Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he [Christ] is righteous. 1 JOHN 3:7

Antinomianism, which means being “anti-law,” is a name for several views that have denied that God’s law in Scripture should directly control the Christian’s life.

Dualistic antinomianism appears in the Gnostic heretics against whom Jude and Peter wrote (Jude 4–19; 2 Pet. 2). This view sees salvation as for the soul only, and bodily behavior as irrelevant both to God’s interest and to the soul’s health, so one may behave riotously and it will not matter.

Spirit-centered antinomianism puts such trust in the Holy Spirit’s inward prompting as to deny any need to be taught by the law how to live. Freedom from the law as a way of salvation is assumed to bring with it freedom from the law as a guide to conduct. In the first 150 years of the Reformation era this kind of antinomianism often threatened, and Paul’s insistence that a truly spiritual person acknowledges the authority of God’s Word through Christ’s apostles (1 Cor. 14:37; cf. 7:40) suggests that the Spirit-obsessed Corinthian church was in the grip of the same mind-set.

Christ-centered antinomianism argues that God sees no sin in believers, because they are in Christ, who kept the law for them, and therefore what they actually do makes no difference, provided that they keep believing. But 1 John 1:8–2:1 (expounding 1:7) and 3:4–10 point in a different direction, showing that it is not possible to be in Christ and at the same time to embrace sin as a way of life.

Dispensational antinomianism holds that keeping the moral law is at no stage necessary for Christians, since we live under a dispensation of grace, not of law. Romans 3:31 and 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 clearly show, however, that law-keeping is a continuing obligation for Christians. “I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law,” says Paul (1 Cor. 9:21).

Dialectical antinomianism, as in Barth and Brunner, denies that biblical law is God’s direct command and affirms that the Bible’s imperative statements trigger the Word of the Spirit, which when it comes may or may not correspond exactly to what is written. The inadequacy of the neo-orthodox view of biblical authority, which explains the inspiration of Scripture in terms of the Bible’s instrumentality as a channel for God’s present-day utterances to his people, is evident here.

Situationist antinomianism says that a motive and intention of love is all that God now requires of Christians, and the commands of the Decalogue and other ethical parts of Scripture, for all that they are ascribed to God directly, are mere rules of thumb for loving, rules that love may at any time disregard. But Romans 13:8–10, to which this view appeals, teaches that without love as a motive these specific commands cannot be fulfilled. Once more an unacceptably weak view of Scripture surfaces.

It must be stressed that the moral law, as crystallized in the Decalogue and opened up in the ethical teaching of both Testaments, is one coherent law, given to be a code of practice for God’s people in every age. In addition, repentance means resolving henceforth to seek God’s help in keeping that law. The Spirit is given to empower law-keeping and make us more and more like Christ, the archetypal law-keeper (Matt. 5:17). This law-keeping is in fact the fulfilling of our human nature, and Scripture holds out no hope of salvation for any who, whatever their profession of faith, do not seek to turn from sin to righteousness (1 Cor. 6:9–11; Rev. 21:8).[1]

[1] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993). pp. 178-180.

An Important Word for Our Time

We ought in these days to take note of the Barmen Declaration (1934), from which I excerpt the following.

2. “God made Jesus Christ to be for us our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).

Affirmation: Just as Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so also, and with the same earnestness, he is God’s powerful claim upon our entire life. Through him a joyous liberation from the godless conditions of this world occurs for us, a liberation for free, grateful service to his creatures.

Repudiation: We reject the false doctrine, as if there are domains of our life in which we do not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords, domains in which we would not need justification and sanctification by him.

3. “But let us be upright in love and grow in every respect into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body is joined together” (Eph. 4:15-16).

Affirmation: The Christian church is the congregation of brothers in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the church of forgiven sinners, it has to testify in the midst of the world of sinners, both with its faith and its obedience, with its message as well as with its order, that it alone is his property, that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and by his direction in anticipation of his appearance.

Repudiation: We reject the false doctrine, as if the church could relinquish the form of its message and its order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.

5. “Fear God, honor the king” (1 Pet. 2:17).

