Saturday, May 28, 2011

Food for Thought

Before I actually get into typing up this blog post, I wanted to say "Thank you" to my dear brother, Cody Kelton.  He gave me permission to use a question he posted on Facebook in this post.  There are not enough kind words in the English language to express my feelings for him, so I want to simply say, "Thank you, Cody.  I love you."

And now, on to the post:

Cody wrote:  "It appears that God says [the Hebrews] can eat any animal they want, and then later He appears to change His mind and tells them they cannot, in fact, eat all of those animals... So what does this mean?"

 Cody wrote a much longer post than this, and I have removed these two sentences from the concluding section of a passage that was several paragraphs in length, so there is some material missing from the overall thought that went into this point.  In way of paraphrasing, the actual point was that at the flood you have eight people and a bunch of animals in an ark.  God tells Noah how many of each animal to save, the Bible making clear that this is a distinction between the clean and the unclean (God tells Noah save seven pairs of everything clean but only one pair of everything unclean).  After the flood God changes the food law, allowing men to eat animals as well as plants (prior to that God said man could eat every green thing) and thus sets us a system where all food is permitted.  But, then later, God restricts what the Hebrew people could eat.  So from this comes the above question.

I already wrote a brief response to Cody (so if you are one of his or my Facebook friends and have already read that post, you have my apologies, some of this will be repetitious), but I would like to write a more developed response because his question got me thinking about the whole issue of the food laws and how modern Christians should regard to those laws.  My views on the matter are not cutting edge or new, and I'm not going to tell people to empty all the bacon out of the fridge, but I think there are some theological and Christological implications in the food laws that are worth considering.  On the whole I think that the food laws point to the greatness of God's grace, they set up a system whereby men might understand their uncleanness before God, and they served as a very real divider between the people of God and those outside of his covenants.  If all of these points are understood, and if we can see that Scripture indicates these points are correct, then we are drawn to the redemption offered by Christ as he is the door by which we enter into the grace of God, the one who cleanses us from all unrighteousness, and the one who joins us as a people and reconciles us to God.

I think the following passages of Scripture are relevant to this study: Genesis 9:3-6, Leviticus 1:3, 10; 11 (focusing on verses 24, 27, 36, 39, 43, 44-47), Numbers 23:19, Malachi 3:6, Mark 7:19, Acts 10, Romans 7:7-10 (8-25 is good also, but 7-10 is the focus), Galatians 2:11-21; 3:19-26, 1 Timothy 1:8-11, and James 1:17.  There are probably other verses that we could include in this list, but the argument I want to follow touches on all of these verses, and so with these I hope I can lay out my point sufficiently.  Some of these verses I use only to illustrate the same point from multiple writers, so as to make that point (hopefully) clearer.  (We could, along with these verses bring in 1 Corinthians 8 and go even further in examining how the Christian should react to food in general.)

Where do we begin then?  Well, we can begin with what Cody stated he already knew at the intro to his letter: God does not change his mind.  We see this in Numbers 23:19, Malachi 3:6, and James 1:17.  Each of these verses is clear, God does not change his mind.  What he has stated is true, and will be true.  We could add to this other verses, such as Hebrews 13:8, "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."  The point being that while Scripture says that God is grieved over a thing, or that God relents, or we see an instance where God says one thing, but then says because of an act of faith he will not actually do what he has said, we are also told, in no uncertain terms, that God does not change his mind.  Thus, if all of Scripture is true, we are left with situations that require us to exercise some additional thought, so that we can see how it can be that God has remained consistent when he gives changing requirements or does not bring about a promised judgment.  So then, how can it be that God has not changed his mind in regards to the human diet, but we see at least 3 different dietary commands in the Bible?  And what does all of this have to do with Christ?

Here we need to begin with understanding the purpose of the law.  We see in Leviticus 11:44-47 that the purpose of the food laws is to mark the Israelites as holy.  Holiness means that which is separate, that which is set apart.  In terms of human holiness we understand this as meaning that we are set apart to and for God.  When we speak of God's holiness it is an expression of his uniqueness, his transcendence over all of creation.  He is more holy than anything else, better, above, separate in a good way.  Because God is holy, his people are also to be holy, and one of their marks of separation was to be their food.

Thus we read in Leviticus 11:24, 27, 36, 39, and 43 that to touch the carcass of an unclean animal would render the one who touched it unclean.  Not only were the Israelites forbidden to eat the unclean, they were forbidden to have contact with the unclean.  To be separate, to be holy, meant to have no contact with that which was considered unclean.  So the food law given to the Israelites showed them how they were to be uniquely holy before God by telling them what they could and could not eat.  No other nation could claim to have this law, to have this knowledge; holiness was given to those in covenant with God, not to those outside the covenant.

