Even to those who have not studied the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, one of their most familiar aspects is their dietary laws. Muslims and Jews alike are known for their prohibitions against eating pork.
But what about Christians? Are we free to eat pork, or should we adhere to similar dietary restrictions? And if we are allowed to eat pork, when and why did this change happen?
Christians are permitted to eat pork and other food that are regarded as unclean under Jewish and Islamic dietary laws. The work of Jesus and the establishment of his New Covenant have fulfilled the objective of the Levitical ceremonial laws.
Old Testament Laws
As mentioned above, Christianity does not prohibit pork consumption as the other Abrahamic religions do. But the question is worth considering, as Christianity has its roots in the Jewish religion, and includes the Hebrew Scriptures in the Christian Bible.
So to fully understand the question, let’s examine the dietary laws found in the Old Testament.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Of all the animals that live on land, these are the ones you may eat: You may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud.’” – Leviticus 11:1-3
Leviticus 11 lists several unclean animals and forbids the Israelites from consuming them in any way. Included among these in verse 7 is the pig, which does not chew the cud, and thus does not qualify as clean.
In addition to pork, other animals that are readily consumed (though some less commonly than others) had one been forbidden, including rabbits, snakes, shellfish, and camels.
That pork is singled out as the subject of today’s question is more a reflection on its prominence as a food source in our culture than on any property unique to pigs. But if we examine some of the dangers of consuming pork (and other ceremonially unclean animals), we find that such animals carry an increased risk of transmitting diseases to humans if they are not raised, harvested, and prepared properly.
21st-century Christians are often quick to point to God’s care for His people through dietary laws. However, it would be arrogant for us to assume that God instituted the law simply as a placeholder until we figured out the science of food safety. So we must consider the larger purpose and function of the Levitical dietary laws.
Dietary laws were one section of a much broader set of laws that addressed many aspects of life in ancient times. In addition to dealing with food, Levitical law addressed mold and mildew, skin diseases, menstruation, and proper disposal of the deceased. So it helps us to consider cleanliness laws in their broader context.
As we do so, we encounter a system of sacrifices and processes for unclean people to become clean, specific to the nature of a person’s uncleanness. And we find other regulations woven throughout that we might not interpret as having anything to do with cleanliness (such as the fabric makeup of garments) but were still subject to similar prohibitions.
Set Apart as God’s People
The primary purpose of the ceremonial law, in its broadest application, was to set Israel apart as God’s people. The law established a fully functional and interdependent community among ancient Israel, while simultaneously distinguishing them from the surrounding nations.
The people of Israel dressed differently, avoided certain practices (particularly worship rituals) that were common to their neighbors, and (as we are examining in this article) ate differently.
But there was another function that was served by the ceremonial law, which helps us understand why the dietary restrictions (and other rituals) were set aside by Christians. The ceremonial law also was designed to point to the future life and work of Jesus, who would come to fulfill the law.
Jesus and the Law
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” – Matthew 5:17
The Levitical law served the important function of revealing our inability to conquer sin on our own. Every sacrifice and every cleansing ritual lasted only for a short time. That is, until Jesus became the fulfillment of the ceremonial law.
Hebrews 10:1-18 describes how Jesus fulfilled the law. Unblemished by sin, Jesus became our perfect sacrifice when he died on the cross. And His sacrifice makes all who are covered by his blood completely and irrevocably clean before God.
And so, under the new covenant established in the work of Jesus, the cleanliness rituals and sacrifices of the Levitical law no longer have any function. Human effort cannot add anything to Jesus’ completed work that would make it more complete.
The work was finished when Jesus finished it.
In Jesus’ Own Words
During his earthly ministry, Jesus’ teachings frequently clarified the heart and character of God underlying the words of the law. And so, he was often at odds with the religious leaders, who followed the words of the law with strict legalism.
In Mark 7, we read one such interaction relating to food customs. Some Pharisees had challenged Jesus, asking why his disciples were eating without first washing, according to their tradition.
Jesus, in response, rebuked the Pharisees for placing tradition above the commands of God, declaring that ‘nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.’
He later expounded on this point in conversation with his disciples and further explained that food goes into the stomach, rather than the heart. But real defilement is seen in what comes out of the heart, including evil thoughts such as murder, greed, envy, and lewdness.
A New Way to be Set Apart
As mentioned above, the other function of the ceremonial law was to set the people of Israel apart as God’s people chosen for His purposes. And the dietary laws of Israel made eating with people of other nations practically impossible.
The Jews of Jesus’ day still isolated themselves from the Gentiles when it came time to eat. And some of Jesus’ disciples were slow to understand how his death and resurrection would break down these barriers.
That is, until Jesus’ used the Jewish dietary laws as the centerpiece of a vision that he supplied Peter, instructing him to extend full fellowship to the Gentiles.
Acts 10 records Peter’s vision, where the Lord had lowered a sheet of unclean animals, instructing him to kill and eat the animals. When Peter objected on the basis of tradition, the Lord rebuked him, saying ‘Do not call unclean what I have made clean’ (v 15). And with this vision, God sent Peter to the house of the Roman centurion, Cornelius, extending the body of Christ beyond the people of Israel.
The dietary laws of Leviticus served a purpose. But in Jesus, that purpose has been fully revealed and completed. We’ve been given a new identity in Jesus and made clean once and for all by his blood. It is the presence of Christ in us that sets us apart as his ambassadors, living in and among the world. And so there is no need for Christians to return to the bondage of the ancient traditions.