Affirmation: Scripture says to us that the State, according to divine arrangement, has the task to be concerned for justice and peace in this still unredeemed world in which the church also stands, and to do so according to the standard of human insight and human ability, under penalty of threat and the use of force. In gratitude and reverence toward God, the church recognizes the benefit of this, his arrangement. The church reminds itself of God’s kingdom, of God’s command and justice, and thereby, of the responsibility of those governing and of the governed. It trusts and obeys the power of the word by which God upholds all things.

Repudiation: We reject the false doctrine, as if the church, beyond its special task, should and could take over state-governmental actions, state-governmental tasks, and state-governmental positions and thereby become itself an organ of the state.[1]

[1] Martin Heimbucher and Rudolf Weth, eds., Die Barmer Theologische Erklärung: Einführung und Kokumentation, foreword by Wolfgang Huber (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2009), 33-43. Translated by Matthew Becker, Ph.D. (…)

Citizenship in the Commonwealth

A homily upon the occasion of the baptism of my first god-daughter.

Delivered August 11, 2012.

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, you hear in the Gospel of Mark the words of our Savior Christ commanding the children to be brought to him. You see how he took them in his arms, and blessed them. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today and forever. Do not doubt, therefore, but earnestly believe, that he loves this child, that he approves our bringing her to holy Baptism, that he is ready to receive her with the arms of his mercy, and to grant her membership in a covenant family.

But how further shall we understand this? How shall I explain the role that baptism plays in our salvation, which indeed is more than just a single moment and more than just the assurance of our eternal destiny, though indeed it gloriously includes the prospect of Eternity in concert and in community with our beloved Lord.

Baptism is more than just a symbol, yet it is not a condition of salvation; rather it is a seal and a sign of salvation, a helpful part of God’s ideal plan. Indeed, St. Peter reminds us: “Baptism…now saves you… through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 3:21). When the Israelites went through the Red Sea, they were saved by that act, though it wasn’t the power of the act that saved them, but the power of God that saved them. Nevertheless, had they failed to walk across the dry ground, they would not have been saved from Pharaoh. How can we explain this mystery?

So then, remember that at one time you were Gentiles in the flesh–called “the uncircumcised” by those called “the circumcised,” done by hand in the flesh. At that time you were without the Messiah, excluded from the citizenship of Israel, and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, with no hope and without God in the world. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the cornerstone.

Ephesians 2:11-12, 19 (HCSB)

If an immigrant moves to the USA they must go through the conscious decision of becoming a citizen. Once they have made that decision, however, their children are born as citizens of the USA without any decision on the part of the infant. Infant baptism—as circumcision before it—is like the giving of a birth certificate to an infant. As an adult, the born-citizen will have the option of choosing to become the citizen of another “commonwealth,” but it is most common and it is to be hoped that most babies will grow up in the nurture and admonition of the Way and subsequently “confirm” their individual, conscious decision to remain a part of the commonwealth of Israel.

In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not done with hands, by putting off the body of flesh, in the circumcision of the Messiah. Having been buried with Him in baptism, you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive with Him and forgave us all our trespasses.

Colossians 2:11-13 (HCSB)

You heard in the Epistle a description of the life of those redeemed. It is only by the grace of God, which enables and suffuses instruction and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16) that we may live thusly. Hear now the words of the Anglican fathers who summarized the teachings of Scripture as it regards the manner of salvation, the method of sanctification, and the use and purpose of baptism.

XXV. Of the Sacraments. Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.

XXVII. Of Baptism. Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed, Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.
The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.

Brothers and Sisters in Messiah, the Sacrament of Baptism is offered in the Church because our Lord Jesus Christ taught us that we cannot enter the kingdom of God unless we are born anew of water and the Holy Spirit. This new birth is necessary because all human beings have both an inclination towards evil and are also sinners. Therefore, I urge you to call upon God the Father, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that in his great mercy he will grant new birth to Elizabeth that she may be baptized with water and the Holy Spirit, and received into Christ’s holy Church and be made a living member of the same.

Let us pray.

