Eat What Is Set Before You PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Thursday, 11 February 2010 08:52

Food is hugely important in the Bible.  Adam’s first sin was a violation of a food law, Israel worshiped at a table, the altar, we have a meal at the center of our worship and life, and we’re looking ahead to the marriage supper of the lamb.  What to eat or not eat was an important issue in the Old Testament.  Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 describe and list animals, birds, and fish that could and could not be eaten.  Food rules became especially important during and after the Maccabean Revolt, when some Jews were martyred for refusing to eat unclean food.

By the time of the first century A.D., many Jews were consumed (!) with the issue of food, so much so that Jacob Neusner has called Pharisaism primarily a table fellowship movement.  Eating unclean foods defiled; eating with unwashed hands defiled; eating untithed food defiled; eating with Gentiles, and even eating with less-than-pure Jews defiled.  Pharisees wanted to avoid defilement, and that meant paying a lot of attention to food.

It’s not surprising that Jesus’ meal habits and teaching on food, and especially the freedom of the apostles in eating with Gentiles, caused a ruckus in the first century.  Jesus was not challenging some marginal issue when, as Mark says, he said that defilement comes from the heart not through the mouth, and when he declared all foods clean (Mark 7:1-23).  Peter was acting like a typical Jew when he first objected to the Lord’s command to “kill and eat” (Acts 10-11), and was, unfortunately, still acting as a Jew when he refused to sit down with Gentiles (Galatians 2).

Over against the Pharisaical obsession with purity of food and table fellowship, Paul insisted that foods do not commend us to God or distance us from Him (1 Corinthians 8:8), and in Christ believers are as free from rules of food and drink as they are from rules concerning new moons and Sabbaths (Colossians 2:16).  The Old Covenant, Hebrews tells us, gave regulations concerning food and drink, regulations for the flesh until the time of reformation that Jesus brings (Hebrews 9:10).

This doesn’t mean that food becomes less important in the New Covenant.  We still are under “food laws,” but the shape and telos of those food laws have been transformed.  We are required to eat Christ’s flesh and drink His blood if we want to have life (John 6).  Our table companions still matter, and they matter a lot.  But instead of Pharisaical exclusion, Jesus commands a generous expansion of hospitality.  We are to invite the impure and outcasts to our tables, strangers (Matthew 25:38) and those who cannot pay us back with reciprocal hospitality (Luke 7:9-15).

Does it matter what we eat?  Paul addresses that question too.  In 1 Corinthians, he addresses the question of meat sacrificed to idols.  Priests in ancient pagan temples, like the priests in the temple in Jerusalem, slaughtered animals and burned portions on altars in sacrifice.  Some of the meat, however, was left over and offered for sale in the meat market.  In a city like Corinth, in fact, most of the available meat had come from animals that had been offered to idols, and in the Corinthians church there were some former idolaters who were hesitant to eat this meat.  Accustomed to worshiping idols, they worried that eating meat from a sacrifice would defile them.  And Paul agrees: If one eats thinking he will be defiled, his conscience actually is defiled (1 Corinthians 8:7).

Paul knows better, and so do many of the Corinthians.  He knows that there is only one God, and one Lord, Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 8:5-6).  He knows that idols are nothing (v. 4).  Because of this knowledge, his conscience is strong.  One commentator says that for Paul conscience is a kind of scanner that sets off a warning bell or blinking lights when a person comes close to doing something he considers immoral.  Someone with a lot of knowledge has a “strong” conscience; he knows that there are no idols, and that all things come from God, and so his scope of action is quite wide.  Few things set off the warning bell, because “all things are lawful” (1 Corinthians 10:23).  Other Christians – who are fully brothers and children of God for whom Christ died (1 Corinthians 8:6, 11) – do not have this knowledge.  They fear that idols might exist, and so their freedom to act is more limited.  Bells and whistles go off every time they pass a shrine or a meat market.

Knowledge varies, but knowledge is not what matters here.  Paul begins 1 Corinthians 8 by contrasting love and knowledge.  He knows that the two are not absolutely opposed, but they are opposed when it comes to food.  In this area, and in many others no doubt, Paul says that knowledge is radically subordinated to love.  A person with much knowledge, and a strong conscience, ought not act on that knowledge.  Rather, he should follow Paul’s apostolic example and act out of concern for his brother.  If eating meat encourages a less knowledgeable brother to violate his conscience, then Paul will refuse to eat meat.  He’d rather use his freedom in Christ to become a vegetarian than to harm a brother for whom Christ died, and so “sin against Christ” Himself (1 Corinthians 8:11-12).

A few chapters later, Paul returns to this question.  While he exhorts the Corinthians not to participate in idolatrous worship, he says that eating meat from the meat market is lawful.  “Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake” (10:25), he says, and adds that even when Christians eat at the home of an unbeliever they should “eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake” (10:27).  Again, however, the rule of love molds the expression of this freedom.  If eating sacrificial meat is offensive to a brother, Paul says, don’t eat, for the sake of his conscience (10:28-29).  In short, “let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor” (10:24).

There are many other important questions concerning food, but the New Testament lays out a clear set of basics.  We are to share our food with the hungry (Isaiah 58; Matthew 25).  We are to manifest Christ’s own hospitality at our tables.  What we eat does not make us either impure or holy (1 Corinthians 8:8).  We are to eat what is set before us, giving thanks to God, the one who is the Lord of the earth and all it contains.  Whatever else we think about and do with food, whatever other habits we cultivate and whatever decisions we make, all have to be consistent with and extensions of these apostolic directives.

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