Question and Answer

The Purpose of the Dietary Laws


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


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.

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