Almighty and everlasting God, you who mercifully saved Noah and his family in the Ark when the great flood came, who safely led the children of Israel through the Red Sea, symbolizing thereby your holy Baptism, and who, by the Baptism in the river Jordan of your dearly loved Son, Jesus Christ, sanctified water to the mystical washing away of sin: We pray you, in your infinite mercy, to look on this child, wash and sanctify her by the Holy Spirit, in order that, being delivered from your wrath, she may be received into the Ark of Christ’s Church. Make her, we pray, to be steadfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in love, so that passing through the stormy waters of this troubled world, she may finally come to the land of everlasting life, there to reign with you forever; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Since we are now persuaded of the good will of our heavenly Father towards Elizabeth, declared by his Son Jesus Christ, let us faithfully and devoutly give thanks to him and say together:

Almighty and everlasting God, heavenly Father, we humbly thank you for having called us to the knowledge of your grace and to faith in you. Increase this knowledge and confirm this faith in us evermore. Give your Holy Spirit to Elizabeth , that she may in the wonder of your plan for her be born again, and be made an heir of everlasting salvation; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

Inescapable Logic

When you assume there is such a thing as evil,
you must assume there is such a thing as good.
When you assume there is such a thing as good,
you must assume there is such a thing as a moral law,
on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil.
When you assume there is such a thing as a moral law,
you must posit a moral law Giver.

If there is no moral law Giver, there is no moral law.
If there is no moral law, there is no good.
If there is no good, there is no evil.

If sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4),
and all have sinned (Rom 3:23),
and if the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23),
then I need a Savior.

If I still need a Savior there must,
still be an eternal, moral law, or…
I no longer need a Savior.

Letter to a Friend on Romans 14:14

The below is a letter to a friend written in response to a query regarding my understanding of Romans 14, and verse 14 in particular. I have removed situation specific particulars, but this is otherwise a faithful representation of the letter.

Thank you for honoring me with the opportunity to clarify.  Reading what follows will be a significant investment on your part, so I don’t take lightly your willingness to engage in this conversation. As I’m confident you can imagine, being willing to stand apart from the overwhelming majority of our Christian brethren on the matter of what we eat is a result of something not lightly considered, and a result of being convicted through years of study that it is not a light issue, but a major contributor to the inefficacy of our witness and inability to be salt and light to our culture. I venture to explain at this length because I am convinced that you also are equally desirous to serve God faithfully.

Having been convinced of this previously from Scripture, I have been fascinated to see in our lifetime the parallels between increasing sexual perversion and increasing obsession with what God calls unclean. Never before in history have shirts and hats proclaimed their dedication to bacon. Only in the extraordinarily decadent empires of history (and never to the degree we have taken it) has there been such a fascination with eating what has never previously been considered food, and we have likewise now surpassed even Rome in the depths of our sexual depravity. I have recognized over time that these things are not incidentally related.

Because it pains me to think “I’m right” in the face of so many legitimately godly people who disagree with me (my father and both grandfathers included, for whom I have enormous respect), and because it would otherwise unnecessarily differentiate my children from their friends (with both present and future consequences), I have on three occasions now gone back to reconsider from the ground up, whether the typical Christian perspective on this issue is correct. No one is entirely objective, but I have been diligent to presume the typical interpretation accurate, so as to read that perspective fairly. Of course, I also originally set out to disprove the conviction I now hold. On each occasion I have finally and reluctantly concluded that if one is willing to do the historical and exegetical work with an open mind to reading the Scriptures on their terms, there really is no other possible conclusion. I am fully cognizant, however, that most people do not have ready access to the details I will share below.

I spoke of two rules of hermeneutics. The first and easiest is to seek the controlling phrase, which establishes the context of a pericope, and is often found in the opening verse; as is the case, for example, in Mark 7 (the ritual washing of hands), Acts 15 (justification by circumcision/law keeping/ethnic conversion), and in Romans 14 (matters of opinion). This rule is often less helpful in prophetic passages, which can range all over the place, even sometimes within the same verse. Prophetic passages excepting, however, it is generally true that we need to seek the controlling phrase.

The second is much more difficult to wrestle with, but bears up under contemplation and investigation. The professor from whom I learned it said, “Hermeneutical principle number one is this: what the text could not have possibly meant to the original inspired biblical author, it cannot possibly mean today.”

