Jesus Declared All Foods Clean, Right?
One of the most misunderstood verses of the entire Bible…
Most people have been raised to believe that Jesus declared all foods clean.
But is that the truth? Did Jesus actually tell us we could eat anything we want?
Let’s find out:
Following the Evidence
The Jewish people of the Old Testament had very specific dietary laws which guided their everyday lives. Among other things, they were not allowed to eat the flesh, organs, eggs or milk from certain types of animals.
These culinary regulations, detailed in Leviticus 11 and commonly referred to today as the Biblical Kosher Food Laws, were the mainstay in Jewish daily life and were followed generation after generation, all the way up until the time of Jesus.
The Gospels clearly imply that Jesus and his disciples followed God’s dietary law (at a minimum) and to this day many Jewish (and Christian) people around the world still follow it.
Most of us, however, have been taught that Christianity allows for the consumption of all food, and regardless of where it originates from, there is no need to follow kosher dietary laws any longer.
So ingrained in Western Christian culture is this “all is permissible” dietary ethos that the vast majority of American and Canadian Christians have never even questioned the issue before. And for those who have, the answer given usually centers around Mark 7:18-19.
“Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)” Mark 7:18-19 (NIV)
The Truth vs. What We Want the Truth To Be
Are we open to what the Bible is actually trying to teach us or do we sometimes have a tendency to interpret biblical passages in a way that conforms to our own customs and habits?
When determining if Jesus actually declared all types of food “clean” and permissible to eat, including all types of meat, there is ample evidence in both Mark 7 and other New Testament passages that Jesus was not at all saying this, but rather was using it as a metaphor to explain that purity and righteousness rests in the heart, not in religious ritual or customary habit.
To put it in laymen’s terms, Jesus is saying that if you eat food that is not perfectly clean, your digestive system will clean it. Dirt and other impurities from not washing your hands does not make you unclean. What makes you unclean are things like evil thoughts, murder, adultery, greed, envy and arrogance.
There are three passages in the Gospels and Acts that pertain to whether or not Jesus declared all food permissible to be eaten: Mark chapter 7, Matthew chapter 15, and Acts chapters 10-11.
The passages from Mark and Matthew are parallel accounts of the same occurrence, when Jesus reprimanded the Pharisees who were criticizing the disciples for not washing their hands before eating. Acts 10-11 describes a vision Peter had before travelling to Caesarea to meet a high ranking Roman centurion.
Matthew Solves the Riddle
The first two verses of Matthew 15 describe what led to Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees later in the chapter: “Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”
Jesus’ rebuke was swift and to the point:
7 “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
8 ‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
9 They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’”
Jesus explains the point further by saying in verses 10 and 11, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”
Because Jesus and his disciples followed God’s dietary laws and were speaking to fellow Jews, he could not have been referring to any foods that were not a part of the Jewish dietary laws.
We also know that when Jesus was brought to Caiaphas before his crucifixion, the Pharisees could not produce any evidence that he had broken any Jewish law, so they had to bring forth false witnesses. Had Jesus declared all foods clean when reprimanding the Pharisees during this occurrence, he would have been blatantly breaking Jewish law.
The Pharisees would have shouted it at the top of their lungs when trying to give Caiaphas examples when Jesus had broken Jewish law. Even Pilate, after interrogating Jesus himself, declared that Jesus had not broken any laws.
Do you really think they would have forgotten to mention Jesus so blatantly breaking Jewish law?
Finally, in verse 19-20, Jesus removes all doubt what the discussion is about:
19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”
The lesson that Jesus was clearly teaching was that pleasing God requires a pure heart, not blind adherence to man-made laws. He explained this by showing that whether or not the disciples washed their hands prior to a meal (as was the tradition of the elders), it had nothing to do with righteousness in God’s eyes.
The entire discussion had nothing to do with food and not one time is clean or unclean food mentioned.
Mark 7 and a Difficult Passage
Mark 7 tells the same story as Matthew 15. Again, Jesus explains to the disciples and crowd that ceremonial washing is not necessary to please God. He points out that any incidental dirt or impurities not removed through hand-washing will be purged out by the human digestive system in a manner that has no bearing on the heart or mind of a person.
“Whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods” (Mark 7:18-19).
