Last week in Part I of our series, we took a look at the role that food played in the Old Testament, setting apart those who served God from those who did not. We examined how being set apart in such a seemingly unimportant way can trigger questions in the minds of those around us that open opportunities to talk about God. But is this still what God wants from us today? It’s a question which plagued the early Church and is worth, at the very least, a few minutes of our time.
If you’ve spent much time reading the New Testament, you’re probably familiar with the story found in Acts 11:1-10. Having gone up to the roof to pray, the Apostle Peter was given a vision of a sheet descending from heaven with all manner of beasts inside. A voice spoke to him telling him to eat, but being a good Israelite, he quickly objected. After all, some of the beasts in the vision were “unclean” and, as a careful follower of God, he could not in good conscience disobey a very clear command. Three times the vision appeared and each time, the voice responded to his objections with the words, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” (Acts 11:9)
The message, of course, had as much to do with accepting uncircumcised Gentiles into the newborn Church as it did with food, but still, this lifting of an ancient command left the young Christians to sort out what must have felt like a muddled mess. Did Peter’s vision mean that Jewish believers ought not to obey the dietary laws? Were pork and shellfish to be a part of regular church meetings? What about food which had been previously sacrificed to idols? And how were conflicts to be resolved when two parties disagreed about what should or shouldn’t be eaten?
In the end, a church council was called (you can read the account in Acts 15) and the Apostle James suggested that in regard to Gentiles entering the Church that they need only obey three of the dietary laws: “abstain from things contaminated by idols… and from what is strangled and from blood.” (Acts 15:20) But this still didn’t answer questions regarding whether Jewish believers ought to simply ditch the old dietary laws or what ought to be done when Jewish believers and Gentile believers ate together or with others who didn’t share their faith.
Resolving these conflicts fell largely to the Apostle Paul who seems to have spent nearly as much time sorting out the Church’s dining arrangements as he did actually preaching the Gospel. But then again, when what you ate could have a real impact upon how receptive others were to your message, it was worth the time necessary to make sure that everyone was “eating from the same menu”. The solutions he provided are important to our study, largely because Paul’s words concerning the diet of a faithful Christian continue to have as much an influence upon modern believers as they did upon those living in ancient Rome.
Next week, we’ll take a look at a few of the key principles set forth by Paul, but in the meantime, feel free to share your own thoughts on the subject in the comment box below!