My position on contradiction and change is something different from these two rules of hermeneutics.  First, God is immutable; his character never changes (Ps. 102:27; Mal. 3:6; James 1:17, etc.), and second, God (and therefore Scripture) never contradicts Himself (or itself). This does not mean that God doesn’t change instructions to mankind, but what we find is that case laws (specific applications of unchanging principles) are changed, and never moral laws, which are eternal because they reflect God’s character, which is eternal and unchanging. (This is inherent in the meaning of the word moral, which comes from the Latin mores, “customs or manners,” which change with society, but in the case of God are unchanging because He is immutable, i.e., God’s morals are ethical.)

In other words, adultery is not wrong because God flipped a coin and decided it would be so, but it could have been permissible had He decided otherwise. No, it is wrong because God cannot steal and cannot break his word; it would violate His character. Adultery has never been and will never be permissible; this is a moral law that cannot change. In the same manner, anything described by Scripture as “detestable” or an “abomination” is offensive to God’s nature and cannot change. Should a prophet/apostle have suggested that God changed his mind on one of these matters, he would have been rejected as a false prophet, on the basis of Deuteronomy 12:1-13:18, and very specifically of 12:32-13:5.

Deuteronomy 12-13 is an excellent place to practice discerning the case-specific from the enduring principle. I won’t do so here, but note that we find there instructions that guide our worship today, identify false prophets, and establish the second principle for recognition of Scripture (i.e., all subsequent potential scripture must agree with preceding Scripture or it is to be rejected).

So, God’s character does not change, though He may “change his mind,” (this, however, is an anthropomorphism, where something God does is explained in a manner that makes sense to mankind, while God knew from eternity what, for example, Moses and Abraham would say and what He would do as a result). Secondly, God does not contradict himself and Scripture does not contradict itself. This is not to deny that God makes changes in his instructions to mankind, and many examples could be given (e.g., where one is permitted to sacrifice), but these changes are always found to be modifications in application rather than revocations of principle.

So, if we were to take Genesis 9:3 or Romans 14:14 we are going to find something consistent with the meta-narrative of Scripture. Sometimes recognizing this is easy (e.g., Rom 14:14) and sometimes it is somewhat more difficult (e.g., Gen 9:3), but we can ferret out the intended meaning without doubt, if we are willing to submit to whatever Scripture actually says, regardless of what it might do to our present understanding or preferred system of interpretation. So let’s go there, and along the way we’ll hit Acts 10:9-29, and 1 Timothy 4:3-4.

There is no discussion in Romans 14 about whether it is okay to eat unclean meat, nor about whether we ought to keep the Sabbath. The context of the entire passage rules out the possibility of these two items being under discussion. For Paul and for his intended audience these are not matters of opinion; they are incontrovertibly declared by Scripture. And the rule of interpretation helpfully reminds us, “what it could not have meant to them, it cannot mean to us.”

I realize they are matters of opinion today, but we don’t interpret Scripture by contemporary opinion, but by exegesis of the text within its historical and scriptural context.

So let’s do that with Acts 10, because starting there becomes the key to instantly understanding Romans 14:14 (and the rest of the passage). Before we go there, recall that none of the passages which are now taken to suggest God changed his mind about clean/unclean meat (and the Sabbath) had even been written at the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans. No one held what is today’s popular opinion regarding clean/unclean meat at the time. So the situation is analogous to the following: I am preparing to write you a letter in which I will reveal that God has changed His mind about whether homosexuality is permissible… do you think I will treat that revelation as an aside, as a “matter of opinion,” or will that be a major focus of my letter? How will your opinion of my legitimacy as a prophet from God be affected by that letter? Will you canonize my letter or reject it?

I wrote an actual letter on Acts 10 some years ago to another friend, so I will attach that here. As you ponder the explanation of Acts 10, keep in mind that in Romans 14:14, the word rendered “unclean” is κοινὸν (koinon), which does not mean “unclean,” but “common” or “profane.” This is one of only two places in the KJV New Testament where κοινὸν is rendered “unclean,” and the other occasion (Hebrews 9:13) incontrovertibly confirms my claim, for it should also not be rendered “unclean” but “common, profane, or impure,” as it refers specifically to ceremonial impurity (as opposed to akathartos, which describes morally unclean).  Read on as κοινὸν will feature significantly in Acts 10… (transition to attached pdf).