Immediately after this verse is the parenthetical addendum that has led billions of people to believe the passage is about food: “(In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean).”
Many Bible scholars have concluded that interpreting the story as put forth in both Matthew and Mark as Jesus declaring all food as clean is totally erroneous.
Both passages have nothing to do with food. They both describe the same historical occurrence in which Jesus explains that ceremonial hand washing and performing other religious man-made traditions have nothing to do with being righteous in God’s eyes.
Peter's Vision Proves It
Acts chapters 10 and 11 are often referred to as Peter’s Vision. In this account, Peter has a dream in which a huge sheet full of animals (including unclean animals) is lowered from heaven, and a voice says, "Rise, Peter; kill and eat." to which Peter replies, "Surely not, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean" (Acts 10:14). The voice then responds, "What God has cleansed you must not call common" (Acts 10:15).
As with interpreting the passages from Matthew and Mark, we must look at the surrounding verses (Acts 10 and 11 in this case) and the context to determine the meaning.
If I were to say, “I would never say that I hate all people”, and someone later writes a story claiming that Jason said “I hate all people”, is that an accurate representation of what I said? Of course not. It is out of context.
Similarly, we can’t simply pull one verse out of scripture and claim we have God’s final word on the matter. We must look at the context.
It is crystal clear from reading both chapters of Acts that the entire story is a metaphor for how Peter should begin preaching to both Jews and Gentiles.
Although Gentiles were once seen as unclean from a Jewish perspective, Peter should no longer call Gentiles unclean. Peter's Vision must be understood in context to be interpreted correctly. The story is really about the conversion of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, the first Gentile baptized into God's church.
It is apparent from the text that Peter, at first, doesn’t understand what his vision meant (Acts 10:17). While he is pondering the vision, a delegation from Cornelius arrives and requests that he travel with them to Caesarea to meet the centurion. God then tells Peter directly to go with the men.
When he finally meets Cornelius and his family, Peter explains to them that although it was against his culture to meet with Gentiles, God had shown him that he should not call any man common or unclean. At which point, after hearing his own words, he begins to understand the meaning of the vision.
He realizes that when God had said, “What God has cleansed you must not call common,” the unclean animals were a metaphor to represent the perceived spiritual uncleanness of gentiles.
After coming to this realization, Peter then says to Cornelius and his family: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
It is very clear after reviewing the context and texts of Mark 7, Matthew 15, and Acts 10-11 that God is declaring that all people are worthy of his love and forgiveness and that a pure heart is the path to God, not hollow, customary deeds.
When all three passages are analyzed together, other proofs emerge showing that Jesus had not declared all foods clean. For example, if Jesus had declared all foods clean as so many in the Church currently teach, why would Peter have needed to be reminded of it when he received his vision later in Acts?
Peter had lived with Jesus for years and was one of Jesus’ closest disciples. He was present when Jesus reprimanded the Pharisees concerning the hand-washing tradition and supposedly told us that all foods are clean.
If anyone would have known that Jesus had declared all foods clean to eat, it would have been Peter and he would not have needed reminding through a vision from God.
Would God Really Have Wanted This?
When one sees the horror and suffering that animals are forced to endure on today’s factory farms--never seeing the light of day, living in their own excrement, and packed so tightly together they can hardly breathe, one must ask themselves, is this what God wants for his Creation?
Are we ambassadors of His love, mercy, and righteousness by allowing these fully sentient, innocent creatures to suffer such pain and misery?
Moreover, when we read in the book of Genesis that the world God intended, the one He created without sin, didn’t allow the consumption of animals for food, how can we say that we are trying to live without sin when we knowingly eat animals and contribute to their suffering without necessity?
Animal agriculture is the number one cause of pollution in the world, the number one cause of water usage in the world, the number one cause of deforestation in the world, the number one cause of antibiotic usage in the world, and according to many experts, the number one cause of suffering in the world.
Have you ever looked into the eyes of an animal as she is being killed? As she screams in horror and struggles to free herself, as the life leaves her terrified eyes, ask yourself, is this what God intended when He created the world? And then ask yourself, am I being godly, righteous, and pure--as Jesus calls us to be-- when I am the cause of her suffering and death?
Did Jesus declare all foods clean? No. And may we now no longer use it as excuse to cause suffering to God's creation.