Are we truly free from the dietary laws?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: I believe Colossians 2:16 firmly without a doubt, but how do you reconcile that with Revelation 18:2? I went on one website that if the food laws were abolished then why would John still be talking about it. And does Isaiah 66:17 mean pig eaters will go to hell? 

“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” (Colossians 2:16, NIV)

“With a mighty voice he shouted: “ ‘Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!’ She has become a dwelling for demons and a haunt for every impure spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable animal.” (Revelation 18:2, NIV)

“Those who consecrate and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one who is among those who eat the flesh of pigs, rats and other unclean things—they will meet their end together with the one they follow,” declares the Lord.” (Isaiah 66:17, NIV)

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for touching-down with us at Mainsail Ministries. You asked some interesting questions, and I will be pleased to address them for you today.

First of all, your instincts are correct: Colossians 2:16 does indeed apply to us Christians — but you need to take this one step further. If this verse applies to us as New Testament believers, why would you be worried about an Old Testament verse like Isaiah 66:17 — a verse in the rear-view mirror which only applies to the Jews? Also, Revelation 18:2 only references unclean food in apocalyptic language. So, while it is very clear what Colossians 2:16 is saying and to whom, it is not at all clear what is going on in Revelation… and iffy language should never trump clear language. That being said, I’m a bit stuck.

You see, since Isaiah had no Christians in view in 66:17, and since the New Testament is clear that God’s people no longer have to obey dietary restrictions for the Law’s sake, and since it is not likely that the future would have us retreating from the post-cross symbolism of unclean foods back to the pre-cross necessity of having to obey the dietary restrictions… I’m not sure what your issue really is. Neither Isaiah 66 nor Revelation 18 should bother a Colossians 2 kind of guy… not one who really is a Colossians 2 kind of guy.

That being said, I’m left to figure this out… and here’s what I’ve come up with. You must assume (on some level) that every word in the Bible is equal in force — no matter what its job in the sentence — and that every utterance in the Bible is equally for you and about you. So, I’ll address these two issues. And to begin, let’s take a minute to discuss how God worked with human beings — but especially — let’s look at how he distributed his information throughout time.

Any “output” from God is called his “revelation.” (This is “revelation” with a small “r.” This does not reference the book of Revelation.) What this means is that there is already stuff out there… and God unveils it. The created world is God’s general revelation, and the Bible is God’s special revelation — and it’s his special revelation that we’ll have in view in this answer.

Since God revealed himself increasingly over time, we say that God’s revelation was progressive — and this is a key understanding for you. You see, when God laid out the dietary laws back in Moses’ time, those were appropriate and binding… but only until a subsequent bit of revelation would change our relationship to them — the result of which we see in Colossians 2:16. What was it that “changed” in God’s revelation to get us off the hook concerning the dietary laws? Jesus showed up with an objective to fulfill 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, NIV)

… and then he died to accomplish that fulfillment.

“First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:8–10, NIV)

… and then he said that the job was complete. Do you think that Jesus missed the dietary laws on his checklist of things-fulfilled… or that his death was not adequate to fulfill those particular symbols of holiness and separation?

“When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30, NIV)

Before the cross, the Jews had to obey dietary laws, keep feast days and sacrifice animals to atone for sin; they performed other sacrifices, too, but every sacrifice had to be repeated — and this means that every sacrifice had limited efficacy. But now we know that God also used these sacerdotal elements as the symbolic basis (called biblical types, which are symbolic vehicles) for future events (called antitypes, which are symbolic tenors) — and that’s what Jesus said he would fulfill. Jesus’ life and his death on the cross was a thirty-year handshake between the testaments.

So, for those who were behind us the progress of revelation (like the Old Testament Jews), the dietary laws were binding. But for those of us on the other side of the cross, their symbolic use has been fulfilled — so they are no longer binding. In fact, to say that they are still binding is an insult to Christ (Hebrews 6:6).  But although they are no longer binding, they still have a use… but only as a symbol. We may evoke them in literature to make a point — and that’s what John did in Revelation 18:2… and that website you mentioned must have missed this.

Revelation 18:2 is not about dietary laws. It only used the “language of the unclean” to emphasize the fallenness of Babylon. The Jews understood that this type of language represented desolation — and desolation is not just ruin… it is symbolic ruin. So, do you see what’s happening here? John is not teaching that the dietary laws have been reestablished. He is prophesying that Babylon (which is by many commentators understood to be the world system) will be destroyed — and here’s the lesson: When a writer uses elements to make a point, he is under no obligation to ensure that those elements are true or binding in the life of his audience. Such elements are merely tools to take you somewhere else; they are not themselves the destination nor are they the focus of the tools.

The focus is what carries the burden of meaning in any passage while the tools merely ramp-up to the focus. They support the object’s truth — they do not themselves bear the story’s truth. Let me give you an example of this from the lips of Jesus himself.

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.” When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Luke 8:5–8, NIV)

There is an odd brand of literalistic fundamentalism which asserts that since Jesus said, “A farmer went out to sow his seed…” that there was indeed a farmer that did this. But those of us with a more sensible hermeneutic understand this to be a parable… after all, Jesus was truly human and true humans understand that a parable is not literalistically true. In fact, it would be silly to enforce literalistic truth upon such teaching tools. Now, it may indeed be true that somewhere there was a farmer who did this… but that’s not the point. The point is that there does not have to be… nor is there any expectation that such elements are true. The parable of the sower teaches about God’s workers; it is not about a farmer sowing his seed… and you have the same thing going on in Revelation 18:2. This isn’t about the unclean animals; it’s about the end of the world system as we know it.

You have probably heard that many of us Christians hold the Scripture to be inerrant — and I am certainly one of those. But being inerrant does not mean that it must be literalistically weird… just the opposite. It is a basic understanding of biblical inerrancy that the Bible is inerrant in whatever it teaches and affirms… but not that the ancillary materials must be literalistically true (as in the sower parable). Even a cursory look at Revelation 18:2 shows us that it is neither teaching nor affirming the reestablishment of dietary laws. But rather, it is prophesying that the world system will fall… that’s the point. John is not rewriting the doctrine of grace by using the dietary laws as imagery.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20161017 Dietary Restrictions Challenged).

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