In the Bible it is written, “For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.” (1Ti 4:4-5) On the surface, the apostle Paul seems to be saying it does not matter what we eat so long as we give thanks for it. Many use this text as evidence that God has annulled and abolished the Mosaic Law, the Torah, and the dietary laws in particular, teaching us that we are no longer responsible to obey them. Evangelical commentators such as Matthew Henry agree. Is this a reasonable understanding of the text?
As with any text of scripture it is important to look at the immediate context, where we find that those teaching us to abstain from certain foods have “depart(ed) from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their consciences seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.” (vs 1-3) Paul asserts that requiring people to abstain from foods which God has created for our use is an example of satanic deception. If this text is a reference to dietary laws, and we wish to claim from it that anyone who fully understands our new liberty in the Gospel will not be constrained by Mosaic dietary law, then we must also accuse those who persist in thinking otherwise of promoting devilish lies, and claim that what was once holy for God’s people is now promoted by Satan. The implications of this are unthinkable.
For example, it is clear from the biblical record, in texts such as in Acts 21:24, that the immediate disciples of Christ, The Twelve, never thought any part of the Torah had been abolished. From the detail God has given us in the history of the early Church in Acts, and also from what we learn from the uninspired historical records of the early Church, it would appear that all twelve of these faithful men lived out their entire lives believing in and faithfully obeying the Levitical dietary laws. This is an undisputed, extremely relevant and pivotal fact which we must consider very carefully in any such context.
Is it reasonable to conclude that all those who personally experienced the teaching and ministry of Christ … never properly understood the Gospel and its implications … not even later from the apostle Paul? Did they so totally miss the mark here that they spent their entire lives promoting doctrines of devils? One thing is clear: on this extremely major point – the abolishing of the Law of Moses — they all remained completely ignorant.
Why did the early disciples of Jesus Christ act like this? as if the entire Torah was still valid, including the dietary laws? The answer here is quite simple: Christ never mentioned this major point in any of His teaching, that His work would abolish any part of the Mosaic Law. He actually taught the exact opposite, that the entire Torah would be in effect for at least as long as Heaven and Earth stand; He clearly warned us not to think any other way about it. (Mt 5:17-19, see Keep My Commandments) Something appears to be amiss in current evangelical interpretation here.
In order to do any justice with this text we must qualify the words “every creature” in some way … otherwise we would have to admit that God is saying it is good for us to eat other humans (we are all creatures) … and poisonous frogs and flies. In fact, plants are also creatures … like poison ivy and hemlock. Is it good to eat poisonous things? What about angels? Aren’t they creatures?
The text is nonsense without some kind of common sense qualification. Clearly, there are some creatures (living things created by God) we simply should not eat — they are bad for us; God did not intend for us to eat every living thing. But how can we honestly qualify this text since it actually does say “every creature?”
The answer evidently lies in an apparent redundancy within the phrase, “every creature of God.” Note that Paul does not say, “every creature is good,” he says “every creature of God is good.” Why say it this way when, by definition, all creatures are already of God in that they are created by Him?
The phrase creature of God is a needless redundancy unless of God is a qualification on the kinds of creatures being considered. This is the key to our text: God has not provided every single kind of creature for us to eat, but certain creatures are “of God” for food, designed by Him for our consumption. These evidently include the clean animals described by Him in Torah. (Le 11:2-3, 9-10, etc.)
Paul immediately affirms this idea in the following verse: “For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.” (vs 5) At the time Paul wrote this epistle to Timothy, the Word of God was the Tanakh, what we now call the Old Testament; the New Testament did not yet exist as Scripture in a recognizable form. So Paul asserts here that the foods we are permitted to eat are sanctified … by the Tanakh. In other words, since the Torah says certain foods are sanctified for us to eat, we can be certain they are approved by God and that eating such food with thankful hearts is pleasing to Him. (vs 4b) This can only be true if the Mosaic dietary laws are still valid; Paul would not appeal to them as a basis for holy living if they have been abolished.
Thus, we ultimately find in this text an insurmountable difficulty for those who insist that the dietary laws have been abolished: Paul says the foods we are permitted to eat are sanctified by Torah … yet there are no laws in Torah which sanctify unclean food. This is actually then a formal proof by contradiction: the dietary laws of Torah have not been abolished; they are still relevant, beneficial and obligatory, intrinsic to God’s definition of holiness. (1Jn 3:4)
So Paul is not saying the dietary laws are obsolete; rather, he is explaining a prophetic word (vs 1) about those who would eventually rise up in the churches denying the wholesome principles of Torah through a false asceticism, like certain Gnostic sects of the second century. Though holy self-denial is good, extreme asceticism pursued in either self-righteousness or self-hatred is incredibly harmful, addicting and evil. It is against such non-scriptural practices that Paul encourages Timothy to warn the believers, that he might be “nourished up in the words of faith and of good doctrine.” (vs 6)