays I was putting it off for a little bit. That was until I saw an episode of ‘Ask Pastor John’ on the Desiring God website (here) that was a response to a question on the topic, and felt that it needed a response. Not so much as a direct response to him (the odds of him actually reading it are a million to one), but rather that his take is a summary of the common argument against the need for Christians to follow biblical food laws. And ones that I argued in unison for some time too. In fact, it is only since the beginning of this year that I had come to the position I have, which is just over a year since I began to recognise the relevance of Torah in the life of the Christian. And there is a good reason I put off looking into it: I was worried about what I might find. I was scared that I would have to abandon my arguments as to why I can disregard the food laws. And changing a diet can become difficult. I was worried about the social awkwardness of having to say ‘I don’t eat bacon.’ And my concerns were warranted. I found that the common arguments don’t hold much water once you dig a little deeper into their proof texts and telling people you’re not eating pig products can have people accuse you of being fussy, Jewish and even eating Halal. And saying goodbye to hotdogs, pepperoni, and 90% of a pizza menu can make mealtimes difficult. But, like celiacs, vegetarians, and diabetics, you learn to adapt. But in the end, it is more important to obey what you see scripture as teaching rather than what is popular, convenient, and delicious. And I don’t judge or condemn those who disagree with me. I make jokes with my wife about ‘eating the demon meat’, but it’s only in good fun.

Before I begin I want to say two things. The first is that I recognise and know from personal experience that if this is new to you, your inclination is going to resist much of what I am going to write, just as I did. But I ask, as I always have since I started writing these posts, that you lay aside your theological traditions and love of bacon, and consider what I have to say with prayer and humility, an open mind, and an even more open Bible. And I invite you to provide feedback in the comments section below. The second, is that my critique of John Piper’s answer should not be taken as disrespect or a rejection of him. I have much respect for his theological wisdom and experience and many of his teachings have been edifying and encouraging. And so it is with humility that I outline why I disagree with him on this issue.

I’m going to split this response over a few articles. In the first two, I am going to be responding to John Piper’s main points, which is primarily centred around his interpretation of Matthew 5:17-18, and Mark 7. In the following posts, I will be addressing Peter’s vision of the sheet in Acts 10, and Paul’s words in Romans 14 that ‘nothing is unclean’ and his words to Timothy ‘For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected.’ So if you get to the end of this and say ‘but what about…?’, they’re coming.  If you can think of any others, please comment below.

The episode of Ask Pastor John that I am responding to begins with a listener asking the question: 
"I would really like to know whether it is sinful for me to eat pork and bacon." 
In his response, Piper begins by saying:
The good impulse is the desire to obey God. There’s nothing wrong with that. That belongs to what it means to be a Christian. The bad impulse is the failure to obey Christ who teaches us how to obey God in regard to the Old Testament.
So for Piper, we need to listen to Christ and what he said about obeying the Old Testament. And to that I say "amen"! We need to keep the teachings of Christ supreme in our walk, so I know that John Piper is coming from a good heart and right motives. He then moves on to quote Matthew 5:17-18 to see what Jesus did say:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
Piper explains that in this passage, Jesus is explaining that through Him, the Old Testament Law was modified, which includes doing away with the food laws. As he explains:
in Jesus [is the fulfillment and accomplishment] of the Law and the Prophets that God always intended in the Old Testament as the consummation and the end of the ceremonial laws. So, the effort to hold on to the prohibition of eating pork is, in effect, a refusal to submit to God’s plan for the fulfillment of the Law in Jesus.

As I said earlier, I can see and agree with the heart of where John Piper’s interpretation of this passage is coming from. Like Stephen, Piper is telling people not to resist the Holy Spirit in its working out of God’s plan for humanity (Acts 7:51-53). I also agree that we should live in the freedom and liberty that the Gospel provides. Unfortunately, Piper’s exegesis and interpretation of Matthew 5 falls short in a few ways. I have discussed this at length here, however what follows is an abbreviated form of that.
Firstly, his interpretation of fulfil neglects the linguistic and historical/cultural context of the word. When interpreting Scripture, it is important that we allow the meaning of the word as used by the author to influence our exegesis, not what we think it means. Consider, for example, C.S. Lewis’ use of the word queer in the Narnia series. Surely we wouldn’t say the series is about a homosexual lion. So, what was meant by fulfil when Matthew wrote his Gospel? Well, the word used for fulfil in Matthew is the Greek word plerosai, which means to make complete and to fully teach. It’s like adding chocolate chips to cookie dough. In fulfilling the chocolate-chip cookie-dough, you’re not throwing away the dough; you’re making it complete by adding the chocolate chips. When it comes to fulfilling the Law, what Jesus was doing, was revealing the depth and significance of the commandments of God. Moreover, the use of ‘fulfil’ in the active voice rather than the passive voice (plerothe) means that it is different to the prophetic function of fulfillment (Matt 8:17, 13:35 etc…). This is further brought out when we consider the idiomatic meaning of the phrase, ‘fulfilling the law’. In Jesus’ day, to ‘fulfil the law’ was a Rabbinic term that meant to uphold and correctly teach. And to say a commandment was done away with and no longer relevant, is to ‘abolish’ that law (Mishnah, Pirke Avot, 4:14; Horayot 1:3); something Jesus said he didn’t come to do.

