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Question and Answer

The Purpose of the Dietary Laws

Question:

What was the purpose of the dietary laws in the Old Testament?

Answer:

Recently you submitted a question to the OPC website related to the purpose of the dietary laws in the Old Testament. I am one of the pastors who gives responses to these questions, and am happy to share a little perspective.

Your question arises at a good time, since I have recently been preaching on Acts 10, where Peter saw the vision of the sheet with all sorts of unclean animals. He was told to “arise, kill and eat.” He balked at that command, since nothing unclean or unholy had ever entered his mouth. Hence, I’ve been thinking about this topic in relation to my studies and preaching.

The basic purpose of the dietary laws was to establish a distinction between the people of God and the people of this world. While Gentiles ate anything and everything, the Jews had a very strict code going back to Leviticus 11. The final verses of that chapter summarize as follows:

You shall not make yourselves detestable with any swarming thing that swarms, and you shall not defile yourselves with them, and become unclean through them. For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” This is the law about beast and bird and every living creature that moves through the waters and every creature that swarms on the ground, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean and between the living creature that may be eaten and the living creature that may not be eaten. (Lev. 11:43–47)

The people of God were to be clean and holy—set apart to the Lord their God. Their lives were to share in his holiness, and one of the ways that was manifested was in their diet. This is a major theme of the Old Testament—distinguishing between the clean and the unclean, between the holy and the common. When things were unclean, they needed to go through cleansing rituals. When clean common things were to be used for holy purposes, they needed then to go through sanctification rituals. Thus, the people of God were to be holy and to remain holy, because the Lord our God is holy.

Let me also briefly say that the purpose was not for “good nutrition.” That idea has been floating around for a long time, but that was never the purpose in the Old Testament. When the dietary laws were abrogated by Christ, the nutritional value of formerly unclean foods did not change.

It is also important to realize that in the New Covenant we are no longer under the dietary laws. Those were made null and void by Jesus, which Peter and the apostles then recognized in the book of Acts. The ceremonial law of the Old Covenant era is fulfilled in Christ. Those laws still point us to our Savior, though we are not bound to obey them.

For this reason, it is fair to say that Presbyterians can eat anything they want to eat, so long as they do so in moderation and with thanksgiving to God.

I hope this answers your question.


About Q&A

"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. The answers come from individual ministers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church expressing their own convictions and do not necessarily represent an "official" position of the Church, especially in areas where the Standards of the Church (the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) are silent.

The questions come from individuals like yourself. If you have questions about biblical and theological matters, you are invited to send them by e-mail by using the "Pose a Question" link on the OPC home page or by clicking here.

At least one new question is posted each week, so there should always be something new here for you to read. (For those people who would like to look at previous questions and answers, they will continue to be available as well.)

The purpose of the OPC website's "Questions and Answers" is to respond to biblical and theological questions. Matters of church discipline, disputes, or debates go beyond the scope of our work. We recommend that you present your concerns in these areas to the appropriate judicatory. In most cases this will be to a local pastor, elder, or session. We do not want the website to replace personal involvement in, or commitment to, the local, visible church.

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You will receive an answer by e-mail. Please be patient as many of our respondents are busy pastors. The response to your question may take up to two (2) weeks. Some of the questions submitted will be chosen to be posted here, along with the corresponding answers.

Note that the "Questions and Answers" posted on the site have been edited—all personal references are removed, Scripture references or from some source may be added, and sometimes portions are expanded—to make the questions and answers more useful to a larger audience.

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