Clean and Unclean Foods in Mosaic Law: Leviticus 11
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. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’ As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Acts 11:1-18 (ESV)
It is human nature for people to congregate in communities that share similar ethnic heritage, language and customs. It is also human nature to go beyond appreciating one’s own heritage and culture and language to assume that people belonging to different ethnicities, who are of a different culture, and who speak a different language are somehow “less than” those of us who share the same common ground.
In the early church many of the first Christian believers were ethnic and religious Jews. They followed the purity and dietary laws outlined in the first five books of the Bible- including circumcision, observing certain days and festivals, and avoiding forbidden or “unclean” foods. An observant Jew would have no dealings with Gentiles, or people outside of the faith.
The laws of Moses were given by God to set His people apart from the rest of the world around them. The Law also shows God’s people that it is impossible to keep the Law, and that in the end every person is completely reliant upon God’s grace.
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” John 4:21-26 (ESV)
In Jesus’ day the Samaritans were considered to be “unclean” and faithful Jews had no discourse with them. It was also not typical for Jewish men to speak with women, especially non-Jewish women. But Jesus changes everything!
In Jesus we are given God’s grace. When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain of the temple was torn, giving access to the Holy of Holies to all people.
At that moment (when Jesus gave up His spirit) the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” Matthew 27:51-54 (NIV)
Peter was having some struggle with the new reality that in Jesus it’s not about being an observant Jew (or anything else that we do) but about having faith in Jesus- in knowing that God comes to us and is with us.
God comes to humanity and redeems us. Even people we might think to be “culturally inferior.” Jesus’ love extends to even the “unlovable-” the drug addicted, those who have committed crimes, those who society has written off. Jesus came to the apostle Peter in this graphic vision to show him that no one is beyond the love of God. The lesson is the same lesson God’s people need to hear today. The person we might see as beyond help or a basket case is still a person that Jesus loved all the way to the cross. May we extend His mercy and love to even the “unclean,” the “basket case,” and the “beyond hope,” for these are also people for whom Jesus died to save. No one is beyond the love of God.