Secondly, note that Piper neglects to quote the very next verse:
Therefore [because I have come to correctly teach and uphold the Torah] whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments [including food laws] and teaches others to do the same [‘put some pork on your fork’] will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
By Jesus’ own words, if He has relaxed the prohibition on unclean meat, He has just made Himself least in the Kingdom (the next post will deal with Jesus' authority to change the Law).

The third is Piper’s claim that:
In the Old Testament, God always intended for the consummation and end of the ceremonial laws.
This point is difficult to uphold for two reasons.
Firstly, I don’t see that in scripture. I see nowhere that Leviticus 11 was only temporary. I see nothing in the prophets about them going to be removed (Amos 3:7). I do, however, see the opposite in the very words of Jesus John Piper quoted earlier, that not the smallest detail will pass from the Law, “until heaven and earth pass away.” Taken literally, that hasn’t happened yet. Taken metaphorically, it means it never will.
Here’s three further examples:
1. Through Malachi, the Lord declares that He does not change and that the people should return to His statutes (Mal 3:6-7). If eating pig was an abomination in His eyes in the days of Moses, that would not change. (Read more here)
2. In Isaiah, God says that after the Judgement:
Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig's flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the Lord (Isa 66:15-17).
Why, if pig is okay to eat, will God put an end to eating it?
3. In Ezekiel, it is prophesied that after the reconstruction of the Temple, the return of God’s glory, and the restoration of Israel (with whatever millennial framework you want to interpret that):
[The Priests] “shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean.” (Ez 44:23)
If clean and unclean is done away with, why are they teaching it?
But, if there is a verse that says that the food laws are temporary, I would love to read it. Piper seems to invoke how God’s people are now made up of more than the nation of Israel as justification for this position, since “the prohibition of certain foods as unclean was a temporary part of God’s way of making Israel distant or distinct from the nations of the world.” But I have dealt with the irrelevance of that claim in my previous posts of how we as Gentile-born followers of Christ are now a part of Israel. Also, we are encouraged in the New Testament to ‘be holy as God is holy’ (1Pet 1:16), and set apart from the world (Jn 17:14-15)) which is the same justification given for the food laws (Lev 11:44-45).
The second problem with this claim is that this division between ceremonial law and moral law is a false categorisation. As E.P Sanders (p.194) explains, “Modern scholars often try to divide the law into ‘ritual’ and ‘ethical’ categories, but this is an anachronistic and misleading division.” In reality, the scriptures only provide two related categories of Law: how we relate to God, and how we relate to others (e,g, Matt 22:36-40, Lev 19:18, 1Jn 4:20). But even if a case could be made for moral and ceremonial law categories, consider how the most repeated commandment in the New Testament, to abstain from idolatry, is ceremonial rather than moral in nature. Consider too that three of the four ‘minimum requirements’ from Acts 15, are ‘ceremonial’ and food related.

Piper also invokes Galatians 5:6, and substitutes pork eating for circumcision saying, “Neither pork eating nor non-pork eating counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” And in terms of justification, absolutely, which is what Galatians is about: people accepting formal conversion to Judaism as a means for salvation, as symbolised in the term ‘circumcision.’ The letter to the Galatians was never written to nullify ceremonial law, but rather challenging a salvation based on works and national identity, as in Acts 15. So, to substitute circumcision with eating-pork doesn’t work as circumcision was seen as the way of getting in and abstaining from pig was because they are in. And Piper is correct in saying that Paul in his letters does not send people back to “the Old Testament ceremonial laws of circumcision and food laws.” But this is most likely because Paul, in writing to Gentile-born converts, had to spend more time teaching them to obey the ‘second great commandment’, and commandments prohibiting sexual immorality and idolatry as religion and morality was a foreign concept to Roman Pagans. Honouring one's god through ceremony and ritual, however, was second nature. Nonetheless, Paul agreed with the Jerusalem council (and the Holy Spirit) that the Gentile-born believers would learn the Torah in the synagogue (Acts 15:19-21).

So as we have seen, Matthew 5 and Galatians are not good places to defend the ‘legalisation of pig meat’ as the typical interpretation, as espoused by Piper, seems to ignore their historical, idiomatic, and textual contexts. Because of the amount of words needed, I am leaving until the next part of this series to examine Piper’s use of Mark 7 and ask, did Jesus really declare all foods clean?

Sanders, E. P. Judaism : Practice and Belief, 63 BCE-66 CE. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992.
Babylonian Talmud: