As I mentioned yesterday, God details his kosher law in his covenant with Israel. This week we are studying Deuteronomy 14:1-21, and yesterday we looked at the fairly extensive list of animals that God declares clean or unclean for Israel. But what about Christians? Are we to apply kosher law to our lives? Let’s look at a few places in the New Testament that refer to kosher law.
First, Jesus mentions the cleanliness laws in Mark 7:1-23. Go ahead and read that before continuing here. What did you notice? In Deuteronomy 14 we see that it was certain animals that God said made the people unclean. Things, animals, outside the people made the people unclean. Jesus flips that and says, “No, it’s what is already inside you that is unclean, and it is revealed when you let it out of your heart.” See that list of evil actions in Mark 7, verses 21-22? When you notice those actions coming out of you, that should concern you, Jesus says, not pig’s meat.
Interesting, then, Mark’s little comment there in verse 19, saying that Jesus declared all foods clean! Yes, we can eat pork and ham!!!
Now turn to Acts 10, where at this point, the church is still very new, very Jewish, and very much centered in the city Jerusalem. They’ve made little inroads outside the borders of Israel, but not much. Because God’s mission was to reach the whole world, to accomplish that mission those original Christians needed a little push. In the Jewish mindset people were clean if they Jewish and unclean if they were anyone else. So to this point, maybe 3-5 years old, the church hadn’t taken much initiative to follow Jesus’ command that they were to be his witnesses not only in Jerusalem and Judea, but to the whole world. Those original Christians were thinking Jewish. Kosher.
So God needs to step in and remind them of what Jesus already taught back there in Mark 7. But here’s a shocker: when God steps in, who does he first reach out to? A guy who isn’t Jewish and who isn’t Christian! Read Acts 10:1-8 and see for yourself. God gives a guy named Cornelius a vision telling Cornelius to find and talk to a guy named Peter. But Cornelius isn’t a Jew. Instead he is a Roman Centurion, a soldier, the very people that have persecuted Jews, occupying their land! Here’s the thing though: Cornelius isn’t your average Roman soldier. We read that he was actually God-fearing and very generous to the Jews in the area he controlled. God’s choice, then, to reveal himself to Cornelius is perfect, and we’ll see why as the story unfolds. God isn’t done! Read Acts 10:9-16, and you discover that God reaches out to Peter too, also in a vision, and in that vision God specifically refers to the kosher lists in Deuteronomy 14. It’s quite a dramatic scene, and Peter is shaken to his core.
You see what God is doing? He is saying, “Peter, all those lists of clean and unclean animals were for a day that has come and gone. That was kosher thinking. You are under a new covenant. I define holiness a different way now.”
Peter should have known this, as he would have heard Jesus talked about it a lot, like the time I mentioned above in Mark 7. But when you are dealing with a deeply entrenched cultural value, it is hard to see things a new way. Peter tells God that he had never, ever, in his whole life, eaten something unclean. I don’t believe Peter is exaggerating. So for Peter to have a vision is shocking enough, but for the message of the vision to be an overturning of the practice of holiness, it seems wrong to Peter.
A few years ago at Faith Church, I had a man from the congregation approach me with an outreach idea. He was a ballroom dance instructor in his professional life, and he felt that if the church offered beginning dance classes for free to the community, it would be a big hit, and a great way for the church to connect with the community. He would teach a 4-week series of classes as an experiment. Inwardly, I doubted his opinion, but I loved his creativity and initiative and said, “Let’s propose the idea to the Outreach Team!” One of the people on the Outreach Team was extremely concerned with the idea, having a super hard time with the image of dancing in a church fellowship hall. This person said to me that growing up, there was no dancing allowed in the church. The perspective was very much like Peter’s, except that while Peter’s was based on actual law, the person in my church grew up with a no-dancing perspective based on tradition. I responded to the person that it is absolutely okay to dance in a church fellowship hall, that the perspective they grew up with was actually wrong, and further, this was going to be tasteful, classy dancing. The Outreach Team approved the idea, publicized it to the community, and to my surprise and delight, on the first night, so many couples showed up, we had to turn some away!
Over the next few years, I believe God opened the eyes of some people at Faith Church who grew up in a no-dancing tradition. In Acts 10-11 God opened Peter’s eyes too. At the time, Peter was the leader of the church, and motivated by God’s vision, begins a new initiative pursuing the mission of God to love all people. God has been using the kosher law as a metaphor, encouraging Peter not only to see that now all foods are clean, but also that all people are clean in God’s eye, “clean” in the sense that God wants Peter and his church to reach out to pagan people like Cornelius. So for Peter it is now not just okay to eat all foods, but also to share the message of the Good News of Jesus to all people. You can read for yourself how Peter and the church respond to this shocking news. What I want us to consider here is the ramification for our lives. Because Jesus has reversed the kosher law for us, does that mean we are now free to live however we want?
Jesus himself addressed that question in Matthew 5:48 when he quoted a famous passage in the Old Covenant, “Be holy, as your heavenly father is holy.” Originally, when he preached that, Jesus was talking to Jews who were still living under the terms of the Old Covenant between God and Israel. At the time, Jesus himself, had not died and rose again, and thus God had not fully enacted the New Covenant with the Church. So are we Christians to live holy lives? Check back in tomorrow to part 5, and we’ll see!