Peter and Paul: Defenders of Clean and Unclean
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
The Apostles Peter and Paul have been given an untrue and bad reputation as having contradicted the dietary instructions of Leviticus 11 (to clarify more about why this is not true, read the articles on the Commonly Misunderstood Verses page on Acts chapters 10 and 11, Rom. 14:14-21, I Cor. 10:25-29, and I Timothy 4:1-6). Also, feel free to read the article “Understanding the Apostle Paul” (click here to read).
In reality, BOTH writers were ardent defenders of this truth! To understand how, we must have some background information about this subject. As reviewed in the article “How Does God Define Food?”, clean and unclean animals are first mentioned in Genesis 7:2-3. God made these animals with this distinction. At the end of Leviticus chapter 11, we learn more about these animals and the primary reason God gave them.
Leviticus 11:43-47 – “43 Do not defile yourselves by any of these creatures. Do not make yourselves unclean by means of them or be made unclean by them. 44 I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. Do not make yourselves unclean by any creature that moves along the ground. 45 I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy. 46 These are the regulations concerning animals, birds, every living thing that moves about in the water and every creature that moves along the ground. 47 You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten.”
The primary reason God gave this distinction is for His people to be holy – that means set apart for God’s purposes. Understanding the difference between clean and unclean and abstaining from unclean animals is one aspect of living a holy life – and being more like God. This is repeated in Leviticus 20:25-26: 25 “‘You must therefore make a distinction between clean and unclean animals and between unclean and clean birds. Do not defile yourselves by any animal or bird or anything that moves along the ground—those that I have set apart as unclean for you. 26 You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”
Whenever you see references to holiness or sanctification in Peter and Paul’s letters, they are referencing verses such as these. Eating is a common action and we need to be reminded to be holy in this aspect of life.
In Romans 6:19-22, Paul wrote: “19 I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. 20 When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21 What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”
In these verses, Paul discussed our old life before Christ and then compared it to our new life in Christ. Speaking of our old life, he said that we used to be slaves to impurity and ever-increasing wickedness. The Greek word translated as impurity is akatharsia, and it refers to actions of uncleanness, including eating unclean animal meat. The Greek words translated as ‘ever increasing wickedness’ is actually the Greek word anomia written twice. It means lawlessness or transgression of God’s law. Our new life is supposed to result in holiness, which includes abstaining from unclean animal meat. This is one obvious reference to the distinction between clean and unclean animals.
Another place Paul mentions this issue is 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1.
“14 Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness (or lawlessness) have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? 15 What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” 17 “Therefore come out from them and be separate,” says the Lord. “Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” 18 “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” 7:1 Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” (Emphasis mine throughout)
In this passage, we are again directly commanded to abstain from unclean animals. This is another obvious instruction from the Apostle Paul to continue to follow Leviticus 11 and 20:25-26. He concluded this section of scripture by emphasizing holiness. Abstaining from unclean animals is purifying the body and spirit. Remember this is a moral and spiritual issue in God’s sight.
Lastly, Paul wrote in I Thessalonians 4:7, “For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness” (KJV). Our calling is to live a life free from uncleanness.
Another writer in the Bible that strongly defends the dietary laws is Peter. In Acts chapters 10 and 11, he affirmed that he never ate anything unclean. But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean” (Acts 10:14) and “I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth'” (Acts 11:8). This is proof positive that Jesus never taught anyone to eat unclean animals.
In his first letter, he quoted Leviticus 11 and 20. In I Peter 1:13-16, he wrote, “13 Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be Holy, because I am holy.”
In verse 15, Peter said to be holy in everything because Christ is holy. That means we should be holy in all aspects of our lives. This means we must be holy in the way we think, speak, work, and even the way we eat. He wrote: “for it is written”. We must realize that Peter is quoting from something that is already written down for us in the Old Testament.
This quote is found three places in the Old Testament. Two of them are in Leviticus 11 and 20 (quoted above in bold). The third is Leviticus 19:1-3: “The Lord said to Moses, 2 ‘Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy. 3 Each of you must respect your mother and father, and you must observe my Sabbaths. I am the Lord your God.”
Peter refers us to three passages in Leviticus. Two of them have to do with how we eat. The other focuses on the Sabbath and how we treat our parents. After instructing believers to be holy in everything, Peter points us to a passage giving us specific instructions on holy living. Eating is a common action.
Peter continues to refer to this subject in the next chapter. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (I Peter 2:9). In this verse, Peter tells us that we are called to be a royal priesthood. What does it mean to be a priest?
One of the main duties of a Levitical priest was to distinguish between clean and unclean animals (Leviticus 10:10-11). In Ezekiel chapter 44, God talks about priests in the Kingdom of God. Among them is to “teach my people the difference between the holy and the common and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean” (verse 23).
In conclusion, consider the audience to which I Peter is referenced. I Peter 1:1 reads: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia…”. Peter wrote this letter to believers in predominately Gentile areas, including Galatia! There were cities in Galatia that did not have little if any Jewish population! This means he was quoting the book of Leviticus to these Gentile converts so they could study what it means to be holy. He was pointing them to clean and unclean. Many have supposed that Peter only preached to the Jewish people. Peter was the Apostle to the Jews (Galatians 2:8), but he also ministered to Gentiles. Similarly, Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles, but he often ministered in Jewish synagogues.
Neither Peter nor Paul did away with the dietary commandments. On the contrary, they both upheld them. This is evident both by their example and the letters they wrote.
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org