Should We Obey Old Testament Law?
Happy Friday everyone. Today we have a question from Wilmie, a listener. “Good afternoon Pastor John! I’m from South Africa, and I would really like to know whether it is sinful for me to eat pork and bacon? This topic has actually brought my marriage a lot of heartache, as my husband is a firm believer of the Laws of Moses. And although he does not keep them all, pork is a big no-no for him.”
There have always been groups of Christians who believe that in order to honor God’s authority in the Old Testament we must continue to obey the food laws and other ceremonial laws, lest we be found in disobedience. There is a good impulse in this and a profoundly bad impulse in this. 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.
“In the Old Testament, God always intended for the consummation and end of the ceremonial laws.”
So, the good impulse starts, perhaps, with a text like Matthew 5:17–18. Jesus says, “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.” And the good impulse puts the emphasis on every dot, every iota of the law standing until the earth passes away. And the bad impulse neglects the words, I have come “to fulfill them,” and the words, “until all is accomplished.”
In other words, the bad impulse fails to see in Jesus the kind of fulfillment and the kind of 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.
“Prohibiting certain foods as unclean was a temporary part of God’s making Israel distinct from the nations.”
Let’s be specific now. Take the laws about foods in the Old Testament — unclean foods, which include pork. Jesus said something very specific about this in Mark 7:15–19. He said this:
“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.)
Now, there is the key text for our friend. In other words, 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. With the coming of Christ, dramatic changes take place in the way God governs his people, because we are no longer a political-ethnic people like the Jews were, but a global people from every tribe and language and ethnicity and race.
“If you make pork eating necessary for justification or spiritual maturity, you cut yourself off from Christ.”
With that dramatic change, Christians are woven into every culture on the planet and face hundreds of ethical dilemmas about what aspects of those cultures to share — what to eat, what not to eat, when to eat, how to eat — but God never solves that problem of being distinct from the world, which we still should be by preserving the Old Testament ceremonial laws of circumcision and food laws. You can read about it in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 — how Paul went about wrestling with those issues. And that wasn’t the way he did it; namely, by sending everybody back to the laws of the Old Testament.
This is what the dispute behind the book of Galatians is all about. What is the place of circumcision and days and months and years (Galatians 4:10)? Now Paul’s position in Galatians is that circumcision is of no effect. And then he says, “ In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything” — in spite of the command in the Old Testament to be circumcised, it doesn’t count for anything — “but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). And he could have just as easily said: Neither pork eating nor non-pork eating counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
“When you have Christ as your Treasure and your all-satisfying food, you are free to eat pork or not.”
So, we are free to eat pork, but Galatians 5:2 makes it stunningly clear what we are not free to do with pork. Here is what it says: “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” Whoa! I thought you said it doesn’t matter whether we have circumcision or not. You can have it or not have it. You said that in verse 6. What Paul means is: If you embrace circumcision (or pork eating) as a new law, a new necessity for justification — or, in the case of the Galatians, even a new necessity for ongoing, real, mature, spiritual, genuine Christian maturity — you are cutting yourself off from Christ. And that is serious.
The final answer is: If a person chooses not to eat pork for various nutritional reasons or preference, that is no big deal. You are free to eat or not to eat. But the moment that abstinence is invested with biblical authority as the path of obedience of maturity or salvation, a line is crossed that contradicts Christ and the gospel. Paul says in Colossians 2:16–17, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food or drink. . . . These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” When you have Christ as your Treasure and your all-satisfying food, you are free to eat pork or not.