Okay… (assuming you have digested the thoughts on Acts 10), we now see that the issue of whether something (or someone) was considered κοινὸν/common, is a matter of tradition… or “opinions”, above and beyond the Scripture’s requirement, which actually accords with the controlling context of Romans 14, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” So rather than having a verse which overturns (at that time) 3000 years of accepted Scriptural authority in a passing comment, what we actually have is Paul saying—in agreement with the surrounding context— that while nothing is common in and of itself, if someone considers it to be common then for that person it is… therefore do not offend their conscience. Please note, furthermore, that the entire pericope is not talking about relaxing Scriptural injunctions (in that case Matthew 5:17-20 would apply and invalidate Paul’s comment), but about issues where an individual goes further than Scripture requires.

Romans 14:14 is typically read as if Paul was suddenly—in the middle of a passage about people who are stricter than Scripture itself—relaxing one of God’s major prohibitions—contra Jesus who specifically prohibited such a thing, and yet we believe that this is something Jesus taught Paul in Antioch or in Arabia. This makes absolutely no sense—and yet we do it. It may be the most common and most egregious instance of eisegesis vs. exegesis ever seen. The preconditioning required speaks volumes about the capacity of human nature to read through selective lenses—and we all do it; I am as guilty as another. I have been repeatedly struck by the grace of God to open our eyes only to that which we are ready to see. O how we depend upon the truth that, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus!”  Would that we would come to understand what it means to, “walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit!” “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be…But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit”… and therefore are subject to the law of God, which is, “fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.”


  1. Romans 14:14 does not say, “there is nothing unclean of itself”
  2. it would violate the logic of the passage, if it did say that
  3. it would have been rejected by the hearers and caused Paul to be rejected as a legitimate apostle if he had said that.

To go back to something you said, is it possible to imagine that someone could engage in homosexuality “to the Lord”? The idea is first unthinkable, but secondly directly contradicts the flow of logic in Romans 14, as I’ve explained above. And this is the scenario Paul’s readers found themselves in—as we feel/think about homosexuality, so they thought about eating unclean meat. And now the legitimacy of the interpretive maxim is revealed: what the text could not have possibly meant to the original inspired biblical author, it cannot possibly mean today.

Finally, and this will take us to Genesis 9:3 and 1 Timothy 4:3-4. Notice how Paul uses “Nothing” in Romans 14:14. It is a universal indicative that is not truly universal: it presumes first the statements of God and is inclusive of “all” but the previously precluded. We find this often throughout Scripture. Thou shalt not work on the Sabbath, period…but the priests are specifically instructed to do so in the Tabernacle/Temple. “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die” (Lev 16:2) …except for the specific time and manner about which I will now instruct him.

Similarly, when God says, “Every moving thing…” we are expected to understand that this doesn’t include the blowfish, which is poisonous, nor the unclean animals which if you were to eat one of the single pair available would eradicate the species. Notice the next word, “even as the green herb” which were also “all” given, except of course those that were poisonous, and except of course, from the Tree of Life.  So, when we read “everything created” in 1 Timothy 4:3-4, we have to read it in the context of the surrounding verses, and in the context of the entire Scripture, knowing that nothing Paul says will contradict what God has already established.

It should be obvious from the surrounding verses what Paul has in mind here; for once again, he is describing extra-biblical strictures, “forbidding to marry and abstaining from food.” So, as you said earlier, is it possible to eat that which God has forbidden “to the Lord” or “if it be received with thanksgiving?”

Let’s apply the logic that is often used to read this passage in another context and see how well it works.

“For every woman God created is good, and no women is to be refused, if she be received with thanksgiving: For she is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.”

True, every woman God created is good (Gen 1:31), but this doesn’t mean all women may be received with thanksgiving, for that would violate God’s prohibition.

I hope this has been helpful in revealing the logic I was using, and explains a bit more about how we approach Scripture and life. Even more, I hope it was convincing, and if it was not, I would love to hear why not.

Warm regards,



Understanding Acts 10

Hi, Nathan.

