Pastor John, we have two related questions on prayer, possibly two podcasts: (1) Should we pray before eating? Why or why not?; and (2) How is food “made holy” by the word and prayer (1 Timothy 4:3–5)?
I think it will probably be better to break these up. I am going to talk about the second half of the question and 1 Timothy 4. I think that is so fundamental to the way we live in this world that it might fill up a podcast on its own. And then we shift over to, “Should we pray before meals?”
So, here is 1 Timothy 4:3–5, partly paraphrased and partly quoted: In the last times people will forbid marriage, which probably means sex is viewed as something of a problem here, or maybe too dirty or too fleshly or too something — too unspiritual. People are going to forbid marriage and they are going to require abstinence from foods — so eating and sex are the two issues here — “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.”
Holiness Through Abstinence?
So behind this verse, evidently, is a false teaching, a false spirituality that solves the problem of sex and food with asceticism — strict asceticism: No marriage. No eating certain foods. That is the way they are solving the problem of the temptations of sex to be controlling and to be overpowering and the temptations of food to take control of us.
“Behind 1 Timothy 4:3–5 is a false teaching, a false spirituality that solves the problem of sex and food with asceticism.”
And I find it amazing that two thousand years ago, Paul would be dealing with the two massive temptations of our own day. Several years ago, I was speaking to a group of about eight hundred missionaries at a conference. I was told that they were going to fire five missionaries for pornography that afternoon. And I said, “Really?” The mission board was going to fire them. And I said, “Okay, I need to address this.” So, I changed my plan. I addressed sexuality issues. And when I was done, a woman came up to me. So I am talking mainly to the men, right? And a woman came up to me, and she said, “If you had replaced the word sex everywhere in your talk and put the word food in, it would have landed on almost every woman in this room the way it did for men.” And I thought, really? Now, I don’t know if she is right or not, but that she said it is really significant.
So here is Paul addressing those two things. In fact, if you go to 1 Corinthians 6:12 where Paul says, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated [or enslaved] by anything,” the two things that he chooses to address in the next verses are the stomach — food — and prostitution — sex. So clearly these two huge appetites that human beings have, created by God — the sex appetite and the hunger appetite — can become idolatrous. They can become enslaving, and that is why false teachings arise. We have got to get this under control, right? We have got to figure this out. And so let’s let our best people not marry, and let’s have everybody figure out foods that they should abstain from, and we will conquer this thing with the asceticism pea-shooter.
God’s Word and Thanksgiving
And Paul said in Colossians 2, “That is not going to get anywhere.” So what is Paul’s solution? The question actually dealt with his solution. His solution was, food and sex are made holy by the word of God and prayer. And so if we ask, “What word? Do you have a word in mind, Paul? And what kind of prayer do you mean and when?” And we are not left without any pointers. I mean, the very context — verse 4 — says God created them to be “received with thanksgiving.”
So that is the prayer. The prayer is a prayer of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is the dethroning of a god and turning it into a gift, right? We have said this before. Sex is starting to get this power over us, it’s starting to exert an enslaving, godlike force on our life, and thanksgiving humbly says, “You are not a god. You are a gift from God. And I will let him determine how this gift is to be used, and I will be filled with humble thanksgiving. I will not worship you. I will receive you or not as a gift by God’s design, and I will thank him.” So thanksgiving, I think, is what is meant by the word, “It is sanctified by prayer” — prayer in the sense of, “I am thanking God for you and, therefore, you are not going to compete with God. You are going to be a means of my worship rather than a competition with my worship.”
And that leaves me with the question, Well, then, what is the word of God referenced here: “It is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:5)? And he had just said earlier in the previous verse that these things were made to be enjoyed by those who know and believe the truth. So evidently, there is truth here in the word of God that will help us not mistreat these gifts. I sat down and thought about this, and I thought, where has Paul dealt with this? And here is the one I thought of back in 1 Corinthians 10:25: “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.’”
Making a “God” into a Gift
Now what is he doing there? He is saying, “This food is clean. You may eat this food.” And how is he sanctifying it for them? He reaches to a word of God: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1).
So my general answer to the question, “What does that mean?” is if we are dealing with sex, or if we are dealing with food, we prevent them from having undue control or an undue place in our lives by bringing them both under the word of God like the earth is the Lord’s. And so you don’t need to worry that you are eating this meat that was offered to an idol. It belongs to God. He is offering it to you as a gift. And if we are saying, “Thank you” to him, we are dethroning a god and making it a gift.
So I would just have everybody put all the gifts of God — not just sex and food, but all the gifts of God — in the context of his word. Let his word define their place, and then be filled with thanksgiving, and let it overflow in prayers of gratitude.