In the Old Testament, dietary laws prohibited the eating of shellfish:
Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams you may eat any that have fins and scales. But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to regard as unclean.Leviticus 11:9-10
But does this restriction still apply, or can Christians eat shrimp and shellfish without becoming unclean?
Christians may eat shellfish. The dietary restrictions in the Old Testament were part of the ceremonial law that was fulfilled in the work of Jesus.
Old Testament Dietary Laws
If you have read our previous article about eating pork, then you are familiar with Jewish dietary laws and their relationship to Christians. Before we continue, let’s summarize the key points from that article:
- In the Old Testament, God instituted dietary and other laws pertaining to ceremonial cleanness.
- The purpose of the ceremonial law was to set the nation of Israel apart as God’s chosen people.
- Jesus, the messiah promised to the world through Israel, fulfilled the purpose of the ceremonial law.
- Because Jesus fulfilled the law, we are no longer under the regulations of the ceremonial law.
Our prior piece made the Biblical case for specifically discontinuing the dietary laws, and pertains equally to pork and shellfish. Today, rather than repeat the same points, we expand further on two points that were only briefly addressed in the first article: cleanliness and holiness.
Clean versus Unclean
The ceremonial law uses the terms “clean” and “unclean” to describe whether or not a person is presentable to God. Though food is the topic of today’s article, people were also made unclean by certain bodily functions, by entering unclean places, or by touching unclean things.
To be made clean, a person might go through a period of waiting, a ritual washing, and/or washing of their garments depending on the nature of his uncleanness.
Some washing ceremonies utilized sacrificed animals. The blood of the sacrificed animal would then be sprinkled on or applied to the individual in order to purify him from uncleanness.
The Christian’s Cleanness
As Christians, our cleanness does not come from the repeated sacrifice of animals, but from the blood of Christ. The cleanness that we receive from Jesus is not merely an outer cleansing, but an inward cleansing that also forgives our sins.
Though the ceremonial law made distinctions between purification and forgiveness, even before Jesus’ life and death we see that purification and forgiveness are not entirely unrelated concepts, as the vision of the prophet Zechariah reveals:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”
Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.”
Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.”Zechariah 3:1-4
In this vision, the Lord declares Joshua the high priest forgiven and replaces his filthy garment with a new one to show that he has also been made clean.
This passage looks ahead to the work of Jesus, whose sacrifice is both final and complete. As the writer of Hebrews explains:
The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!Hebrews 9:13-14
In verse 14, we read that in addition to being made clean and freed from sin, we have also been made fit to serve God. In other words, we have been set apart for His work.
Jesus and Holiness
I am the Lord, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.Leviticus 11:45
We often understand “holiness” to be synonymous with “righteousness.” The two are closely related, but distinct. To be holy means to be set apart. God is holy because His perfection and His deity are unique.
So being holy—set apart for God according to His standard—is a high call. It is our lack of righteousness—right standing before God—that makes us fall short of His holiness. The ceremonial law and its ritual purification were added for a time to make God’s people outwardly clean, to show that they were visibly different and holy—set apart unto God.
Under the new covenant, holiness is imparted on us by the same blood that cleanses us and forgives us:
And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all… For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.Hebrews 10:10, 14
Jesus’ sacrifice is both complete and permanent. Because we have been made clean and holy through his blood, we no longer concern ourselves with dietary restrictions such as not eating shrimp and shellfish. Instead, we rely on the grace we’ve received in Jesus.
It was for this reason that the Lord instructed Peter to eat animals that were previously regarded as unclean in order to prepare him for a mission to the gentiles (Acts 10:14-15).
Having been made clean by Jesus’ blood, Peter was not defiled by what he ate. Likewise, having been set apart by the same blood that made him clean, Peter was able to extend God’s grace to gentiles who were also no longer regarded as unclean.
So as Christians, we are free to eat what we eat, because our cleanness and our holiness are both found in Jesus, and nowhere else.
Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming… But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do.1 Peter 1:13, 15