Question: Jesus said, "Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?" (Mark 7:18-19). Does this mean Christians can eat anything they want?
People sometimes use Mark 7:18-19 to justify their desire to eat foods the Bible calls "unclean." It is important, however, to understand this verse from a parable of Christ, in context, so we can truly appreciate what He was teaching.
Notice the verses immediately following: "And He said, 'What comes out of a man, that defiles a man, for from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man" (vv. 20-23).
Clearly, Jesus was making a point about the importance of godly conduct. But was He also making a point about diet? Notice the parallel account of this parable in Matthew 15. Here, Christ explained—in the context of ritual hand-washing, not dietary requirements—that every plant "which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted" (Matthew 15:13). This was a parable about godly conduct, not about what should be on our lunch menu!
If this were a literal instruction about diet, we should ask ourselves, "Can Christians today expect to eat arsenic and other poisons, yet not be affected?" Of course not! The parable describes that all foods pass through a man. However, it does not say unclean items are considered "food"—Christ was not telling us to eat arsenic, nor to eat the animals Scripture plainly labels as "unclean" in Leviticus 11.
The Apostle Peter confirmed this understanding in Acts 10. God gave Peter a vision of a sheet coming down from heaven, in which were some animals he considered "unclean." In the vision, a voice told Peter to kill and eat the animals, but Peter refused, and God again spoke to him, saying, "What God has cleansed you must not call common" (Acts 10:15).
Did Peter understand this as the revocation of the law of clean and unclean meats? No! Peter himself explained the lesson of the vision, saying "God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean" (v. 28). God had given Peter the vision to show that he should preach to, and keep company with, Jews and Gentiles alike. There is no account of Peter eating unclean foods either before or after this vision!
An end-time prophecy from the book of Isaiah demonstrates that when Christ returns, He will bring judgment on those who persist in eating unclean animals, including those "eating swine's flesh" (Isaiah 66:17). If Christ had truly allowed human beings to eat swine's flesh, this prophecy would make no sense—unless we assume Christ plans to punish people for obeying Him!
The biblical laws of clean and unclean meats are not merely a way God sets His people apart; they are laws that protect the physical health of those who obey them. As Eerdmans' Handbook of the Bible reminds us, "These lists [of clean and unclean creatures] have a significance often ignored. Far from being based on fad or fancy, these lists emphasize a fact not discovered until late in the last century... that animals carry diseases dangerous to man" (p. 176). Those who obey God's law today can experience the blessings He intended for His creation.
To learn more about the biblical law of clean and unclean meats, and how it can help you both physically and spiritually, please write to the regional office nearest you (listed on page 30 of this magazine) and request your free copy of our article, Do You Really Want to Eat That? Following God's dietary guidelines may change your health—and your life!