Long before a nationwide fast-food chain began claiming, “We have the meats,” the people of God did. It’s an important story, and Thanksgiving is an especially good time to rehearse it.
In the beginning, God made an edible world. And it was good. He made trees both “pleasant to the sight” and “good for food” (Genesis 2:9), and he created humans to eat his world: “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food” (Genesis 1:29).
Then after the flood, he opened the mouths of his herbivore imager-bearers to the gift of a new banquet: eating animals. “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything” (Genesis 9:3).
He Gives and Takes Away
From Adam to Noah, God gave us every plant and tree. Then from Noah to Moses, he added every moving thing. Yet when God birthed his first-covenant people from the womb of Egyptian slavery, he chose to restrict their eating to certain animals to teach his people, and the world with them (Romans 3:19), about himself.
For a millennium and a half, God’s covenant people on earth saw his created world in categories of clean and unclean, holy and common. God was showing the separation between his holiness and humanity’s sin, and preparing the way for his Son. He had something to teach us that was drastically more important than the freedom to eat all animals. Then in the fullness of time, God sent his own Son, born under that first covenant (Galatians 4:4), and with the coming of history’s apex, and the new covenant, Jesus himself, shocking as it would have been at the time, “declared all foods clean.”
All Foods Clean
It’s just a parenthesis in our English translations of Mark 7:18–19: “‘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.)” It’s not Jesus’s main point in the passage, but serves his claim that “the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:16). But in Luke 11:41, it’s no parenthesis: “Give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you.” But what might be a minor theme in Jesus’s teaching becomes unmistakable after his resurrection.
Peter, of course, has the signature experience and pioneers the pivot. After so long under the tutelage of the law in childhood (Galatians 3:24), God’s people needed more than a parenthesis to begin to eat like adults. So, the risen Christ spoke in Acts 10 to Peter, chief among equals for the apostles, while Peter was on a housetop praying and fell into a trance.
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.” (Acts 10:10–13)
Peter is appalled and answers, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean” (Acts 10:14). To which the risen Christ responds, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15) — and it happens three times, to make sure he doesn’t miss the point.
Peter tells the story in Acts 11, and ultimately we find the main point is about Gentiles — “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28) — but the implications for expanded table fare in the new covenant are plain. Paul couldn’t be much clearer in Romans 14–15 and 1 Corinthians 8, as summed up in Colossians 2:16: “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink.”
Christianity: We have the meats.
Here at Thanksgiving, it’s worth pausing over that category of “unclean animals” that God kept from the mouths of his first-covenant people. Why did he keep Israel from eating these animals? And when we enjoy pork, shrimp, and other formerly “unclean” foods today, as new-covenant Christians, might there be something special we should keep in mind, and celebrate?
Ralph Smith, longtime pastor in Tokyo, Japan, writes these memorable lines about “victory food”:
An intelligent and godly Israelite in Joshua’s day would refuse pork not only because God said to do so — though, of course, that would have been sufficient reason — but also because he would have perceived the relationship between pigs and serpents, and because he would have understood that God forbade all animals that were similar to the tempter. If he thought deeply enough, he might have understood that serpent-like animals must not be eaten until the Messiah comes, who will defeat the devil. To eat the serpents would signify complete victory over him, but not until the Messiah comes would that victory be won. Nor would anyone be able to confess their faith in him by eating pork.
Now all has changed because the Messiah has come and won the victory. For Christians, therefore, eating pork should not merely be seen as equal to eating beef or chicken. Pork, shrimp, and other formerly unclean foods are special. They are victory foods. Foods that were unclean under the law are now clean specifically and only because of the cross of Christ. By eating what was formerly unclean, we are confessing our faith in the victory of Christ and the cross. (Victory Food)
Eating ham and bacon is not the same as turkey and beef. Not that we should forgo America’s special bird this Thanksgiving. We thank God for turkey and every longtime “clean” food, and we thank him in a special way for ham, bacon, and other previously “unclean” meats.
Sanctify the Feast
In the Christian life, eating and drinking are not insignificant. All of life, including these seemingly menial daily necessities, is glory-of-God relevant (1 Corinthians 10:31). What, how, and with whom we eat really matters (Galatians 2:11–14), and Thanksgiving and other holidays can wonderful opportunities to rediscover the lost art of feasting and the fine line between fleshly indulgence and a holy feast.
As we draw our friends and family together to the feast, we can celebrate, in the words of Paul, that “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” (1 Timothy 4:4–5).
Yes, we have the meats — turkey, beef, chicken, pork, and more. Let’s receive them with thanksgiving and sanctify them by hearing what God has said (in his word) about our food and by expressing together (in prayer) our genuine gratitude.