This unique covenant relationship was established not through Noah or Adam, but through Abraham.  Abraham was the first Hebrew, and he was originally an Aramean.  God did not establish a special covenant relationship with Noah and his sons, instead he gave them a general command as regards the food they ate: do not eat meat with the blood in it, everything else is fine. (Genesis 9:3-6)  But, when it came to Abraham, God established a special relationship, giving rules for that covenant so that Abraham and his children would be able to always say that they were called by God to a special relationship that no one else could have.  But, if God had given the dietary restrictions to Abraham, then Ishmael could have passed those laws down to his children (just as God did bless Ishmael because of Abraham, even if Ishmael was not the son of the promise).  If God had given the dietary restrictions to Noah, then what would have set Israel apart in their diet?  In setting up a covenant with Israel, God made clear that he wanted a holy people who would be set apart from any other people, and so he did not give dietary restrictions to others because then the point of the restriction would have been lost: those who did not belong to the covenant would have had the same dietary restrictions as those who did belong to the covenant thus weakening a unique covenant sign that would set God's people apart from others.

But, at the same time, the purpose of the dietary law was to enforce the clean/unclean standard that God had already applied to himself upon his people.  If this seems an odd statement, then consider that Noah was told to save seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean animals.  What would clean and unclean have meant to Noah?  Prior to his receiving the command that he could eat of the flesh of animals, it would have been unclean for Noah to eat any flesh at all, so the clean animals could not have indicated a dietary restriction for Noah.  However, considering what we see early on in Genesis, where Able is offering God a sacrifice from his flock, and reading that men began to call upon the name of the Lord, it is reasonable to assume that some form of ritualistic worship was common (or at least known) on earth during the time of Noah.  This assumption is further buttressed by the fact that Noah built an altar and made an offering to God of some of every clean animal when he and his family exited the ark.  Thus, for Noah, clean and unclean would have simply indicated those animals that were acceptable to use for offerings and sacrifices.  Now that same understanding, that there are some animals acceptable and some unacceptable, applies not only to sacrificial and religious events, but to the every day events of having dinner or burying a carcass from the fields.

Here we have our first, and I would argue incomplete, answer of why God gave Noah and Moses different food laws.  The food laws were part of the larger body of the Mosaic Law given to the Israelites.  This body of laws was given so that the Israelites would know what it meant  to be holy.  Only by following this law perfectly could anyone be holy.  Ergo, it did not make sense to give this law to all humans at the time of Noah because God was not establishing a special covenant relationship with all humans wherein he would show them how to be holy.  God, in his mercy, chose to reveal the requirements of holiness to the Israelites, in order to accomplish his purposes.

But, what purpose would God have in revealing the requirements of holiness to the Israelites?  In examination of this question I argue that we must now turn to the New Testament, where we find not only this answered, but also a more complete answer to the first question as to why God would give different food laws at different times.

The first section I want to look at is Acts 10, where we see Peter visiting a Gentile and we get a resolution to the differences brought about by the dietary laws as given above.  In Acts 10 Peter sees a vision from God in which he is told to take and eat from the unclean things set before him.  Peter gets this vision three times, and then end up visiting Cornelius and realizing that God is speaking about the Jews and Gentiles, calling the Gentiles clean.  Here we have some indication of the distinction that God set up by giving the dietary law in the first place.  The Gentiles were unclean not only because they were outside of the covenant of God and his people, but also because of what they ate (granted what they ate was directly related to the fact they had no relationship to God).  But, God, through Christ, was so merciful that not only could he draw back the covenant people to himself, he could go even further and draw those to himself who had no covenant relationship with him at all.  Cornelius was a God fearer, but he was not Jewish and does not seem to have taken any of the steps necessary to become a Jew, so he had no claim to a covenant relationship with God, but, through Christ, God set aside the limitations of the old covenant and its legal obligations and established a new covenant in which all men could come to God through faith.  The old laws of clean and unclean animals no longer served to divide people, but now showed the immeasurable power of God's grace.

The distinction between Jew and Gentile is made even clearer when we consider Paul's testimony in Galatians 2:11-14.  Here Paul recalls a time when he stood up to Peter because Peter was being a hypocrite.  Peter withdrew from Gentile believers because a group of men who came from James in Jerusalem.  Thus even in the early church the distinction between Jew and Gentile persisted, and it seems that this remained an issue of the clean versus the unclean.  Paul's complaint against Peter was that Peter was denying the gospel, living like a Gentile and telling the Gentiles that they had to live like Jews.  Thus unless they engaged in the steps necessary to become ritually clean, living like Jews, Gentiles were considered unclean by some Jewish Christians in Paul's time.  So the Law, as it became a part of Jewish culture, did exactly what it was supposed to in drawing a clear distinction between those who followed it and were considered clean, and those who did not and remained unclean.  Yet, as we complete the story by reading through to verse 21 we see that Christ set aside the law, because in and through Christ we have all died to the law, even if we did not know it originally, so that we can live in the righteousness of God.  So Christ set aside the distinction between Jew and Gentile, and part of the Gospel is that God has one people, all joined to him through Christ.