I was wondering if I might dialogue with you about biblical ideas or concepts I am trying to work out from time to time. In short, since completing Called to Obedience and reading Crazy Love a few years ago, I am reading the Bible with “fresh eyes”. There are things in the Bible I read now, which in the past I would have skimmed over or dismissed as irrelevant in our day and age. But now, I struggle with them. For instance Acts 10, Acts 15:29, or 1 Timothy 2:12 (or 1 Cor. 14:34). I value your opinion as someone who thinks hard on such matters, and tries to not let our culture and norms influence Biblical interpretation and application.

Let’s talk about food. What’s in – what’s out? This should be fun, as I know you’ve made dietary choices based upon your understanding of Scripture, and so I’m sure you’ve given it significant study.

In Acts 10, it appears God gives Peter instructions to put away his cultural foibles about clean and unclean food, specifically meat … what say you?


Well, I like to begin with what is clear and work toward the more difficult, so what better place to begin than 2 Timothy 3:14-17:

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing those from whom you learned, and that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (HCSB)

…“continue” suggests continuity with what has gone before, especially given the emphasis, “that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures.” This is clearly a reference to what we know as the Old Testament, so when Paul goes on to say that “all” Scripture is profitable/useful for “teaching, rebuking, for correcting, and for training in righteousness,” I am struck that I must wrestle with how to apply what we now call the Old Testament, but the original reader would have known as their only Scriptures. Dr. Ben Witherington III writes, “Hermeneutical principle number one is this: what the text could not have possibly meant to the original inspired biblical author, it cannot possibly mean today.” (The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Wesleyanism. Kindle Locations 45-46)

Furthermore, I’ve become convinced of this truth, well-articulated by J.I. Packer:

“Keep two truths in view. First, God’s law expresses his character. It reflects his own behavior; it alerts us to what he will love and hate to see in us. It is a recipe for holiness, consecrated conformity to God, which is his true image in man. And as such (this is the second truth) God’s law fits human nature. As cars, being made as they are, only work well with gas in the tank, so we, being made as we are, only find fulfillment in a life of law- keeping. This is what we were both made and redeemed for.”

(Growing in Christ, Originally Published: I Want to Be a Christian. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, c1977. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1996, 1994, 232.)

So…now I must wrestle with how to apply the law of God as found throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. This, I can attest, is no easy task, but a lifelong endeavor fully dependent upon grace and mercy!

As it relates to understanding what Acts 10 says or seems to say, I am bound to figure out how it works with and does not contradict the sense in which Leviticus 11 expresses the character of God. To be more specific, Leviticus 11 suggests that the reason we are to separate the tamei (unclean/defiling) from the tahor (clean/pure) is because, “For I am the LORD your God, so you must consecrate yourselves and be holy because I am holy….” (Lev 11:44), suggesting that this issue goes to the core of our identity—God-imitating, holy people.

Further complicating the issue, Lev 11 suggests that consuming these tamei creatures is an abomination (detestable/abhorrent). Why does this further complicate things? Because an abomination is something abhorrent to our very nature, suggesting that the food laws cannot be a ceremonial law! On this point, it is interesting to note Revelation 21:27; speaking of the New Jerusalem, John records: “But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. “ Suggesting that the categories of clean/unclean, detestable, etc. are still very much in force at the launch of the world to come.

If we make a list of the things God calls abominable it becomes very clear that something which is detestable cannot change: child sacrifice, bestiality, necromancy, hands that shed innocent blood, a lying tongue, homosexuality, sowing discord among brothers, the wages of a prostitute, money earned by betting on dog fighting, etc. We find it impossible to imagine that a single other thing categorized in Scripture as an abomination could change to suddenly being okay. And this is appropriate, for anyone who suggested such a thing would have to be rejected as a false prophet (see Deut. 12-13) and remember Dr. Witherington’s first rule of interpretation). Which leads us to quite a problem because several passages in the New Testament, including Acts 10, seem to clearly indicate that God changed His mind about whether certain meats were to be considered abominable. How can this be?

