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Let Them Eat Shrimp!

“Are you so dull?” He asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) (Mark 7:18-19 NIV)

Sometimes followers of Jesus wonder how many of the Old Testament laws a Christian is obligated to keep, and which ones we might be free to ignore. If we keep the dietary laws, for instance, then bacon and shrimp are off the table - literally. Jesus made this one easy by declaring that food does not defile us. The stuff in our heart that comes out in our behavior is what defiles us. He declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19).

But Jesus does not leave us the option of simply ignoring all the laws of God in the name of loving God and loving neighbor, either. He declares this:

“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. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished." (Matthew 5:17-18 NIV)

To make matters clear, Jesus goes on to quote several Old Testament laws, and explains that fulfilling them goes to the heart - to our motives underneath keeping the letter of the Law. One example: “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister, will be subject to judgment." (Matthew 5:21-22 NIV)

I believe this goes beyond picking the laws we like and keeping them, while discarding the ones we don't like. It takes study and discernment to separate the laws that are enduring and universal from the laws that God meant for the Israelites in history, but not for everyone, everywhere. There are actually two kinds of laws in "the Law" given to Moses by God for the people to obey if they are to be His people. There is the Moral Law and there are Ceremonial Laws. What's the difference?

The Moral Law goes to the heart of our morals and character. The Ten Commandments, are certainly Moral Laws that are meant to be universal. You shall not worship any other gods. You shall not murder. You shall not steal. You shall not commit adultery. These are the ones Jesus hones in on in the Sermon on the Mount when He says repeatedly, "You have heard that it was said...but I say to you..." I believe Christians who love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength will keep these moral laws out of our love for God. And in keeping them, our behavior will love our neighbor, thus fulfilling both parts of the Great Commandment. (See Matthew 22:34-40)

The Ceremonial Law, on the other hand, includes commandments that Christians are not obligated to keep under the New Covenant in Christ. The Ceremonial Law includes things like ritual hand washings, keeping the Jewish festivals like Passover, and circumcision. Dietary laws are clearly in this category, because Jesus declared all foods clean. So there is nothing immoral or disobedient to God about scarfing down some shrimp or having a BLT.

The overarching thing taught by Jesus and picked up by the Apostle Paul in Romans 14 is that our hearts be right with the Lord.

I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.

(Romans 14:14-15 NIV)

Paul is dealing with a New Testament issue - should followers of Jesus eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols? (The Roman temples would receive the sacrificial animal, burn a portion on the altar to their god, then sell the meat at a meat shop out the back door.) Some Christians considered the food off limits because it was tainted by the idolatry that sourced it. Other Christians had clear consciences, because idols are not really other gods, and Jesus declared all food clean.

Paul's argument in Romans 14 is that a Christian who in good conscience feels freedom to eat the meat should nonetheless forego eating it when they are with another Christian who has a problem with it, so as not to freak out or offend the brother or sister. The heart of Jesus is the heart that is willing to forego my own freedom to encourage another. Acting in love trumps freedom to do what I want.

Christians can and do live by differing convictions about things that are non-essential to the Gospel. Some Christians drink socially. Other Christians are tee-totalers who drink no alcohol. Both are keeping the admonition: Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. (Ephesians 5:18 NIV)

Perhaps the key to it all is what Paul says here:

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (Romans 14:17-19 NIV)

Pursue righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit and make ever effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification. Those are pretty good guidelines for keeping both the letter of the Law and the Spirit of the Law. Let's do that, shall we?



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