We can say then that God gave the Law to the Israelites in order to draw a distinction between them and those around them, but he also gave the Law in order to show the power of his mercy and grace in Christ.  The Israelites strained to reach perfection by punctiliously following a set of written rules and obligations, even going so far as to add to them to create barriers so they would not accidentally cross any forbidden lines.  But Gentiles were alienated from God, having no conception of God's holiness and no access to the law by which they might have been made aware of the righteousness of God.  Yet, in Christ, neither the Jew nor the Gentile can claim any advantage, for Christ made all equal, bringing the righteousness of God to those of us who could not attain it on our own, and were not aware of what righteousness really looked like in the first place.  The law makes the grace of God all the more amazing.

But there is more yet.  In order to understand God's purpose for the law, we must understand the law.  In order to understand the law, in general, we can turn to Galatians 3, Romans 7:7-25, or 1 Timothy 1:8-11.  What we see in Galatians 3:19-26 is that the law was given in order to imprison all things under sin, in order that we might believe in Christ.  Paul makes clear that the goal of the law was not to cause sin, but the law showed sin, and thereby gave sin power, but also pointed us to Christ.  This point is also demonstrated in Romans 7:7-10, in which we read that the law is not sin and is not evil, but that sin uses the law to condemn us and kill us, making our sins all the worse because now we sin not ignorantly, but knowing that what we do is wrong.  And, in case we missed it the first couple of times, Paul makes clear to Timothy that the law is laid down not for the righteous but for the unrighteous; the law is good because it applies to those who are law breakers, not the just.  So then, the law is there to reveal the sinfulness of humanity, so that in seeing our sinfulness we might be made fully aware of our need for a savior, and so we might come to place our faith in Christ for salvation.

What we see in understanding what Paul says about the Law is that the Law convicts us all.  And since we are all convicted under the Law, if we understood it rightly, we would understand what a need we have for a savior.  Consider what we read in Leviticus 1:3 and 10.  We see that God requires the burnt sacrifices brought to him to be without blemish.  God does not accept a sacrifice with blemish or defect.

When we think of this in relation to the food laws we see that anything that is unclean is automatically not fit for sacrifice.  God will not accept a perfect and unblemished pig as part of a burnt offering any more than he would accept a blind and lame goat.  And if God will not accept that which is unclean, then how can we ever be perfect offerings to him?  If the food law shows us how to distinguish between the clean and unclean animals, not only to know what we can eat but also to know what we can offer as part of our sacrifice, then we should know that anything that would be unclean as a matter of diet cannot be an acceptable offering to God.  And, if we read the law thoroughly and understand it rightly, we see that we are in need of perpetual cleansing.  If we are in need of perpetual cleaning, recognizing as Hebrews says that the blood of animals cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, then we know that we cannot procure righteousness on our own.  Thus understood the food laws served as a part of the greater Law in reminding those who attempted to be righteous that they could not achieve righteousness on their own, ultimately men would have to rely on some grace from God to perfect us because we could not perfect ourselves.  This then points us back to Christ, for God would have to provide a perfect sacrifice, an unblemished sacrifice, for the sins of humanity if we were to be made righteous and holy as God is, and as God calls us to be.

The Israelites should have understood through the food laws how uncleanness does not come from outside, but from inside.  Jesus in Mark 7:19 declares all food to be clean, saying that it is not what goes into the mouth that makes one unclean, but what comes out of the mouth.  The Jews were given the food laws so that they could understand how unclean they were internally, no so that they would hold that as unclean which is external.  If the food laws were given so as to set up a distinction between the Jews and Gentiles, shouldn't that have caused the Jews to reflect on how much more of a chasm existed between them and God?  Because we tend to focus on simply following rules we miss the fact that the Law of God exists also to challenge us to consider how his rules reveal our own unrighteousness.  Again, this makes the grace of God amazing, because we who are unclean internally can be called clean, not because of following laws, but because of faith.

The food laws served to distinguish God's people from those around them.  The food laws served to show the holiness of God so that his people would be reminded of what they were called to be.  But, understood through Christ, the food law shows the magnitude of God's mercy, that those who were unclean could be called clean through the blood of Christ.  Those who strived to be clean, knowing they were always unclean, always falling short of the Law, could find redemption in a perfect sacrifice.  God did not change his mind in changing what food should be eaten, but he wanted to reveal to us how wondrous his grace his, how holy he himself is, how unclean we are, and how we can draw near to him and be made righteous through his Son.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Thoughts on Genesis and Jesus

So, I know it has been a while since I've written anything, most of that is just because I haven't really felt like writing anything.  But, I wanted to share something I was talking about with my father.  In reading back through Genesis and considering how I would approach different passages to preach about them, I began to consider Genesis 3:17-19.  I thought about the curse that God placed on man, that the ground would only yield to hard labor.  And I thought about how that passage should be understood in relation to the Christ event.