As an aside, so as not to be distracted by whether or not the clean/unclean foods were specific to the Sinai legislation, note that Noah was aware of which animals could be eaten and/or sacrificed and which could not. This is why he takes a pair of all unclean animals and 7 pairs of all clean animals (Genesis 7:2).

So this leads us, finally, to Acts 10, where upon reading the actual text, we don’t find what we’ve all been under the impression it says. I wouldn’t be surprised if you, as I did, have a mental picture—likely derived from a children’s bible story book—of a sheet full of unclean animals descending from the clouds above Peter, when in fact the text says:

“and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air.” Acts 10:11-12 (ESV)

“…and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air.” (NASB)

So this was a sheet filled not just with unclean animals, but all kinds, both clean and unclean, as biblically defined. This will be important, because we are about to encounter a culturally rather than biblically-defined category.

“And there came a voice to him: ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said,

‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.'” Acts 10:13-14 (ESV)

There are a couple things to consider here. First, if the sheet was filled with clean and unclean animals, why would Peter think God was telling him to eat an unclean animal? Imagine if God gave you a vision of a room full of women, your wife included, and said, “Rise, go and take a woman.” Would it even occur to you to imagine that God meant for you to take any woman but your wife? Of course not, because “thou shalt not commit adultery” is ingrained into your psyche. Likewise with Peter; in fact, Peter had even gone above and beyond.

What is the deal with Peter’s comment, “I have never eaten anything that is koinos/common or akathartos/unclean.”? Akathartos is the Greek word referring to something biblically defined as tamei/unclean, morally unclean. Koinos (a word you might recognize from koinonia/fellowship) is a category unfamiliar to us, but very familiar to Peter or any other observant Jew of Jesus’ day. It referred to a biblically clean animal considered to have become profane or common (as opposed to holy/set apart) by virtue of coming in contact with a biblically unclean animal (or unfit for Temple use, though not an unclean animal). This was a category extended to personal application outside of the Temple precinct by cultural tradition, not by biblical mandate.

Peter replies to God’s command to rise and eat by protesting, “But God, not only do I not eat unclean meat (obviously), but I’ve also always refrained from eating anything common, just to be extra careful.” This clean meat, in other words, became guilty by association in the minds of first century Jews.

Now again we come to a phrase where we are under the impression that God makes one statement, when in fact, He says something different. Acts 10:15 is even rendered to give such an impression in some translations.

“And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” Acts 10:15 (ESV)

Because we are unfamiliar with the first century categories of unclean and common, we read this passage as if God said, “What God has made (i.e., “changed to” instead of “created originally”) clean/tahor/katharos do not call unclean/tamei/akathartos.” But this is simply not what God said, it is something we read into the passage!

This is about to make a whole lot more sense! So this happens three times and then the sheet is pulled up to heaven and Peter is left perplexed. And while he is pondering the Spirit speaks to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you.” This is God’s explanation of what the vision meant. Peter understands; in fact, he has three Scriptural occasions to explain what the vision meant and he never mentions food, but somehow this fact escapes us!

First explanation:

“And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection. I ask then why you sent for me.” Acts 10:28-29 (ESV)

Please note that nowhere in the Torah does it say it is “unlawful” for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile, rather this was another tradition that had been added to God’s law; probably with good motivation, which is why God himself came to Peter to explicitly instruct him to ignore the tradition and not to “call any person common or unclean.” I hope you’re beginning to see that food in this passage is nothing more than a metaphor and the topic at hand was people, not food.

The second opportunity for Peter to explain what the vision meant is in Acts 11:1-18. After relaying the same exact story as we’ve just read in chapter 10, note both Peter’s summary of God’s instruction and the summary conclusion of those who listened:

“And the Spirit told me to go with them, making no distinction.” (11:12)

“When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” (11:18)

Again, the message is about Gentile inclusion, about people…nothing about any change to the food laws.

Peter’s third explanation is in the context of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The topic under discussion was how the Gentiles might be saved.

“And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Acts 15:7-11 (ESV)

So, what is Acts 10 about? The people of God were told to be holy by making distinctions, between what was holy and unholy, what was clean and unclean, etc. They were, indeed, to be distinct themselves, to be a set apart people by virtue of imitating God’s character. For centuries, they had followed God’s command to distinguish between what God created tahor/clean and what he created tamei/unclean…in other words what animals He made for food and what animals He did not consider food. They had extended the command to distinguish between clean and unclean foods to distinguishing between clean, common, and unclean foods. They had further extended this practice of distinction to people, considering the non-Jewish people either unclean or common (which, in fact, they often were, because of their not practicing the law), but the folks gathered at Cornelius’ home were God-fearers: Gentiles who had voluntarily taken upon themselves the practices of the Torah to the degree it was practical or they were allowed, and God needed to make sure that Peter’s conscientiousness did not prevent him from going with the messengers from Cornelius. Where, in fact, God wanted to demonstrate that He would make no distinction between the Jews and Gentiles, but would give the Gentiles the Holy Spirit by faith, just as he had to the Jewish believers on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

It is clear that the text of Acts 10 doesn’t say what we are given to thinking it says, and it is clear that Peter did not understand the vision to mean what we are given to thinking it means. Therefore, there is no longer any problem in reconciling Leviticus 11 and Acts 10, and I am now left to ponder Mark 7:19, Romans 14, specifically verse 14, and Colossians 2:16-17. Do they mean what we’ve so commonly thought?

God’s Holy Days

It is worthwhile to ponder why God created set times for offering worship, appointed times for meeting together, regular appointments to celebrate, remember and anticipate His redemptive action in history. I suspect it has a lot to do with a strange turn of words in Exodus 24:3. The people of Israel stand at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where Moses has gone up to meet with God, and now returns to share with the people God’s instructions for living, and they reply, “We will do and we will hear.”

“Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity. That is not to say that Judaism doesn’t have dogma or doctrine. It is rather to say that for Jews, the essence of the thing is a doing, an action. Your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver. (Indeed, Judiasm suggests that the repeating of the practice is the best way to ensure that a doubter’s faith will return.) This is perhaps best explained by a midrash (a rabbinic commentary on a biblical text). This midrash explains a curious turn of phrase in the Book of Exodus: “Na’aseh v’nishma,” which means “we will do and we will hear” or “we will do and we will understand,” a phrase drawn from Exodus 24, in which the people of Israel proclaim “All the words that God has spoken, we will do and we will hear.” The word order, the rabbis have observed, doesn’t seem to make any sense: How can a person obey God’s commandment before they hear it? But the counterintuitive lesson, the midrash continues, is precisely that one acts out God’s commands, one does things unto God, and eventually, through the doing, one will come to hear and understand and believe. In this midrash, the rabbis have offered an apology for spiritual practice, for doing.”[1]

One of the reasons liturgy, prayerbooks, and appointed times are so important to us is that they shepherd us through the ups and downs of a life filled with unknowns, with difficulties, with times that don’t make sense to us from our limited perspective. Not only do they root us in the practices that will envelop, guide and protect us, which will eventually shed light on precisely those things that perplex us, but they also work to remove from us the individuality so prevalent in North American Christianity.

When your doing is rooted in community—everyone I know and love is praying these prayers with me, my ancestors (spiritual and/or literal), my friends, my descendants will practice these same disciplines—it reminds that you are a part of something bigger than yourself and your obsessions. There are times when you benefit from the faith of those around you, even when you might not be sure if you could muster it up yourself. Indeed, Mark 2:5 tells us that it was due to the faith of his friends that Jesus healed the paralytic lowered down through the roof.

The Fall Festivals are upon us. To many Christians this is an unfamiliar phrase, yet what we often consider the Jewish holidays are never so called in Scripture. Rather, God declares: “These are My appointed times, the times of the LORD that you will proclaim as sacred assemblies” (Leviticus 23:2 HCSB). If, indeed, as Paul wrote in the letter to the believers in Ephesus we, “are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household” then it is fitting for us as “children of Abraham”[2] to join Israel in showing up for the appointments God has set.

No, we cannot completely fulfill these festivals, for each included sacrifices and offerings that were to be given at the Temple, yet we can observe and remember them, seeking to find in them the truths God intended for His people to recall and to inhabit.

[1] Lauren Winner. Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2003. pp. ix-x.

[2] Galatians 3:6-9