While perhaps there is some modification of this passage in Genesis 8 where God says he will no longer curse the ground for man's evil disposition, yet we never see anything that indicates that the curse of work has been done away with.  (Here I wish to make some distinction between the curse of work and the blessing of work.  What I mean by the curse of work is not just that we must work for our food, man was always supposed to be a creature of work, but the fact that work would be toilsome, would require difficulty, and would be painful.  Work itself is a blessing from God, but the hardness of work, the pain that comes with work, these are aspects of the curse.)  So, throughout the rest of Scripture we see men who work the land, from planting fields to caring for flocks.  Jacob, in his reasons for leaving Laban, discusses the hardships of being a shepherd, and those who have worked the ground for farming or gardening know that while there can be joy in the results, the work is also hard and can be painful.  So, while God may not curse the ground (more likely he is discussing cataclysmic judgments like the flood) he has not rescinded the curse of labor.

Man must work for his food, and man only eats his food by the sweat of his brow.  So even Paul says that if a man will not work, then he shouldn't eat.  2 Thes. 3:10  Our command remains that we are to work to have something to give to others, and we are to work so we can eat with a clear conscience.  Even if we are not working, or cannot work, we are to be willing to work, if able.

But, what are we working for?  We work for food, with which we nourish our bodies, satisfy our appetites, and have energy to do more work.  We work so that we do not go hungry, so that we can be happy.  But all we can nourish with the results of our work is the flesh and blood body that breaks down with age and injury, and will not last long.  Beauty fades, strength passes, and health gives way to sickness in time.  Death is inevitable.

Yet, while we work for our bodies, consider what we read in Matthew 26, "Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.'  And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.'" (Matt 26:26-29)  Here Jesus and his disciples had gathered to partake of a meal, they had gathered to partake of the work of the sweat of their brows, and Jesus invites his disciples to go deeper.  Not only does Jesus want his disciples to partake of a meal, he wants them to partake of a meal that he will share with them again in heaven, a meal that celebrates the redemption of sins that he will purchase through his blood.  So the eating of bread becomes more than simply the reward for hard work, it becomes symbolic of the redemption that is offered through Jesus.

Here we see a beautiful contrast begin to develop.  Where the meal we are invited to partake of reminds us of the curse of work, the meaning of the meal points us to the grace of God.  What Paul says to us in Ephesians should be noted here: "For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."  (Ephesians 2:8-9)  So Jesus invites us to partake of bread, a reminder of the curse of work, but as he does so he changes the interpretation of the event, so that the bread becomes his body, and the wine becomes his blood, bringing to mind the salvation we have received, for which we have not worked.  So our labor becomes a reminder of that for which we have not labored.

Here I wish to spell out, in part, a way we might see this contrast: We have worked for our meal, but we have not worked for our salvation.  We come, reading in Genesis that by the sweat of our brow we will eat our bread, but finding that Jesus has invited us to a meal that we have not worked for at all.  Christ has done the work, being perfect in accordance with the Law of Moses, and now we are invited to eat at his table, where he will celebrate with us one day in Heaven.  Though we eat of earthly bread, we are brought to fellowship with heavenly hosts.  The contrast could not be more beautiful, or more meaningful: We come sweaty, we come exhausted, we come having labored for our bodies, and we find that Christ has labored for our souls.

While we have fed our bodies with the sweat of our brows, we need spiritual food for our souls.  And how can we labor for spiritual food?  God fed the Israelites with manna, but even that did not satisfy their souls, as they regularly failed to obey the Word of the Lord.  If manna from heaven is not sufficient to satisfy our souls, then what earthly food might we find that will accomplish this task?  Christ answers this for us as he reveals that only he is sufficient for our hunger.  We who were dead in sin desire the food of life, and his body is that food.  Yet we cannot labor for this food, because we can never do enough to deserve to draw near to that which is perfect, being imperfect ourselves, and so we become dependent on him to give us what we could not take for ourselves.

So, Genesis 3:17-19 becomes a passage that leads us to Christ by way of contrast.  We see in Genesis 3 why we need Christ.  We come from the dirt, and we labor in the dirt.  We feed ourselves through our labor, and when we eat our bread we should be reminded of the hardships of life.  Yet, earthly bread does not address spiritual concerns, and cannot satisfy the longings of the soul.  For this we need spiritual bread, and in Christ alone do we find that bread offered.  In Christ alone do we find that we are invited to a meal for which we have not labored, a meal which maybe we never even wanted, but a meal that is more important than any other we will ever eat: a meal prepared for those who have not labored but have found rest in the Son of God.